Based on a speech ‘Between diplomacy and lobbying: the case of Russia-EU relations’ by  Pavel Kanevskiy Associate Professor of Political Science Lomonosov Moscow State University. Original text has been edited. 

Russian interest groups have been constantly learning how European policymaking works, using lobbying as an instrument of direct and indirect influence. Fusion of business and government often makes it difficult for Russian interest groups, foremost business, to exercise influence abroad independently.

Russian lobbying efforts are predominantly aimed at two major policy areas: energy and sanctions.  

Despite discussions about reducing European dependence on Russian oil and gas and prospects of new energy sources development, the energy sector was and still remains probably the most influential voice of Russian corporate community in Europe despite the political turbulence caused by the Ukraine crisis and Russia’s worsening image on the international stage. Russian EU lobbying can be divided into three categories:

A) Influencing policy makers and leadership in the European countries and the European Union institutions;

B) Hiring lobbying firms;

C) Interaction within the organizations representing business interests: chambers of commerce, trade associations, industry unions etc.

Influencing policy makers and leadership directly might be the most difficult, but also the most effective way to reach ultimate goals. Gazprom, for instance has an established network of contacts with many top officials and business communities in Germany, Italy, Austria and other countries. As the Russian government and business see the EU decision making as a complicated and bureaucratized process, they often find it more efficient to build “bypassing” influence networks using close ties with the stakeholders in major European capitals, especially those having ramified contacts across the region. When it comes to lobbying new projects or changing the legislation Gasprom would rather use its extensive connections beyond the official cabinets. For example, many representatives of the German government and CEOs of German energy companies are conveying a message that the Nord Stream 2 pipeline is a business oriented project, which has nothing to do with politics, and will be overall beneficial for Europe. Considering the political climate, voices of prominent German businessmen would probably have more influence on the European Commission than Gazprom’s own attempts to pressure Brussels.

Before the Ukraine crisis, Russian energy interests had more space for maneuver because there was an institutionalized mechanism: the EU-Russia Energy Dialogue. It gave a possibility to organize meetings between the European Commission, Russian energy corporations, state officials, diplomats and experts from both sides. However, despite the fact that the EU-Russia Energy Dialogue is not functioning, Russian energy interests are still well represented in Europe.

Russia and the EU have preserved many indirect streams of communication via separate decision makers and businessmen that foster reconciliation of interests. Hiring professional lobbyists and acting through associations are rather seen as additional layers aimed at spreading a wider image of Russian corporate sector or Russian government’s actions abroad. Many Russian corporations are affiliated with PR, GR firms and think tanks.  Yet Russian interaction with professional lobbyists is no comparison with much more proactive positions by other countries and interest groups. Just a brief look at the Asian Pacific or Middle Eastern interest groups and governments affiliations with lobbying community in Brussels shows that Russia’s interests are very narrow, mainly relating to energy and some infrastructure projects. The same refers to professional organizations: Russian companies are members of a number of organizations, including Business Europe, FuelsEurope, CONCAWE (Oil companies), CEFIC, European Energy Forum etc. But these also usually relate to energy interests. Prospects to build a wider industrial cooperation didn’t fulfill the promises. The once planned closer multilateral interaction between the Russian Union of Industrialists and Entrepreneurs and Business Europe proved to be unsuccessful due to numerous structural and political implications.

Russian lobbying in the EU heavily relies on top-down approach, individual ties between the major decision makers. At the same time it has a relatively poor communication with the key policy making centers, experts and the public opinion.

Russian tactics of influence are aimed at generating a more favorable environment for its big businesses. It coincides with the government’s intentions to the extent that Russia heavily relies on commodities exports and its economic security is largely connected with the big energy corporations’ potential to extend their networks of influence and supply markets.

