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Natalia Viakhireva

PhD in Political Science, RIAC Program Manager

In discussions between experts from Russia and the EU there are often many areas of common interest discussed. Such discussions often include cooperation in science and technology, promoting regional and trans-border cooperation, and people-to-people contacts. In other words, both sides focus on the less political aspects of relations. However, in the last three years political tensions have had some negative impact on Russia–EU relations in education, culture, academic study, science and innovation, although not as bad an impact as first expected.

There is a tendency to politicise what should be non-political even when it serves as a vital bridge for maintaining contacts, especially in times of deep political crisis. This paper summarises the state of people-to-people relations between Russia and the EU, and makes recommendations as to how to improve the situation.

In discussions between experts from Russia and the EU there are often many areas of common interest discussed. Such discussions often include cooperation in science and technology, promoting regional and trans-border cooperation, and people-to-people contacts. In other words, both sides focus on the less political aspects of relations. However, in the last three years political tensions have had some negative impact on Russia–EU relations in education, culture, academic study, science and innovation, although not as bad an impact as first expected.

There is a tendency to politicise what should be non-political even when it serves as a vital bridge for maintaining contacts, especially in times of deep political crisis. This paper summarises the state of people-to-people relations between Russia and the EU, and makes recommendations as to how to improve the situation.

Student exchange and academic ties

In 2014 some experts were sure that sanctions would have negative impact on collaboration between EU and Russia in the field of education.

According to information from the Erasmus+ office in Russia, however, sanctions have not affected educational programmes. Cooperation between Russia and the EU goes on and the volume of credit mobility [1] has actually grown. In 2015, credit mobility among students and teachers from Russia to the EU stood at 1916 people per year and from the EU to Russia at 1238 people. In 2016, the numbers increased to 2187 and 1572 respectively. For the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD), sanctions have not discouraged their activities in Russia. Indeed they plan on hosting an international summer school on “Russian Studies and EU-Russia Relations” in 2017.

According to the head of the EU delegation to Russia, Vygaudas Usackas, “The European Union plans to strengthen cooperation with Russia in the spheres of science, culture, education and the arts”. In a 2016 interview, the EU envoy pointed out that the bloc spends almost 28 million euros to allow 3,500 Russian students to attend EU universities for periods ranging from three to nine months. According to Usackas, these efforts are the best example that the European Union “has always advocated respectful relations in these areas.”

It is in Russia’s interest to preserve and develop student and academic exchange with the EU, as the exchanges are a major part of the internationalisation programs of Russian universities that has been in the limelight in recent years. Granted, students from Asian countries have demonstrated a high level of interest in obtaining education in Russia and there is now a trend in Russia of inviting scholars from Asia, but such internationalisation programs should remain multipronged.

Science and innovation

The Russia–EU record in STI (Science and Technology Industries) cooperation is relatively stable, although Russia-EU tensions and sanctions imposed by the US and EU have influenced the rate of progress in this field of interaction.

Some new practical difficulties have emerged that had not existed before the crisis in mutual relations. Russian scientists and researchers have complained that it has become more difficult to publish articles in European journals. They have no access to foreign grants and scientific supports. The Institute of the Chemical Physics Problems of the Russian Academy of Science, in particular, received a number of refusals. Some of the researchers link this to existing sanctions and an overall crisis in Russia-EU relations.

The regime of sanctions also creates uncertainties for international investors, who are unwilling to invest in scientific R&D projects. There are examples of international companies stopping exports to Russia of scientific equipment crucial for conducting some types of research [2].

On the other hand, there are some positive examples. In spite of the political situation, the “EU-Russia Year of Science 2014” was launched. The goal of the project was to promote and encourage technological cooperation between Russia and the EU.

The Year of Science marked a new stage of cooperation and coincided with the start of the new EU Framework Programme for Research and Innovation, Horizon 2020, and a new Russian Federal Targeted Programme, “Research & Development in Priority Areas of Development of the Russian Scientific & Technological Complex, 2014–2020”. Both programmes share the goal of increasing economic competitiveness by supporting forward-looking exploratory science and innovative market-oriented research. The EU–Russia Agreement on Science and Technology Cooperation was renewed in February 2014 for another five-year term and serves as a solid basis for cooperation.

Russia–EU STI cooperation has been effective in megaprojects. Russia and the EU actively collaborate on a number of research infrastructure initiatives, including the EU X-ray Free-Electron Laser (XFEL) and the Facility for Antiproton and Ion Research (FAIR), the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER), and the European Organisation for Nuclear Research (CERN).

The majority of the megaprojects are in the area of physics. As discussed at a meeting on Russia-EU relations at the Russian International Affairs Council, there are several scientific centres in Russia which have developed wide contacts, cooperation and successful joint project working with European centres, among them the TsAGI (Central Aerohydrodynamic Institute) and the National Research Centre Kurchatov Institute. Russia and the EU cooperate on STI in the frameworks of Horizon 2020 projects, though the cooperation is limited in comparison with the previous framework programme.

