There Is No European Dream without Russia
Europe is a strange continent. Strictly speaking, indeed it is not a continent at all but a mere peninsula tacked onto Asia. Looking at the map, Russia west of the Ural Mountains is either the base or the beginning of this peninsula. But, because of its unmistakable cultural identity, this peninsula has become a continent on its own and Russia is without any doubt an indispensable part of it. Russia belongs to the family of the Slavic peoples who settled in the main areas of Central, South Eastern, and Eastern Europe and whose languages are one of the main linguistic groups in Europe. Russian Orthodoxy forms an important part of European Christianity. Russian poets, composers, musicians, actors, painters, and dancers have contributed to European arts and culture. And for example, St. Petersburg's Hermitage is one of the largest treasures of European arts.
But Russia is also the home of more than hundred different ethnic groups who speak numerous languages, and it hosts different religious groups, including Muslims, Buddhists, and indigenous religions. The main part of Russia belongs geographically to Asia (although the vast majority of the population lives west of the Ural Mountains), and the whole territory of Russia is larger than the "rest" of Europe. Last but not least, Russia is not only the legal successor of the Soviet Union but in many respects also the heir of her traditions, including being one of two superpowers during the bi-polar world of the Cold War.
All this creates a special situation with regard to the process of European unification. Does Russia, do the Russians, share the European dream?
Notwithstanding these aspects Russia made a strategic choice to focus on Europe when it applied for membership in the Council of Europe in 1992 and joined this oldest and most comprehensive European organization in 1996. Only ten years later, from May to October 2006, Russia was leading the organization by chairing its Committee of Ministers. Membership in the Council of Europe is not just a formality; it means commitment to the basic principles of the organization, which transform Europe's cultural identity into a political identity including pluralist democracy, the rule of law, and human rights. The honoring of this strong commitment is monitored by the Council in several ways: by the Parliamentary Assembly, the Committee of Ministers, special bodies like the European Anti-Torture Committee, and above all the jurisdiction of the European Court of Human Rights.
Russia has not yet finished her transition process, which is not an easy task after 70 years of Communist dictatorship. There are still many features inherited from the past. For example, there is an age-old mistrust of the State. The citizens feel suspicions for the State. This is the challenge of strengthening Russia as a modern State. This is also a question of the functioning of the Federation. To organize relations between the federal and regional levels of government is not an easy task in a state composed of 89 subjects. Russia has to find her own way to tackle all these challenges within the framework of democracy, rule of law, and human rights. This is something which is not always understood in the so-called West, including the European partners of Russia. But a strong civil society including vivid religious communities and an emerging middle class will help Russia to finally determine that way.
There is also the question of the relationship of Russia and the European Union and NATO. Turning (slowly) towards a political union, comprising 27 member states, already the majority of states in Europe with the majority of the population of the continent, the EU is tempted to consider itself as "Europe" and to act on behalf of Europe. But Europe is still larger, notwithstanding the fact that other countries too will join the Union, in particular the countries of southeastern Europe and also former Soviet republics like Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine who looking at or at least considering EU membership, Europe is still larger than the Union. Also countries that are unwilling or unable to join the Union are part of Europe and have the right to be considered as equal partners in the European political concert.
Regarding Russia in particular, the Union has to find the right policy. In the 1990s, when Russia was experiencing economic troubles, the Union had a tendency to patronize Russia, and some decision makers, whose old suspicions remained alive, were not unhappy with the situation. Now after the economic revival of Russia, in particular in the energy sector, old suspicions are still present, and people have difficulties tackling the new reality. But despite diverging opinions on certain cases like Kosovo (between the majority of EU members on the one hand and Russia and a minority of EU members on the other!) there is no alternative to close cooperation between the European Union and Russia. It will strengthen the voice of Europe in a multi-polar - or better to say post-hegemonic - world.
There are a lot of common interests, for example, relating to the energy market. This is not only a matter of Russia as supplier and Western Europe as consumer. There should be a common interest in promoting renewable energy, climate protection, sustainable agriculture, and forestry. In the globalization process, EU/Europe and Russia have quite similar interests towards the USA and the new economic powers such as Brazil, China, and India. And after two terrible World Wars which devastated large parts of Europe including Western and Southern Russia, there must be a common interest in preserving this continent for the future as an area of peace and democratic stability.
In Europe, NATO, the trans-Atlantic military alliance, is growing faster than the EU, and it presents a more complicated case. NATO was the counterpart of the defunct Warsaw Pact during the Cold War. But NATO is not only still in existence but is expanding to the East, and even Ukraine and Georgia aspire to join the alliance. US actions to establish new missile bases and radar stations closer to the Russian borders created suspicions on the Russian side and certainly did not facilitate relaxed relations between Russia with NATO; they could have a negative impact on European-Russian relations in general. Most of the member states of the European Union are members of NATO, and in discussions of European security policy it is not easy to distinguish between the two communities. European NATO members would therefore be well advised to give priority to genuine European interests, including good relations with Russia without tensions. In my opinion, not even membership of Russia in NATO should be excluded; this would turn the European part of NATO into a security system which guarantees peace and stability on the continent.
Europe and Russia - when did this story begin? In ancient times, when most of today's peoples came through Russia into Europe? At the end of the Roman Empire, when the migration of peoples started in Southern Russia? More than 1100 years ago, when Christianity came to Russia?
Russia was always a part of Europe, and Europe's historical and cultural identity would not be complete without Russia's contribution to it. Today, after the tragic experiences of the 20th century, we have the chance for the first time to create a peaceful Europe without dividing lines. Regarding Russia, this is of course not a one-way street. Both sides have to deliver. But while Russia has to complete its transition into a member of the European family of democracies, the other part of Europe has to accept the new Russia as a partner with equal rights and equal opportunities.
One may ask whether this would also mean that Russia will one day become a member of the European Union. Who knows? Looking not only at the data but also at political realities, this is not likely for the time being. On the other hand, if Russia fulfills the criteria and applies, would "Europe" have the right to reject Russia? At any rate, such a situation is still a long way off.
However, the following is true in the past, today, and the future: There is no Europe without Russia, there is no Russia without Europe. The Russians have the right to the European dream like everybody else from the Azores Islands to the Caspian Sea, from Iceland to Cyprus, thereby extending the European dream to the Pacific Ocean.
Author: Dr Walter Schwimmer
Former Secretary General of the Council of Europe
Dr. Walter Schwimmer was a member of the Austrian Parliament for 28 years, serving as chairperson of several committees and deputy leader of his political group (ÖVP - Austrian People's Party). He subsequently served as the Secretary General of the Council of Europe from 1999 to 2004.
He currently works as a consultant on international relations and European affairs, based in Klosterneuburg near Vienna. He is (honorary) Secretary General of the Maison de la Méditerranée (Naples) and Chairman of the International Coordination Committee of the World Public Forum - Dialogue of Civilisations. He is the recipient of numerous awards including Chevalier of the French Legion of Honour, France’s highest decoration.
Dr. Schwimmer has authored numerous publications, of which the most widely known is “the European Dream”, a literary account of the world’s most successful peace projects. He has been (and in many ways still is) one of the great visionaries (or advocates) of Europe's paramount role in creating world peace.