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4.2. Models of «Soft Regionalism»

The Baltic Model

The Baltic Sea is the home of the revived visionary concept of the «New Hansa», which was articulated in 1987 by «Denfabrik», a think tank established by the German government for producing fresh ideas for the Baltic Sea region. The idea of the «New Hansa» leaves much room for sub-national units to participate in designing what could be called a «region-in-the-making». One of the most interesting examples of the sub-national contribution to Baltic regionalism is, for example, the trans-national commitments of Schleswig-Holstein423.

If the «New Hansa» concept is based on ancient narratives, other European visions of the Baltic Sea vector of integration are of a more practical nature. These are well represented in VASAB (Visions & Strategies Around the Baltic 2010) papers. VASAB visions are very technical and functional, with minimal political interference and have global (or even pan-European) ambitions424. Adhering to the school of spatial planning, VASAB experts perceive the Baltic region-building through the prism of such metaphors as «pearls» (major international cities) that have to be connected to each other through «strings» (communication corridors). These communications are knowledge-based and designed to enhance the competitiveness of major centers of urban networks in the area (like Petrozavodsk – Joensuu – Oulu, Gdansk – Kaliningrad – Klaipeda – Karlskrona, or Stockholm – Riga – Tallinn – St. Petersburg – Helsinki). From the Russian side, these projects are heavily inhibited however by the weak development of the supporting facilities (hotels, attraction industries, housing and other services)425.

Another vision of Baltic regionalism can be found in the concept of Growth Triangles as presented by Urpo Kivikari from the Russian-European Centre for Economic Policy, one of the few trans-national think tanks with a specific focus on the NWFD. The whole idea is to project the experience of Asian economic regionalization onto the Baltic Sea region, especially in the areas of the Gulf of Finland (Southern Finland, Estonia and St. Petersburg). Another option would be ‘geometrically’ connecting Kaliningrad, Lithuania and neighboring areas of Poland. In each of these two cases under consideration, the Growth Triangle concept is aimed at capitalizing on the parties economic complementarities, on their geographic proximity, and on launching common infrastructure projects426.

Integration scenarios might also involve joint transportation roots and facilities. The variants discussed among experts are:

  • «Northern ray» (St. Petersburg – Helsinki – Stockholm);

  • «Southern ray» (St. Petersburg – Ukraine - Moldova – Romania – Bulgaria – Greece);

  • «South-Eastern ray» (St. Petersburg – Novorossiisk – Astrakhan);

  • «Asian ray» (St. Petersburg – Central Asia – China);

  • «Far Eastern ray» (Trans-Siberian rail road)427;

  • the modern version of the «Way from Varagians to Greeks and Hazars», basically with tourist purposes;

  • «King’s road» from Norway to St. Petersburg through Sweden428;

  • «Murmansk corridor» from Kirkenes to the Kola isthmus429;

  • «Arkhangelsk corridor» intended to connect German industrial centers, ports of the Gulf of Bothnia and Russia’s North East;

  • «Blue Road», a highway and a tourist route crossing Norway, Sweden, Finland and Karelia430;

  • South Baltic Arc (Lubek – Rostock – Szczecin – Gdansk – Kaliningrad – Klaipeda – Liepaja).

The Nordic Model

Conceptualization for the «Nordic project» has been provided by a number of academic institutions, primarily with a peace research background, such as COPRI and TAPRI431 (Copenhagen- and Tampere-based, respectively). Of course, there are some «hard» interpretations of Nordic regionalism as well. For example, it can be represented as a security project, or as a tool for tightening control over Russia’s natural resources.

However, most typical are «soft» readings of Nordic regionalism. In particular, Norden is usually seen as a forum for crossing «mental bridges». Nordic political values are characterized by «transparency, egalitarianism, and consensual democracy which together form a distinct protestant identity»432.

What is important is that Nordic (as well as Baltic) regionalism first started as a concept, and is context-dependent433. Thus, it is often said that a region should have common historical experiences, similar problems, strong social bonds, etc. But what is to count as common, similar and strong, as opposed to distinctive, peculiar and weak? Such meanings depend on dominating perceptions. In this sense, all major markers of Nordicity are normative and consensus-based («non-European, non-Catholic, non-Rome, non-imperialist, non-colonial, non-exploitative, peaceful, small, and social-democratic»). In other words, region building begins in the field of ideas, and is designed to convince participants of an available common background, or by making common values reappear and come into force.

