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There are competing visions of the future international and trans-national relations in which the NWFD should partake. The concept of «Euro-Russia»395 which was launched not long ago still waits for more clarity and precision.

To trace the different international discourses that are projected onto the NWFD, I would like first to introduce the concepts of »hard» and »soft» regionalism. »Hard regionalism» refers to top-down, state-centric, security-oriented, and a rather centralized and hierarchical pattern of region-building. The core of hard regionalism is control over sovereignty, territory and borders.

The concept of »soft regionalism» applies to more decentralized, network-oriented models of region-building, which leave open space for grass-roots initiatives beyond the »administrative market». Hence, creativity, inspiration and the force of imagination become the guiding principles of »soft» versions of regionalism.

The visions of the region as a concept and as a network are by and large overlooked in Russia. These omissions are a great pity because the NWFD faces multiple alternatives in terms of future regional arrangements. For example, the district could opt for identifying itself with the Baltic, Nordic, or perhaps Central European «open geographies». Northern Europe, the Baltic Sea area and the United States are the core pillars of a vast territorial space in which the NWFD has to locate and define itself396.

4.1. Models of «Hard Regionalism»

EU Model

There is some irony in the fact that Russia has treated the EU's eastward expansion much more favourably than NATO enlargement in the same direction. This has perhaps been the result of misreading the basic messages that the EU has repeatedly sent to Russia. These show that the EU gives clear priority to security and border crossing as a result of persistent concerns about the need to fight illegal migration into the Western European countries.

It comes as little surprise, therefore, that in May 2002 Russia found herself in a state of political confrontation with the EU over the Kaliningrad issue, which is a classical instance of a modern, territorially defined conflict. This is a sovereignty issue that clearly divides Russia and the EU and has led to a major crisis in EU-Russia relations. Formally, it was provoked by the EU's refusal to accept Moscow's proposals contained in a memorandum presented by Prime Minister Mikhail Kasianov, and by Russia's harsh reaction to the resolution of the European parliament on Kaliningrad397. Yet the crisis has much deeper conceptual underpinnings. For example, Russia insists on the right of her citizens to freely travel from the country’s Baltic exclave to the mainland, while EU accession countries make the case for the need to apply the Schengen rules and visa regulations. Both parties therefore adhere to «hard» (top-down, state-centric) approaches to the Kaliningrad puzzle. Consequently the territory has also been made the object of trade and high-politics bargaining where the stakes are Russia’s WTO accession, the recognition of Russia’s status as a free market country, and other wide-scale issues that have no direct relevance to the troubled territory. «European dead end», «bureaucratic madness»398, new «iron curtain», «Germany’s tacit policy of pushing Russia out of Eastern Prussia»399, «discrimination»400 and «humiliation»401, «the smell of Chechnia»402 in the Baltics – these are the most typical discoursive reactions in Russia to the conflict with the EU over Kaliningrad.

Trans-Atlantic Model

There is a US North European Initiative (NEI) that directly applies to Russia’s North West territory403. The NEI idea has had some theoretical underpinning. This was presented by the RAND scholars, Ronald Asmus and Robert Nurick, who have laid out its conceptual foundations. In a sense, the NEI might be interpreted as a constructivist project since there were at least three competing visions of its content – geopolitical, liberal internationalist, and post-modernist.

In the view of the liberal internationalists the «new NATO» is no longer a purely military machine, but rather an instrument for making the applicant countries (e.g., the three Baltic republics) more compliant with international norms concerning the treatment of minorities, citizenship legislation, and border conflict management. In this sense, the aspiration to obtain NATO membership had rather positive effects on the state of the Baltic countries’ relationship with Russia and her border regions.

Other authors tend to emphasize the post-modernist underpinnings of the US vision of regionalism in the North and Baltic areas. In Christopher Browning's assessment, the United States have «renounced traditional power politics for an understanding of the power of the production of ideas and agenda setting»404. In a similar way, it is claimed that the US policy in Northern Europe has shifted «away from state-centric models of security-building»405.

