Russia and Spain: To be or not to be strategic partners

In March 2014, Russian Foreign Minister, Sergei Lavrov, on a visit to Madrid declared that both Russia and Spain “have reached a level of strategic partnership”[1]. Many experts have doubted on this strategic pattern between the Russian Federation and the Kingdom of Spain as there is no statistic to prove it. However in the past years Russia and Spain have continued strengthening their bilateral relations and cooperation on an international scale.

Both countries were never opposed to each other in open conflict; although throughout History there have been precedents when both Russian and Spanish troops fought as friends or foes, as for example during the Spanish Civil War or WW2. Speaking of military confrontation, this never came to be an issue for both countries as they don’t share any common border and distance in between is considerable. Nevertheless it goes without mentioning that both Russia and Spain have growing interests in developing closer links resulting in future perspectives and common advantages for their respective ambitions in the Mediterranean Sea or on the International level.

 

Re-establishing Spanish-Russian relations

Bilateral relations were interrupted during the Franco’s dictatorship; diplomatic relations were restored in 1977[2] and therefore are very recent. Yet politically and culturally speaking both countries kept informal but close ties, many Spanish republicans fled to the USSR during the Civil War and brought a fair amount of gold, this would become one of the first topics agreed with the Soviet Union[3] after the diplomatic relations were restored. Although the USSR ceased to exist in 1991, this didn’t really impact on the bilateral relations with Spain as the Prime Minister, Felipe Gonzalez, a socialist, kept a constant policy from 1982 to 1996. Spain was among the first European nations to recognize the Russian Federation as the legal heir of the Soviet Union, which would then play a role on rapidly establishing commercial links. Many positive facts also impact on the bilateral relations these two countries entertain, for instance, the lack of controversial issues, which do not obstruct on trade or political relations as it sometimes does in the case of Japan[4] or Great Britain[5]. Motivated by parliamentary majority of the socialist party, Spain was among the first EU member-states to ratify the Russian-EU partnership agreement in 1995. As Natalia Akineeva notices, Spain played the role of a permanent business and political partner when it gained access to the Russian market soon after the fall of the Soviet Union[6].

 

Legal framework of the mutual relations

On the 27th of December 1991, Russia and Spain reckoned the legal heritage of the Soviet Union, therefore Russia became the legal successor meaning that the country maintained it’s obligations engaged during Soviet times towards Spain and vice-versa.

During President Elstine’s visit to Madrid in 1994, both countries concluded the Treaty of Friendship and Cooperation establishing the framework for future political interaction. Illustrated on the maritime sector, this cooperation has been actively promoted with many agreements being signed and ratified by national institutions[7].

As for the scientific and cultural spheres many memorandums have been passed. In 1991 the founding of the Pushkin fond in Madrid, which primary mission is to promote the teaching of Russian language in Spain took place, reciprocally Spain inaugurated the muscovite centre of the Cervantes institute in 2002.

More recently, in 2015, the city of Malaga became host to the first branch of the Russian Museum abroad. Witnessing the strong cultural ties both countries recognize in their bilateral relations and their will to develop them further more.

 

