Gunnar Hökmark on “a new Russian curtain”

March 26th, 2013   News | Russia | The European Union

A new Russian curtain is descending, dividing Europe. In contrast to the old one, this new curtain is not made of iron, concrete or barbed wire. Behind, there are no armoured divisions prepared for invasion. Instead, there are political and economic forces where private and public power has merged, leading to power without transparency, checks and balances or any kind of accountability, be it domestic or foreign.

Publiced in the Swedish newspaper Dagens Nyheter 19/03/2013

Just as globalization, the exercise of this power is not limited by the borders of old times. More countries can be placed under its shadow without the appearance of aggression or invasion. States like Belarus, Ukraine, Moldova, Azerbaijan, Armenia and Georgia are already under the influence of forces that ultimately have Russian interests as the common denominator. The curtain also casts its shadow over countries such as Romania, Bulgaria and the western Balkans and it risks providing more space to dark forces in the Baltic States.

Recently – after an extended period of destabilization and corruption scandals – the liberal-democratic government of Moldova fell. The Communists are now strengthening their positions in order to approach a Russia that already has military troops in the country.

Unlike Russia, Georgia has since 2004 moved towards democracy, the rule of law and high economic growth. After the invasion in 2008, parts of the country are occupied by Russian troops. In free and democratic elections in the autumn of 2012, the challenger Ivanishvili – an oligarch with Russian assets – gained power peacefully. Now, however, all the institutions of the state apparatus are harassing the opposition. Ivanishvili has publicly demanded that opposition representatives who want a political future in the country vote for a change in the constitution.

The problems in Belarus are well known. In the Ukraine former Prime Minister and opposition leader Yulia Tymoshenko is in prison. The Yanukovich regime, based on the fortunes of Ukrainian oligarchs, is concentrating ever more power to itself. Through a renewed agreement, Russia will keep one of its largest military bases in Sevastopol until at least 2042.

In Armenia, Russia has more than 3,000 soldiers. Russian business and political interests impede the fight against corruption while the Russian presence contributes to the continuing confrontation with Azerbaijan over Nagorno Karabakh. Azerbaijan distinguishes itself from the Russian pattern but unfortunately flows into the pattern of an increasingly hard dictatorial regime with oil as key power resource.

Behind this curtain of obscure exercise of power, there are a number of common denominators.

The first one is the Russian foreign-policy ambition to re-establish influence in its “near abroad”. It is practiced by a monopolistic energy policy and classical power politics as well as with the Russian military as a threat. As part of this policy, Russia plans to more than quadruple defence spending from $25 billion to $110 billion by 2014.

The second one is personal wealth created in the context of political power. It was in Russia that the Georgian Prime Minister Ivanishvili became the world’s 153rd richest person. Putin has built up a personal fortune valued at around $40 billion. Ukraine leader Yanukovich is closely linked to the Russian-speaking oligarchs in the country. Sometimes these groups have opposing economic interests, but jointly they undermine the rule of law and democracy in a part of Europe.

The third is the corruption associated with public power and the great fortunes. It is being developed as part of an energy policy, which in all countries is supported by companies close to political power. The energy sector accounts for 50 per cent of the Russian state budget and 65 per cent of export earnings. The power tool is not only Gazprom, but also the media under its control. State-controlled Gazprom is present in 30 countries and in almost every country in Central and Eastern Europe and the Balkans.

A fourth common denominator is a growing control of all power, from the legal institutions to the media. Just like in Russia with lawsuits against Khodorkovsky, Magnitsky, Pussy Riots and the demonstrating opposition, the opposition and alternative power centres are now being harassed in all these countries.

It would be an illusion to believe that this exercise of power by itself is limited to the immediate neighbourhood. Instead, it knows no national boundaries.

The EU must pursue a coherent policy towards Russia with clear requirements for economic and energy policy cooperation.

  • · European competition law must fully apply to Russian companies in the EU.
  • · The development of a common European energy market with common, connected distribution networks that are open to competition must become a reality.
  • · The ability to fight corruption, throughout Europe and in each individual country, must be strengthened.
  • · Free trade agreements and deeper economic cooperation must be conditional to the rule of law and respect for democracy. Generous visa rules and opportunities for studies show openness to citizens of those countries. A prospective for EU membership must be available for countries that choose the democratic path.
  • · Europe must have the military capability to build stability and resist Russian threats and claims of control.

Most important, however, is clear-sightedness. Behind the new curtain prevail a different logic and a different type of exercise power, which should not be confused with democracy and the rule of law. Ultimately, Russia wants to expand her power in Europe. Our message of economic integration and the requirements of democracy, freedom and transparency have to be loud and clear to the citizens of these countries.

Gunnar Hökmark, Member of the European Parliament and Vice- President of the EPP Group

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