No Dreams, Europe

15. 3. 2017

An interview with Fyodor Lukyanow by Filip Memches

The European Union will not be an independent force. It has abandoned such ambitions and decided to return under American wings—says Russian political scientist Fyodor Lukyanov in conversation with Filip Memches.

The European Union has been in crisis for several years. It is not just economic problems, such as the growing distance between the EU engine of growth, that is Germany, and the Mediterranean countries. There is also something, which we could call a crisis of EU identity. We hear more and more questions about what the Union should actually be. Does this situation have an impact on the relations between the Union and Russia?

Yes, of course. Let us start with the practical aspect. The management of bilateral relations is getting more complicated. The European Union is preoccupied with internal processes and its readiness to confront external issues has weakened. In some respects this is beneficial for Russia, for example in terms of the situation in the post-Soviet space. The Union lacks adequate resources to pursue its interests in this part of the world. Added to that are problems with developing a bilateral agenda. We cannot count on such an agenda being worked out, for the decision-making process within the Union is very complicated. The organization is riddled with divisions, particular countries have divergent priorities.

Besides the practical aspect, there are also more general issues. The crisis of the Union, and hence of the European integration, means marginalization of Europe in the global context and that also means a decreased influence on international politics. All this prompts Russia to shift its priorities from Europe towards Asia. And this is going to happen, because the importance of Asia is growing.

This is a quite significant turnabout.

Europe ceases to be the model we used to look up to. For centuries the assumption of Russian policy was to maintain the European course. Europe was a reference point for Russian politics. Comparing ourselves to Europe, we learned what worked and what did not work here. Now Russia has less and less in common with Europe. Until recently the European course seemed to be the only possible one. The Old Continent was perceived as the source of modernization, cultural identity and so on. This is becoming a thing of the past now. If this tendency becomes stable, in some ten, fifteen years the relations between Europe and Russia will be quite different. They will be reduced to pragmatic aspects and characterized by distance typical for strangers.

In the European Union there are countries regarded as strong players in international politics. This is above all Germany but we could also name France or Great Britain. Perhaps they will become new points of reference for Russia?

No, but they will be important partners. What I said earlier does not mean that Europe will disappear from the Russian perspective, because it will remain Russia’s closest neighbor. You have to take into account mutual relations, especially commercial exchange. But the question remains what course we should take in the context of future development. And here we look very far into the future.

Currently in Europe there are no global players. Those who reveal such ambitions in the political sphere, that is France and Great Britain, do not have such status despite all their efforts. In the economic sphere Germany is a global player but so far it has not grasped the political role it could play in the European and global context. If Germany starts to perceive itself as a political leader—and so far it is afraid to look at itself in such terms—it is possible that a new dimension will appear in the Russian-German relations. But until now, Germany is concerned with maintaining its economic advantage over the remaining members of the Union. At the same time it is careful not to scare off any of its neighbors.


For Germany realizes that the subject of its potential leadership raises a lot of bad associations.

What model of European integration is more in Russia’s interest: the federalist one, promoted by Germany, or the liberal one, put forward by Great Britain?

It depends on how we perceive Europe. If Russia decides to tighten the relations with the Union, then of course the German model will be more advantageous. Such a model assumes that there is a core of the community and there is a group of states, which have some vision of the development path they want to follow and with that in mind they integrate, which makes it possible to decide jointly. As far as the British model is concerned—EU political power reduced to a minimum and common economic space— it has its good and bad sides. In fact we are now seeing something in that vein. Russia can adapt to any model.

Relations of the European Union with the US are changing. Some ten years ago the leading countries of “old” Europe—Germany and France—wanted the Union to have a strong and independent position in its relations with America. It meant that they were willy-nilly becoming an ally of Russia in the battle for the so called “multilateral world.” Now we do not see such efforts and the US is less and less interested in Europe. What does it mean for Russia?

Indeed, ten years ago in Russia there was a view that Europe may become independent and it would open the way for striking some kind of alliance—mainly economic but also political. Then it became clear that it was not going to happen, that Europe would not become an independent force. By all accounts, it has abandoned such ambitions and decided to return under American wings, of course if the US would want that. It seems that America does want that, for it has understood that in the contemporary world you will not get far if you act on your own, depending only on yourself. Countries you can trust become treasured and there are fewer and fewer of them. Hence the growing stature of Europe in Washington and the return to the idea of a common market composed of North America and the European Union. Obviously, it is difficult to predict anything here but in Russia it is thought more likely that the Union will subordinate itself to the US.