One of the obstacles in the way of Russia-EU cooperation in STI is a lack of information on the activities of Russia and Russian research centres in this area. One initiative that has been launched by Rossotrudnichestvo (Federal Agency for CIS issues, expat compatriots and international humanitarian cooperation) to work out awareness-raising programs, and to try to facilitate contacts between Russian and European scientists.

Visa liberalisation

Student, academic and scientific exchanges themselves are not enough to improve the overall situation in Russia-EU relations and people-mobility in general. According to a European Parliament report, in the first nine months of 2015, Russians made 11 million trips to EU countries, 27% less than during the corresponding period a year earlier. The decline can be attributed to economic sanctions and the fact that a devalued ruble made travelling abroad too expensive for many Russians. However, as the statistics of 2015 and 2016 (1, 2) show, Russia is still the largest applicant for Schengen visas, with over 3 million applications per year.

One way to increase people-to-people contacts would be for the EU to liberalise its visa regime for Russian citizens. The dialogue between Russia and the EU on visa liberalisation was launched in 2006 and made some progress, but was suspended in 2014. The EU views a visa-free regime with Russia as a significant concession, even if the EU could also benefit from it through deepening the ties in the fields of education, academic study, science and innovation. Visa liberalisation is desirable, but is unlikely to happen in the short term due to the current political situation.

Opinion polls

Following the Ukraine crisis and the imposition of sanctions against Russia, the attitude of Russians toward the EU expressed in public opinion polls, has deteriorated. In 2014, the proportion of those with a positive view of the EU dropped dramatically and negative views shot upward. According to the Levada Center’s opinion poll, published in October 2014, a majority of Russians (68%) expressed criticism and resentment against Europe. Only 16% Russians had a favourable view of the European Union.116 This poll also demonstrated a high increase in negative attitudes toward the EU compared with the pre-crisis period. For instance, the percentage of Russians who expressed strong negative sentiments toward Europe increased from 1% in January 2014 to 16% in September 2016.

According to another survey from the same period, conducted by the Independent Research Agency, in April 2014 EU policy towards Russia was supported by just 11% of respondents. Most Russians viewed European policy as unacceptable and the poll showed 45% of Russian respondents expressing a negative view of Europe.

Finally, a survey funded by NORC at the University of Chicago and conducted in November-December 2014, showed that Russian public opinion of the European Union had declined sharply since 2012 and that nearly half of Russians had an unfavourable view of the European Union (49%). The majority of Russians saw the European Union as an adversary. However, a significant majority maintained that Russia should try to cooperate with and improve relations with specific European countries. Russian respondents are, however, divided when it comes to Western European countries. More Russians express negative attitudes about the United Kingdom (31% unfavourable vs. 18% favourable) and Germany (30% unfavourable vs. 20% favourable).Opinion was almost evenly split on France (26% favourable vs. 23% unfavourable).

At the beginning of 2015, nearly 71% of respondents still demonstrated an unfavourable attitude towards the EU. However, the Levada Center found that Russians were beginning to have more flexible views about their European partners, or, at least, the percentage of negative views had stopped rising. In early 2016, views of the EU had actually improved somewhat. 28% of Russians voiced a favourable opinion of the EU, whereas in 2014, as referred to above, just 16% expressed favourable sentiments. However, negative attitudes remained predominant overall. In late 2016, 58% of respondents answered that they have, in general, ‘bad’ and ‘very bad’ attitudes towards the EU.

There has been similar concern about the possibility of a new Cold war. In particular, recent polls showed 31% of Russians concerned about increasing tensions between Russia and the West. Moreover, according to polls conducted in November 2014, nearly 25% of respondents were convinced that Russia was actually at war with Western powers.

In 2015 another Russian sociological pollster, Public Opinion Fund, conducted a survey about Russian-European relations. It demonstrated that 43% of Russians polled believed that the EU did not want to cooperate with Russia, whereas 37% held the opposite opinion. In their next opinion poll conducted in 2016, 73% of respondents believed that Russia-EU relations had deteriorated. However, the majority of Russians supported the view that Russia should aim to have good relations and fruitful dialogue with Europe. The poll results suggested that Russians also believed the state should make some effort to improve its relationship with the EU.

The Levada Centre conducted an opinion poll from 31 March to 3 April 2017 on the issue of Russia’s perception of the world. The results of this survey showed that in 2017 Russians’ views of the EU had improved. In March 2017, 35% of Russians voiced a favourable opinion of the EU, while in May 2016, just 25% of participants expressed the same sentiment. However, in 2017, a majority of Russians, some 53%, still demonstrated an unfavourable attitude towards the EU, albeit this is less of a majority than in May 2016.

Expert level

Regrettably, the Ukraine and Russia-West crises also influence expert-level dialogue. The key mission of this dialogue is to try and reach consensus and to produce recommendations to respective governments on how to improve relations. International encounters between pundits often descend into mutual accusation, and propaganda is very frequently employed rather than agreed facts established by research and deep, unbiased analysis. There is an urgent need to resume constructive dialogue and a joint search for solutions to the challenges facing the global community, or a new modus vivendi.

