17th EU-Russia Summit
Delivered in Plenary - 13th June 2006
Russia remains, geographically of course, the largest country in the world and enjoys a strategic partnership with the EU through the ‘four common spaces’. Russia, for all its faults, remains a democracy, albeit an increasingly authoritarian one. It still enjoys vigorous debate in its many media outlets, even if the control by the Kremlin through self-censorship is becoming more apparent in recent years.
The judiciary, like in many former Soviet countries, still lacks the degree of independence seen in the EU and tends to bend to political pressure. But it is not always so. I remain an enormous admirer of the contribution to European culture made by Russia, and believe strongly that we must not destabilise this massive Eurasian country, whose confidence is now on the rise again with the recent massive inflow of petrodollars.
Undoubtedly, Russia has seen violations of human rights by its military in the north Caucasus. But we must also recognise the threat posed by Chechen militant Islamic groups eager to capture Muslim population in Russia, which now accounts for around 17% of the population and is rising rapidly. Al-Qa’ida is eager to put down roots in the region. Clearly also Gazprom the ‘gas weapon’ – used as an extended arm of Russian foreign policy – always seems to upset my friend, and understandably so, particularly in Ukraine, Moldova and the Caucasus.
Russia must be seen as a reliable energy trading partner and not as a trade bully towards its neighbours and those countries nearby, as we saw recently over the ban against Georgia and Moldova in the importation of their wines and mineral waters, or, even more bizarrely, on the ‘bilateral issue’ with Polish farm products, which I always thought was the Commission’s prerogative, covered by the monopoly on external trade.
I would also call on Russia now to follow Ukraine’s lead in allowing visa-free travel to all EU citizens in order to boost tourism and facilitate a better public knowledge of this giant eastern neighbour of ours.
Lastly, I call on Russia to support the EU and the US in preventing nuclear proliferation by Iran.