Expectations before the regular meeting between Russian President Vladimir Putin and the EU leadership had set a new record low, and the summit in Mafra, Portugal, last Friday, October 26, generally lived up to them.
The top priority for the Portuguese EU presidency has been hammering out a consensus on the so-called Reform Treaty that should put back on track the integration process derailed by the failure of the constitution referendum in mid-2005; that task was successfully resolved at the recent EU summit (Nezavisimaya gazeta, October 19). This strengthening of the institutional core of the Union could help shape a more consolidated position on future negotiations with Russia; for now, however, many petty and parochial quarrels stand in the way of building a common platform. For that matter, the stubborn Polish protest against Russian restrictions on importing meat still blocks the opening of negotiations on a new Partnership and Cooperation Agreement, and Moscow could only hope that the recent parliamentary elections in Poland produce a more sensible government (Gazeta.ru, October 25; RBC Daily, Vedomosti, October 26).
There was never much point in holding the summit, but Portugal felt loath to preside over a demonstrative break in relations and preferred to emphasize that it had no problems with Russia as far as bilateral ties are concerned (Vremya novostei, October 26). Putin, however, was not content to have a pro-forma event, which – as his counterparts tactlessly reminded – characterized his last meeting with the EU leadership.
Many observers expected discussions to focus on energy issues, but Putin did not perceive Portuguese Prime Minister Jose Socrates, and the two Spaniards – European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso and EU High Representative for the Common Foreign and Security Policy Javier Solana – as the right partners to tackle such delicate matters. So the summit merely confirmed the agreement on establishing an early-warning mechanism that should alert the parties concerned about possible interruptions in supply or demand (the latter possibility being rather theoretical). More substantial exchanges took place at the “International Energy Week” in Moscow where Viktor Khristenko, minister for industry and energy, and Andris Piebalgs, the EU energy commissioner, discussed in a remarkably constructive manner Russia’s disagreements with the latest EU plans for liberalizing its energy market (Kommersant, October 24). Another important step was an agreement on inviting the Norwegian giant StatoilHydro to partake in the development of the offshore Shtokman gas field, with a 24% stake in the operating joint venture. The French Total holds another 25% and the rest is reserved for Gazprom (RIA-Novosti, October 26). The project has thus been set on more sure footing, which should assuage European concerns about the reliability of Russia’s commitments for delivering natural gas through the next decade.
Against this background of energy rapprochement, Putin sought to grab attention with sharp statements on hot security issues, first of all on the bitter controversy over the plan for deployment of elements of a U.S. strategic defense system in Poland and the Czech Republic (Expert, October 26). Seeking to play on the doubts in many European states about the rationale for this plan, Putin drew a striking parallel with the deployment of Soviet intermediate-range missiles in Cuba in 1962, which provoked the most dangerous escalation of nuclear confrontation between the USSR and the United States (Newsru.com, October 27). He also insisted that Washington had failed to provide an answer to Russia’s initiatives aimed at resolving the current crisis, thus essentially dismissing the proposal delivered by U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates (Gazeta.ru, October 27). That proposal may indeed not go far enough to satisfy Russia’s demands for freezing the work, but pretending that it does not exist and insisting that the deployment of ten interceptor-missiles is “technologically similar” to the Cuban crisis comes disturbingly close to making an irresponsible provocation.
Another “interesting” turn of a phrase was registered in Putin’s answer to a reporter’s question on Iran, which he recently visited and received a most friendly welcome. While confirming adherence to the policy of nuclear non-proliferation, Putin suggested that Western pressure on Iran resembled “running around like a madman with a razor, brandishing it in all directions.” If that was meant to be a response to the U.S. proposition that Russia should play a useful role in convincing Iran to stop its uranium enrichment program, which would then make the upgrading of the strategic defense system redundant, there is hardly much hope for expanding the common ground in managing this protracted crisis. On resolving the Kosovo problem, Putin was similarly inflexible, characterizing the Western approach as “inciting and developing separatism” and posing the rhetorical question about whether the EU did not already have enough problems with secessionism (RosBusinessConsulting, October 26).
Obviously enjoying himself in the company of reserved and politically over-correct European officials, Putin only momentarily returned to his domestic turmoil, asserting that he was not planning to assume the post of prime minister and admitting, perhaps even sincerely, that he had not decided about a new job (Kommersant, October 27). The fast-approaching re-formatting of the apex that doubles as the cornerstone of Russia’s enormous bureaucratic pyramid is indeed highly uncertain. Putin may like to compare himself with Franklin D. Roosevelt, but he cannot fail to see that his “new deal” with Russia amounts merely to restoring stability by distributing the oil wealth and avoiding unpopular decisions (Gazeta.ru, October 24). He tries his best to call continuity into existence but knows that pressure inside his unicentric system of power is building – and that his conditionally loyal lieutenants know it too. Scoring a few cheap points on the European arena might amount to opening a tiny escape valve for this pressure; there is, however, no escape strategy for the desperate “savior-president.” Putin faces the threat of a most peculiar coup, aimed not at overthrowing him but at forcing him to stay in power indefinitely, and he cannot even rely on himself to defend against it.