Russia-EU: The Unbearable Lightness of the Future

16.05.2016
While painful political dialogues are underway about who and how is to decide on the EU-Russia relations’ future, the Eurovision Song Contest showed real competition and a full-fledged pan-European cooperation, albeit a very competitive one. But cooperation does not exist without competition.

It is quite clear that both Russia and Western Europe, or, in other words, the European Union, want somehow to restore the relationship dramatically shattered after the events in the east of Ukraine. The need for recovery is not in doubt: the economic and social circumstances urgently require it. But how to do it politically? It has been said too much for the parties just to return to previous normal, peaceful relations, based on mutual benefit and natural desire to communicate.

And once the case is definitely political in nature, the most important question is: who are the actors whose relations are essentially important for the establishment of a new effective and constructive relations system in the area occupied by the EU and Russia. Put simply, who and how should agree to arrange a comfortable environment for Europe, Russia, other European or even non-European countries, to live and cooperate.

So the question is: Who is to agree with whom?

Honestly speaking, Russia is still clearly going through a difficult process of self-formation, creation of its own new identity. There are a number of researchers who do believe that Russia is in full process of a "political nation" formation, which will require more than a year and won't be simple. The political configuration of Russia is still far from being completed and we can only guess the lineament contours within which Russia will develop.

But, actually, these circumstances require a clear and coherent foreign policy from the Russian leadership. Formation of self-identity is impossible without the awareness of the relationship with those who are near, which means first of all the European countries.

At the same time, the European Union in its present state is still a young structure, far from maturity and even a relative perfection. Moreover, I would say that formation of the future Russia and the future European Union are cross-related and cross-influenced processes. For Russia, it is important to understand its European status or, otherwise, whether it is in Europe or not. And for Brussels it is important to understand to what extent the European Union can claim to represent Europe as part of the world, in what way the EU's ability to express the member-states’ interests could influence the relations with Russia, which straddles a substantial part of the same Europe.

With an optimistic and sympathetic view of the situation, future relations of Russia and Western Europe should be harmonic and simply brotherly. This is definitely possible.

I will give one example. It so happened, that I was employed in media for quite a long time. In 1991, after the collapse of the Soviet system, the so-called Intervision (OIRT - International Radio and Television Organisation) ceased to exist. At the same time, the European Broadcasting Union operated in Western Europe. Intervision (OIRT) united Soviet bloc broadcasters, while the EBU united the “Western” world.

Back then, the EBU leadership made a decision, which in my opinion was completely correct. All Intervision (OIRT) member countries with some geographic relation to Europe almost automatically became members of the European Broadcasting Union. Of course, Vietnamese broadcasters, who were members of the Soviet bloc, could not become EBU members. But it’s important that specialists in such a high-tech sphere as broadcasting had no doubts about Europe’s borders. They nearly corresponded to the Gaullist concept of Europe, from the Atlantic to the Russian Far East. Even the quite popular and high-tech Eurovision song contest was in some respects the result of a merger with an analogous song contest in Sopot, conducted by Intervision before the Socialist bloc system collapsed.

In general, I believe that the more technologically sophisticated and professional the area of contacts between parties is, the simpler and more organic their relationship development becomes.

In this sense, the current stage of relations between the EU and Russia, among other things, has a characteristic problem of competence and cohesiveness of the relationship’s parties.

While Russia is undergoing a process of consolidation and formation of its political nationhood, the EU has the issues of multi-nationhood, hidden conflicts and weak identity.
In some respects, the EU, developing its relations with Russia, sees itself in a mirror, and reacts quite painfully.

A lot has been said about a so-called information war between Russia and the West. However, in my opinion, this is an exaggeration and a great inaccuracy. If an information war is being conducted, the EU countries are conducting it against themselves. In any case, the output of Western European mass media and mass culture that is available to observers, is focused on the self-reflection of people living in the EU.

For instance, the recent BBC programme “Inside the War Room” seen by many as a warning against “aggressive” Russia is in reality about the ability of the western world to defend itself and repel aggression, no matter whose. Meanwhile, the Norwegian TV series “Occupied” (bearing some resemblance to Albert Camus’ “The Plague”) is not about the “Russian threat” but is dedicated to reflections on the nature and viability of Norwegian society.

Moreover, Europeans overreact every time Russian media cover the domestic situation in European countries. Sometimes it seems that it is the choice of topics that causes their irritation.

There has been a lot of indignation about presumed homophobia in Russia. But back in 2004, the aforementioned EBU was sending anxious letters to Russian TV companies, writing that the Russian t.A.T.u. duo was too candid in its demonstration of lesbian love.

One can hardly avoid the impression that the problem is not in how Russian media cover the situation in the EU, but in the unacceptance of the very fact that some foreign media dare to discuss this situation.

Which means that the EU-Russia relations are largely about the ability of both sides to realize who they are. About whether politicians and diplomats at the table of negotiations understand whose interests they represent and to what extent they are ready for discussing various issues as real partners.

Of course, the world of diplomacy is very competent, serious and focused on particular problems. The European Union proposes its principles and Russia reacts accordingly.

But the aforementioned Eurovision song contest seems to be a good illustration of how the EU-Russia relations should evolve.

They should not be limited to contacts between Brussels and Moscow. Nor should we seek global, all-encompassing deals. It would be much more efficient if these relations evolved on a poly-subject basis. Let the singers decide how they organize contests and farmers determine what type of cattle food they need. Most importantly, those who want to cooperate should not be prevented from doing so.

Andrey Bystritsky is Chairman of the Board of the Foundation for Development and Support of the Valdai Discussion Club, Professor, Dean of the Faculty of Communications, Media and Design at the National Research University – Higher School of Economics, member of the Union of Writers.

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