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Home » Focus, polish presidency

Poland, Russia and the European Union

Submitted by on 14 Apr 2011 – 15:01

Fraser Cameron, Director of the EU-Russia Centre in Brussels

Just a few years ago Poland was blocking the EU-Russia negotiations for a new partnership agreement because of a bilateral trade dispute. Its then prime minister, Jarosław Kaczyński was outspoken in his harsh criticism of Moscow. Brussels was exasperated at Poland’s behaviour but in a demonstration of solidarity threw its support behind the Poles.  Now, with the approach of the Polish presidency in July 2011, Warsaw is in the driving seat of those seeking better relations with Russia.

Why the change? First, there was a change in prime minister with the more pragmatic Donald Tusk replacing Kaczyński. Second, there was the tragedy of the plane crash at Smolensk killing Lech Kaczyński (President of Poland and Jaroslaw’s twin brother) that drew Russia and Poland closer together. Third, there was a calculation in the Kremlin that Poland could not be isolated. It was the largest of the ten new EU member states and had to be taken seriously, especially with the Presidency looming.

Although under the Lisbon Treaty the rotating EU Presidency has a very limited role in foreign policy one can expect Poland to make the most of any opportunities via-a-vis Russia. There has been a thickening of bilateral contacts at top levels and trade between the two countries is booming. Poland hopes to see the long-running EU-Russia negotiations on a new partnership agreement move to a conclusion. This might just be possible during Poland’s six months at the helm if Russia finally manages to join the WTO, one of the main stumbling blocks.

Economic ties between Russia and the EU have grown substantially over the last few years. Russia is the EU’s third most important trading partner in goods (after the US and China), with 66 billion in exports to Russia (6% of all EU exports, 4th place) and 115 billion in imports in 2009 (9.6 % of all EU imports, 3rd place after China and US).  The EU is thus the largest market for Russian goods, mainly energy and raw materials. It is also the largest investor in Russia. Russian leaders keep exhorting EU business to invest more in Russia but with no rule of law and staggering corruption it would be a brave company that decides to put money into Russia.

Poland will also hope to see some movement in the EU-Russia Partnership for Modernisation. This is supposed to provide EU assistance to Russia in a number of areas such as science and technology, healthcare, rule of law, regulatory standards, etc. The problem is that there are very different views in Russia about what modernisation means. For those around President Medvedev it should require a full-scale transformation of the political and social as well as the economic landscape. But for those around Prime Minister Vladimir Putin it means making the current system work more effectively. With Russia basking in increased revenues from high oil prices the pressure to make fundamental reforms has all but disappeared.

Russia also faces parliamentary elections in December and Presidential elections next spring. The Duma elections are a foregone conclusion with Putin’s United Russia party likely to secure at least 70% of the seats. A test run in the local elections in March showed that there is no real opposition to the current ‘party of power.’ Who will run in the presidential race? To most Russians it will make little difference if Medvedev is re-elected or if it is Putin back in the Kremlin. The last three years has demonstrated that Putin calls the shots on all major issues, whether the war in Georgia, ensuring that jailed tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky stays in prison, or securing the World Cup for Russia.

Despite the electoral calendar in Russia there are some possibilities of progress in EU-Russia relations during the Polish Presidency. If this proves correct then Poland’s new leadership has demonstrated that it is well placed to help move the agenda forward.