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Why closer relations between Europe and Russia could be beneficial
by Christos Mouzeviris
2018-04-13 08:43:31
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Irish Taoiseach Leo Varadkar, recently raised the prospect of action against Russia as a reaction to the poisoning of a former Russian spy and his daughter in Salisbury, England. The UK government has blamed the poisoning on Russia.

Speaking in Brussels, he said his Government would consider whether to expel Russian diplomats in Dublin over the coming days in solidarity with the UK’s retaliatory response. (Irish Times)

At least 10 other EU nations, expressed the same intentions, in support towards the United Kingdom. Member states understood to be preparing to oust diplomats include France, Germany, Poland, Ireland, the Netherlands, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Bulgaria, the Czech Republic and Denmark. (The Guardian)

In response, the Russian foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, accused the UK of trying to make “the crisis with Russia as deep as possible”. In London they “are feverishly trying to force allies to take confrontational steps”, he told reporters on a visit to Hanoi. (The Guardian).

It seems that the Cold War mentality together with "Russophobia," hasn't left Europe yet. And although our continent is right to be wary of any foreign intervention and meddling, we must also remember that not just Russia, but even our ally the USA was spying on EU and our governments a few years back.

rus01_400_01Understandably, Western societies have more to fear after the Putin's administration treatment of Ukraine and Georgia, which were both a mistake. If he is willing to invade its neighbors in order to protect the Russian communities or interests there, then the Russians must understand how other former Soviet states that now joined the EU and their allies, feel towards their leadership.

The problem here is, that we are in reality in steep competition with an increasingly confident and ambitious Russia and that understandably poses certain challenges for Europe. Although it shouldn't if Europe realizes that its strength should be its unity and coordination against all "foreign meddlers," allied or not. 

However, in the case of Russia, Europe insists on maintaining a very awkward relationship. We are in competition with other powers too, like China, India or even the USA itself, yet we haven't developed such hostility towards them. One will naturally think, that we haven't had such attacks by any of the other blocks, like that from Russia. But do we know for certain that it was them? We only have the UK government claims after all.

An administration who convinced us in the past about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, in order to invade and destabilize the region, while nothing was found after all. It was a lie and an excuse to proceed with the US plans in the Middle East. Not that Russia is not capable of doing something like this, it has done so before. Yet we should keep an open mind, about the real motives from either side. 

European and American attitudes towards Russia were always aiming to keep them out of our continent. And not just that. We always wanted to prevent them from developing again as a power, trying to keep them down, blaming them for everything and portray them as the boogeyman from the East that wants to destroy our societies. 

In reality, we have much more in common with Russia, than many other countries in the world. The Russian Federation is a union of many regions, that span across Eurasia, comprised of a variety of ethnic and religious groups. Overall, about 160 ethnicities reside in its territory.

They have managed to deal with a problem that Europe is facing increasingly too, that of how to integrate such large and diverse populations. They have been doing it for far longer than us, although their methods are very different and often not compatible with our values.

While Europe is choosing a more open and liberal approach, Russia, on the other hand, was always more authoritarian. Historically they did better with a strong leader, an authority figure like a Tsar or a Soviet ruler to unite them, than referendums and a more open democratic process. 

Yet they have succeeded in certain challenges far better than us, so Europe could indeed take a few pages out of their book if it is indeed planning to become more federal. Besides, total freedom and liberalism have their own challenges. How do you stop a region from breaking away, or win a referendum to leave or join the EU? 

If we think about it, Europe has chosen a different yet more difficult route to federalization and it hasn't always been successful. The Catalan referendum and how Spain and the EU have managed it, Brexit and Norway's reluctance to fully commit or join the EU, showcase the challenges that our kind of democracy is facing. 

Russia has opted to create its own unique political reality, that is to a large extend democratic and federal indeed, yet it relies on a strong dominant figure that is its president. They vote for local governments and presidents, in addition to the central one and the country's president.

Yet their participation in the federal or presidential elections, is much higher than the European Parliament elections. In Europe, we are still trying to figure out if we need a president, or which of our many existing ones will take this role; the EU Commission, Council or Parliament president? And although to us seems totally illegitimate the way Vladimir Putin is dominating the country's politics for two decades, the majority of Russians do feel that he is very appropriate to lead the country to a new era of influencing the world.

Russia has solved in its own unique way, its presidential role problem as well as many others. Oil-rich regions like that of the Tatarstan Republic, are financially supporting Russia's less prosperous regions. Just like it happens in EU, yet without all the populism, discontent and quarreling that we witness between the European states. Russian states enjoy fiscal union, something that Europe cannot agree on. 

