Michael Emerson: Putin is Machiavelli and the European Union is Immanuel Kant

Michael Emerson was the first EU Ambassador to the USSR and then Russia from 1991 to 1995. He joined CEPS as an Associate Senior Research Fellow in 1998, and has worked on projects in the European neighborhood, including Ukraine, Moldova, and Georgia. Gadir Mamedov from the University of Tartu spoke with Michael Emerson for our expert group. How did he feel his role in that historical moment? What is the main problem in EU-Russia relations and could it be different? Why does he stand for strengthening the political and economic integration of the wider European space with the European Union? And what are the perspectives of such projects? Read in the first part of our interview

YOU WERE THE FIRST EU AMBASSADOR TO USSR AND RUSSIA. AT THAT TIME THE EUROPEAN UNION WAS BORN AS A NEW PLAYER WITH COMMON FOREIGN POLICY, AND NEW RUSSIA WAS BORN ON THE WRECKAGE OF THE USSR. COULD YOU TELL ME ABOUT YOUR EXPERIENCE? HOW DID YOU FEEL YOUR ROLE IN THAT NEW HISTORY?

It was a very stimulating experience. I went in February of 1991 and witnessed the last year of Gorbachev, the attempted putsch of August through to the Yeltsin period, with the 1993 siege of the White House.

And my impressions were two. One was in terms of what was happening in Russia. It turned out to be a historic and revolutionary turning point. My principle feeling at the time was “what the hell is going on here”. We had no idea what this state would be like in six months from now, and I asked my Russian friends. Nobody had any idea where this huge revolutionary momentum would take the country. Now secondly, on the more professional side, as you said, I was the first EU Ambassador there, but almost immediately our business became extremely substantial. Although the mechanisms of EU foreign policy were very thin and not strongly articulated institutionally, it became clear that the substance of the EU-Russia relationship was becoming very important and wide-ranging compared to most of the other member states in their individual bilateral relations. The major powers of the EU (France, Germany, UK) had, of course, important and specialized interests in strategic matters (arms control for example) and their strategic dialogues with the Kremlin.

«Nobody had any idea where this huge revolutionary momentum would take the country». Source

On our side, the European Commission got started very early on in negotiating a partnership and cooperation agreement alongside a massive technical assistance program. In 1992, the first year of the independent states, we had responsibility for a very interesting food aid program that nobody wants to know about now because it’s rather undignified to receive food aid, but let’s go back to the context. There was a situation in which people were queuing at five o’clock in the morning out in the cold streets of Moscow to try and get some bread. The gastronomes were empty except for a few stale cabbages. So, we delivered many thousands of tons of meat and other foods. I had under my command, as the military would say, 50 European soldiers who had been sent to monitor the correct distribution of that food aid, including a German general in the lead. This was because Helmut Kohl had decided at a cabinet meeting at the end of the previous year to support the idea of an EU food aid grant of 500 million euros, which itself needed support for logistics and security, so he sent 50 soldiers. I had the German in my office, saluting and saying, “my dear Ambassador, I’m at your disposal”.

But the more broad point is that very quickly it became clear, and this is the dramatic point in relation to today’s frozen relationship, that matters of cooperation over trade, investments, education, culture, energy, and transport policies and many other things were to become very substantial. And it was so until 2013 and then 2014 war with Ukraine when things went into the deep freeze. But before that, there was the 2008 war in Georgia, and I watched its beginnings of that on television. It was the 8th of August 2008 when Saakashvili ordered the firing of “Grad” Rockets on Tskhinvali. I was thinking, “what is he doing, is he crazy?” And the answer was yes, it was a really bad mistake. But he had been under sustained provocation by the Russian side. I think it is correct to say that the Russian policymaker at that time was saying that Saakashvili was a very provokable man. So, keep up the pinpricks in South Ossetia, and then he’ll do something stupid, which he did, that led to the invasion with a massive flow of Russian tanks and heavy artillery through the Roki tunnel right down to Gory within an hour or two from Tbilisi. The question was where the Russian invasion was would stop. Will they go on and try and take Tbilisi? No, but it was still a terrible shock to the very idea of cooperative EU-Russian relations.

Western Europe had become a land of Immanuel Kant’s perpetual peace with zero threat perceptions in the community of the European Union. But here we had another European country going to war with tanks. And this was a bitter discovery that Russia wanted to act differently in the former Soviet states. Moscow later admitted that it was not good normative behaviour, but they were only copying what the United States and NATO did in Kosovo and Iraq. That argument may have a certain point, but not such that Europe can pass over that invasion of Georgia and now, even more so, the annexation of Crimea and the hybrid war in Ukraine. That is representing a Russian realpolitik behavior of Machiavelli, which is deeply philosophically incompatible with Kantian contemporary Europe.

