Leading Article: Friends from a different country

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The Independent Online
Boris Yeltsin had every reason to bask in the sunshine of Corfu yesterday as he put his name to a partnership and co-operation agreement with the European Union that introduces Russia to the mainstream of the Continent's life for the first time since the Tsarist era.

The agreement allows his country's exports into the European market and opens up the prospect of a vast free trade area extending into the wastes of Asiatic Russia. Its signature follows the accession of Moscow to the Partnership for Peace plan, which groups a constellation of new East European states within a pact for military co-operation with the Nato alliance. And it precedes by less than a month Mr Yeltsin's arrival in Naples for the summit of the Group of Seven leading industrialised nations, at which he is to be a privileged temporary guest.

This sequence of diplomatic moves could be perfectly well interpreted to convey the most optimistic impression. It is not hard to rehearse the argument that falls from the fluent lips of Andrei Kozyrev, Mr Yeltsin's foreign minister. At home, the Yeltsin regime has emerged surprisingly resilient. Russia's new constitution and its parliament are functioning in turbulent yet relatively stable fashion. Inflation has fallen sharply and economic reforms show the first gains after so much discomfort. By one calculation, Russian gross national product measured in dollars was significantly higher this spring than last, despite a sharp drop in traditional production. Money is regaining its value.

And all this, Mr Kozyrev might argue, translates into a Russia willing to deal with its neighbours on terms of reason but strength. No longer a fragmenting, volatile and weak power, Russia is ready to conclude agreements with the West that enhance mutual security yet preserve its interests. The period when Western governments could assume its meek compliance has passed. Yet nobody should be alarmed, Mr Koyzrev murmurs, if Russia emerges assertive and in recovery from its political and economic metamorphosis.

Russia in Europe, indeed, at the heart of Europe, to borrow a phrase. It is a tempting prospect. But to succumb too readily to the Kozyrev and Yeltsin spell would be for Europe to deceive itself. It is not so much to indulge in Cold War paranoia as to achieve the simple understanding that Russia is not just another country. It is another civilisation. In its orthodox religion, its territories flung from the Finnish border to the Pacific, its notion of power, its mental acceptance of strong leadership and its unique blend of spirituality with ruthlessness, Russia embodies differences with Western Europe almost as profound as those witnessed in the world of Islam.

Russia's conduct in the wars of the Caucasus, its policy in Moldova, its uneasy relations with Ukraine, its reciprocally truculent dealings with the Baltic states, all argue for caution. By every account, Nato ministers in Istanbul recently were treated to heavy-handed diplomacy that would not have disgraced the late Andrei Gromyko. Only this week the CIA admitted to serious concern over evidence that Russia is continuing the development of offensive chemical weapons, in violation of an international convention. Conditioned by extremists in parliament, hemmed in by super-patriots in the unredeemed military-industrial complex, the Yeltsin government's flexibility for manoeuvre would be limited even if its own instincts did not increasingly urge a tougher stance towards the outside world.

None of this is to argue for a reversion to Western tactics employed down the long, cold years of ideological struggle. That would be to misunderstand a complex new world of trading systems and military balances that is still in evolution. It also neglects the strategic reality that in several possible future conflicts Russian interests might coincide with our own.

The traditional right-wing analysis purveyed anew in Britain and America is therefore not so much mistaken as simply redundant. A new method of dealing with Russia must be evolved. It is one that combines firmness with cautious respect, mindful that liberalism has never triumphed in Russia and that agreements made with Mr Yeltsin should be strong enough to bind his successors to them. It demands not merely a compact between states but an accord between societies.