Yet there are geopolitical interpretations that put in question the optimism of these statements. In a revealing confession of Ronald Asmus, the US prefers to apply a «top-down approach» to its North European Initiative, which is not about regionalization at all. Rather, the United States «want to bring this part of Europe into the European mainstream, not make it some special area. It is not an attempt to create new institutions, and … it is not an attempt to sugar coat the bitter pill of NATO enlargement for the Russians»406. In the light of this sincerity it remains highly doubtful whether indeed «the NEI aims at creating an economically and socially unified region with strong cross-border ties», or that the «NEI casts doubt on the key principle» of the indivisibility of the European security architecture407.

The reality is that for the United States, the perception of Europe’s North continues to be dominated by recent memories and experiences of the Cold War408. Perceiving the Baltic area basically through a global security lens409, the United States does not seem to be an organic actor in this part of Europe. NATO expansion remains the backbone of the US stance with regard to the whole complex of issues related to the Baltic and Nordic regions. The importance of this part of Europe, in American eyes, stems from the presumption that US-Russian confrontation is still feasible here. In a telling manner, the 2000 report by the Institute for Foreign Policy Analysis confines the whole plethora of trans-boundary exchanges to crime and environmental hazards, and thus treats them as challenges (neglecting by default the issue of opportunities). Moreover, Russia is portrayed, not as a partner, but rather as the major source of danger for the whole region410.

As Richard Krickus admits, the US's hard-security-oriented position could place at risk many European regional initiatives and «diminish prospects that Russia would cooperate in accomplishing regional priorities»411. In this sense, the US and Nordic/Baltic positions might diverge and become a source of friction412.

In the light of criticism from its European allies, the United States have started raising the profile of economic issues in their Baltic / North European strategy. American officials have reiterated that this part of Europe «must do more to open its doors to foreign imports and share» the burden of the global economic crisis with the US. In this context, Americans put much stress on the need to remove existing trade barriers and on Russia’s WTO membership413, which resonates with Russian interests in this part of Europe.

The Barents Model

The Barents region project is a matter of different interpretation. What has prevailed in Barents discourse so far has been «hard» versions of regionalism. For example, it is widely acknowledged that the Barents project was born in the Norwegian Foreign Ministry and is a «top-down initiative», with security considerations at the very top of its operational agenda414. In fact, the security concerns are predetermined by geopolitical location. Thus, by the beginning of 1990s this was the only region in Europe where Russia and NATO had a common border. What is also important here is cargo flows, transit routes, ports, sabotage, commodities, fuel delivery and other technicalities415, which are closer to the traditional bilateral agenda of Russian – Norwegian relations than to regionalization.

Focusing too much attention on perspectives of the «exploitation of gas and petroleum»416 has resulted in Russia expressing its disappointment with the whole Barents idea. «There is much Russian frustration at the absence of foreign investments, at futile promises from Nordic politicians and businessmen, at the disregard of existing Russian competence reflected in the endless attempts to ‘transfer knowledge’, and at humiliation of being forced to receive humanitarian aid»417.

Yet there is the other side of the coin as well. What is encouraging is that in the BEAC (Barents Euro-Arctic Council) the regions (along with the states) are the dominant operational actors418. Moreover, the Barents region is a site of non-military security problems, most of which concern civic security inside Russia419. The Pomor trade model actively propagated in the Barents discourse is also a sign of departure from «hard regionalism» thinking420.

This is not to say, however, that the Barents cooperation might fit a «soft regionalism» model. In Geir Honneland’s view, the historical trans-national identity outlined in the ‘Barents rhetoric’ has never existed»421. In his reading, the Barents region is a myth, a castle in the air, whilst the Barents concept is promoted by a «very limited group of entrepreneurial people with particular interests in developing contacts at the other side of the border»422.

To sum up, it is hard to say in which way NWFD-EU relations, as well as the NWFD's participation in trans-Atlantic structures, might develop in the future. The activism of the NWFD will be, at any rate, inhibited by the fact that, in both cases, these are global issues that are at stake. In Russia-EU and Russia-NATO relations, the NWFD is doomed to play (at least for the time being) a passive role of being a by-stander, an object of «high politics» deals made elsewhere. The chances for the NWFD to participate, in one way or another, in the Barents cooperation are slightly higher. However, much will depend on whether Russia (the NWFD and the North West regions) is able to discern what its interests are and to offer its own (perhaps alternative) visions of regional cooperation.

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  • 4.1. Models of «Hard Regionalism»
  • Trans-Atlantic Model