«The Russian policymaker at that time was saying that Saakashvili was a very provokable man. So, keep up the pinpricks in South Ossetia, and then he’ll do something stupid, which he did». Source

SO, GIVEN THE PROBLEMS OF THE COMMON NEIGHBORHOOD, THE SIZE OF RUSSIA AND THE PECULIARITIES OF THE EUROPEAN UNION, COULD THE RELATIONS BETWEEN RUSSIA AND THE EU BE DIFFERENT?

Yes, if Putin, Zelenskyy, Macron, and Merkel could do a decent intermediate deal over Donbas, that could restart EU-Russia relations. There has to be trust. Now it is zero trust. There would have to be a real ceasefire and withdrawal of the military. The Russian proteges in Donetsk and Lugansk would have to be persuaded by the Kremlin to stop the fighting, and Ukrainian side similarly. And it would be useful if Ukraine undoes the trade blockade of the Donbas. Now there’s a talk about a ‘Normandy format’ summit that would agree on something in the Minsk framework or a revised Minsk framework. There are complicated details here which are not transparent to anybody except the insiders. But the main point is that if there was a true ceasefire and if people could move across that separation line safely and the bridge was rebuilt, it could become a little bit more like Transnistria. By Transnistria, I mean the separatist region of Moldova which is entirely independent of Chisinau but has peaceful relations with the rest of Moldova, together with trade integration with the rest of Moldova and with the European Union.

30 years after a separatist war, Transnistria is in a peaceful and reasonably cooperative relationship with Chisinau, and the extent of cooperation and integration can continue and deepen. So, the question is whether Donbas could be put on that kind of track, more than see some grand negotiated resolution of the conflict. A Russian military base is still in Transnistria. The idea, according to Minsk provisions, is that Russia would give back control of the Ukrainian eastern frontier to Kyiv, but that has to be a long way ahead. That’s not for tomorrow, but that should not prevent a reasonable interim deal being done creating also a new basis for trust and cooperation between the EU and Russia. If the Donbas boil could be cleansed politically, the way reopens for multifaceted cooperation between the EU and Russia.

«If there was a true ceasefire and if people could move across that separation line safely and the bridge was rebuilt, it could become a little bit more like Transnistria». Source

IF THE RELATIONS COULD COME BACK TO THE STATE BEFORE 2013, HOW WOULD IT BE WITH THE NEWLY EMERGED EURASIAN ECONOMIC UNION? 

Putin loves to mention “Lisbon to Vladivostok” in his speeches, and some are using the term “integration of integrations’ meaning a deal between the EU and the Eurasian Economic Union. Well, I have been to the Eurasian Economic Union in recent years quite a lot and have explored the hypothesis (in a purely personal and independent capacity). There are two customs unions. Should they do a free trade area between each other? That’s the only thing for which the Eurasian Economic Union has an effective competence. Everything else is rather loose and fuzzy. But at that point, you encounter the roadblock of Russian industrial protectionism. Russia’s industry is heavily protected, and one can understand why! Russia with its petrol resources leads to an exchange rate that makes big difficulties for the competitivity of its industrial sector; therefore, Russia is deeply protectionist. That rules out free trade. So, what is President Putin talking about when he likes “Lisbon to Vladivostok”, but doesn’t want even free trade with the EU which would be the starting point: political discourse leads nowhere. On the EU side, if Russia and the Eurasian Union was ready for a free trade area, the EU would agree.

YOU STAND FOR STRENGTHENING THE POLITICAL AND ECONOMIC INTEGRATION OF THE WIDER EUROPEAN SPACE WITH THE EUROPEAN UNION. COULD YOU TELL PLEASE ABOUT THE SCENARIOS THAT YOU OFFER AND WHY DO YOU THINK THIS IS THE RIGHT STRATEGY? 

Well, efficient economic integration between a group of neighbors brings obvious economic advantages. I suggest thinking of a Wider Europe that includes all non-member states which are seriously interested in integration with the European Union economically or politically. It includes the European Economic Area (EEA) and EFTA, with Norway and Switzerland, the Balkan States. It also includes the three East European states with the Association Agreements and Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Areas (DCFTA) with the EU, i.e. Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine. To which the Brexit UK may be added soon. Then there is Turkey which remains in a customs union with the EU but has political differences. All this together with the EU makes a huge integrated economic area in terms of rules of free trade, product standards and regulatory harmonization for energy policy, transport, environment, as well as research collaboration and educational programs. This is an area that is de facto taking shape quite rapidly with a substantial set of EU policies that are externalized into the non-member states of this wider European area. It can hardly include Belarus or Azerbaijan since they are not even WTO members, but Armenia is a very interesting hybrid case.

