Vladimir Putin might have won Sunday's presidential elections in Russia amidst suspicions of fraud, but the continuing protests could lead to the country slowly changing. We talked to German Social-Democrat Knut Fleckenstein, chair of the European Parliament's delegation to the EU-Russia Parliamentary Cooperation Committee, about the changes he has been observing and what he expects for the EU's relations with Russia.
Did the recent protests following the State Duma elections have an impact on the presidential race and how do you see the political situation developing?
The protests that followed the State Duma elections in early December mark an important change in Russia. This change hasn't affected Russia's political system yet but it has already started to change Russian society. Most of the people on the streets represent the growing middle class and they claim respect for their civil rights as citizens of the Russian Federation. This is a good sign.
What does a new term for Putin mean for EU-Russia relations?
Good cooperation between the EU and Russia is equally important for both partners. Putin is well aware of this. I expect he will let Russia play a more important, more constructive and more responsible role on the international scene. We need better cooperation with Russia, for example to find solutions for the situation in Syria and the nuclear threat coming from Iran.
Russia has been criticised for its human rights record, but it remains an important geopolitical player and a key oil and gas supplier. What should the focus of EU policy towards Russia be?
EU's relations with Russia are built on very close economic ties, mutual interdependence in the energy sector and cooperation on issues concerning the geographic neighbourhood. It is not always easy to strike the right balance between different interests and to find the right tone, especially when it comes to concerns regarding fundamental freedoms and human rights. I think the EU should strengthen the political dialogue, including between the European Parliament and the State Duma. It is through a regular and meaningful dialogue that we can achieve better cooperation and stronger commitment to common values and objectives. One of our goals must be to strengthen people-to-people contacts, not least through visa liberalisation.