After three years of membership in the European Union, it was extremely satisfying for Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania to watch EU leaders defend Baltic interests against incessant Russian bullying. The show of support by European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso and German Chancellor Angela Merkel, on Russian turf, offered immense encouragement at a time when relations in the region have sunk to a nadir. Though somewhat overdue, the gesture will not be forgotten.
Equally noteworthy is that, once they exited Russia, EU leaders did not let up on the criticism. If anything, it intensified. "You could get the impression that Russia considers certain members states, such as Poland or the Baltic states, differently from the others," Barroso said in an interview with Germany's Focus magazine after the EU-Russia summit. "It is as if they were not full members of the EU and that they cannot count on the full solidarity of the EU," he added. Barroso has never been more correct, at least as far as Russia is concerned. Moscow has been adept at manipulating 's and driving wedges between 's the broad range of interests that exist among the 27 members of the EU. For instance, some countries want to develop a common energy policy for the union, while others are content signing bilateral deals with energy providers. Often Russia just bullies in order to get what it wants, as was the case with its unsuccessful attempt to take over the Mazeikiu Nafta refinery in Lithuania.
Russia, which wants to bargain from a position of strength, prefers bilateral deals that in effect have a disharmonizing influence on inter-EU relations. In the world of realpolitik that exists in the mind of Kremlin leaders, fractious politics and policies within the EU are in Moscow's long-term interests. (The same is even truer vis-a-vis NATO.)
"But Russia should know one thing: we form a union founded on solidarity among each other. And the interests of the Poles are exactly as legitimate as those of the French, the Germans or the Portuguese," Barroso said. During the press conference in Samara with Vladimir Putin, Barroso mentioned Lithuania and Estonia, saying their problems are "problems for all of Europe." Regarding the Russian ban of Polish meat imports, the chief of the EU executive said he saw no reason for it.
In short, Brussels has passed the reality check given to it by the EU's new East European members. One might say that EU leaders have finally woken up and smelled the coffee.
But what next? Now that Brussels has acknowledged Russia's ulterior motives and designs, is there any room for compromise? There always is, of course, but the initiative must come from Russia. After all, it is Moscow that has prohibited Polish agricultural products, shut off oil deliveries to Lithuania, attacked Estonian Web sites and (let's not forgot) enforced an irrational ban on Latvian sprats. (Yet Moscow unabashedly insists that Russia is qualified for WTO membership!) These four nations have affected no restrictions on the movement of Russian goods and citizens, so it is clear that the actions have been unilateral. The ball, in other words, is entirely in Moscow's court.
The first gesture, however flaccid, was made this week. According to reports, Putin has ordered the Agriculture Ministry to "intensify dialogue" with the European Union over Polish meat. It's a small step, but one without which the road to a warming in relations is impossible.