By Paul Goble
Many cooperation programs between the European Union and Russia have been discontinued. Trans-border cooperation, however, continues, although largely by inertia and increasingly reflecting the civilizational divide between the EU with its participatory democracy and Russia with its “unworthy government,” Gleb Yarovoy says.
Yarovoy, a former instructor at Petrozavodsk State University and now a researcher at the University of Eastern Finland in Joensuu, is the author of Regionalism and Trans-Border Cooperation in Europe (in Russian, St. Petersburg, 2007). He assesses the current situation in an essay for the Tallinn-based Region.Expert portal (region.expert/cross-border/).
Many people are surprised that the Euroregions of Karelia, the Barents Sea, and even the Baltic are still functioning, funded by governments on both sides, and involving regular meetings of officials, but there is little reason for optimism because between the Russian and European participants lies “an unbridgeable social (both political and mental) distance.”
“The bureaucrats who are responsible among other things for agreeing to and developing trans-border cooperation are distancing themselves ever further from one another” because “the Russians who have passed through a process of negative selective are ever more part of ‘the unworthy rule’” in their country.
At the same time, “their Western colleagues continue to follow the ideals and values of participatory democracy where the state exists for the citizens and not the reverse,” as is the case with the Russians, Yarovoy says. And this divide has been in place since 2014. As a result, “approximately nothing has taken place” except by inertia.
It is better that these people meet than that they don’t, but those from the Russian side increasingly are not committed to cross-border cooperation but instead follow the party line coming out of Moscow, sometimes supporting initiatives but more often opposing doing anything new that they haven’t proposed themselves.
Many of the officials from the Russian side in Karelia who took part in this process in the past were committed to international cooperation. Now, all of the people have been removed, and their replacements instead of being like their predecessors have an exclusively “domestic” vision which has no place for cooperation across borders.
According to Yarovoy, there are three possible scenarios for development: the pessimistic, the realistic and the optimistic. According to the pessimistic one, there will be a complete breakdown in trans-border cooperation between Karelia and Finland, something perhaps unlikely as officials on both sides would lose resources.
The most realistic is that the situation will continue indefinitely by inertia, although possibly losing energy with each passing year. The optimistic scenario would require a fundamental change not just in the officials from the Russian side but in the Russian style of governance.
Were that to happen, cross-border cooperation could take up, returning to and even going beyond what it was before the Crimean Anschluss. But for that scenario to be thinkable, one must be a giddy optimist. “Unfortunately,” Yarovoy says. “I am no optimist. And therefore, I now live in Finland.”