Therefore, «soft» regionalism not only incarnates a specific geographic location, but to a great extent also a set of (supposedly) shared norms and meanings which give rise to a «sense of belonging». Hence, the region is born out of a dialogue of ideas and public policy debates, as illustrated for example by the creation of the Northern European Knowledge Network of Excellence comprising 16 Universities from all the Nordic countries. What this means is that region building is not strictly bound to pre-fixed geographical borders. In this sense, there is always something «new» in its content, since it is socially and intellectually constructed.

The Arctic Model

The Arctic discourse in the last decade has significantly shifted from a hard security accent at the beginning of the 1990s (with its concerns over great power rivalry, military vulnerabilities, border delimitation, etc.434) to what could be portrayed as an «international political region», with such markers as coordination and integration particularly important, as seen from the perspectives of the periphery435. The cognitive dimension of the Arctic-building process has been manifest in the establishment of a number of organisations such as, the International Arctic Social Science Association, Unuit Circumpolar Conference, International Council for Scientific Cooperation in the Arctic, the Northern Forum.

There are also the institutional foundations for circumpolar integration, especially the Arctic Council, which is a high-level intergovernmental forum, with Canada, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway Russia and Sweden as members, and with the Arctic indigenous peoples participating in its work on a permanent basis436. Russia has been pleased that the Arctic Council is not supposed to deal with matters related to military security, and that the use of the term «peoples» is not to be construed as having any implications as regards the rights attached to the terms under international law437.

Some authors speak about an «Arctic boom», or a «race» between the states of the region to draft the best strategy and concept for cooperation in the circumpolar north438. In Sergey Medvedev’s portrayal, «lacking in rationality, the North is rich in mythos and implied meanings», and constitutes «the white space in our mental maps». This interpretation treats Nordicity as «the emptiness we are filling with our imagination»439.

So far Russia seems to have kept aloof from these debates. Partly this might be explained by the fact that in Russia the North has a dual image. On the negative side, it is associated with remoteness and cultural backwardness:

  • the North can be seen as synonymous with vast loosely organized spaces, which have to be somehow preserved or conserved;

  • the North is connoted with social conservatism and traditionalism440;

  • the North is a depopulated area441;

  • the Northern provinces are perceived as prone to «row material separatism» and even isolationism, and in this capacity they might contribute to the disintegration of the federation442;

  • the peoples of the North are on their way to emphasizing their self-identities, which is a challenge for the federal authorities443.

On the positive side, the Arctic North is considered to be «Russia’s future», the country’s strategic reserve. Some of the NWFD territories – like Murmansk oblast for instance – have been labelled as the «New Ruhr» or the «Northern Near East» as a result of their immense natural resources444. However, the federal government has expressed its intention to lower state support of the Northern regions. This will include gradually doing away with tax privileges, compensation and special guarantees for employees, as well as closing down ineffective industries445. In fact, the policy of the central state towards supporting the country’s northern periphery is the pivotal point in Russia’s Arctic discourse446.

What unites all three discussed forms of «soft» regionalism are the networks that are at their heart. Networks do not necessarily have to coincide with state borders, and might have different (and even competing) spatial shapes.

Networking in «soft» regionalism blurs the distinction between «insiders» and «outsiders». This is well described by the concept of «open geography»447 (as opposed to the idea of «inescapable geography»448). 'Open geography' posits that «geographical cardinal points are relative»449, and that there are no strict dividing lines between regions. Here regions are understood as mobile social and cultural constructs that might «encounter», «clash», «inject their own stories», etc450. Importantly, the idea that regional identity is determined in geographical categories actually always involves a choice (i.e., «what we wish to belong to?»), because the social world is defined not only by physical constraints but also intellectually and spiritually. As such, there can be no single mode of spatial representation or articulation of spaces. Hence, all spatial arrangements can be opposed by alternatives451. Geography cannot lock up regions in a ‘steel cage’, and geographical affiliations are subject to re-writing and re-interpretion452. Thus, it is notable that the Baltic Sea area is often treated as representing the North, whilst the mechanisms of the Northern Dimension, it is thought, might be adjusted for the Baltic region453. In Pertti Joenniemi’s reading, the Nordic region is extending in a Baltic direction, thus forming «a Baltic North»454.

The concept of «open geography» might explain the spread of «the multiplicity of Baltic regions», which implies that the region in this sense is not a purely geographical notion (otherwise it would be useless to speak about «multiplicity»). For example, in Lithuania there is much talk about an «Eastern Baltic sub-region» consisting of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia455. The same goes for the concept of the «Neo-North», which is based on a «geographically open» reading of region building.

