Relations between Russia and Europe are full of opportunities, but beset by difficulties. Now a former Russian prime minister is staging a conference to explore bilateral ties - and to try to turn Moscow westward.
Critics say the EU-Russia dialogue lacks real substance
Former Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov hosted several prominent European and Russian leaders at a conference in Moscow on Thursday, aiming to set Russia on a more European track.
A packed hall in the dazzling nouveau Hotel Metropol, a stone's throw away from the Kremlin, was an unlikely setting for the meeting. Many of the dozens of Russian opposition leaders and human rights activists in attendance are the political arch enemies of the Russian leadership.
The idea of the conference was to create a deeper and more meaningful dialogue, compared with more formal diplomatic events, such as the recent Russia-EU summit.
Kasyanov was Russia's prime minister for four years during the first presidential term of Vladimir Putin, but is now in fierce opposition to him. His People's Freedom Party is awaiting registration by the Justice Ministry, but he said hopes are slim that it will go far.
Russia banned vegetable imports from the EU during the E. coli scare
"Over the past four years, eight parties have not been registered," he said. "We may become the ninth party. That means that the Russian authorities demonstrate that they have no respect for the Russian constitution, or for their international obligations, following from Russia's membership of the Council of Europe and the OSCE."
Discussions at the recent Russia-EU summit mainly focused on Russia's import ban of vegetables from Europe - much less on human rights. Political analyst Lilia Shevtsova criticized what she called Europe's "cucumber policy" toward Moscow.
"The European Commission in Brussels... did not discuss with Medvedev any standards or principles, nor the rule of law," she said. "They discussed the problem of cucumbers. And as far as I understand, both sides did their best to be as agreeable as possible to each other."
Shevtsova said the meeting shows that there are two Europes - one that boasts a pious pro-human rights platform with little substance, and another that is deeply concerned with Russia's drift away from free democracy.
Elections to be litmus test
Among the people Shevtsova had in mind was former Belgian Prime Minister Guy Verhofstadt, who expressed regret that European leaders had ignored anti-democratic developments in Russia, like changes to election laws that have made it tougher for opposition groups to enter parliament.
Mikhail Kasyanov said he has little hope the Kremlin will allow his People's Freedom Party
"There is more and more awareness for the fact that this cannot continue, what is happening in Russia," he said. "And there is more and more knowledge also in the international community that it is necessary to stand up and to criticize what is happening."
According to Verhofstadt, the elections for the Duma next December and the presidency in March 2012 will be a litmus test for free democracy. He said Europe should speak out more and do whatever it can do make Russia comply with its international obligations.
"2011 is certainly a crucial year for Russia - as crucial as it was, I think, in 1990," Verhofstadt said. "I think that both elections shall define the path for the coming decades of this great country. And that is why we are here with this delegation, to confirm our commitment from the European side to a democratic and to a European Russia."
Author: Geert Groot Koerkamp / acb
Editor: Nicole Goebel