Russia and Europe: Current Prospects and Recommendations

On June 11, 2014, a closed discussion took place on the current situation in Russia and recommendations for Europe’s role and actions. The discussion was held under the Chatham House Rule at the Emblem Hotel in Prague. Among the participants were representatives from the diplomatic community and civil society.
A distinguished Russian journalist began the discussion by arguing that since the 2011 Russian protests, we have witnessed a qualitative change in the nature of the Russian political regime, a conscious evolution from a quasi-democratic model to a much more autocratic one.
As he looked for new ways to legitimize this paradigm, Putin found an obstacle in Ukraine. He saw this obstacle as a personal challenge, an “examination in statecraft” in which he believes he succeeded. But the “legitimacy” that he acquired is that of a monarch, of whom people expect more and more similar “miracles.” In addition, the speaker noted that although Putin believes he can now exert more control domestically, Russia has only become more unstable.
According to the speaker, the new situation has several implications for Russian foreign policy. First, the USA remains Russia’s primary adversary; and second, Russia cannot extricate itself from relations with the EU and therefore considers the EU a significant problem. Furthermore, Putin consciously uses the leadership vacuum in Europe to act as he pleases. Because he only respects strength, he does not respect the EU and he sees any concession as weakness.
The second part of the discussion focused on what Europe and the Czech Republic can do about the turbulent events in Ukraine and the current situation in Russia. Several participants believe that Europe must decide whether the annexation of Crimea sets an important precedent, and whether it is invested in internal changes in Russia. One speaker noted that Europe must speak with one voice and convince Putin to listen.
With the recent turn in its foreign policy, the Czech Republic may have lost its unique image of moral integrity, and therefore some respect among the international community. When asked what we in Europe can do to help the situation aside from supporting Ukraine, the speaker argued that we must turn greater attention to the activities and dealings of the Russian elite in Europe in order to expose their corruption. As this kind of behavior is unacceptable to the European public, exposure of corruption abroad can influence Russia’s domestic political situation.
The speaker stressed the crucial significance of highlighting human rights issues, and called for the application of human rights issues in politics. During the protests in 2011 and 2012, when civil society appeared to show its true colors, the West and the EU unfortunately only focused on a couple of issues, such as gay rights and Pussy Riot.
He concluded that we are now dealing with a painful transition that cannot be broken down into Europe’s favorite issues. Russia’s central problem is that its citizens enjoy very few of the basic rights and freedoms guaranteed in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Russia’s first priority is therefore to return to a democratic course. To assist Russia’s transition, Europe must demonstrate that basic values and human rights are essential and non-negotiable.
The discussion was thematically linked to the upcoming 18th annual Forum 2000 Conference entitled “Democracy and Its Discontents: A Quarter-Century After the Iron Curtain and Tiananmen” to be held October 12–15, 2014 in Prague and other Central European cities.