4.3. Where Is Russia and Its NWFD Positioned?

Where does the NWFD sit in relation to the «hard» – «soft» regionalism scheme presented above? My suggestion is that it is located closer to the «hard» side of the spectrum.

Having tried to project the concept of the «learning region» into the NWFD, we should keep in mind the ambiguity of this endeavor. On the one hand, indeed, there is much room for cognitive ideas in the process of district-building, as I have shown above. On the other hand, however, Russian visions of the NWFD's future international integration are politically biased and have in mind wider geopolitical horizons. Importantly, for the most part cooperation is perceived in Moscow basically through the lens of security. As a result, in Russia territory is prioritised (what, in Pertti Joenniemi's words, could be termed a «naturalist interpretation»456); while in the Baltic / Nordic case ideas precede institutionalization and take the lead.

In particular, the Kaliningrad issue is a good example of Russian attitudes to region building, with Russian policy discourse on Kaliningrad centered around the «hard» – «soft» dilemma. One group of analysts, sticking to pro-Kremlin approaches, emphasizes the geopolitical situation. Thus, Valerii Khomiakov, the Director of the Agency for Applied and Regional Policies, argues that it is Germany that stands been behind discussing the issue of Kaliningrad-Moscow relations457. A similar view is articulated in some publications of «Russian Journal» authors458.

In response to what are considered to be unfriendly gestures from the West, the argument from these quarters is that Russia must remain tough on the Kaliningrad issue – irrespective of the practical implications of such a stance. This was the main message to be discerned from interviews conducted with Fiodor Burlatskii, the vice president of the Association for Euro-Atlantic Cooperation459, and Yurii Borko, the head of the Center for the Study of European Integration at the Institute of Europe in Moscow, in summer 2002460. Solomon Ginzburg, the director of the «Regional Strategy» Foundation in Kaliningrad also says that the regional situation should be tackled from a geopolitical angle, because the EU dictates that its standards should also be applied in adjacent areas461. In a very indicative manner, Gleb Pavlovskii, the head of the Foundation for Effective Politics, actually used the word «sovereignty» 17 times in a two-page interview in the aftermath of the EU-Russia meeting in Svetlogorsk in May 2002462. What is interesting about Pavlovskii is that he manages to combine all the basic assumptions of Realist thinking in his argument. This includes: his adherence to «domino theory» (i.e., he contends that granting a special administrative status for Kaliningrad's residents would provoke a chain reaction in Tatarstan, the Kuril Islands and other potentially troublesome parts of Russia); his accusation that the local authorities are becoming too self-interested (presumably at the expense of federal interests); and his explicit admittance of the rampant corruption in the Russian Baltic enclave (e.g., he predicts that as soon as a form of «Kaliningrad citizenship» is introduced, it will be widely sold to outsiders). A good addition to this blend is the standpoint of Mark Urnov, the Chairman of the Center for Political Technologies, who – referring to Poland's reluctance to accept the idea of transit «corridors» from Kaliningrad to Russia - accused Poland («a small country», in his judgement) of being swayed too much by the «foolish myths and prejudices of the crowd»463.

On the other hand, there are other interpretations of the nature of the EU-Russian conflict over Kaliningrad. For example, Viacheslav Nikonov, the president of the «Politika» Foundation, argues that what is really important for Russia is to accept the difficulty (impossibility) the EU faces in granting any exceptions to the Schengen rules. Instead, Russia should concentrate on upgrading ferry and aircraft communications between Kaliningrad and mainland Russia464. Konstantin Voronov, an expert at the Center for European Studies at the Institute for World Economy and International Relations, supports this approach and posits that it is wrong to depict Kaliningrad as an isolated or encircled territory. In his view, Russia faces technical, not political problems in this territory465.

Pavel Felgengauer, an independent military analyst from Moscow, is also inclined to be critical of Russian policies in Kaliningrad. In his view, the central government should take charge of providing the residents of the oblast with international passports (instead of the obsolete Soviet ones still widely in use, now more than ten years after the dissolution of the USSR). Likewise, before raising the issue of visa-free travel, the federal authorities should also be prepared to sign a re-admission treaty with the EU, thus taking full responsibility for accepting back to Russia thousands of illegal migrants from Asian and African countries. In this respect, whilst it is known that transporting people through Russia’s western border has become a very profitable business in many regions, it is also clear that the federal government has reacted inadequately to counter this trade. Felgengauer also accuses the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs for deliberately blocking the opening of new consulates in the Kalinigrad oblast under the pretext of the increased foreign influence they will bring into the region466.

