From the Atlantic to the Urals?

Article excerpt

A year ago The World Today began an occasional series of personal views on the shape of the Europe being built for the next generation. Here two Russian writers share their thoughts

NOT LONG AGO A FRIEND OF MINE met two quite senior officials from Gazprom, Russia's biggest natural gas monopoly and the country's most important exporter. In the course of conversation he asked them: `Is your business going to be influenced when the Euro is introduced ?' The answer was almost unbelievable. `What are you talking about?' replied one of my friend's interlocutors. `What is the Euro ?' It took some time to workout that the two were not joking. With some effort one of the executives remembered reading something about the European single currency, but admitted he `never knew it [was] going to be called Euro' .

This conversation is an all too typical illustration of what could be called `Euroignorance' in Russia. It is characteristic not only of ordinary people - which is understandable in the tense socio-political climate - but of representatives of the elite, who are supposed to be aware of major processes taking place in the world at large.

Debates raging in the political and media arena in the European Union - the advent of the Euro, the Social Chapter, a common defence and security policy - merit only fleeting mention by journalists, experts and businessmen here.

One may say: `What about the treaty signed between the EU and my country in 1994? Russia's struggle to be officially recognised by Brussels as a nation with a market economy? Negotiations to ease the export of Russian aluminium to Europe?' So far the treaty remains a declaration of vague intentions rather than a foundation for massive cooperation. Bilateral disputes are usually revived on special occasions - such as the recent visit to Brussels of Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin - to demonstrate how vigorously the present leadership defends Russia's national interests. Then the arguments are put back to rest until the next highflying visitor arrives on the doorstep of the European Commission.

Rich boy's toy

The European Union is considered to be very much a rich boy's toy. In fact it sometimes seems that decision-makers in Moscow still think about the EU in 1970s terms. For them it is still the European Economic Community, a dull entity designed to solve problems which are barely of any importance to Russia. It is impossible otherwise to explain why nobody in the Kremlin cares to appoint a new ambassador to the EU for a third consecutive year. All this time the mission has been headed by a charge d'affaires.

It may sound strange, but Russia's foreign policy gurus and its business leaders have no answer to one essential question: `What and where is Europe?'

It is already an accepted cliche in the West that following the collapse of communism and the break-up of the USSR old divisions of the continent are no longer valid. The view from Paris, Bonn, London or Prague is that Europe is finally approaching General de Gaulle's vision - stretching from the Atlantic to the Ural mountains.

This is not the case in Russia. Here we still witness complete bewilderment in the political establishment at the abrupt departure of former Warsaw Pact allies and their quick rapprochement with western Europe. …