Although Russian and Western experts may differ on their interpretation of events and codes of behaviour, they need to reach consensus on basic principles and establish a common denominator in their approaches to dealing with the Russia-West controversy.

Academics and analysts often complain that decision-makers pay scant attention to their recommendations. What is needed to make research more systematic, covering broader groups of problems, are more frequent, formal contacts between research centres, institutes and think tanks in Russia and the EU, rather than informal links between individual researchers. Recommendations arising from joint working among such institutions would be more persuasive and influential in the long run. Decision makers tend to respond to current events and rarely have time to act with the relatively distant future in mind. For that reason, the focus of research must be on how to offer a longer-term perspective to the decision makers.

In the recent foreign policy documents, EU Global Strategy and the Foreign Policy Concept of the Russian Federation, both Russia and the EU supported greater engagement of civil society and people-to-people contacts and called for developments in this dimension.

One example of such institutional cooperation is a network of Russia-EU think-tanks launched by the Russian International Affairs Council and the Delegation of the European Union in 2016. The objectives of the network are strengthening the basis for longer-term engagement between the EU and Russia, promoting professional exchange among experts from the EU and Russia, influencing decision-making processes and making experts better aware of of opinion across the region. The network will continue its work throughout 2017–2018 and, hopefully, will make a difference in maintaining dialogue on the Track 2 level and working out recommendations for decision-makers in Russia and the EU. The creation of effective dialogue formats at all levels, starting from civil society and people-to-people levels and, from those, to the highest political levels, would contribute to a more transparent, and predictable relationship.

Conclusions and recommendations

Overall, limited results on the people-to-people level could be viewed as being a mixed bag. In the period of crisis in Russia-EU relations, sanctions, distrust and unpredictability, the people-to-people dimension has suffered less than have political and security relations and cooperation in the economic field. Nevertheless, the people-to-people dimension has been influenced by the overall atmosphere in international relations and has been increasingly politicised, although supposed to be non-political in nature. There have been some negative and disappointing examples: for instance, the 2014 bilateral Russia-UK and UK-Russia Year of Culture lacked any high level visits; the “New Wave” music festival, popular among Russians, was relocated from Jurmala in Latvia to Sochi because of Latvia’s entry restrictions on some participants.

In view of the various aspects described above, both sides should take the following steps to overcome these unhealthy trends:

  • End mutually hostile rhetoric at international expert-level forums and resume dialogue in search of common solutions;
  • Initiate and maintain cooperation between think tanks and scientific centres on an institutional, formal level, rather than rely on informal links among selected experts and scientists and increase the regularity and frequency of joint research and projects;
  • Initiate joint studies to analyse long-term perspectives for relations between Russia and the West;
  • Focus on the education of the younger generation about and toward the idea of building a common system of Euro-Atlantic security. A positive mentality can be built by embedding tolerance of our diverse world and an understanding of the possibility of achieving global stability by diplomacy, rather than by war, aggression and ethnic conflict;
  • Promote exchange programs for students and researchers, in order to counter mutual mistrust and misunderstanding;
  • Establish groups of young experts to analyse the current crisis and Russia-West relations, investing thereby in the future of their relationship. One such group, the Younger Generation Leadership Network (YGLN), instituted as a result of cooperation among the Russian International Affairs Council, the Nuclear Threat Initiative and the European Leadership Network, is engaged in joint preparation of policy briefs which reflect the views of young experts and incorporate recommendations for action;
  • Use social media to create a positive image of Russia in the EU and of the EU in Russia, highlighting not only negative information, but also positive news; and
  • Ease visa regimes, or, at the very least, aim to do so in the longer term.

None of these steps is likely to lead to a dramatic change and rapid improvement in EU-Russia relations, but they make more sense than simply hoping for some magic, grand bargain to resolve all tensions. Russia and the EU share plenty of common interests and the same geographic space; adopting the policies and the small, but practical, steps suggested above would mark the beginning of efforts to improve the current situation.

First published as a part of the ELN–RIAC Special Report “Damage Assessment: EU-Russia relations in crisis

1. Credit mobility can be defined as a limited period of study or traineeship abroad (in the framework of on-going studies at a home institution) for the purpose of gaining credits. After the mobility phase, students return to their home institution, where the credits are recognized and they complete their studies. Erasmus + International credit mobility,

2. Russian scientists squeezed by sanctions, Kremlin policies,, January 20, 2015, Russian sanctions hurt chemical industry, Chemistry World, November 13, 2014

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Poll conducted

  1. In your opinion, what are the US long-term goals for Russia?
    U.S. wants to establish partnership relations with Russia on condition that it meets the U.S. requirements  
     33 (31%)
    U.S. wants to deter Russia’s military and political activity  
     30 (28%)
    U.S. wants to dissolve Russia  
     24 (22%)
    U.S. wants to establish alliance relations with Russia under the US conditions to rival China  
     21 (19%)
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