This critical view is also supported by the experts of the Center for Political Technologies who suggest that the main problems with Kaliningrad are: Russia’s unwillingness to ratify the Treaty with Lithuania467; the over-emphasis on emotional arguments (like the human rights violations that it is argued will be caused by higher airplane travel tariffs as compared with those applied to railway tickets); and the spread of the «shadow economy» in Kaliningrad468. Interestingly, the later issue, which is very sensitive for all Europeans, has been discussed by experts of the Russian-European Centre for Economic Policy469.

Natalia Smorodinskaia, the head of the Center for Growth Poles Analysis at the Russian Institute of Economics, argues that current Russian policies in Kaliningrad are determined by the «defense thinking» of the upper echelons of the military elite. This thinking gives clear priority to the accessibility of traditional routes for the Russian Baltic Sea Fleet. In her view, however, what really threatens Kaliningrad's future is not the new visa regulation system, but Russia’s lack of resources for drastically upgrading the region’s eastward communications, and the low competitiveness of local commodities470.

Irina Kobrinskaia, an analyst at the East West Institute office in Moscow, also shares criticism of Russian official policy. In particular, she is very skeptical of those who fear and anticipate that Kaliningrad will secede from Russia. In her opinion, no one in the Baltic area (including Germany) is interested in the appearance of a fourth Baltic republic which would be unable to properly deal with corruption, unemployment, and environmental degradation. Notably, Kobrinskaia has been one of the few Russian commentators to explicitly argue that the EU has no financial obligations to the Kaliningrad oblast, and has no obligation to help overcome its intrinsic economic problems471.

Another important critical voice is Maxim Dianov, a policy analyst and director of the Institute of Regional Issues in Moscow. His analysis has led him to conclude that it is basically domestic issues that have exacerbated the position of Kaliningrad. These include the way the federal center has ignored the regional authorities in solving the plethora of exclave issues and the increasingly evident tensions existing between the NWFD authorities and the Egorov administration, which is accused of mismanagement and economic failure472. Dianov has called on the Kaliningrad elite to be more active in lobbying the federal center on behalf of their regional interests.

Thus, the debate is well underway, and Russia's community of experts is deeply divided on this issue. However, one thing that is displayed in the Kaliningrad case is the way that both Russia and the EU are playing the same game, by putting on top of the agenda issues of control, borders and criteria for citizenship. Since the NWFD is the creation of Russia’s federal authorities, it is also supposed to be a part of this game. This is perhaps why the version of regionalism adopted in the NWFD is also rather «frozen», fixed, pre-set, establishment-driven, orderly, uniform, elite-controlled and excessively political473. A quite indicative illustration of the attitudes of both national and sub-national authorities to academic expertise, however, was the fact that key decision makers actually ignored a major conference on Kaliningrad that was held in Svetlogorsk in fall 2001474.

However, the «hardness» of Russian approaches should not be seen in absolute terms. A number of trends also contribute to its gradual «softening». As I have shown earlier, an important factor undermining the «hard» approach to region building in the NWFD is the spread of independent policy expertise on regional and district issues. Hence, some of the region building instruments reflect this need for analysis – e.g., conferences, drafting blueprints, discussion and policy papers, and reporting to the press are among the most important tools of opinion making at the district level. Coming back to the Kaliningrad oblast, a good sign is that a group of «young Kaliningrad experts» has been formed, incorporating analysts from the East-West Institute, the Agency for Regional Development, and the Center for Growth Poles Analysis at the Institute of Economics. They argue that it is small and medium-size businesses and information services that might lay the foundation for Kaliningrad’s reorientation to European markets475. Within Kaliningrad's political elite, there is also a growing understanding that strategic planning is imperative for regional survival (in particular, this is the opinion of Boris Shushkin, a member of the Kaliningrad oblast legislature)476. The local expert community, therefore, has become an important pressure group highlighting that the principal failure of the Egorov administration has been the lack of fresh ideas, its limited analytical capabilities and the low coherence between all subjects of strategic planning (governmental bodies, think tanks, non-profit organizations, business associations)477. To some extent, these pressures have started to bring results. For example, John Mroz, the president of the East-West Institute, has confirmed that in 2001 governor Egorov contacted this international think tank with a proposal that it prepare a study on budget transparency in relation to Kaliningrad oblast478.

