With the NATO problem deferred and only two weeks to go in the office, President Putin has shifted his attention to a region that is also a major point of U.S. attention–the Middle East. Monitoring the preparations for President George W. Bush’s visit to the region, Putin is creating his own intrigues centered on the proposal for a Moscow conference that would gather the all concerned parties around one table (Nezavisimaya gazeta, April 14). There would be a certain amount of prestige involved in hosting such a gathering, but most importantly for Moscow, it would give Putin a chance to prove the point that he posed as a rhetorical question in Bucharest: What can be done without Russia?
Presenting Russia as an indispensable power in the Middle Eastern case is particularly tenuous. Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, who visited Moscow in late March, has his own ambitions at the summits at Sharm-al-Sheih, where Russia’s presence is irrelevant (Rossiiskaya gazeta, March 25; Kommersant, April 18). Contacts with Hamas, which Moscow tried to transform into a foreign policy asset, have yielded little fruit, as the intra-Palestinian dialogue drags on in the “Yemen process,” so the idea of offering Hamas a chair at the grand table and thus a chance to become a party to a solution has been abandoned, according to the foreign ministry officials (www.mid.ru, April 17). Israel remains unconvinced about the usefulness of Russia’s mediation and insists on treating Hamas as a terrorist organization (RIA-Novosti, April 14). Moscow’s diplomatic maneuvering is also hampered by the reluctance to work with Tony Blair, who is the special envoy of the so-called Middle Eastern Quartet (the United States, the EU, Russia and the UN) but is seen as an “instigator” of tension between Russia and the UK.
Seeking to bypass through these stumbling blocks, Putin had prepared a double approach last week with his first official visit to Libya followed by talks in Moscow with Mahmoud Abbas, the Chairman of the struggling Palestinian National Authority (PNA). The net result from both initiatives, however, fell far short of a breakthrough.
The key point in the deal with Libya had been to cancel the old Soviet debt amounting to US$4.5 billion in exchange for new contracts that should have exceeded this sum, thereby justifying the generosity towards an oil-rich and ill-reputed country (Vedomosti, www.gazeta.ru, April 17). In fact, however, the only contract signed was for constructing a railroad around the Gulf of Sidra between Benghazi and Surt for 2.2 billion Euro, while negotiations on arms sales are yet to be brought to conclusion and Gazprom has secured only a couple of memoranda of intent for pipeline and exploration projects (Gazeta, April 17). In order to sweeten the deal, Libya’s leader Muammar Gaddafi, treated Putin with warm Bedouin hospitality in his traditional tent and then invited him for more lengthy talks during breakfast (Vremya novostei, April 18). Putin knew all too well that a similar deal that he had struck in Algeria in March 2006 had since fallen apart, so listening to the talkative, dictator he could hardly have suppressed the suspicion of being ripped off (www.newsru.com, March 28).
So it was with great relief that he departed to Sardinia to embrace his old friend Silvio Berlusconi, who was relaxing after a hard-won victory in the Italian parliamentary elections. What makes Putin and Berlusconi two of a kind is their penchant for mixing business with pleasure (EDM, November 8, 2004), so Putin was in no rush to return to Moscow, where Abbas was getting impatient. Abbas had arrived in the Russian capital on Wednesday afternoon, held a ceremonial lecture at MGIMO, had meetings with his old friend Evgeny Primakov and Patriarch Alexius II, but was not granted the privilege of meeting president-elect Dmitri Medvedev. It was only Friday evening that the short meeting with Putin finally took place. No progress was made, and a frustrated Abbas merely confirmed to journalists that no agreement on the date for the Moscow conference had been reached (www.rbc.ru, April 19).
This diplomatic gaffe is typical of Russia’s policy in the interregnum period before the inevitable but still incomprehensible diarchy (Ezhednevny zhurnal, April 17). For years, it was essentially up to Putin to decide what Russia’s interests were, launching “gas wars” and staging military demonstrations, but now his priorities appear to be in flux. It is unclear what Moscow really aims to achieve. Why build a railroad in Libya when its own railway system is so neglected? Is the “gas OPEC” idea still alive? What is the risk assessment of the Iranian uranium enrichment program?
Putin shows no inclination to address these questions and allows Medvedev no opportunity to express his opinions, which are supposed to acquire superior importance, not only for shaping the agenda of the rather improbable Moscow conference but, more importantly, for shaping the pattern of Russia’s relations with its key partners. Would NATO’s plans for Georgia’s and Ukraine’s accession really constitute a threat to Russia’s vital interests? Putin’s long-anticipated visit to Bucharest provided no clue on that, as it transpired that he had nothing to say to his counterparts behind closed doors or to the journalists at the unscheduled press conference. Demanding respect and recognition as a revitalized “great power” is a pose that Putin feels too comfortable with to move further, but now Medvedev has to play the role of an empowered leader, in which he hardly cuts a convincing figure. Lies and pretence are the bread-and-butter of politics, but a single false note can undermine the credibility of the Potemkin style of Russian politics.