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Foreign Policy Premiere of President Putin

Published on , , Sofia

The new/old Russian president, Vladimir Putin, who again entered the Kremlin in the beginning of May is a person who does nothing by accident. It is no accident that he sent his predecessor (and now a prime minister) Dmitry Medvedev for the G8 and NATO summits and chose Belarus for his first foreign visit. The order of his priorities is part of Mr Putin's messages. After Belarus, where he spent the night, Vladimir Putin managed to visit Germany and France in one day. After that he returned to his homeland for the EU-Russia summit, which took place on June 3-4 in St. Petersburg. And on June 5th he was already on a trip to Beijing, stopping briefly en route to China in Uzbekistan. What does Putin say with this order of foreign visits?

Although before the presidential elections in Russia Putin had significantly hardened the tone toward the Western allies, his problems with the demonstrations since December showed him clearly that nothing was the same as it was during his first two terms in office as president. The world is now rebellious, the economic crisis in key global zones additionally fuels the rebellious spirit and Russia can no longer be a lonely and isolated island of authoritarian peace with a democratic hue. Now it is time Putin's Russia to adapt to the new world.

Why Belarus?

Belarus was the first leg of Vladimir Putin's presidential tour for his introduction as the new host of Kremlin. One of the few strongly authoritarian countries in the world is a building block of the Eurasian union, which Vladimir Putin announced he wanted to build last year and the outlines of which are getting clearer. The construction of this new union will be in stages and will gradually involve other countries from the area of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) - those are the former Soviet republics. But for the seriousness of his intentions speaks the fact that Putin is using his foreign trips to clarify his ideas about the Eurasian union. This topic was present in almost all of his meetings so far.

Belarus is very dependent on Russian aid and even during Putin's visit in Minsk a third loan was agreed for the troubled Belarusian economy and negotiations are underway on a fourth loan. Belarus is also strongly dependent in terms of energy on its big eastern neighbour. The existence of authoritarian rule, for its part, makes the agreements with Minsk extremely long-term for Moscow, which does not have scruples whether or not there are human rights violations or lack of democracy when it can ensure economic benefits.

France or Germany?

The issue of relations with the European Union and its leading member states, however, is quite different. The lack of structural reforms in Russia, which throughout the last decade was building its prosperity entirely on the basis of oil and natural gas revenues, is already delivering. The country is facing serious challenges, enhanced additionally by declining revenues from foreign trade due to the crisis in Europe and the non-satisfactory global growth. Putin acknowledged himself during his visit in Berlin on June 1st that the gas deliveries for Germany and Europe at large were not growing. This is due as to the declining consumption because of the eurozone crisis so to the determination of the European Union to diversify its suppliers, as recently commented on Twitter Mikhail Kassyanov, former Russian premier.

This is why it is no accident that Putin chose to visit France and Germany at once, as the two countries are the motor of the European Union (which is yet to be proved again after the election of Francois Hollande as president of France). Here as well the situation is changed and additionally complicated by the fact that of his old European friends only Angela Merkel (Berlusconi was kindly asked to step down and was replaced by Mario Monti, a technocrat) and Jose Manuel Barroso are left. It is these new realities that provoked media in Berlin and Paris to ask a not very comfortable question. In Berlin Putin was asked whose side he was - of Germany, which seems the only country that is still supporting the stability pact and is against eurobonds, while the rest, France in particular, maintain the opposite position.

"You are putting me in a very delicate position right before my visit in Paris", Putin started. "Regarding my sympathies, they are on the side of the Russian interest and the interests of the Russian state. Judging by what Ms Chancellor is talking and doing, her sympathies lie on the side of the interests of the German people and the German state". Putin tried to get away on the issue of eurobonds - an issue which again took the first place on the EU agenda after the election of socialist Francois Hollande, by playing the role that he did not know much about the issue: "Regarding these possible eurobonds or whatever they call them - we still don't know what they are. We don't know what is proposed, how are they going to be issued, under what conditions. I can imagine the use of such tools but I imagine them after full guarantees for the stability and order of economy".

In Paris Putin had to answer a similar question, put even more straightforwardly - which country is number one for you? "Your question is not just provocative, it is even rude", Putin said and added: "With France and Germany we are bound by long-term partnership in the history of our country. There were good times and there were difficult times but it is very obvious that France and Germany are strategic partners and we value our relations with France and Germany. It is no accident that I came to Berlin and Paris in one day". But then Putin drew a slightly different economic situation - the revenues from the economic cooperation with France amount to $28 bn, while with Germany - $72 bn. Russia invested last year $5.6 bn in Germany and in France only 140 million.

The message from the meetings of the Russian president in Berlin and Paris was his full conviction that everything was being done necessary for the eurozone crisis to be solved.