There are other signals as well. For example, immediately after receiving the EU's negative answer to Kasianov’s memorandum on Kaliningrad, Moscow officials began putting the issue in a network-like context. Thus, in June 2002 president Putin called on the subjects of the federation of the NWFD to be more active in establishing horizontal links with Kaliningrad479. He then tabled this issue before a Council of Baltic Sea States meeting held in St. Petersburg480, while prime minister Kasianov, for the first time, has raised the Kaliningrad problem in a meeting with his Estonian counter-part481,

In other regions, a good illustration of the sometimes blurred lines between those who are «in» and those who are «out» is cooperation along ethnic lines. The Finno-Ugrian community is a case in point, bringing closer to each other peoples of Karelia, Finland, Komi and Estonia. Interestingly, some IT-based projects have emerged that aim to create a common information space for all those ethnic groups that share a Finno-Ugrian identity.

Russia, therefore, cannot afford to turn a blind eye to the proliferation of soft patterns of regionalism because they present a serious challenge. What is at stake here is Russia’s inclusion in or exclusion from a number of region building projects. For example, the «Eastern Baltic sub-region» concept presupposes a departure from the Baltic Sea concept of regionalism and is designed to further distance the three post-Soviet republics from Russia, which remains perceived as «the chief external threat»482.


  1. It is my contention that images are important parts of identity politics. Thus, the stronger the regional identity, the more room there is available for the disemination of symbolic and stereotypical messages and signals that the region uses for communication with the outside world. As such, identity regions are prone to produce cultural and historical myths and sets of beliefs that create symbolic values for the region’s global positioning483. These signals »are issued to influence the receiver’s image of the sender»484.

The »symbolic technologies» of opinion making give rise to the emergence of »symbolic analysts», the well trained and educated group of intellectuals that »rule the web» and »float above territorial boundaries»485. The case of St. Petersburg illustrates well the salience of image-based identity politics486.

  1. In regions where identity is not among the high-profile issues, there is not much space for constructing and reconstructing images. In these cases, there is a good chance that region-building projects, to a significant extent, will be based on «epistemic communities», or regional political/academic complexes. The case of the NWFD serves as a good illustration of the way networking analytical resources can shape policy priorities and influence policy thinking.

The following table provides an illustration of the role of think tanks in region building487:

Roles of think tanks

Think tanks functions

Examples in the NWFD

Political infrastructure builders

Informally negotiating with key decision makers


Technical advisers

Providing contract services to the authorities

Leontief Center

Agenda setters

Generating ideas and applying pressure for change of policy


Facilitators of interactions between democracy-oriented groups

Multiplying the voices that are brought to bear on an issue and offering alternative routes

«Strategia» Center

  1. In this paper I have shown that ideas are shaped differently depending on where they are circulated - that is, either in the «new» (federal districts) or «old» (subjects of the federation) sub-national regions. The opposition between «cognitive» and «normative» ideas provides a better conceptualization of this distinction. The table below offers an illustration of this point:

Cognitive Ideas

Normative Ideas

Take the form of concepts, strategies, doctrines and programs of regional development

Take the form of images, symbols, stereotypes and metaphors

Are based on rational, analytical assumptions

Contain a great deal of emotions and aesthetic appeal

Are products of expertise

Are products of interpretations and subjective readings


Oriented to the general public

Promote policy innovations

Promote policy legitimation

Future oriented (reinvent and rediscover a new reality)

Have strong historical connotations and retrospective outlooks



4. This paper draws the reader's attention to a distinction between two models of region building as summarized in the table below:

Hard Regionalism(s)

Soft Regionalism(s)



Heavily dependent on administrative and/or diplomatic levers

Relies upon a networking concept of integration

Territorially confined (what matters are borders)

Intellectually defined (what matters are ideas)



488Hierarchy and standardization

Autonomy and variety

Main organizing principles are sovereignty and security

The key marker is de-regulated regionality

«Naturalist interpretation» of the concept of region

The concept of «open geography»

Relations between constituent parts are more formal (framework-oriented)

Relations are less formal, more flexible and context-dependent (network-oriented)

489Epistemic communities are used by political groups to set their own political agendas

Epistemic communities incite changes within the regime of governance

490Implies modern visions of regionality and territoriality

Reflects late-modern or post-modern territorial arrangements

5. Finally, as a working hypothesis I contend that there might be a correlation between the two dimensions discussed in the paper of cogntive / normative ideas and hard / soft regionalism. In trying to relate them to each other, I propose the following scheme consisting of two axes:

Hard Regionalism

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  • The Arctic Model