In the last few years, differences have appeared between countries of the Union and Russia in terms of understanding human rights and civil liberties. German politicians criticized the way in which Russian authorities repress non-parliamentary opposition. And Russian legislators passed a law prohibiting “propaganda of homosexuality” showing that Russia does not intend to follow the Western way of cultural development. Can cultural wars become a barrier?

Russia and Europe certainly are getting further away from each other in this area. But I do not think it will determine their relations. Russia is seeking its identity.

And it seems—at least it looks like that from the outside—that it has found it. There is a clear turn towards the Orthodoxy…

Russia itself does not know what it will be like in ten years. Soviet identity is a thing of the past and nothing new has emerged yet. Hence this vacillation between various ideas. For example we have an attempt to implement the traditionalist option. But in my view this attempt will fail. Also in Europe there are some ongoing processes which have not spent their course yet. I believe that the wave of according equal rights to everything and everyone, including sexual minorities, may retreat and then another wave will come. Public opinion in European countries is not homogenous and this produces tensions. Now we have a period of transition from old notions to new ones. But the question remains open, which outlooks will persist and achieve dominance.

Nevertheless, you would probably not deny that the religious context is present in Russian public life and it has some impact on kremlin’s policy, including foreign policy. Russia hoped it could play some role in the countries of the former Yugoslavia. But in early july 2013 Croatia joined the Union and the Orthodox Serbia is following in its footsteps—and since the Balkan wars in the 1990s Russia perceived Serbia as its ally. Is this not a failure of Russia’s policy?

First, Russia never put forward an alternative for Serbia. Obviously Moscow would be happy to have such a partner but it would have to offer something first. Second, the future of Serbia and other Balkan countries is unknown. For we do not know the future of the Union itself.

So Russia stopped to treat kosovo as a problem?

Now it is the Union’s concern.

What is the impact of Vladimir Putin’s return to the kremlin on Russia-EU relations? When Dmitri Medvedev became president, Western public opinion hoped for a liberalization of political life. It all came to nothing.

We may forget about Medvedev’s presidency. It was an interesting but brief episode. The legacy of Medvedev is negative. He created illusions— he raised hopes for changes in this section of Russian society, which we could call enlightened. But these illusions evaporated. And this resulted in significant social discontent which culminated in mass demonstrations. So Medvedev made some promises he was unable to fulfill. This played a negative role.

Putin’s return did not produce any sensational changes although many people thought that this politician was coming back with a new agenda. Nothing like that happened. Putin returned with the belief that he had to defend the measure of stability that had been achieved earlier. If you focus on conservation of the status quo, you are acting against development. And it has a negative impact on the relations with Europe. For Europe functions in another rhythm, in another reality than Russia. What is more, Europe does not understand Russia’s actions, just as Russia does not understand Europe’s actions. But I think that this state of affairs will pass.

At the same time, it is worth stressing that in Europe there is a belief that Russia has nowhere else to go. This means that after the current turbulent period Russia will realize that it has no other option than the European course. But it is not so. Russia does have other possibilities. Europe does not have to be the only partner with which Russia will integrate, in contrast to the situation from the 1990s or even early 2000s.

Is exacerbation of antagonisms possible?

Not being part of Europe does not mean that you are its enemy. You may be a distanced partner sharing the cultural heritage. Let us take Brazil. It is a country with European roots but it functions in a different reality and according to different principles than Europe. It seems to me that Russia is heading in an analogous direction.

Is the Eurasian Economic Area project as a kind of geopolitical alternative part of this tendency?

I do not think so. But it can reinforce it. Russia does attempt to improve its position in the face of the changing world. And in this sense the Eurasian Economic Area may be treated as an attempt at developing a project of economic integration which would strengthen all members. But on the basis of this organization Russia will be unable to create a solid block, comparable in terms of economic power to what is emerging in Asia and to what may appear in Europe and on the American continent. So it is just an instrument.

Filip Memches

Filip Memches is a feature writer; author of a book entitled Słudzy i wrogowie imperium. Rosyjskie rozmowy o końcu historii (The Servants and the Enemies of the Empire: Russian Conversations on the End of the World) (2009).

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