Resigned Europe silent on Russian poll concerns

BRUSSELS – The European Union is keeping any doubts over the fairness of Russia’s March 2 election to itself to avoid needlessly antagonizing its large neighbor at a delicate time in their ties, analysts and diplomats say.

Usually swift to chide democratic failings around the world, the 27-member bloc does not want to exacerbate relations with its biggest energy supplier, and believes Moscow would in any case shrug off any criticism about its staging of the poll.

“There is a sense that whatever we say it will not make any difference,” said Katinka Barysch of the London-based Centre for European Reform (CER) think tank.

“We need to have a functioning relationship with the leadership, old or new… We don’t want to antagonize them too much.”

Europe’s main election watchdog said on Wednesday it would refuse to monitor the vote, in which President Vladimir Putin’s chosen successor Dmitry Medvedev is streets ahead of rivals, unless Moscow eased restrictions on its observers.

That came at the end of a week in which Medvedev — the beneficiary of blanket coverage from state media — refused to hold television debates with rivals and former prime minister and Kremlin critic Mikhail Kasyanov was barred from running.

Europe’s leaders have been strikingly silent, with only EU External Relations Commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner and NATO chief Jaap de Hoop Scheffer making cautious statements that they hoped the election could be observed according to usual rules.

That will not cut much ice with the Kremlin, with Putin on Wednesday putting Russia’s state security service on guard against “attempts to interfere in our domestic affairs”.

“You could say the silence is deafening,” said a senior EU diplomat of Europe’s reaction. He noted also that Slovenia — the tiny state currently presiding over EU business — had its work cut out over Kosovo’s expected secession from Serbia.

Putin, popular for restoring some form of order after the turbulence of the immediate post-Soviet years, has said he plans to retain influence in Russia after stepping down in line with a constitution forbidding three consecutive terms.

DEAF EARS

The call by the EU and Washington for an investigation into reports of irregularities in the December parliamentary election fell largely on deaf ears in Russia, where the fruits of an oil boom have nurtured widespread political apathy.

Added to that is recognition in Europe that it needs Russian cooperation not just to keep the oil and gas flowing, but also on a range of vital security interests.

Diplomats came back from a Berlin meeting of major powers last week struck by Moscow’s support for the outline of albeit modest sanctions on Iran over fears it is pursuing an atom bomb, a goal Tehran denies.

Russia last month agreed to lift a ban on Polish meat imports which had blocked work on a new EU-Russia partnership pact, and some see signs of easing in a longstanding “frozen conflict” over territory involving Russia and ex-Soviet Moldova.

“People want to hold on to any good elements in the relationship at the moment,” said the senior diplomat.

CONDESCENDING

EU officials portray the nascent common foreign policy of the bloc as one based on values rather than interests, but Barysch said Brussels now realized that approach did not work with the self-assertive Russia of Putin and his allies.

“They thought all the talk about values was condescending,” she said, adding that the Kremlin felt more comfortable with a relationship based on mutual interest.

That is not good enough for some EU capitals.

Yet while the ex-communist eastern states, Nordic countries and Britain will seek tough language, they may face resistance from western continental partners such as Germany and France — whose leader Nicolas Sarkozy broke ranks after the December election by calling through congratulations to Putin.

“The usual divisions will no doubt surface,” shrugged one EU diplomat in resignation.

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