Which lessons could be learned from cross-border cooperation?: A view from Russia

Alexander Sebentsov,
Senior Researcher,
Center for Geopolitical Studies,
Institute of Geography,
Russian Academy of Sciences,

Geopolitical confrontation seems to leave no chance for optimists hoping for a positive development of relations between Russia and the EU. However, many experts draw attention to the fact that cooperation in the neighborhood remains one of the few areas where a positive agenda remains. Extensive experience of interviews with actors of cross-border cooperation and analysis of Federal and regional media discourse in the border regions allows to outline the fundamental changes that have occurred on the Russian side of the border with the EU.

First of all, it should be noted that cross border cooperation today is one of the few forms of depoliticized dialogue between communities on both sides of the border. This form of dialogue does not allow for the emergence of a such a deep division at the local level that exists at the “big policy”level. The practice of interviews with local experts combined with the study of regional and federal discourse shows that local border communities in general are much less affected by negative stereotypes about neighbors. Everyday close contacts with neighbors, as well as vulnerability to the political and economic decision of the central authorities, make them look at the picture drawn by the Central media in a different way. Regional publications also pay more attention to the positive experience of cross border cooperation than to the politicized issues of bilateral relations.

Another important result of cooperation is the large number of accumulated institutions and formats of cooperation on the border of the EU and the Russian North-West. On the one hand, this situation is criticized by many experts and direct participants in cross-border cooperation, who sometimes find it difficult to say which institution is actually working and which is not. On the other hand, the abundance of institutions allows to neutralize “transaction costs” in cross-border cooperation, which are associated with socio-economic, political and even mental differences. Having the ability to reproduce itself, network communities create quite stable connections between border cities, creating a kind of “framework (structural system) for cross-border cooperation”.

Russian practice has also shown that the abundance of institutions and actors involved in cooperation can create a significant synergetic effect, which, even in conditions of strong centralization of power, allows local communities to promote their own interests at the federal and regional level. So, many of the problems characteristic of the TACIS/INTERREG 2004-2006 (lack of co-financing programs from Russia, visa and legal barriers) were addressed with participation by the federal government in signing agreements for the next programs (ENPI CBC Programs 2007-2013 and 2014-2020 ENI CBC Programs). The cross-border cooperation programmes themselves were a real breakthrough, opening up additional opportunities for local communities to implement their own cross-border initiatives.

In the 1990s and the first half of the 2000s, many Russian experts considered cross-border cooperation as a model for the possible integration of Russia with European countries, and the term “cooperation laboratories” and “cooperation ground” was applied to the Republic of Karelia, then to the Kaliningrad region. Despite the current situation, it may not be necessary to abandon this approach. Firstly, the situation of confrontation can’t be eternal, and the warming of relations in the future will require a positive agenda, which in the current situation can provide cross-border and cross-border cooperation. Secondly, given the attention paid by the Central authorities to the situation on their border regions, it is hoped that the positive experience already available today will not go unnoticed. Thirdly, cross-border cooperation remains a kind of stabilizing factor in international relations and reminds us that we still have something to lose.

Email: asebentsov@igras.ru

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