Russia is indeed a european country

Article published on Sept. 24, 2009
community published
Article published on Sept. 24, 2009
Russia is the biggest country in the world stretching over 9,000 kilometres and with a surface area 35 times that of France (17 million square kilometres).  Russia has an unmatched wealth of natural resources and a population of over 140 million (eighth most populated country in world rankings).  These parameters alone make it a major player on the international geopolitical scene.

73% of the population live in urban areas and 80% of these inhabitants live to the west of the Ural mountain chain and consequently in Europe.  Russia boasts one of the best literacy rates in the world (99.5% in 1999) and despite the many ethnic groups speaking more than 70 dialects, most inhabitants are bi-lingual.  The fact that Russia is a federation allows it to manage the diverse ethnic groups spread over the vast area of the country. The population is young with 75% under the age of 45, however the death rate currently exceeds the birth rate despite policies introduced which favour the young.

The climate in Russia is subject to extremes between summer and winter months resulting in an average annual temperature of minus 5.5°C. The seasons of spring and autumn are almost non-existent.  The lowest recorded temperature of minus 70°C was taken in the town of Verkhoiansk and the average winter temperature hovers at around minus 25°C. Average summer temperatures vary between 20°C in the north and 38°C in the south. 

The climate has a direct influence on lifestyle and economic activity.  In some areas, the permafrost, which means that the soil sub-strata never de-frosts, creates financial and technical constraints for the construction and petroleum extraction industry.  

Since the break up of the USSR in 1990, Russia has had to face two major challenges: the transition from a closed Soviet economy to a liberal capitalist economy and to the acceptance of an economy ruled by the market resulting from supply and demand.

Russia is a member of the G8 group of industrialized countries with its economy ranking eleventh in the world according to the World Bank statistics of 2007.

Russia experienced an average growth in GDP of 6.8% from 1999 to 2004(after a financial crisis in 1998).  However its economic performance is based largely on the success of its natural resource industries, especially oil and gas.  This has led to the company Gazprom becoming a key element in Russian foreign policy.

90% of Russian oil is extracted from two major basins: Western Siberia (Tyumen area, 2144 kilometres east of Moscow) and the Volga-Ural (the Samara region, 860 kilometres south-east of Moscow and the autonomous Republic of Tatarstan).

Russia is classified as an emerging market but it qualifies as a special case for various reasons:

Firstly, it is the only country in this category not to be a newly industrialised country: for much of the 20th century it was the ideological and industrial heart of the military superpower, the USSR.

Secondly, it is a country which makes up a part of continental Europe. The capital city Moscow is situated before the Ural mountain range and it shares a common history with other European countries. 

Thirdly, Russia, unlike other emerging market economies, has an ageing population in common with its European neighbours. This decline will soon become a problematic issue when considering the growing Chinese presence in Eastern Siberia.

Politically, Russia is governed by a democratically elected government with a semi-presidential system.  The president and the prime-minister both have important roles regarding domestic decision making and in foreign policy.

For many reasons, often unjustifiable, Russia instils fear in Western countries, who would like to see this newly democratized country behaving according to the political norms of the old democracies of Western Europe.  We must beware of making ethnically based political judgments of third countries. In the case of Russia, the trials and tribulations of the past 20 years appear to have been forgotten.  The end of the USSR brought anarchy and the collapse of Russian influence in the Yeltsin years, a fall in living standards and demographic decline. A new state was created with the election of President Putin heralding a successful return to the international political scene (G8 membership) and real economic success (several years of high economic growth).  We must leave it for the Russians themselves to choose their path to democracy and the time to develop their own democratic model.  None of the old Western democratic models can be transferred from one state to another. Just imagine imposing French style democracy on the British and vice versa.  Russian democracy is targeted repeatedly by Western media, often demonstrating ignorance of Russian history and culture.  

This lack of comprehension leads to misunderstandings which can only be negative for Europe as a whole and could lead to a new political barrier running across the heart of Europe.  In these times of global geopolitical uncertainty we do not need new divisions in Europe but a tightening of the ranks behind a united front!

The history of Russia began in the 9th century in an area shared today by Ukraine, Belarus, and Western Russia. It was the time of the Kievan Rus’, founded by the Varangians, Vikings who came from Scandinavia and who were ruled by the Rurik dynasty. The Kievan Rus’ ruled over a federated state of oriental tribes with slave status.  In 988 AD, the Grand Prince Vladimir converted to Orthodox Christianity, the religion of the Byzantine Empire. Orthodoxy became the state religion and a major factor in maintaining Russian national unity. The thirteenth century Mongol-Tatar invasion put an end to the Kievan Rus’ and began the State of the Golden Horde. This state was founded by the Mongols in the south of the Volga and all the defeated Russian Principalities were forced to pay tribute and recognize Mongol Sovereignty which lasted for three centuries. Russia considers, certainly rightly, that its suffering and sacrifice under Mongol rule saved Europe from the Tatar- Mongol Yoke of servitude and allowed Western Europe to enjoy freedom and prosperity giving it the history it has today.

From the 13th to the 16th centuries, one Russian Principality, Muscovy, whose Capital was Moscow, took the lead in the revolt against the Mongols and created Russia.  This marked the beginning of the end of Mongol rule and the integration of the independent Russian principalities of Novgorod in 1478 and Pskov city-state in 1510.

Ivan IV also called Ivan the Terrible was the first prince to call himself Tsar seizing the remaining Mongolian kingdoms and extending the territory of Russia to the East without any obstacle.  Ivan IV considered himself to be the sole heir of Prince Vladimir.