A new EU-Russia agreement

The issue of a new basic agreement of Russia with the EU was a major one in the talks in St Petersburg of Vladimir Putin, Herman Van Rompuy, the president of the European Council, and Jose Manuel Barroso, who heads the European Commission, but during the talks the eurozone crisis was also discussed. But it was a journalistic question that made the usually very even-tempered haiku poet Herman Van Rompuy to explode. I am still not sure if it was the question or Vladimir Putin's intervention with an answer that enraged the European president. Right after the question was asked, Mr Putin said: "Let me start first to allow my colleagues to better prepare their answer". This insertion could be a subject of deep interpretations but my take is that Vladimir Putin is deeply aware that Barroso and Van Rompuy are not those who take the decisions and have more or less representative functions. This is why they are often forced to read from speeches prepared in advance.

After Putin's explanations that Russia was suffering from the eurozone crisis but was hoping that the EU would tackle the problems, Herman Van Rompuy asked for the floor.

"I have to respond to this accusation against the eurozone that it creates problems for the global economy. First, we have problems of our own, which are well known to everybody, but global economic growth has its own problems in several developing and emerging economies, not the Russian of course, but in several other emerging economies, which faced huge problems and this is an element of the explanation of the decline of the economic growth. The euro area is not the single reason for the slowdown of growth globally".

Mr Rompuy continued pointing out that in the end of the year positive economic growth is expected in the euro area as a whole. Moreover, in the western states solid recovery is to come, while in 2013 economic growth will reach 1 to 2 per cent. With the same tone the president recalled that what Europe was going through so far in no way could be compared to the huge financial crisis of 2008-2009, which "came from the other side of the ocean". "Now Europe in general, in the European Union, recession was minus 4 per cent and these were pretty bad numbers, but this year the worst forecasts are for -0.4%, do your math. Can we overcome the crisis? Of course we can. We need new treaties in the EU", Van Rompuy emphasised.

Yet in his introductory remarks Vladimir Putin clearly showed which problem was more important for him - the new agreement with the EU, on which however there has been lack of progress for two years now after the previous agreement expired. Putin was extremely straightforward, saying that this agreement was the main stumbling block in the trade-economic part of the relations with the EU. Responding to a question precisely about the agreement, the Russian president was even more straightforward and specific, saying that the reason for the stalemate of the negotiations on the new agreement was due to the fact that the EU put forward new conditions.

"I will not hide and it is no secret that in the course of the negotiations process our European colleagues raised new questions and formulated new demands which in our opinion go beyond the framework of the obligations Russia took when it joined the World Trade Organisation (WTO). This is an approach which we call conditionally 'WTO+'. At this stage we cannot agree to these proposals, given that we have just completed the negotiations with the EU, including on the accession to the WTO, everything is agreed and signed. We cannot at this stage take additional obligations", Putin explained.

This answer slightly angered European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso, who explained in turn: "Today we had a good discussion on the new agreement and our understanding is that, if I remember correctly, the new agreement will be to some extent related to trade and investments, which was agreed at our previous summit (under the presidency of Dmitry Medvedev). This will be a comprehensive, ambitious agreement, covering the most important areas of our cooperation. We have no intention at all to ask of Russia tariff reductions more than what was done within the WTO. In the same time, however, we think that it is very important in terms of trade, convergence of markets, to be able to make the lives of markets easier for businessmen from Russia and the EU".

At this stage, there is consent that the negotiations on the agreement should be held on an expert level. The results from the St Petersburg summit can be summarised as a return to the starting point - what was with Medvedev no longer is, from the Russian perspective. From European point of view, as this summit with Putin was the first for Herman Van Rompuy, who was elected in the end of 2009 after the entry into force of the Lisbon Treaty on the 1st of December 2009 when Dmitry Medvedev was in power, there was also a return to the beginning. In his introductory words Mr Rompuy touched a painful for the Russians issue - human rights. This topic was number five in the order of issues discussed by the three leaders but the selection of words was sufficiently telling: "It is welcome that Russia shows readiness for public debate on human rights, as exemplified by the recent hearing in the Russian State Duma. This is a recognition that human rights concern are a matter of direct concern to all. And that is why these issues together with the rule of law and preservations of political rights need to be addressed".

Vladimir Putin did not mention even once the topic neither did President Barroso. The issue was not raised during the meetings of the Russian president in Berlin and Paris too. It is curious that the question of Ukraine was not raised either, excluding in Paris where the French and Russian presidents were asked directly. Putin used the occasion to recall the Russian position that boycotting a sports event with political purposes should not be done because this was in violation of the Olympic principles. With regard to Ms Yulia Tymoshenko and her sentence, he recalled that the former Ukrainian prime minister was sentenced (to 7 years in prison) for concluding an agreement for gas deliveries with Russia for which a very thorough research was done of all national and international legislation. "We do not sign contracts which would be to the detriment to a partner country, Ukraine in that case", Putin underlined and again offered Ms Tymoshenko to be transferred to Russia if necessary for medical treatment.

The French president for his part said that precisely because it was not about a sports boycott the team of France would take part in Euro 2012 but "regarding my presence and that of members of the government I think that in this context our going to Ukraine is not appropriate". This is how the foreign policy "premiere" of the new/old Russian president, Vladimir Putin, began.

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