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Article by Pertti Joenniemi


Pertti Joenniemi

International Academic Conference

Danish Institute for International Studies

Saint Petersburg, 24-25.10.2003




There has clearly been ups and downs during the short history of the EU's Northern Dimension (ND). The initiative reflected, from the very start, a rather optimistic face in pertaining to visions of enlargement, the softening external borders as well as the creation a much more region-based configurations, among other things by extending influence also to the nearby areas. The ND contributes to dimensionalism in being linked in particular to the various rounds of EU enlargement. It does so by aiming at a downgrading of the exclusionary aspects of the European project in being built on the assumption of growing positive interdependence between the 'ins' and the 'outs'.

However, the current prospects are less optimistic in essence. No doubt, the task of organising the fringes is still there, as has been the case also in the context of previous enlargements. This endeavour is exemplified within the EU above all by the creation of the Wider Europe framework, but it is equally reflected in the Polish interest in launching an Eastern Dimension (ED) along the lines of the northern one. But these trends notwithstanding, it now appears that there prevails an accentuation on a variety of more modern endeavours within the EU. There are clear centrifugal tendencies to be discerned, these pointing increasingly towards federalist structures. There is stress on the creation of various state-like elements at a supra-national level for example in the form of a post of a president as well as a foreign minister. Instead of a previous tolerance for a certain 'fuzziness' in the composition of the EU, there appears to be a process underway (albeit not always successfully) of reducing various ambiguities concerning the form and nature of the Union. The recent emphasis on joint arrangements of defence as well as the interest shown in streamlining and formalising procedures of border control are equally signs of the pursuance of more statist and federalist policies.

Yet it has to be added that though increasingly internally oriented and worried about 'institutional overstretch', the EU has not turned away from the challenges faced in its nearby areas. The Union has to remain aloof from impressions that it is engaged in constructing normative and institutional walls in order to shield itself from external influences. 'Fortress Europe' still stands out a negative image, one that has to be counteracted. Dimensionalism prevails, and this is also reflected in the state of affairs as to the ND. As such, the Northern Dimension has moved forward by the acceptance of a Second ND Action Plan (2004-2006) at the European Council in October 2003, one stressing complementarity, subsidiarity and synergy. The initiative certainly figures on the EU's agenda, albeit is hardly to be described as constituting a priority item attracting as much attention and interest as it still did a few years back.

The Commission retains an overall leading role as to the ND at large, albeit appears ready to pave more space for other actors such as NGOs and international financial institutes, this also implying that the burden of implementation and financing is shifting more to local actors. In July 2003 the Commission took another step by producing the communication “Paving the way for the New Neighbourhood instrument”, one aiming at the adoption of a new, single neighbourhood financial instrument. A similar endeavour of harmonising the various, rather scattered EU-policies as to the nearby areas has been noticeable in the strive towards a more unified and coherent conceptual deparyure in the form of the “Wider Europe” process. Instead of encouraging the spreading of additional dimensions, some of them modelled on the ND, the European Commission appears to aspire for developing a joint and overall process as indicated by the communication given in March 2003 on “The Wider Europe – Neighbourhood: A New Framework for Relations with our Eastern and Southern Neighbours”. It appears to point to the establishment of a ‘a ring of friends’ treated on the basis of a coherent and uniform set of principles, and this instead of respecting and making use of the specific conditions that constitute largely the motivational ground for the ND.

The current situation may thus be described, at least in some of its aspects, as something of a down-turn. However, my aim here is basically to try to move beyond the short-term fluctuations of optimism and pessimism, and instead endeavour at grasping some of the more profound dynamics and trends that are bound to determine the fate of the ND in the longer run. In trying to get to the core relationships underlying the initiative, I will focus exclusively on the EU/Russia relationship and scrutinise the way this relationship appears to be playing out taking into account the comprehensions of political space - and in that context - regionalisation in terms of transboundary arrangements. The core question reads: are these two actors sufficiently close to each other as to the basic logics applied? Do the EU and Russia both 'read' and interprete the Northern Dimension in a manner that allows them to invest in region-building and a variety of transborder arrangements as part of their rule-governed policies, and are these seen as condusive to a political landscape that they are both interested in supporting and investing in?

