On March 13 Russian President Vladimir Putin and Italian Prime Minister Romano Prodi began two days of talks in the Chigi Palace in the Italian Adriatic port of Bari. According to both sides, the two leaders concentrated on economic agreements while largely sidestepping more troublesome issues like human rights.
This is Prodi and Putin’s fourth meeting in the last ten months. In contrast, Prodi has met only once with U.S. President George W. Bush, at the G-8 summit in St. Petersburg in July 2006. Putin and Prodi have a longstanding relationship. Six months after Putin was appointed president, Prodi told journalists, “I am convinced we are really starting a new era of cooperation.”
Russian-Italian relations are solid and deepening. Italy is now Russia’s third-largest trading partner after Germany and China, but ahead of Great Britain or France. In 2006 Italian-Russian bilateral trade reached $27.7 billion.
The importance that Putin attached to the meeting was underlined by the fact that his delegation included Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, presidential aides Sergei Prikhodko and Sergei Yastrzhembsky, Russia’s Ambassador to Italy Alexei Meshkov, Finance Minister Alexei Kudrin, Justice Minister Vladimir Ustinov, and Rosoboroneksport CEO Sergei Chemezov, along with several business magnates (Vedomosti, March 14).
The ten agreements signed included cultural and educational cooperation, mutual protection of intellectual property, cooperation between Italian defense firm Finmeccanica’s Alenia unit and Russia’s Sukhoi on constructing the medium-range Superjet-100 civilian aircraft, cooperation in the energy sector, a $264 million credit agreement between Russia’s VTB and Italy’s Mediobank, and a $132 million credit between VTB and Intesa-Sanpaolo (Itar-Tass, March 14). Russia’s Federal Atomic Energy Agency and Italian fuel and energy company Enel also signed a memorandum of intent to develop joint cooperation endeavors in both the energy sector and nuclear energy generation (RBC, March 14). Finmeccanica also reached an agreement with Russian Railways to develop a regional train line along Russia’s eastern Black Sea coast, joining the cities of Tuapse and Adler.
Prodi told reporters that the fact that the pair had signed a number of bilateral agreements was “the best testimony to the strategic partnership between Italy and Russia” (Corriere della Sera, March 15). Putin, in turn, said that he supported Italy’s quest for a non-voting seat on the United Nations Security Council, commenting that Italy’s stance represents the nation’s “total adhesion” to the principle of multilateralism and “increases our action in order to strengthen [it].” He added, “The election of Italy to the U.N. Security Council will expand our interaction in strengthening the organization and the foundation of multilateral diplomacy as such” (Itar-Tass, March 14).
In a statement certain to unsettle those concerned about Europe’s growing reliance on Russian energy imports, Prodi said, “We agreed on the need to strengthen relations between the EU and Russia, possibly with an accord and the widest possible cooperation partnership, also on energy,” labeling the Bari discussions between Italian energy group ENI and Russia’s Gazprom as a “model” for bilateral relations. Prodi added, “There is no EU energy dependency on Russia. There is Russia-EU interdependence. The latter depends on the access to Europe’s and to Russia’s markets. Thus, the agreement between Gazprom and ENI Group might become the model for EU countries” (Kommersant, March 15).
Under the terms of the discussions between ENI and Gazprom, the Russian natural gas giant will gain a foothold in southern Europe, building on a November 2006 partnership agreement allowing Gazprom to sell three billion cubic meters of gas annually directly to Italian consumers beginning in April. In return Italy received guaranteed gas supplies until 2035 and ENI will participate in the development of Russian energy assets. ENI is a shareholder in the Caspian Pipeline Consortium, along with Chevron, Lukoil, ExxonMobil, BP, Rosneft, Shell, BG, and Gazmunaigaz, whose CPC pipeline pumps oil westwards from western Kazakhstan and Siberia to Russia’s Novorossiysk Black Sea port.
Russia’s possible benefits from the Bari summit extend far beyond Italy. In a joint statement issued after the meetings, the two leaders “agreed that talks on reaching a new strategic partnership agreement between the European Union and Russia should be started as soon as possible. This goal assumes even more fundamental meaning now that there is a need to provide a high level of economic development and security on the European continent. Strengthening cooperation in the energy sector should also facilitate this.” Discussions on a new partnership agreement were to have begun in 2006, but Poland vetoed the negotiations over a trade dispute with Russia over Polish meat imports.
Prior to the Bari meeting Italian human rights groups and Amnesty International had both urged Prodi and Italian Foreign Minister Massimo D’Alema to raise the issue of ongoing Russian violations of human rights in the northern Caucasus (Corriere della Sera, March 13). Last October Putin indicated his views on the topic. When Josep Borrell Fontelles, then president of the European Parliament, attempted to raise the issue of human rights, Putin replied, “You reproach us for the influence of the Russian Mafia, but I am remind you that the word ‘Mafia’ was born in Italy, not in Russia.” Following their meetings Prodi told journalists that he had discussed human rights with Putin, but did not elaborate.
Russia evidently sees its new Italian agreements as a template for its future dealings with other EU member states. In avoiding discussing human rights, however, Putin has left his European critics an opening for criticism that can only grow with time, which may eventually come to stall or block future similar arrangements until such concerns are finally addressed in a forthright, candid manner.