Peter Mandelson: “There will always be small frictions between two partners and political neighbors the size of the EU and Russia . What matters is how we manage those frictions”



Some recent developments in Russia were strongly criticized both by the Institutions and Member States . You said in Bologna that the level of trust between the EU and Russia were at their lowest level since the end of the Cold War. What is your appreciation of the general state, general mood of the EU-Russia relations?

The point I wanted to make in Bologna was that a strong and sustainable partnership between the EU and Russia is absolutely crucial and that we need constructive engagement on both sides. The fear I expressed in that speech was that for certain historical, even psychological reasons, Europe and Russia sometimes misinterpret each other's actions and policies and this can create an atmosphere of mistrust. I tried to point to that problem only so as to emphasise the crucial importance of avoiding it in future and not to loose sight of the bigger picture. I am convinced that the EU needs a strong partnership with a confident and stable Russia , as much as Russia needs the EU.

What issues is European Union expecting to put first of all on the table of discussion with the President Vladimir Putin in Samara? Which items of the agenda are most important for the EU? What documents are expected to be adopted?

As is usual for a summit, this is a chance for a political stocktaking. We will discuss the state of EU-Russia relations and a range of international issues. In the context of EU-Russia relations, we will also speak about economic issues, including energy, economic cooperation and Russia 's WTO accession.

Can the EU block the Russian membership in the WTO? What are the "key problems" that are preventing Brussels giving final approval for Moscow 's bid to join this organisation?

The EU and all other WTO members will formally approve Russia 's membership of the WTO. The EU is and always has been very strongly in favour of seeing Russia in the WTO as soon as possible - we believe it is good for the Russian economy, good for Russian exporters, but also good for those who trade with Russia. There are a number of issues that we still want to resolve, and we are working on those bilaterally. I don't believe there are any obstacles that are not surmountable with sufficient political will on the Russian side.

There are some examples of bilateral frictions between Russia and EU individual Member States : Soviet monument in Estonia , Polish meat, energy supplies to Lithuania , Russian-speaking minority in Latvia ... Is it possible to have a good EU-Russia relationship and cooperation if there are such problems between Russia and individual Member States ?

I don't see why not. There will always be small frictions between two partners and political neighbours the size of the EU and Russia . What matters is how we manage those frictions. I am convinced that we can solve most of these issues in a constructive dialogue. As to the trade and economic issues, one should not forget that one of the advantages of WTO membership for Russia is the way that it will enable us to resolve the kind of trade disputes that currently become high politicised.

Energy dialogue is an important part of the EU-Russia cooperation since 2000. Do you consider it as a success story or not? What about conditions for buying European assets by Russian energy companies? Is the monopoly of Gazprom an obstacle for Europeans?

Well, even a difficult dialogue is better than no dialogue at all, especially on a subject as sensitive as energy. I've said many times before that closer integration of our two energy sectors would create more stability for both sides. Europe wants security of supply - Russia wants security of demand. Russia would benefit from European upstream investment in its energy sector and would like to invest in downstream markets in Europe . It seems to me that there is an obvious trade off here and one that is economically good for both sides.

It would also lock our energy markets more closely together and this is good for stability - which is the priority in energy supply.

Rules that govern this sort of integration would not stop Russia 's benefiting from oil and gas reserves. It is entirely legitimate that Russia should benefit in that way. It's worth remembering that the European call for security of supply implies security of demand. Russia can be the key beneficiary of this. And that is precisely what we want to achieve in the context of a new agreement which would strengthen our economic and trade relations in the future.

Is your speech in Bologna a kind of appeal to tolerate a special Russian model of state+ economy and society? In what extend the EU can tolerate issues of human rights, rule of law and free market economy in Russia because of energy need (as say in Saudi Arabia or Kuwait )? How deep the differences in perception of values can affect economic and political relations?

It certainly wasn't a message of political relativism. I believe that the EU is right when it says that a stable and open democracy and full respect for human rights are good for Russia . I think a strong prosperous Russia cannot be built on heavily centralised political control over the state and the economy.

I think Europeans have to be aware of the way in which our support for these things can be viewed as an intrusion into Russian affairs by some in Russia, but that doesn't mean for a second I think we are wrong to raise the issues. Even with close partners Europe does not shy away from a frank debate on human rights - and that goes for Saudi Arabia and Kuwait too.

Do you recognise Russia 's interests in the former Soviet Union 's area and its sensitivities?

Sensitivities, yes. Interests, yes. But many of these countries are Europe 's neighbours too. And we have much to gain if we are working together in that area. I recognise that European engagement in these countries might make some in Russia feel Europe is trying to hem Russia in, or expand its influence eastwards at Russia 's expense, but I genuinely believe that that is a misunderstanding of European intentions. Recognising Russian sensitivities in the former Soviet Union is important, but I am strongly opposed to the granting of spheres of influence.

What EU and Russia can do to overcome misunderstanding and even mistrust between each other?

Recognise their interdependence; put aside the suspicion that is the legacy of the last century. The EU needs to be coherent and united, and it needs to assert its interests in a way that reflects Russia 's sensitivities. Russia needs to be less defensive and recognise that great power status can never mean isolation. Integration with the global trading system through the WTO, and closer economic ties with the EU are the foundation for Russia strength as it grows and diversifies.

( Interfax , May 17, 2007 )