Troubled times followed the end of the dynasty of the descendents of Rurik (dating from the Varangian Princes), until the creation of the Romanov dynasty in 1613. An era of great rulers followed: Peter the Great (1685-1725) who founded St Petersburg and declared it the new capital in 1712, symbolizing the openness of Russia to Europe.  Catherine II (1762-1796) called Catherine the Great, enlightened autocrat, patron of the arts, literature and education (based on the Encyclopaedia of Diderot and Alembert). She corresponded with Voltaire and invited Diderot to the royal Court. The Russian nobility became westernized through the influence of German philosophers and the French language. Some were enthusiastic about the ideas of the era of Enlightenment and even by the French Revolution. 

Russia entered the 19th century as a great powerful nation thanks to the reign of Alexander 1st who played an important role in the Napoleonic wars and the Holy Alliance.  Alexander II (1818-1881) also referred to as Alexander the Liberator, attempted to reform Russian society by proposing changes to the constitution in order to bring about the abolition of serfdom, reform to the judicial system and the laws of censorship, changes to the electoral system and even the military. He was assassinated for his efforts on the 13th March 1881 before he had realized his dreams. Alexander III ascended to the throne following the assassination of his father and led a series of contra-reforms in reaction to his fathers` violent death.  During his reign, industrialization of Russia grew rapidly thanks to foreign investment and the expansion of the rail network to over 30000 kilometres of track by 1890.  Russia continued to expand its sphere of influence covering China and Korea right up to Japan.

The defeat suffered by Russia in the war against Japan triggered the first Russian revolution in 1905.  Nicholas II (1868-1918) who became Tsar in 1894 was obliged to seek other opportunities for expansion of its sphere of influence.

Russia entered the war against Germany and the Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1914 in defence of its Serbian ally.  The Russian forces attacked Eastern Poland and suffered humiliating defeat.  Social unrest erupted in February 1917 leading to the abdication of Tsar Nicholas II and the declaration of a Russian republic.  The October Revolution triggered by the Bolshevik political party on the 25th October 1917 led to the execution of the Royal family on the 17th July 1918 at Yekaterinburg.  A civil war between the Bolsheviks and the White Russians (Republicans or Monarchists) lasting three years ended with victory for the Bolsheviks on the 22 December 1922.  The Union of Soviet Socialist Republics was established with Russia as a member state.

In the ensuing period, the USSR became a world power and one of the victors of the Second World War. With end of the war in 1945, the USSR and the USA divided the world into two powerful political spheres.  The battle of Stalin-grad (January 1943) was a key turning point in the war bringing the Soviet army to Berlin.  Europe was divided in two and the so called Iron Curtain remained in place until the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989.  On December 21st 1991 the CPSU was dissolved by Mikhail Gorbachev and the Soviet Union collapsed.  As the main successor of the USSR, Russia has its place in International Institutions and a permanent seat at the Security Council of the United Nations.  A political and economic union, the CIS was created in 1991 in an attempt to retain ties between former members of the USSR.

The election to power of President Putin in 2000 brought about a Russian revival and a return the world political scene, after the period of political and economic collapse marked by the Yeltsin years.

Today we see Russia re-instated as a great nation participating in international decision making and an important player in geopolitics. 

During the 1990`s, the West was judged to have hurt the feelings of the Russian people by underestimating them as a nation.  With the arrival of Putin in 2000 a deep distrust developed towards the European Union mostly as a result of the “Colour Revolutions” and the ensuing encroachment on the traditional Russian sphere of influence.  Before this time, the Kremlin had been seeking an arrangement with the EU to counter American influence in Europe especially concerning the missile shield project, which had served to deepen the humiliation felt by Russia after the collapse of the Warsaw pact.  The limits of Russian tolerance were reached with the case of Georgia and Ossetia, where the Georgian President Saakachvili was under the illusion that he could act with impunity due to alleged re-assurances of support from third countries.  The Russian response was rapid and meant to send an unequivocal warning to the USA and to certain European countries.  Russian emerged from this political crisis with its place in the Caucasus firmly repositioned and its political role as the dominant player in the area reaffirmed.  It is without any doubt the first combined military and political success story for Russia since the collapse of the USSR.

If we wish to avoid a face-off between the European Union and Russia and a new rift dividing Europe, we must seek to define a mutually agreeable space to work in together. Failure to do so will weaken the influence of Europe as a player on the stage of world geopolitics and give pleasure and advantage to our political and economic competitors.

We need to work together to build a strategic partnership using a model of the project based on the four “Common areas”. Following the Saint-Petersburg Summit in May 2003, Russia and the EU made a joint declaration for the creation and establishment of four common areas relating to, Economics, freedom, justice and security, external security and research.  The road maps of the four areas were adopted at the Moscow Summit on the 10th May 2005 due to the personal involvement of the Russian President Vladimir Putin.  These were for Brussels and Moscow, real working documents, less restrictive than International treaties and brought an important political dimension to co-operation between Russia and the EU.  Whilst certain criticisms have been directed at these roadmaps, they do nonetheless serve as a starting point for the building of a truly Pan- European shared space in economic, political and cultural issues.

A Europe reflecting the vision of General Charles de Gaulle: From the Atlantic to the Ural passing through the axis of Paris-Berlin-Moscow!


Professor at the IESEG School of Management, Catholic University of Lille.

Lecturer of the European Commission (TEAM-EUROPE France).

President of The Atlantic-Ural College.