With the sanctions against the Kremlin and other Russian officials extended until September 2016, it remains to be seen to what extent Russia’s policy to divide Europe is effective and relevant.
From left: Luxembourg's Prime Minister Xavier Bettel, Portuguese Prime Minister Pedro Passos Coelho, Slovakian Prime Minister Robert Fico, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Finnish Prime Minister Alexander Stubb and British Prime Minister David Cameron an the 2015 EU summit in Brussels. Photo: AP
Russian authorities keep hoping to break the unity and inflexibility of Europe when it comes to economic sanctions. While the European Council recently decided to extend the timeline of its blacklist, which includes citizens of the Russian Federation as well as the self-proclaimed Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics (DNR and LNR), to Sept.15, there are still signs that at least six EU nations may be backing away from sanctions.
The decision to prolong the sanctions is connected to the “continued violation or threat to territorial wholeness, sovereignty and independence of Ukraine.” The blacklist includes 146 physical and legal entities. Three people got excluded from the list as they’ve passed away.
In terms of a European split, the Kremlin is betting on outsider countries in the first place, the ones whose governments speak for removal of the sanctions. In early March, the head of the international affairs committee of the State Duma, Alexey Pushkov, named six such countries – all EU members.
Moscow is forced to make a bet on separate countries by the consolidated position of the entire European Union and its institutions. Those exact institutions – the European parliament, European Commission and the European Council – are dominated by trans-European political powers (rightist-centrist European popular party, social democrats and liberals), which have openly supported the introduction of sanctions against Russia from the very beginning in 2014 because of the annexation of Crimea and the armed conflict in Eastern Ukraine.
Today there’s no proof any of those leading political players of the EU have radically changed their point of view. On the contrary, there’s information that liberals, and, perhaps, populists in the European parliament are ready to vote for measures banning eight well-known Russian journalists blamed for harassing oppositional politician Boris Nemtsov from entering the EU.
Objectively, extreme rightists and radical leftists are the ones voting for cancellation of sanctions on Russia at EU level, but their influence in united Europe has very limited reach.
Pushkov himself singled out six EU members: Austria, Hungary, Greece, Italy, Cyprus and Slovakia. Why are these particular European states taking a special position?
In Austria, for example, open dissatisfaction is expressed by the government, which considers the launch of mutual sanctions harmful to national manufacturers. The coalition government of the country supports such a point of view.
Vice chancellor Reinhold Mitterlehner, criticizing the sanctions strategy as a whole, makes it clear that his country would like to develop trade relations with Russia despite everything.
Prime Minister of Greece Alexis Tsipras, for his part, during his official visit to Moscow last year confirmed the position of his government that economic war as a continuation of classical war is a way to a dead end. He calls to establish a type of mutual collaboration which would “give Greece a chance to export agricultural goods” into Russia.
Hungarian Prime Minister Victor Orban, who is at the opposite side of European politics and who visited Russia in February, also declared that sanctions and embargoes harm the peoples of different countries. Orban speaks against “automatic renewal of the sanctions” against Russia.
Matteo Renzi, chairman of the Council of Ministers of Italy, promised after the end of the European Council December summit that “in the upcoming months” the package of sanctions against Russia would be revised.
Italy’s influential corporations also speak against “the sanctions war. Authorities of several regions are openly calling for its end. According to Fabrizio Sala, vice president of the Lombardy region, “We have entire segments of the economy (furniture and shoes production) aimed for the Russian market at 80 percent.”
Another country minding the “sanctions war” is Cyprus. There are tens of thousands of Russians in that country who actively invest in Cyprus’ economy, and a lot of enterprises there belong to Russian business.
“These sanctions haven’t brought the results their initiators aimed for,” said president of Cyprus Republic Nikos Anastasiadis during his visit to Russia in February.
Head of Slovakian government Robert Fico is clearly against the sanctions regime; he’s been underlining their uselessness since the launch of the sanctions.
“If Minsk agreements are followed I’ll be the first one to vote for the future support of their implementation though relaxing the sanctions,” he underlines.
Pragmatism is the key
These examples show that among the EU leaders there really is no unity on the “Russian issue.” In the cases reviewed, we’re dealing both with leftist governments (Greece and Slovakia), and conservative heads of states (Hungary and Cyprus), and even cabinets of “big coalitions” (Italy and Austria).
It’s especially important that we’re talking about countries whose population and whose political elites are rather hard to suspect of pro-Russian sentiments, like Austria and Hungary.
Of course, time will tell. In part we can agree with the doubts of Olga Potemkina, head of the department of European integration of the Institute of Europe. She warns that the Kremlin shouldn’t be glad that there’s no unity in Europe on the issue of continuing the sanctions.
Last year there too was a “group of several countries that spoke against the sanctions, but in practice everything was different when the issue of their continuation came to a vote. The majority vote ‘for’ when it comes to this,” notes Potemkina.
In any case, the lack of a unified position in the EU about the sanctions issues is a result of the Kremlin’s policy in Europe and the mutual harm that the war of sanctions brought upon both Russia and the European Union.
The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.