NATO-Russia parliamentary relations: the building of a partnership

| Rafael Estrella

This chapter is Rafael Estrella’s contribution to the book «NATO Parliamentary Assembly 1955-2005: 50 Years of Prliamentary Diplomacy». Brussels, October 2005

…Where the East is the East and the West is the West and they meet.

Orham Pamuk

If the Soviet Union was during the Cold War la raison d’etre for NATO, the Union and its main heir, Russia, became after 1989 our indispensable partner for security and stability in Europe. When contemplated in perspective, building from zero a cooperative relationship of mutual understanding and partnership with Russia and its Parliament implies understanding and addressing not just the facts but also the essential role played by perceptions. I would venture to suggest that with all its shortfalls this has been the most serious challenge faced by the NATO Parliamentary Assembly throughout its existence. From a personal viewpoint, it was undoubtedly one of the most intense political experiences.

When today we witness the debate on how to tackle the gulf of cultural distance and misperceptions that separate us from the Islamic world, it is not impossible to find many elements in common with the way NATO and the Soviet Union looked each other at the outset of the post-cold war era. The choices we made for dialogue, and ultimately, for a true partnership, were difficult but nevertheless decisive in order to move away from the possibility, however remote, of a clash between East and West, to promote a shared area of security and stability and, in the end, to support those who, in the Soviet Union, advocated a true change towards democracy and freedom.

The Assembly had no clear vision of the final outcome when it initiated its relations with the institutions of the then Soviet Union, in the last years of the Gorvachev era. The ongoing process in that country raised contradictory feelings both of sympathy and scepticism among NATO parliamentarians. Despite the good will expressed by the undefined desire to “start knowing each other”, the poor improvement in democracy was another reason why there was no clear view of what sort of relationship to build with those who for decades had been the enemy – indeed, the threat against which for NATO had been created together. We soon learned to our amazement, this same perception, albeit from the other side of the curtain, also dominated the attitude of Soviet Union officers towards NATO. The Alliance was perceived in both its military power and policies, as a threat to the interests of the Soviet Union. However, both sides understood and assumed candidly the need to open a dialogue even with limited goals.

In another part of this volume, Sir Geoffrey Johnson Smith offers an accurate account of the first visit of an Assembly delegation to the Soviet Union (July 1989), hosted by the Supreme Soviet. As a participant in that historical event, I was able to experience at first hand these uneasy initial exchanges on the way each side perceived the nature and the aims of the other and the profound gap in perception and understanding of our respective organisations. However, this was also the time we started developing a network of personal relations that, in the long run, were essential to create a basis of mutual understanding and of increasing agreement. The unprecedented visit of an Assembly delegation to the Soviet Union might well be considered as a cautious, and not without suspicions, first swing of the gate. Only four months later, at the Rome Plenary Session, General Vladimir Lobov, First Deputy Chief of the Soviet General Staff addressed the Defence and Security Committee as a guest speaker. From then on, the participation of Russian representatives in Assembly activities and the visits by Assembly’s committees to the Soviet Union increased at a constant pace through the early 90’s.

The Assembly itself had also to adapt its own functioning to be able to respond to the new situation. The November 1990 Resolution on New Regional Responsibilities for a Transformed Alliance, created the status of associate delegation, which would be granted to the Soviet Union thus facilitating the participation of its representatives in Assembly activities. The collapse of the Soviet Union effectively meant a fresh start in relations with its principal successor state, Russia, as well as with other former Soviet republics such as Ukraine; associate status would be gradually granted to most of them.

Within this new framework, from May 1993, the Russian Supreme Soviet participated actively in Assembly work. Russian parliamentarians made clear from the start that they would not limit themselves to being passive observers but, on the contrary, they seized the opportunity to contribute reports and present amendments. This right proved to be extremely useful for developing a better mutual understanding as well as for identifying the areas of contention. At the same time, Assembly Committees also made regular visits to Moscow relevant to their respective field of interest.

The demarche initiated with Russia by the Assembly was regarded with suspicion by some of the delegations from countries aspiring to join NATO. Controversy between those and the Russian delegates was – and in some cases still is – frequent during the Assembly sessions. However, this has not prevented the Assembly from progressing in its relations with the Russian Parliament. On the contrary, the Assembly has become a unique forum in which parliamentarians from Russia and from former Soviet republics or former allies meet and address their differences.

In the early years, the Russian delegation included figures such as Sergei Stepashin, Yevgeni Kozhokin, Viacheslav Nikonov or Vladimir Ryshkov. All of these were committed to cooperation with NATO, but all viewed the developing momentum of NATO enlargement as a negative step. While the argument most often raised was the objection to a military alliance moving closer to Russia’s border, there was also a clear sense of Russia been excluded from the process without even been granted a veto right. It is worth recalling that Russia was at a very early stage of a transition from the world power it had been during the Cold War to a European – and Asian – power with its traditional enemy – NATO – becoming a rejuvenated partner. Furthermore, the Russians still resented what they considered the loss of the Soviet Empire.

The suggestion that Russia participate in Partnership for Peace as a means to compensate for this exclusion also received a lukewarm response: “Polish officers teaching Russians how to fight?” was one Russian politician’s dismissive reaction on the merits of Russia’s participation in PfP. It was evident that Russian representatives tended to view NATO under the old Cold War pattern. It was equally clear that, from our side, we had not succeeded in explaining to them the profound changes – political, strategic and military – that NATO was experiencing and that were even affecting the very nature of the Alliance. That is perhaps the reason why our Russian counterparts repeatedly raised the point that since we were no longer enemies, NATO, like the Warsaw Pact, should be dissolved.

