Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 5 Issue: 104

Putin’s working visit to Paris last week was organized as if the French hosts wanted to emphasize that in their opinion the change of his political status was only a formality and that he remained the man in Moscow they were ready to do business with. In order to observe the formality, French Prime Minister Francois Fillon was the first one to meet with Putin, but their “substantive discussion” of a wide range of economic issues lasted only about an hour and brought no new agreements. In fact, it was merely a preamble to the main event of the visit—the dinner with French President Nicolas Sarkozy in the Elysee Palace—which had been promised to Putin a half a year before, when Sarkozy shrewdly invited him to pay the first visit in a “new capacity” to France. The cordial meeting the next day with former French President Jacques Chirac further emphasized the “presidential” character of Putin’s trip, particularly with all the high praise of his leadership that perhaps resembled a bit too closely the enthusiastic acclaim by the Kremlin-controlled United Russia party (Rossiiskaya gazeta, Kommersant, May 31).

There is no official information from Moscow about the discussions between Putin and Sarkozy, but the main content was shaped by the combination of two themes, the opening of negotiations on a new Russian-EU partnership and cooperation agreement and the French presidency of the EU in the second half of this year (Nezavisimaya gazeta, May 30). Moscow certainly hopes that the latter will help achieve quick progress in the former, particularly as the EU delegation has finally received the mandate for starting the work toward the rather uncertain agreement after Poland and Lithuania lifted their vetoes. There is always a possibility that some trivial issues, like Russian import of Polish meat, could block the talks, and here a firm French leadership could be very useful.

Human rights and liberal values are hardly going to form serious obstacles as the Europeans have collectively given up pressuring Russia on these issues. Trade, however, could be a stumbling block because the proposed Russian accession to the World Trade Organization (WTO) looks increasingly shaky. Besides objections from Georgia and Ukraine, Saudi Arabia has now put forward a condition on raising domestic prices of gas and energy (Kommersant, May 30). Energy most probably will be the most complicated track in the negotiations, as the EU member states have very different assessments of risks related to their dependency on energy imports from Russia. Moscow is not in the least concerned about wishful initiatives like creating a common energy transit space and is firmly set on its rejection of the Energy Charter Treaty, which has served as a platform for a common European position (www.lenta.ru, May 23). This platform looks distinctly unstable. The transit states are desperately competing against one another; the demands from the Baltic states about guarantees of Russian oil deliveries to their refineries and terminals have no legal base; the Finnish concerns about congested tanker traffic in the Gulf of Finland look too parochial and so Moscow has good reasons to expect that its assertive stance may win the day.

Energy constitutes the core of the remarkably confident position that Moscow has assumed in its relations with Europe, inferring that the EU needs the dialogue and, specifically, the new agreement far more than Russia does (Vremya novostei, May 30). Putin’s infinitely enjoyable visit to Paris has added to this imaginary “position of power,” not least because not a word was said by the amiable hosts about the problem that sends sparks and tremors across the European security space nearly every day–the Russian-Georgian conflict. It was only in the special interview with Le Monde (May 31) that this question came up, but Putin unequivocally accused Georgia of putting military pressure on Abkhazia, particularly through aerial intelligence, and called for patience and dialogue, while not missing a chance to invoke the Kosovo case.

The conflict, in the meanwhile, moves at a very fast pace, since neither side is inclined to show much patience. The conclusion of UN experts that the Georgian drone was shot down by a Russian fighter on April 20 was rejected by the Russian Foreign Ministry with the righteous contempt resembling the denials that brought the Cuban missile crisis in 1962 (Ezhednevny zhurnal, May 28). This diplomatic answer was followed by the deployment of a battalion of railway troops for the purpose of rehabilitating the “strategic” railroad connecting Sokhumi with Sochi. Tbilisi, which has just agreed to stop the drone flights over Abkhazia, is angered by this “humanitarian” mission, which signifies a further tightening of Russia’s embrace of this secessionist republic, and issued the thirty-eighth diplomatic note of protest (www.newsru.com, June 2).

Such protestations, to which the U.S. State Department has added its voice, have so far failed to make any impressions; and it is not even clear who the “decision-maker” is on the receiving end. President Medvedev has not mentioned Georgia once in his first month in the office, except for praising the heroics of Caucasian border posts and reflecting that “today, the borders are the front line” in the speech for Border Guards Day (May 28). Last Friday, he presided over the Security Council’s meeting, the first one in the last nine years at which Putin was not present, but the agenda was not disclosed, and the political profile of this body is rather uncertain, since Medvedev has never had any close ties with its new secretary Nikolai Patrushev, former head of the FSB and a Putin loyalist (www.gazeta.ru, May 30). Later this week, Medvedev is due to have a meeting with Saakashvili at the summit of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) in St. Petersburg, but it is uncertain whether he is prepared to take a step from the line drawn by Putin.

This odd situation in the Russian “tandem” leadership is inevitably temporary, but it presents a peculiar dilemma for the West. Seeking to resolve practical issues and discharge current problems, Western leaders have to make contact with Putin and treat him as the real head of state, much the same way as he was treated in Paris. However, aiming at encouraging changes in Russia’s behavior and improving relations that have gone distinctly sour in the last couple of years, they need to address Medvedev and help him strengthen his hand. Typically, the urge to make quick fixes prevails, and Georgia appears a small price to pay.