EU’s march east infuriates Moscow

Lithuanian milk products, which are subject to the official standards in effect in the EU, are apparently no longer welcome in Russia. Moscow decided on Monday to forbid the importation of these dairy products, thereby depriving the little Baltic country, which joined the EU nearly ten years ago, of a large portion of its export revenues.

According to the Russian consumer protection agency, violations that “are evidence of falling Lithuanian standards” were discovered. The European Commission, which expressed “full confidence in these products”, is awaiting an explanation from Russia. Europe, however, is not fooled. In September it had already accused the Russians of suddenly imposing discriminatory customs inspections on Lithuanian truckers. In the eyes of Lithuania, these inspections are “politically motivated.”

The country had, in fact, reacted strongly to this excessive zeal. The minister of foreign affairs remarked that “theoretically” Lithuania could “halt transportation, rail traffic and cars” headed for the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad between Lithuania and Poland.

“Competitive logic”

Moscow was quick to fire back. Lithuania has been in Russia’s sights ever since it placed the “EU Eastern Partnership Initiative” at the top of its list of priorities. The Baltic country, the first of the former Soviet republics to break away from the USSR, holds the rotating presidency of the Council of the EU. A summit planned in Vilnius at the end of November could result in a definitive rapprochement between Ukraine and Europe and begin the same process with Georgia and Moldova. The prospect of “stabilization” and growth in neighboring markets infuriates Moscow. “Russia sees this partnership as a way for Lithuania to separate itself, and it fears any democratic change in the region,” states Amanda Paul, analyst with the European Policy Center.

The countdown has begun, starting with Ukraine – the big piece of the puzzle with 46 million inhabitants. In Vilnius the EU is to offer the Ukrainians an association and free trade agreement. These are the first necessary steps before a possible European Union membership. Ukraine is also undergoing a “trade war” on its border with Russia. Dalia Grybauskaite, the Lithuanian president, has made strong accusations of “pressure”.

“The EU has never offered Ukraine, or any other country targeted by the Eastern Partnership, any kind of full membership, nor did it offer any prospective membership,” criticized Vladimir Chizhov, Russian ambassador to the EU, during an interview published yesterday on the EurActiv news site. Conversely, stresses the diplomat, Moscow has offered these countries the immediate benefit of becoming a full part of a rival project developed by the Kremlin, a Eurasian customs union. Among the countries officially targeted by the EU Partnership, Armenia has already given in to Moscow’s siren song. “We have truly entered a spirit of competition,” remarks Tom Casier of Kent University.

Ukraine, however, after some back and forth due to its large Russian-speaking minority, seems to have chosen to link its fate to Europe. “Thanks to Putin” and his pressure techniques, cheers the Polish MEP Jacek Saryusz-Wolski, who is a big fan of rapprochement. But nothing will happen unless Kiev bows to the absolute condition imposed by the EU: freeing Yulia Tymoshenko, the former prime minister and leader of the opposition, who the Europeans deem to be the victim of “selective justice”. The European pressure is at its height, but it’s not a done deal. Last week the Ukrainian foreign minister again stated that relations with the EU cannot depend on a “single criminal case”.

PHILIPPE REGNIER

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