My argument here is that this has not necessarily been the case. There has not been a sufficient meeting of minds during the past years, although the blame does not seem to rest with Russia in a manner and to the extent usually thought of. Primarily due to recent Russian development, a convergence of thinking appears to be in the cards, with the Northern Dimension possibly being on its way of turning - far more than previously - into a joint platform of policies. The conversion of the logics does not only augur further progress, thereby undermining the more recent pessimistic predictions; it may also be seen as inviting for a kind of change in the very nature of the Northern Dimension as a EU/Russia platform.

The EU's Northern Dimension

The Northern Dimension has been, quite rightly, described as the 'hole in the wall'. It aims at contributing to co-operation that moves across strictly outlined statist borders - being thereby condusive to the emergence of dynamic, fluid and network-like regions. It challenges and goes beyond modern conceptualisations of territoriality and borders comprehended as containers of statehood. The ND may also be depicted as a kind of market-place where the EU and Russia can, at least in principle, meet on more equal grounds than would perhaps otherwise be the case. It does so by granting Russia as one of the 'outs' considerable subjectivity in providing EU members and non-members (called 'partners') with a joint ground where to bring up and discuss issues of mutual interests. This may occur without anybody being discriminated against from the very start. The ND constitutes, in this sense, a somewhat larger 'hole' than has been the case with the Barcelona Process or, for that matter, the nascent Eastern Dimension proposed by Poland. This state of affairs might, however, be perceptive as being susceptive to changes. The 'hole' consisting of the ND might, due to the impact of new policies introduced in the context of the 'Wider Europe/New Neighbourhood" concept, be on its way of narrowing down. This is so as the EU - according to a communication issued by the Commission - aims at positioning the previously separate dimensions as subordinated to the wider framework of the Union's overarching neighbourhood policies. Blurring the clear inside/outside division appears to be rather challenging for the EU, and it seems that the Union is, in general, moving towards somewhat more exclusionary policies than has been the case previously.

This conclusion appears to conflict with the oft repeated contention that the EU is basically a postmodern configuration, and thereby forms an agent that is at ease with fuzzy notions of territoriality and the blurring of distinct external borders. Russia, in contrast, has been claimed to follow a subtantively different - and more modern - logic. Hiski Haukkala, for one, has stated that "....whereas the EU can be seen as moving towards a post-modern and post-sovereign political system, the Russian project is still very modern [i.e. statecentric, sovereignty-affirming] in its essence (see, Hiski Haukkala, 'Two Reluctant Regionalisers? The European Union and Russia in Europe's North' UPI-FIIA Working Paper no. 32, Helsinki 2001, p. 9). While the EU is, according to Haukkala, able to embrace a positive stance towards the dual processes of globalisation and regionalisation, Russia is perceived as wary of globalisation as a form of US hegemony. It tends to comprehend regionalisation as a negative form of fragmentation, which threatens Russia's very territorial integrity.

Yet this way of framing the issues at stake appears to call for a closer scrutiny. The EU forms, no doubt, an agent of regionalisation, albeit there appears to be significant constraints and conditions embedded in the EU's approach as well. One of the conditions - present also in the case of the ND - seem to be that cooperation in the context of border-trancending endeavours aims at bringing about a convergence to the Union's general standards. Pushing for regionalisation is hence rule-bound and the configurations aspired for has to confirm and coinside with a more general and established set of aspirations. The policies pursued in the context of regionalisation are regular and formal - as opposed to spontaneous, experimental and ac hoc-type of arrangements. In fact, the relationship is often and adverse one with the new, EU-initiated forms of cooperation taking place at the expense of the latter ones. Shuttle-trading enabled by rather relaxed border controls stands out as an obvious example of this. In other words, the policies pursued by the Union also have a destructive and conflict generating aspect.

On a principal level, the EU tends to treat Russia and Russian regional actors in a rather rule-governed manner. It does so without taking into account that the rules are premised on assumptions of regularity that is not always there. The Union's stress on governmentality in the form of rules and regulations is hardly apt in situations containing a considerable dose of openness, i.e. confrontations and encounters that could be framed along the lines of a Schmittean approach by the usage of terminologies like 'the moment of the political' (in opposition to ordinary 'politics'). To the extent that the openness that is there is comprehended, the Union's approach tends nonetheless be one of closure in the name of 'stability' and 'predictability', that is aspiring for technical rather than political and principal solutions ( political in the true sense of politics).

Instead of accepting far-reaching openness and that there exists exceptional cases calling for innovative and unconventional approaches, the EU tends to emphasise the non-amendable nature of its general, calculatively oriented and rather rationalist regimes, i.e. regimes that hardly break with the 'modern' logic of government.

