The EU Encounters A Bear

In less than two months, the enlargement of the European Union will finally erase the political and economic borders of the cold war. But as the EU and also NATO expand their membership eastward this year, they are encountering a chilling wind blowing toward them from Moscow.

It's not cold war redux. But the relationship between Western Europe and Russia is not playing out as anticipated. A year ago, the EU Commission in Brussels gushed over the potential of a "wider Europe" of 10 new members - including eight former Communist states - to positively influence political and economic values in Russia. The expanded club, the commission believed, would be surrounded by a "ring of friends."

Instead, toughness and tension now characterize the relationship with Moscow, threatening simply to relocate the continent's old dividing line.

In recent months, Russian leaders have exhibited behavior more reminiscent of the gruff bear of decades past. For instance, Moscow has threatened to abandon two bedrock agreements, one governing its troops and conventional weapons in Europe, and the other its relations with the EU.

Abrogating the security treaty - if it comes to that - is less ominous than it sounds, but a break with the EU would have wide-ranging political and economic implications. Europe depends on Russia for oil and gas. Russia enjoys special trade and travel arrangements with most of the EU newcomers, and it will lose these benefits when they join May 1.

In order to preserve some of those privileges, Moscow wants to renegotiate its agreement with the EU, which includes trade. But so far, Brussels is saying no to Moscow's demands: The newcomers are to enjoy the same standards as the EU's 15 old-timers.

At the same time, the backsliding of Russian democracy under President Vladimir Putin is doing little to encourage accommodation from Brussels.

Certainly the consistent improvement of Russia's economy is welcome both inside and outside the motherland. But Mr. Putin's control of the media and political opponents, and the stubborn presence of Russian troops in such non-EU joiners as Georgia, has created concern among Western leaders.

This new landscape calls for realism to replace the starry-eyed optimism of recent years.

At the same time, neither side should lose sight of the fact that it is better for Russia to be inside the tent and engaged with the West, than outside and isolated.

That is why, when EU and Russian ministers meet to debate these issues further next week, the EU should try to find ways to deal with Russia's legitimate complaints. It should also consider giving Russia an EU presence that mirrors Russia's seat in NATO, where it has a voice but no veto.

This is not the time to give up on Russia, even if the days of great expectations for democracy there appear to be over for now.

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