Financial support and transfers from rich nations to the new poorer ones, is always a thorny issue in EU and a reason why Brexit happened; or why countries like Norway or Switzerland chose to stay outside the block. Europeans always argue about who pays what and how much. In contrast, the Russian republics are more inclined to find a consensus. 

In most regions, like this of Tatarstan's capital Kazan, they have managed to integrate two large religious groups, Orthodox Christians and Muslims, to live side by side peacefully. Something that Europe could also take a closer look at, since it is increasingly becoming more diverse on religious grounds. 

Yet the most astonishing achievement of the Russian Federation that could be applied in Europe, is the motivation, inclusion and mobilization of its youth. The Young Guards of Russia, may be Putin's United Russia's youth political branch, but it has become the backbone of the country's civil society. 

They are well supported and financed by the government, organized and able to collaborate with politicians, both from their own country and abroad, influencing their decisions. They are also able to lobby, organize events, invite and work with foreign NGOs and diplomats, in order to promote their country's interests or develop their skills and promote their careers.

Any young person can become a member of the Young Guards, but it is not compulsory to stay or become a member of the party. This is a platform that young people can explore their political identity, network and become active members of their country's civil society. 

Something that Europe has failed to achieve collectively. Even Erasmus, our continent's most important youth program, was considered for abolishment when the economic crisis hit our member states. We need to realize the importance of youth involvement in the European project. Instead, we still believe that encouraging their active participation in the European institutions through education or civic platforms, is EU propaganda, brainwashing, and indoctrination.

If we want to create a pan-European civil society, we have to target Europe's youth and include them, give them the same opportunities and financial support as Russia is offering its own. Young people are the future after all and as things stand, Europe's youth has become increasingly apathetic towards the continent's politics, national or collective European.

In addition to all the above, Russia is reaching out to all emerging regions of the world, indiscriminately. While Europe and America prefer to impose sanctions against any country that does not fill their political, social or financial criteria and standards, Russia is not bothered by all that.

During my stay in Russia for the country's Presidential Elections in March, I've met diplomats and delegates from all over the world; Africa, Nepal, Mexico, Brazil, Argentina and Europe. Not just the political leadership of the country, but also its youth organizations, are reaching out and trying to reinforce the importance of the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) group as a global player, to counterpart Western dominance in the world. 

And while America chooses to withdraw and scorns nations such as Mexico, Russia is reaching out and is attracting young politicians and diplomats from this country and beyond. If America prefers to build walls and does not want to engage with Mexico, then its youth has found another country to aspire for future cooperation and support. How can this be any good for American politics?

Outside the city of Kazan, I  have visited Innopolis (from the word innovation and the Greek polis, which means city), a brand new settlement and notably the country's smallest municipality, that has big ambitions. It wants to become the Russian Silicon Valley, to compete but also cooperate with those of America and Europe. Its inhabitants work on IT development and many of the country's online platforms are increasingly based there.

It is evident that Russia thinks big and wants to become a major player in the globe, leaving behind its old image of a reclusive, closed society. I have experienced a great amount of hospitality, ambition and keenness to showcase all that this country has to offer, by nobody else but its own youth. 

They want to reach out and rebuild their country's image, not as a backwater has-been super-power, but a nation that is dynamic and able to attract investments inwards. Young Russians do not always understand the bad press their country is receiving abroad, especially in Western counties. They read two totally different reports about the events that happen in their country.

In reality, the truth stands somewhere in the middle. Things are not as bad as we in the West portray them, even though Russia is indeed facing certain challenges. We are just threatened by Russia's increasing assertiveness and want to keep it out of our affairs. 

Yet we should really change our attitude towards our neighbor. If we cooperate with them, we could achieve much more than by being constantly at each other's throats. We could learn a few things from them on youth engagement and empowerment, while we could teach them not to be afraid of a more liberal approach to social issues and politics.

But this won't be achieved with constant sanctions and the expulsion of diplomats. That will be reached by closer ties and collaboration. Although one would wonder if that is what our leadership really wants, or it has a different agenda.

Albeit we eventually clash over the in-between nations like Ukraine, on which block they will join or belong to, the decision will ultimately be their own and all we have to do is offer a better deal than Russia. But that will come once we sort our own backyard first, rather trying to throw stones at our neighbor's. 

In the future, we will live in a more multipolar world, one which Western monopolies will diminish. Even Africa is building its very own single market and free trade agreement, considering a single currency too. If they are successful in their goals, they will create a far larger market in the world, with more than a billion people, mostly young. 

Other big "players" like Russia, India and China, are rushing to increase their influence in Africa, plus across the world. Can Europe still think that others must play by its own rules in order to collaborate, stick strictly to the Euro-Atlantic alliance, or exclude countries like Russia because they pose a threat or competition? 

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