By Hans-Jürgen Schlamp in Brussels
French President Nicolas Sarkozy (left) and his Russian counterpart Dmitry Medvedev: Speaking with a single voice?
Suddenly the barriers that had been piling up in recent months between the East and West seemed to be a lot lower. French President Nicolas Sarkozy, whose country currently holds the rotating presidency of the European Union, and his colleague from Moscow, Dmitry Medvedev, cleared the political hurdles at the EU-Russia summit in Nice on Friday with surprising ease -- setting a new tone in difficult relations between unequal neighbors.
Russia has become the European Union's third-largest trading partner, with a growth rate of 20 percent. The Russians supply energy -- one quarter of all natural gas and oil consumed in the EU -- and with the money they earn from that, they purchase countless products from European markets, from cars to heavy machinery to fashion and services, you name it.
Without a reasonable relationship with major geopolitical power Russia, true European security is also almost unthinkable in the long term. On all important issues -- be it energy security, terrorism, the threat posed by Iran's nuclear program or the problems in the Middle East, "Russia plays a key role," said EU Commissioner for External Relations Benita Ferrero-Waldner, summing up the global situation.
Speaking about Moscow's role in global affairs, French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner told an illustrious circle of guests a few days ago at the Brookings Institution in Washington, "there is no solution to most of today's problems without it, let alone against it."
That has become clear in the past year, as the Kremlin "oscillated between cooperation and provocation." The key question for the EU as it is for this US is this: "How can we create the conditions for a true partnership with Moscow?" he said.
In Washington, many hold different views. They aren't alone, either: In a number of European capitals, calls for tighter relationship with Russia don't have much currency. For a long time now, what Berlin, Paris, Madrid and Rome want to do is by no means the EU consensus on this issue. Many Warsaw Pact and former Soviet satellite states are resistent to working more closely with Moscow.
And even as EU leaders celebrated the new dialogue with Russia in Nice on Friday, further on the horizon to the east, the next political tinderbox was already developing. Ukraine has once again failed to pay its gas bill to Russia, and Gazprom is again threatened to close the valve on supplies. NATO General Secretary Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, who was visiting Estonia at the time, quickly jumped into the fray and affirmed the desire of the Western military alliance to protect Ukraine -- a development that can only serve to irk Moscow.
Meanwhile, the government in Prague, which is set to take over the helm as EU rotating president from France in January, is planning to hold a summit meeting with six eastern EU neighbour states to create a new club it is calling an "eastern partnership." Russia won't be allowed to participate, but Alexander Lukashenko, known outside Belarus as "Europe's last dictator," will.
And who knows how long the new friendship between Sarkozy and Medvedev can really last. In the Kremlin, rumors are already circulating that Vladimir Putin wants to return to his former job as president sooner than expected. It doesn't sound like we're going to see much more democracy in Russia in the near future.
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