The troubled relationship between the European Union and Russia is about more than policies or interests – it reflects a fundamental clash between two political visions of the post-cold-war world, says Ivan Krastev.
Russia’s "decade of humiliation" is over. Her "still terrible thirst for greatness" is back. The new reality in Europe is the re-emergence of Russia as a great power and the end of the post-cold-war European order. So, the question is: in reality, how serious is the Russian challenge? Is Russia a rising power, or is she a declining power enjoying a temporary comeback? Is Russia a neo-imperial power aiming to dominate her weaker neighbours, or is she a post-imperial state trying to defend her legitimate interests? Does Moscow view the European Union as a strategic partner or does it view it as a threat to her ambitions in Europe? How stable is Vladimir Putin’s regime, what are the Kremlin’s long-term interests and short-term fears?…
The ideology of "sovereign democracy" is not just a fundamental element of Putin’s regime. It is a continuation of the Russians’ historical struggle to carve out an authentic, independent, and distinct niche for themselves within modernity. Against the assertions of Putin’s critics, the concept of sovereign democracy does not mark Russia’s break with democratic Europe. It embodies Russia’s ideological ambition to be "the other Europe" – an alternative to the European Union….
The future of the relationship promises to be a troubled one. Europe’s effort to bring Russia to agreement to its principles of conducting foreign relations will be interpreted as "double standards" and an attempt at achieving "regime change". Russia’s unrestrained pursuit of the national interest and its legal revisionism will be interpreted in Europe as a manifestation of traditional Russian imperialism. In short, the coexistence between European post-modernity and Russia’s sovereign democracy could become more difficult and dangerous than the cold-war coexistence between Soviet communism and western democracies.
Ivan Krastev is chair of the Centre for Liberal Strategies in Sofia, Bulgaria. He served as the executive director of the International Commission on the Balkans, chaired by Giuliano Amato.