Economic priorities

In times of financial crises and recession in both Russia and Spain, challenges have submerged in regards to future interactions. It goes without mentioning that current sanctions imposed on Russia by the EU represent a major obstacle for future plans in the economic sphere. These are primarily linked to the crisis in Ukraine and to EU foreign policy making, however Spanish elite’s had substantive difficulties for positioning towards the events on Ukraine[8]. It could be said, then, that Spain here is positioned more as a follower of EU foreign policy rather than a participant in EU foreign policy making. Nevertheless, these sanctions didn’t impact that much on bilateral trade with Russia as both countries don’t figure among each other’s top 10 import or export partners[9]. As Charles Powell pointed out, it’s tourism that, economically speaking; attracts both countries the most. Yet the evolution reported is minimal, in 2011, Russian tourists represented 2% of overall visitors to Spain, but positioned first among BRIC countries, this number also coincides on percentage of tourist spending, around 2%[10].  The recent events in the Middle East particularly in Tunisia, Egypt and Turkey have greatly impacted Russian foreign tourism forecast. The sanctions adopted against Turkey, the halt of direct flights from Russia to Egypt’s main coastal resort Sharm-el-Sheikh and omnipresent terrorist threats in Tunisia, Turkey and Sinai will certainly put off some tourists from going to the Middle East. The Migrant crisis in Europe, may also refrain Russian tourists from going to Greece or Germany and the fall of Russian currency has certainly limited expenses in foreign holidays for Russians, generally speaking. It seems then, that internal Russian tourism will greatly benefit from this, which would then mean a lesser presence of Russian tourists in Southern France, Spain and Portugal to the profit of coastal resorts in Crimea and Sochi.

 

Strategic partners after all?

While bearing in mind that both Russia and Spain present a great distance between them it is yet possible to say that Russia has a close eye on Spain. Historically speaking, the major disagreement both countries faced was certainly the Iraqi invasion in 2003. Spanish Prime Minister, José Maria Aznar, among with Tony Blair and George Bush, formed the “coalition of the willing” sealing a major shift in Spain’s foreign policy[11]. However Moscow’s inability to push forward the diplomatic solution both with France and Germany[12], paradoxically, played a major role in preserving partnering or even friendly relations towards Spain, despite Aznar’s militaristic moves. After all, Spain’s engagement in the Iraqi invasion didn’t come to any major strategic shift on NATO or European levels as it followed the Anglo-American lead. In 2004, on the aftermath of the Madrid’s attacks, the People’s Party lost the elections that saw the Socialist Party come to power with absolute majority. Since then, Spain would have a merely restrained position in international affairs, which would favour a closer rapprochement with Russia, benefiting from the popular discontent over Aznar’s implication in the second Iraqi war. Aznar’s neoconservative ideology and nostalgia for the past Spanish Golden Aged certainly pushed him to take on more than he could handle, running off of any options to exit from his errors which lead him to the 2004 elections with a large electorate disapproval. Remarquably enough, this was remembered and analysed by Aznar’s successor José Luis Rodriguez Zapatero at the government but also by his party-mate Mariano Rajoy Brey. It is interesting to notice the evolution of Spain’s diplomacy towards Russia in the Middle-Eastern region at the UN Security Council. From 2003 to 2004 Spain, seated as a non-permanent member with a very implicated role in the Iraqi crisis. Ten years later, in 2015 to 2016 period, Spain seats again at the UN Security Council and diplomatically supports Russia’s efforts in Syria. As far as Syria is concerned, Spain was among the first countries to follow Moscow’s position of a political solution to domestic unrest, without considering Bachar Al-Assad’s departure as a primary priority. Spain even supported Russia’s military campaign in Syria by letting Russian strategic bombers refuel over the Gibraltar Straights, somewhat mirroring the support given to the US B-52 bombers transiting over Spain on their way to Iraq in 2003.

It is also worth mentioning that recent refuelling of Russian submarine in Ceuta made the British allies very nervous to the proximity this ship was of Gibraltar. Spain’s foreign policy, since many years is haunted by the inability to find a solution to the issue around Gibraltar. Despite Spain entered NATO and the EU it didn’t refrain Spanish politics from the claims over this strategic sea overlooking rock. The 2002 referendum held in Gibraltar didn’t help in solving this issue. The recent tensions around the artificial reef[13] and the shooting of a Spanish patrol boat[14] have made diplomatic relations extremely tense. Closing on with Russia would certainly allow Spain to find a powerful ally in counter balancing British political and military influence, as a matter of fact Russia was never highly estimated in the eyes of British politics, which is opposite to Spain’s views on Russia. At the same time, closing on with Spain would offer to Moscow a major ally in EU and NATO framework.

