Can Russia be considered a part of Europe?

World map highlighting Russia in orange and the European Union in green. Credit: Wikimedia

World map highlighting Russia in orange and the European Union in green. Credit: Wikimedia

Russia, being Europe’s largest neighbor, is one of its most significant yet intricate political and economic partners.

The complexity of the relations between the two world powers can be explained quite logically, as in the times of the Soviet Union, there were tremendous political, economic and cultural differences with Europe, and Russia, as a new country, inevitably inherited its predecessor’s relations.

In 1991, Russia became a democratic federation, which paved the way for a new positive chapter in bilateral relations. Already in 1994, the Partnership and Cooperation Agreement (PCA) was signed by both Russia and the newly formed European Union, which laid the foundation for a comprehensive development of a Russia-EU dialogue on various levels.

In order to strengthen the partnership, Russia joined the Council of Europe in 1996, which meant that Russia was ready to make its legislation and political systems in line with European standards.

European Union (left) and Russian (right) flags. Credit: Centre for European Reform

European Union (left) and Russian (right) flags. Credit: Centre for European Reform

But the Ukrainian conflict of 2014 has complicated the relations between Russia and the EU, thereby affecting many steps achieved over the past few years. Economic and political sanctions have been imposed on Russia, and diplomatic relations at many levels remain until this day at a halt.

But how is that translated in reality? Do the escalating tensions change Europe’s intention to partner with Russia? Or better, is Russia at all a European country or does it have its own identity?

It is no secret that western Europeans often think of Russia as a country far away that has nothing in common with Europe. The explanation for that is that the biggest part of the Russian landmass lies in the Asian continent.

If we look at the world map, they are de-facto right. About 78 percent of Russia’s landmass is located in Asia. But if we look at the demographics, about 110 million out of 140 Russians live in the European part of Russia. The most crowded cities, including Moscow and Saint Petersburg, are located in Europe, too.

This is an opinion that is difficult to change, especially with the current political courses and propaganda on both sides. In fact, according to Levada Center’s polls, only 32 percent of Russians consider their country to be a part of Europe. The number of Russians who identified with Europe shifted from 56 percent in 2008.

Also, only 28 percent of Russians today perceive Europe positively. Compared to 72 percent in 2003, it is evident that Russians are increasingly rejecting the idea of identifying with Europe, but they are also not considering Europe as a friend in the region anymore.

Of course, such a public mood has not appeared from nothing. Following the European sanctions on Russia, the main Russian political forces have started to repeatedly talk about a new Russia, which has a unique and radically different identity from that of the western model.

Unfortunately, this type of argument today is used by some Russian leaders to cover widespread corruption, suppression of freedom of speech and other human rights, aggression toward other countries, and so on.

Russia-EU relations are also a daily ongoing process composed of myriads of interactions at every level: from tourists to business executives. Although this is not a deliberate choice for anyone, “openness” from both sides is key to improving the relations.

In order to smooth over all the misunderstandings of the past, we must foster an open, pluralistic discussion with our European colleagues, and expect the same from their side, though the way for a rapprochement between Russia and the EU would not be easy. However, the process of globalization is changing the world and countries are becoming more integrated with each other.

I am inclined to believe that Russia, with all its uniqueness, is an integral part of the European civilization. But at the same time, I must acknowledge that in its economic development, Russia lags behind many European countries.

Consequently, it is vitally important for Russia to have a solid and advantageous cooperation above all with the European continent. We share common historical, spiritual and cultural roots, not to mention political and economic interests.

Cover credit: Textile 43