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23:50 GMT +3 hours20 December 2014
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Analysis & Opinion

DOES RUSSIA NEED TO JOIN EU?

Analysis & Opinion
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MOSCOW. (RIA Novosti political commentator Vladimir Simonov) - On May 10, the Kremlin and the EU signed agreements on the four common spaces, praising them as a major achievement.

Truly, it is the largest, so far, step toward each other.

However, the sides agreed to enforce the block of documents only after 2007, but time and tide wait for no man. The European Union is preparing for a new wave of enlargement and the difficult process of adopting the European Constitution, which could be undermined at any moment. Meanwhile, Russia will most probably join the World Trade Organization, which will be very good because its partnership agreement with the EU is expiring.

This explains the interest of analysts not so much in the current as in the strategic direction of the "common spaces" project. Will it eventually lead Russia into the EU? Or are those who say one need not be an EU member to be a full-fledged part of Europe right?

The Russian political elite and ordinary people are split over the issue. That Brussels is not inviting Moscow and Moscow is not hammering on Brussels' door provoked mixed feelings here. Pro-Western Russians who respect Western values see this as a Shakespearean tragedy. Slavophiles who think Russia has a special national mission derive entertainment from this situation every day.

The former suffer because the Brussels bureaucrats who decide the issue of EU membership view Russia as an insufficiently modern state that has not reached the standards for democracy and civilization set in Brussels. The latter are happy that all conditions, limitations and other obstacles stipulated in the charter documents of the EU do not concern Russia so far and hence it will not lose its national identity.

May 10, when the sides adopted the documents on the "common spaces," became truly a black day for Slavophiles. They heard respected state officials say for the first time that they did not rule out joining the EU.

Konstantin Kosachev, the chairman of the State Duma's International Affairs Committee, said EU membership was "desirable for Russia from the standpoint of national interests." The deputy thinks that the four roadmaps signed in Moscow could lead Russia onto a long but correct road toward a level of cooperation with the EU "that would be comparable to EU membership."

Kosachev wonders if Brussels shares this desire for rapprochement. The phrasing of the "common spaces" sounds encouraging, but he thinks there are several "litmus tests" for the sincerity of these noble intentions.

He means practical solutions in at least three spheres, which will be difficult for the EU but vital for Russia. They are visa-free travel with EU countries; favorable conditions for Kaliningrad transit, especially after Lithuania adopts the EU transport norms in 2007; and the crucial task of restoring the civil rights of the Russian-speaking national minorities in the Baltic countries of the EU.

The Moscow summit passed these tests. But Brussels wants to link the liberalization of visa regulations with the readmission of illegal immigrants to Russia. Moscow might agree to do this, in principle, but demands in return that visa restrictions be lifted. Nevertheless, the sides are happy over the agreement they reached in Moscow.

As for the persecution of Russian speakers in the Baltic countries, a senior EU official, Javier Solana, promised on a Moscow radio station that the EU would consistently press the administrations of Latvia and Estonia to grant citizenship to their Russian speakers. Solana said the EU would do its best to ensure that this problem was solved.

But many Slavophiles in Russia do not believe his promises. They see the European Union as a new and expanding imperialist power that is emasculating the national identity of its members, if not enslaving them. Slavophiles would like Russia to accept the European values of an open society and the supremacy of the law, becoming a part of the EU without formal membership.

"I love Brussels sprouts but not enough to eat them," say the growing numbers of this position's advocates.