On November 18th 1996, Spanish Cortes, voted in favour of a resolution implying the government in making steps for integrating the NATO military framework and to push forward for a closer dialogue with Russia[15]. Moreover during NATO exercises Trident Juncture held in Spain, Russian military observers were invited for the very first time. The growing Russian interests over Algeria and Morocco will, in a near future, impulse Russia’s strategic come back to the Northern African region, the fall of Kaddafi’s regime in Libya and the expansion of extreme jihadist ideology are the reasons why Moscow’s eyes are laid on these two relatively stable country. This come back may translate in interesting military contracts with both countries as well as Islamic institutional cooperation with Morocco in promoting an alternative teaching of Islamic theology. However lets not forget that Russia’s prime threat, as spoken in Russia, is NATO’s extension and ABM defence project. Growing cooperation in Northern Africa might counterbalance the NATO power over the Mediterranean Sea as it once did with Egypt and Syria. The Spanish withdrawal from the ABM project meant a closing towards Russian conditions and may as well offer to Spain a mediator status between both Russia and NATO or Russia and the USA.

 

Conclusion

How the Russia-Spain bilateral relations will further develop will depend partially on the results of Spain’s June 2016 elections and Russian presidential elections in 2017. Although both countries entertain friendly relations, closing up towards each other would request to step forward in achieving common goals. For the moment these seem to be very vague but Russia’s come back in North Africa would certainly redefine them. Trade links should have to develop even more to achieve tangible advances in mutual commercial dependency, some perspectives are to be seen in the opening of LNG installations in Northern Siberia that could impulse Russia’s Gas deliveries to Spain. The Russian embassy has taken steps in closing up cultural ties with the Spanish population through various cultural events, commemorations and media coverage, which gives an interesting in sight in Russia’s plans for Soft power projection.

Written by Martin Tammik, 3rd year student at ILERI, under the direction of Karina Lacroix, professor at ILERI.

Sources

[1] Speech delivered by Russian MFA in March 2014, http://archive.mid.ru//bdomp/brp_4.nsf/f68cd37b84711611c3256f6d00541094/611f256b701022fe44257c94003d856e!OpenDocument

[2] History of Spanish foreign policy – MGIMO publications

[3] « The Spanish gold »

[4] Peace treaty & territorial tensions – Kurill islands

[5] Litvinienko Case

[6] Natalia Akineeva, History of Spanish foreign policy – MGIMO publications

[7] Intergovernmental Agreements on maritime traffic (1992; 2001; 2006) ratified by Spanish Parliament and Russian Duma.

[8] Charles Powell, Spain-Russia relations https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iBI5RVGs9Eg

[9] Explore different charts from http://atlas.media.mit.edu/en/profile/country/esp/

[10] Charts from Atlas of the brands http://atlas.marcasrenombradas.com/analisis/spain-as-an-international-tourist-destination/?lang=en

[11] Isaías Barreñada, Iván Martín, José Antonio Sanahuja, L’ESPAGNE ET LA GUERRE EN IRAK translate. “Spain and the Iraqi War”, Presses de Sciences Po “Critique internationale” 2004/2 nº 23, p. 9-21

[12] Céline Bayou, The Iraqi Crisis, positions and reactions of CIS, East and Central european countries, La Doc. française « Le Courrier des pays de l’Est », 2003/3 n° 1033 p.48-59

[13] BBC David Cameron “seriously concerned’ by Gibraltar events” 05/08/2013 http://www.bbc.com/news/uk-23574507

[14] TV ZVEZDA (translated from Russian) “Expert explains why British ship shot on Spanish patrol boat” 05/05/2016 http://tvzvezda.ru/news/vstrane_i_mire/content/201605051710-wqtu.htm

[15] Resoluciones aprobadas por el Pleno del Congreso de los Diputados con motivo del debate de la comunicación del Gobierno sobre la participación de España en la Alianza Atlántica renovada (OTAN)

http://www.senado.es/pdf/legis6/congreso/bocg/E0065.PDF

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