Russian Challenges

With the EU seen as the leading regionaliser, Russia tends to be depicted as a reluctant follower and a learner. However, it may also on good grounds be claimed that Russia has in some sense been ahead, although the Russian forms of regionalisation tend to have a different character and background than those pursued by the EU (this point has been well developed and elaborated by Sergei Prozorov in his recent studies, see in particular Sergei Prozorov, ‘Border regions and the Politics of EU-Russian Relations. The Role of the EU in tempering and Producing Border Conflicts’. Working Paper no. 3, January 2004. EUBorderConf-project. University of Birmingham).

In Russia's case regionalisation took, during the 1990s, place largely in a rather spontaneous, experimental and often almost anarchic manner. The pushing of power to regions and regional leaders did not occur as something complemetary in view of the policies pursued by the statist authorities, Rather, what occurred consisted of a displacement of the authority of the upper levels by that of the lower ones. Decentralisation did not occur as a policy of innovation, one taking place by governmental design. Instead it unfolded largely in the form of fragmentation. One could actually argue, I think, that the process entailed a certain displacement of statehood in the form of a complex web of practices along both horizontal (the eminence and displacements of politics due to the emergence of oligarks in the economic sphere) and vertical (the appearance of strong regional leaders) axes.

These processes implied that Russia was radically decentred, although more by default than by design. It boiled down to a rather messy patchwork of overlapping polical spaces, a process hardly condusive to political, economic or democratic reforms. This is so as the joint space required for reforms to unfold in an acceptable manner basically vanished. In aspiring for autonomy and competing fiercely with aech other, the merging regions also were reluctant about regionlisation.

I am hence claiming that the catchwords of 'neo-medievalism' and 'postmodernity' appear to be rather applicable in outlining essential trends in the case of Russia. If the EU is on occasions labeled as being postmodern, than Russia would qualify equally – if nor more - towards the end of the Yeltsin era for the same label. Unlike the EU, Russia's regionalisation was far from being rule-bound or kept within bonds by a decidedly modern statehood co-existing and guiding the unfolding of new regional configurations. It relected, instead, undeniable pluralism, and in this sense rather far-reaching postmodernism.

The Putin presidency has, if seen against this background, been one of endeavouring at bringing the core back into the picture, and this without infringing on Russia's federative structures as such. In short, there has been an elimination of a number of previous excesses. Notably, in this perspective, Russia increasingly approaches the EU practices and policies in the sense that there is space for regionalisation, albeit in a far more rule-governed form - with rules provided by the general state policies. As stated half-jokingly by Sergei Prozorov (Global Tensions and Strategies of Relief: Three Theses on ‘Governance’ and the Political. Paper presented at the CIEESA conference in Budapest, June 2003): Russia thus appears to be on its way of turning post-postmodern. It does so by increasingly representing a less extreme version of postmodernity - and in this sense also moving closer to the model and approaches applied by the EU.

In Conclusion

This tendency might, in general, be comprehended as good news, albeit it would be overly optimistic to expect that this will instantly push the ND back on the stage. The process will in all probability remain a gradual one. Russia might be on its way of assuming postures closer to those hold by the Union. It is even possible that Russia endeavours of becoming something of a driving force advocating 'grand strategies' and bold steps rather than cautious piecemal approaches, whereas the EU's position could turn more defensive. Yet it can be noted that some of the Russian regions (oblasts and krais) might still remain somewhat uneasy about transborder regionalisation, and this has to be remedied by providing the local entities as well as actors such as the North-West Federal District with increased backing in the sphere of regionalisation. The regions that unfolded during the Yeltsin era still tend to remain internally oriented and shield themselves from external influences, including those eminating with transborder regionalisation. It is also required, it seems to me, that the EU to some extent opens up for more spontaneous and innovative forms of regionalisation. Instead of just remaining with tactical problem-solving, peripheral projects undertaken on the Union's own terms and pursuing policies of aiming at softening various so-called 'soft security' threats in the name of aspiring for stability and orderly contact, the EU should be aiming at the adoption of more demanding ambitions. A certain openness will, no doubt, remain in Europe's North and to be discernible particularly in the encounter between the EU's and Russia's North. Instead of mere governance and strictly rule-bound and harmonious regionalisation, the parties have to tune themselves to more innovative forms of politics, and this is increasingly what the challenges pertaining to the Northern Dimension will be about in the years ahead.

© Pertti Joenniemi 2004

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