Would Russia one day come into this extended set of economic policy linkages? Well, this is an open question for the next 30 years. We’re all celebrating 30 years since the end of communism and the Berlin Wall. This is a serious time scale, decades rather than years. Over the decades, big possibilities are there for EU-Russia collaboration. But for the time being, as I said already, politics is extremely difficult between Russia and the EU on philosophical grounds. Putin is Machiavelli and the European Union is Immanuel Kant. Will the two converge one day, and who might converge on whom? No answers are available at present. Here we are in Narva, we might as well consult the ghosts in the Germanic Herman fortress of Narva and then their counterparts in the Tsarist fortress of Ivangorod across the river.

«Over the decades, big possibilities are there for EU-Russia collaboration. But for the time being politics is extremely difficult between Russia and the EU on philosophical grounds. ». Source

SO, YOU ARE SAYING THAT SOMEONE SHOULD REJECT ITS IDEAS AND PHILOSOPHY FOR NEGOTIATIONS TO BECOME POSSIBLE?

That is the question as to whether the two parties can converge. There can be technical discussions, but above that are these deep philosophical political questions. I know Russia a bit because of living there, and I married a Russian woman. We’ve been married happily for 20 years, and I have a Russian mother-in-law as well. And the mother-in-law thinks Putin is the greatest political leader of the world has ever seen, while my wife is a member of the so-called ‘liberal intelligentsia’. I cannot have a meaningful conversation with my mother-in-law. We have to talk about the weather. My point is that if we take a younger generation of Russians, interpersonal communications between Europeans and Russians are very good and very interesting, and mutually enriching in my experience. There’s so much talent in Russians, so many interesting people who have ideas, and concepts to talk about. That’s a great foundation for the future, but for that to go ahead there has to be cleansing at the political level.

LET’S BRIEFLY DISCUSS THE DCFTA (DEEP AND COMPREHENSIVE FREE TRADE AREA). YOU ARE WORKING ON THIS PROJECT. THE DCFTA IS AN ECONOMIC AGREEMENT ESTABLISHED BETWEEN THE EU AND THE THREE COUNTRIES. COULD YOU TELL ABOUT THE DCFTA PROJECT AND THE PROBLEMS IT FACES NOWADAYS?

The DCFTA has been signed in 2014, as the economic part of Association Agreements between the EU and Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine. These very substantial treaties have been underway now for five years and have two parts: one concerns political values and the other is a set of mechanisms of economic policy regulation.

So, first, the parties subscribe to the usual predictable European values about democracy, human rights and the rule of law. Here there is no legally operational codification because it’s a conceptual matter. By contrast, the economic provisions of the DCFTA include a huge number of about 30 annexes, which concern chapters of the EU regulatory policy for its single market. These concern for example for trade policy, safety standards for products, energy policy, intellectual property rights, environmental policy, corporate governance, etc., for all of which the EU has a law. The DCFTA states are, broadly speaking, undertaking to ‘approximate’ these laws ourselves. The word ‘approximate’ here means basically that they will copy it into their legislation with some details that differ and with some transitional periods. So, they are europeanising a large part of their domestic economic regulatory policies as well as entering into free trade with the EU.

Broadly speaking, this is happening, with some delays here and there. Alongside that, there is now a large spectrum of professional people, academics and students who are understanding what the European politics and business consist of. And they are saying that they want more, and to get on track to become full member states. However here the European Union says, ‘not that fast’. EU is not ready to encourage its further enlargement, being concerned with the risks of the problem of overexpansion. The jump up to 28 member-states with central Europe was a huge development. Not all of these countries have proved to be reliable democracies. All of the East European and Balkan states are more or less democratic, but their regimes are not particularly stable yet. So that is the reason for caution. But still, the EU is saying to them to carry on with the actual functional integration, which relates to the wider European economic area, as I defined it a few moments ago.

«EU is not ready to encourage its further enlargement, being concerned with the risks of the problem of overexpansion». Source

ARE THERE SOME PERSPECTIVES OF INCLUDING MORE COUNTRIES INTO THIS DCFTA PROJECT?

Not really. Well, Armenia is half in, but it will not be more than half in. For Armenia to be fully in it would have to quit the Eurasian Economic Union. Russia wouldn’t like it. Remember September 2013, just before Armenia was due to sign DCFTA together with the others, Putin invited the then-president Kocharyan to Moscow. The small Armenian problem represented a fundamental political issue. The choices to sign the DCFTAs were all free voluntary sovereign decisions. The EU was not pushing them. But in the case of Armenia Putin evidently exerted geopolitical pressure to dump the DCFTA and join the Eurasian Economic Union. So that means the Eurasian Economic Union was used as an instrument of coercive policy by Russia, in the Armenian case. That is a very serious problem, both political and philosophical.