Despite these deep rooted suspicions, the Russian side was always responsive and active in efforts to enhance the relationship. Among the diverse initiatives jointly agreed was an annual meeting -whose adequacy is now under review- of three Assembly Committees in and with the Russian Parliament.

However, while relations between NATO and Russia showed a growing dynamism, things were clearly moving at a slower pace at the parliamentary level. The Russian Parliamentarians frequently took a «free ride» which allowed them to be highly critical – at no political price – of the moves made by their Government in relations with NATO. This prevented it from taking further steps which the Duma, in particular, considered excessive concessions to the Alliance. As a means to overcome this situation, following the signing of the NATO-Russia Founding Act and the creation of the Joint Permanent Council, the proposal by the Assembly to establish a parliamentary Joint Monitoring Group to follow and assess together the work of the PJC was agreed to. The Group, comprising an equal number of Assembly and Russian legislators meeting twice a year in Moscow and Brussels, proved a highly effective mechanism to exercise a degree of mutual legislative oversight of the Founding Act. The main achievement offered by this new framework was that it allowed discussion, for the first time, to go beyond the general geopolitical debate and move into the examination of concrete aspects of existing cooperation between NATO and Russia, such as science and technology, which had been neglected by Russian parliamentarians and poorly known by members of the Assembly. This step was essential in order to start crafting a sense of togetherness, of shared responsibility over the specific areas of NATO-Russia cooperation and, of no less importance, the development of personal relations.

Cooperation with Russia against the background of activities involving countries preparing for NATO membership was not always easy. However, it came to an abrupt halt when NATO operations against Serbian forces were initiated in Kosovo in 1999. A letter from the Speaker of the Duma confirmed that there could be no business as usual in view of what was defined as a NATO aggression. After a decade of continuous improvement, the turn of the Century saw NATO-Russia parliamentary relations formally frozen. With the Duma representatives absent, only the Council of the Federation decided to maintain a reduced delegation thanks to the determination of its leader, Victor Ozerov, who throughout that difficult time courageously raised his voice at the Assembly in criticism of NATO military operations in Kosovo but who, above all offered to some of us his friendship.

The creation in Rome (May 2002) of the NATO-Russia Council was a major step forward in cooperation and generated a new momentum also in parliamentary relations. Mirroring the Council, the NATO-Russia Parliamentary Committee was created to allow discussions at the level of 27, and became the main current framework for direct NATO-Russia parliamentary relations. However, given the nature of parliamentary work, the scope of the Committee is limited to meetings twice a year. Discussions focus on issues of mutual concern and interest –currently terrorism, but also the Caucasus and Central Asia, two regions which Russians parliamentarians approached initially from a Russian internal or «back yard» perspective and therefore were reluctant to incorporate them in common discussions, a reluctance which has now been largely mitigated.

The balance of the work within the Parliamentary Committee is on the whole positive. However, despite the emphasis on 27 equal partners the meetings within this framework never really lose a NATO and Russia “them and us” nature. In the overall relationship, there remains a profound gap in political perceptions, with Russian legislators continuing to challenge the role of NATO in today’s security environment –including terrorism- or even questioning NATO’s mere existence. In particular, the membership of the Baltic countries is still hard for them to accept, a reluctance which is usually expressed through criticism on the policies towards the Russian minorities in these countries.

The relevance attached by NATO parliamentarians to close cooperation with Russian representatives has also, together with enlargement, raised the Assembly’s profile within NATO, achieving an unprecedented fluid relationship with the North Atlantic Council and with the Secretary General. This enhanced profile, initiated with Javier Solana, rose markedly with Lord Robertson. If one of Solana’s main achievements was pioneering NATO-Russia relations with the Founding Act, Lord Robertson faced the difficult task of rebuilding these relations which had profoundly deteriorated after the Kosovo crisis. With that goal as a top priority for the Alliance, he soon understood the challenge posed by the extremely negative attitude towards NATO that dominated the Russian Parliament and willingly accepted and cooperated with our initiative to contribute to that endeavour. Lord Robertson deserves particularly mention as a dedicated supporter of the Assembly. He publicly acknowledged the role played by the Assembly in the recovery of that relationship and the Assembly’s active role in pushing for NATO enlargement. He also willingly agreed to establish new mechanisms, for example, more regular and effective meetings with the NAC, which have given the Assembly a more salient profile within NATO’s architecture, a profile which Jaap de Hoop Scheffer has fully maintained.

The current leaders of the Russian delegation, Lubov Sliska and Victor Ozerov, are both committed to Assembly – Russia relations and determined to enhance the relationship wherever possible and seek maximum involvement of the Russian delegation. Victor Ozerov deserves a special mention because he was an early participant who saw clearly the value of cooperation and has sustained his interest and involvement over the years, including, as recalled above, informal contacts during the Kosovo crisis.

There is much common ground and good personal relations to build on. Yet, we have a long way to go. Perhaps in our expectations we underestimated the problem. Russia has found it harder than expected to make its way through difficult times and to assume its role as a relevant European power in a Europe where nations no longer fight each other nor compete for military superiority. Evidently, the Cold War, the collapse of Communism and of the Soviet Union has left perceptions and psychological scars which will take generations to eradicate. The commitment to cooperation conceals a fundamental scepticism about, and even hostility to, the Alliance, a feeling which will only vanish as Russia grows in welfare, political accountability and, in the end, self-confidence. Perhaps the need to cooperate in areas of mutual concern will also contribute to slowly overcome these doubts and demonstrate that NATO is a partner, not a competitor or adversary. However, this will take more time than we thought and can only be done through dialogue and exchange. The Assembly’s cooperation with Russia will surely continue to play an important part of this.

Rafael Estrella

Head of the Spanish Delegation

Former President of the NATO-PA.