It wasn’t the Ukraine crisis and worsened relations with the West that changed the balance between the government and private interests in Russia. Before Russia had a more complex system of interests and a more vibrant lobbying community inside and abroad that included not only corporate actors, but also smaller entities, including the media, smaller enterprises and NGOs. The adoption of the corporate model led to a domination of those interests that had a direct link with the government’s strategy, foremost the energy sector. It is impossible to say how would have Russian lobbying in Europe developed if there were more public interests represented and if Russia had a wider communication network with the European stakeholders.

There are several reasons why the current mechanism has only limited influence on European policy making. A top-down approach depends on high-profile decision makers who are ready to be mediators between different sides. Russia had this moment in the 1990s and early 2000s when many representatives of the European leadership, including national leaders, the European Commission and some European Parliament members, were supporting the idea of a closer cooperation, advocating for Russian business and state interests. To some extent, Russia still has sympathizers, but there are much fewer of those who represent mainstream centrist politics; many derive from non-systemic, often populist forces. It is still not clear to what extent it helps Russia politically, but it is obvious that it doesn’t help Russia to spread its rational economic interests.

A decisive factor of Russian weak lobbying capabilities in Europe relates to inability to build strong coalition networks, including NGOs and the media. Many policy makers in Russia, including representatives of the business and diplomacy circles, see European lobbying system either as a very simple (“big business decides everything”), or as a too complicated one (“alignment of interests is beyond understanding”). Corporate sector might indeed possess majority of resources in most of the policy areas, but still it doesn’t explain why corporate interests often lose to public interests. Decisions made in the EU depend not only on resources, but also on public interests. Public policy can be a dangerous water for many interest groups, because it involves the public opinion and those who formulate it – politicians, media, NGOs, civic leaders etc.

Russia may be strong in maintaining narrow corporate and governmental interests, but has much less impact on public policies. Because of Crimea and military escalation in Ukraine, public opinion in the West tends to be anti-Russian today, while Russia is seen as an illiberal state violating international law and seeking to undermine elections across the world. Russian interest groups couldn’t involve into wider coalition networks before, it is even harder to accomplish it today, in a much more unfriendly atmosphere. It also became more difficult for Russia to use services of professional lobbyists, many of whom bear reputation risks supporting Russia. One of the biggest weaknesses of Russian attitude towards Europe, especially for the last decade, was to consider the government as the leading actor in bilateral and multilateral ties. In the end it led to a simplified model of interaction where lobbying serves interests of the few and doesn’t engage wider public both in Russia and in Europe. Russian government couldn’t overcome its negative attitude towards NGOs, furthermore, it did a lot to eradicate and limit NGOs influence inside the country, not to mention their possibilities to be active actors in the West. Spread of allied GONGOs that translated governmental position into policy making areas, was a continuation of top-down approach. Their potential proved to be weak when it came to confronting politicized issues relating to security or sanctions. As a result, Russian lobbying efforts in Europe have a very limited capacity. They can be overcome using remaining communication within the big business networks and some key policy makers, but it will be almost impossible to rebalance the overall situation towards business as usual, especially until sanctions are in place. Yet Russia didn’t waste all of its possibilities to build a better communication network, but it has to engage into public policies more systematically, using societal, while diplomacy has to become more sophisticated and rely more on second and third track support, including expert networks and public diplomacy. In addition, there are areas that will remain relatively immune to geopolitical instability: science and innovation, academia, small and medium enterprises all of which could add to bottom-up approach and lead Russia-EU relations away from the enclosed circle.

In sum, the international lobbying model used by Russia lacks diversification and participation of more actors representing wider societal interests. Europe remains for Russia the most important source of investment, modernization and energy supply region. So far, Russia has managed to preserve its key interests in mutually beneficial areas, such as trade, energy and investment, despite the political turmoil in the region and loss of trust. Russian interest groups continue to influence policy makers notwithstanding the more aggressive political rhetoric. To what extent will interest groups remain intact and will they be able to counter security issues that dominate Russia-EU relations discourse, is an open question. But it is obvious that as long as Russia continues to follow top down approach, limiting number of participating non-governmental actors and avoiding public policy issues in Europe, its capacity will not be sufficient to promote its long-term strategic interests.



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