Why you should care
Because this could seriously change the state of global politics.
Russia and the West aren’t currently the best of friends. On a good day, we might call them frenemies. What with the annexation of Crimea, the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 with a Russian-made missile, and the accusation of Russian military involvement in eastern Ukraine, European figures have been trading fierce words with Moscow — and even fiercer economic sanctions — since early 2014. It may, then, come as a bit of a surprise that:
Russia has an identity crisis: To be or not to be … European.
It’s a long-term topic of debate and a fascinating cultural roller coaster. In late 2010, more than half the country was in favor of European Union accession, according to poll data from Deutsche Welle. If one in three young people had gotten their way, Russia would have joined within five years, and would already be a full EU member. Good thing they didn’t — since tensions escalated over Ukraine in 2014, support has plummeted to just 11 percent. Public opinion in Russia “follows those of elites,” says Vladimir Gel’man, a professor in the department of political science and sociology at the European University at St. Petersburg, because “the media provides one-sided coverage of international events.” Several years ago, those elites were pushing for greater economic cooperation between Russia and the EU, so it makes sense that there was widely pro-European public sentiment. It also makes sense, therefore, that Europhilia has been on the decline since 2014 — though it remains surprisingly resilient, especially among the “more educated, well-to-do, young residents of big cities,” says Gel’man.
Most Russians think of themselves as Europeans.
Trade between the EU and Russia totaled $230 billion in 2015, down from a peak of $380 billion in 2012 — due as much to collapsing energy prices as to economic sanctions — reflecting the fact that even the mightiest sanctions that political will can muster can only do so much against inherently intertwined economies. The EU remains, by far, Russia’s largest trading partner. “Historically, culturally, economically and politically, Russia is a part of Europe,” says Nikita Lomagin, academic director of the European University at St. Petersburg’s Eurasian energy politics program. As such, he says, “most Russians think of themselves as Europeans.” Besides the economic and political entity of the EU, “the idea of ‘Europe’ is still largely perceived as a positive thing,” says Gel’man: Russians like to vacation in Greece, drive a Mercedes and send their children to Oxford University. These ties of culture and economic interdependence survive even the most dramatic public squabbles between political leaders.
To be sure, Russia is unlikely to join the EU anytime soon. Support for EU accession has plummeted recently, and the same polls now show that well over half of the Russian public believe the Russia-EU relationship to be “hostile.” In Lomagin’s opinion, “Russia will never be a member of the European Union: It’s not in the interests of Russia; it’s not in the interests of the EU.” For Lomagin, Russian memory of the Soviet-era economy leaves them with no desire to join another bureaucratic behemoth, this time based in Brussels rather than Moscow. Meanwhile Gel’man says that Russia currently considers itself an equal negotiating partner with the European Union and would therefore desire an equivalent level of influence in Brussels, a situation that would be totally inconceivable for existing member states. That said, the experts agree a thaw in relations and future agreements over free trade and visa-free travel might well be possible.
“If at a certain point Russian authorities change their attitudes to the EU,” says Gel’man, “Russian public opinion will shift” once again. In that case, we might soon see an even greater level of interdependence. The EU itself was established after World War II under the principle that economic integration would not only promote prosperity but also necessitate cooperation and peace. In a conceivable future when zones of free trade and even free movement could be established, the border between Russia and the EU would be essentially invisible, and Russia would almost certainly be more integrated into the European community than, say, a post-Brexit United Kingdom. Now, that would be a very, very different world.