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Examining EU-Russian Relations

The EU is Russia's number one trading partner, and Russia is the bloc's main supplier of oil. But the author of a new book argues that the relationship has some fundamental flaws.

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Two presidents: Russia's Vladimir Putin and the EU's Romano Prodi

Katinka Barysch is a critic of EU-Russian relations: She says they won't get much better until the political and economic direction of Russia becomes clearer.

"As long as Russia is unsure about whether it is going to the direction of a democracy and a liberal market economy or not, it will be very difficult for the EU to have a much better

relationship with the Russians," Barysch, who recently presented her book on EU-Russia relations.

But optimists point to proven progress in EU-Russian relations, despite the lack of democracy and a market economy. For example, at the end of May, the two sides agreed to Russia's entry into the World Trade Organization. Richard Wright, the head of the EU delegation in Moscow, is one of those optimists.

"I think the authors underestimate what has been achieved, and the starting point, which was after all very different," he said.

Will EU constitution help?

Only fifteen years ago, Russia and the European Union were bitter political enemies with radically different economic systems. But the critic Barysch looks at the problems of today: For example, Russians need a visa to enter the EU. And Russia just recently agreed to lift a ban on meat imports from EU countries. Barysch thinks an EU constitution would make it all much easier.

"We'd have a foreign minister that would probably bring more cohesion to foreign policy, and we would get rid of the rotating presidency and get rid of this activism and inertia cycle and all the initiatives which get started every six months," said Barysch, who works as chief economist at the Center for European Reform in London and runs the organization's Russia program.

She added that because individual EU countries like France and Germany don't always tow the EU line, Russia views Europe as divided.

Wright on the other hand points to the 1997 EU-Russian partnership and co-operation agreement: Europe and Russia are trying, however imperfectly, to build common space where they work together on justice, security, and education.

"Step by step we are building more confidence and trust which I think is the key to partnership," he said. Both the critics and the optimists agree that there are at least some problems in the relationship, but no all out crisis. And both agree that it should never come to that, because the two sides are too important for each other.

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