The Russia-EU summit in Stockholm last week was hailed by commentators on both sides as friendly beyond expectations and the most successful in the long series of tense and content-free summits. A few months back, Moscow –irritated by the strong Swedish condemnation of the Georgian war– had proposed holding the event in Brussels, but Foreign Minister Carl Bildt duly toned down his criticism and the long-expected decision on granting Gazprom permission to build the Nord Stream pipeline across the Swedish economic zone in the Baltic Sea created the warmest possible atmosphere for the summit (Rossiyskaya Gazeta, Nezavisimaya Gazeta, November 19).
This “thaw,” however, does not signify a “reset” in the Russian-European pseudo-partnership, and non-stop smiles have hardly made a significant contribution to rebuilding eroded trust. In an express-poll conducted by Ekho Moskvy on November 18, more than 70 percent of its liberal audience defined relations between Russia and the E.U. as “confrontation” and only 20 percent –as “cooperation.” The outgoing E.U. leadership had opted for a problem-free summit on the eve of the crucial vote for the first ever President of the European Council as well as a new High Representative for Foreign and Security Policy (www.gazeta.ru, November 19). At the next summit, scheduled for June 2010 in Rostov-on-Don, Catherine Ashton, who has taken the latter job with a newly strengthened mandate, might disillusion Medvedev who assumes that “things are progressing quite nicely” towards a new Partnership and Cooperation Agreement.
One of the stumbling blocks is Russia’s ambivalent course on acceding to the World Trade Organization (WTO) and Medvedev’s claim that he had instructed the cabinet to take the “shortest path” offered only a modicum of clarity. The most alarming divergence of interests, however, is happening exactly in the most developed “space for cooperation” –energy trade and investment, and Medvedev’s smiles did little to restore Russia’s reputation as a reliable exporter (Vedomosti, November 19). A far more important event in this respect occurred the next day in Yalta, where Prime Minister Vladimir Putin had a late night meeting with his Ukrainian counterpart Yulia Tymoshenko. They agreed to a deal on prices and volumes for the supply and transit of Russian gas, which would have been great news for European consumers, were this bargain not so directly aimed at influencing the presidential elections in Ukraine next January. Putin saw no reason to deny himself the pleasure of making rude jokes concerning Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko, and Tymoshenko was only too happy to play along (Kommersant, November 21).
The quality of this humor would not surprise European leaders (except, perhaps, Lady Ashton who has not savored it before), but the fact that Putin again seeks to harvest political dividends from the gas business is alarming. That this time he finds it beneficial not to punish Ukraine for violating contract agreements (Tymoshenko has received a multi-million dollar gift, as Putin confirmed a waiver on Gazprom’s trademark “take-or-pay” provision) which may lift some concerns about another “gas war.” The intrigue, however, is certain to take many new turns after the Ukrainian elections, and the E.U. Energy Commissioner Andris Piebalgs knows perfectly well that the newly-signed memorandum on setting an early warning mechanism provides no guarantee against sudden disruptions (Kommersant, November 17).
The “gas-for-promises” deal with Tymoshenko may not be that profitable for Russia (particularly since her promises are known to be less than rock-solid), but it has reaffirmed Putin’s role as the “decider.” Medvedev, therefore, is left with the public relations functions of beautifying Russia’s image abroad and making rousing speeches that mix patriotism and liberalism in healthy doses. He is trying to push these boundaries by issuing instructions to the government, but Russian bureaucracy is adept at sabotaging orders and reporting on their impeccable implementation. The real power of the presidential office is in hiring-and-firing, but Medvedev remains extra-cautious in using it. His advisor Mikhail Lesin, the former media minister and a key manipulator in Putin’s propaganda machine, was sacked with the stamp “abuse of office” last week, but this scandal remains an exception that proves the rule (Kommersant, November 19).
Medvedev focuses on the message that the pre-crisis prosperity amounted to a “humiliating dependence on raw materials” and that “the habit of living off export earnings” must be broken. Putin is clearly not comfortable with this denunciation of his achievements, and he has launched an ideological counter-offensive exploiting the pronounced disappointment in various political quarters about Medvedev’s lackluster address to the Federal Assembly on November 12 (www.gazeta.ru, November 18). The first salvo was delivered in a speech to the Russian Geographic Society (which Putin has benevolently taken under his trusteeship), which opened with a reassertion of Russia’s greatness derived not only from political stability and economic competitiveness (both, in fact, rather problematic) but from its sheer size (Vremya Novostei, November 19). The forceful follow-up was Putin’s speech at the congress of the United Russia party, which politely applauded Medvedev’s short address, but rallied to close ranks around its true leader. Putin elaborated on the ideology of “Russian conservatism,” which implicitly, but unmistakably, opposes Medvedev’s discourse on “innovations.”
In a show of unity, the two co-rulers had dinner in a cozy St. Petersburg restaurant, but the diverging course of leadership is dividing their odd “tandem” (www.grani.ru, November 19). Medvedev is trying to connect with the loose but powerful idea of “change” and argues that Russia cannot continue prospering as a petro-state, but Putin counters with the affirmative “Yes, we can.” Indeed, for the vast state bureaucracy, which constitutes a natural base for United Russia, Medvedev’s diatribes against “an archaic society in which the leaders think and decide for everyone” are positively alien, and the vast majority of the populace suspect that change can only be for the worse. Putin has prevailed over a feeble effort to gather a coalition of “modernizers” by using the most efficient tactics –allowing Medvedev to prove his uselessness as a leader of such a coalition. This predictable bureaucratic triumph leaves him in the position of a boy who plugged a hole in the dam with his finger, while the tide of change is about to overflow.