The Kremlin uses bully-boy tactics to keep other countries in the fold

Putin and his ministers were uncharacteristically polite about Barack Obama, welcoming co-operation with him over Syria’s chemical weapons. Yet only a few weeks previously their relations with Washington had been toxic, with rows over Syria, Edward Snowde

Ever since Vladimir Putin returned to the presidency, in May 2012, Russia’s relations with the west have been fraught. He has become increasingly authoritarian, thwarted US diplomacy on Syria and claimed that he is defending the Judaeo-Christian values abandoned by western countries. But now Putin seems to be softening his approach. This may be because of Russia’s mounting economic problems, the opposition’s surprisingly strong showing in local elections, and the convergence with Washington over Syria’s chemical weapons.

A new-look Putin was on display at this year’s “Valdai Club”, a group of international think-tankers, academics and journalists that meets once a year in Russia. As we gathered by the shores of Lake Valdai in northern Russia, Putin and his senior ministers had a clear message: Russia’s political system is evolving.

For the final session, which was broadcast live on Russian TV, a relaxed and confident Putin sat on a panel with European grandees, including Romano Prodi and François Fillon. They urged him to listen to young Russian protesters and to take seriously “the responsibility to protect” Syrians. In the audience were opposition leaders who questioned Putin about electoral fraud and the imprisonment of activists. He replied calmly that Russia was “on the way to democracy” and reminded everyone that the recent mayoral elections in Moscow had been free and fair.

Given Putin’s track record, one should treat his words with scepticism. But an earlier session with one of his chief advisers had surprised us: “The trend for fair elections will be more pronounced; there will be more political competition in future . . .” The adviser counselled the opposition parties to focus on municipalities, hinting that it was too soon for them to win regional governorships or national elections. I asked opposition politicians what they made of all this. Vladimir Ryzhkov (a liberal) and Ilya Ponomarev (a leftist) told me that the Kremlin did have a new approach – though it could still use the courts to clobber anyone considered a threat.

One reason for this modest political opening may be the economic slowdown, which could spur unrest. Having grown at about 4 per cent a year for the previous three years, the economy may not achieve 2 per cent this year, despite a favourable oil price. Foreigners and Russians are investing less. Brain drain and capital flight continue. The technocrats running the economy know that politics is holding it back. One former minister told the Valdai Club that “the keys to improving the economy are independent courts and the protection of property”. Investment would suffer so long as the courts remained subject to the whim of the executive, he said.

Putin and his ministers were uncharacteristically polite about Barack Obama, welcoming co-operation with him over Syria’s chemical weapons. Yet only a few weeks previously their relations with Washington had been toxic, with rows over Syria, Edward Snowden and missile defence.

The reasons for the shift in tone are unclear. Russians worry a great deal about Islamist extremists fighting in Syria and Afghanistan and then infecting Russia’s Muslim regions with terrorism. They want the Americans to help to manage the situation in both war zones. Perhaps the Russians think they can be magnanimous to those who misread the Middle East: they always said the Arab spring would end in tears and that Arab countries could not be democratic, and they feel vindicated by events in Egypt, Libya and Syria.

In truth, Putin’s entourage is still hostile, if not paranoid, towards the United States. I asked a minister if Nato remained a threat to Russia’s security. “Of course. Why else does it try to creep as close as possible to our borders?” he answered. “It has punished regimes it dislikes – Yugoslavia, Iraq and Libya – without any regard to the UN Security Council.” He accused Nato of deceiving Russia by enlarging after promising it would not (this is partly true) and said that Russia could not be a friend of Nato unless it renounced further expansion.

Most Russians share this suspicion of Nato. They also believe that Nato wants to absorb Ukraine – even though that idea has little support in Kiev or the major western capitals. It is the EU that would like Ukraine to sign a free-trade agreement in Vilnius in November, alongside Moldova, Georgia and Armenia, as part of its “Eastern Partnership”. Putin wants to stop these countries signing, as they then could not join the Customs Union established in 2010 by Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan. Putin hopes that the Customs Union will expand into much of the former Soviet Union and evolve into a more powerful “Eurasian Union”.

The Kremlin uses bully-boy tactics to prise countries away from the Eastern Partnership. In August, it blocked imports from Ukraine for several days, saying this was a “dress rehearsal” for the measures it would have to take if Kiev went with the EU. It told the Moldovans that they would have their gas cut off, their exports blocked and their migrant workers expelled from Russia. What the Russians told Armenia is unclear, but in September it decided to join the Customs Union rather than the Eastern Partnership. Armenia is a special case: it cannot cross Moscow, because only Russian troops prevent Azerbaijan from invading the disputed frontier region of Nagorno-Karabakh.

Besides Armenia, Russia cannot count any near neighbour as a true friend. It has been slow to understand that “soft power” – the appeal of a country’s social, economic and political system, and of its behaviour – may achieve as much as brute force. Russia’s leaders appear to see the value of treating the opposition, and possibly the Americans, with a little more courtesy. They should try the same with their neighbours.

Charles Grant is the director of the Centre for European Reform

Vladimir Putin has shifted his tone - but the reason why is unclear. Image: Getty

This article first appeared in the 11 October 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Iran vs Israel

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What Brussels can learn from the Italian referendum

Matteo Renzi's proposed reforms would have made it easier for eurosceptic forces within Italy to gain power in upcoming elections in 2018.

The Austrian presidential elections can justifiably be claimed as a victory for supporters of the European Union. But the Italian referendum is not the triumph for euroscepticism some have claimed.

In Austria, the victorious candidate Alexander van der Bellen ruthlessly put the EU centre stage in his campaign. “From the beginning I fought and argued for a pro-European Austria,” he said after a campaign that saw posters warning against “Öxit”.

Austrians have traditionally been eurosceptic, only joining the bloc in 1995, but Brexit changed all that.  Austrian voters saw the instability in the UK and support for EU membership soared. An overwhelming majority now back continued membership.

Van der Bellen’s opponent Norbert Hofer was at an immediate disadvantage. His far right Freedom Party has long pushed for an Öxit referendum.

The Freedom Party has claimed to have undergone a Damascene conversion but voters were not fooled.  They even blamed Nigel Farage for harming their chances with an interview he gave to Fox News claiming that the party would push to leave the EU.

The European Commission, as one would expect, hailed the result. “Europe was central in the campaign that led to the election of a new president and the final result speaks for itself,” chief spokesman Margaritis Schinas said today in Brussels.

“We think the referendum in Italy was about a change to the Italian constitution and not about Europe,” Schinas added.

Brussels has a history of sticking its head in the sand when it gets political results it doesn’t like.

When asked what lessons the Commission could learn from Brexit, Schinas had said the lessons to be learnt were for the government that called the referendum.

But in this case, the commission is right. The EU was a peripheral issue compared to domestic politics in the Italian referendum.

Alberto Alemanno is Jean Monnet Professor of EU Law and an Italian. He said the reforms would have been vital to modernise Italy but rejected any idea it would lead to an Italian Brexit.

“While anti-establishment and eurosceptic actors are likely to emerge emboldened from the vote, interpreting the outcome of the Italian referendum as the next stage of Europe’s populist, anti-establishment movement – as many mainstream journalists have done – is not only factually wrong, but also far-fetched.”

Renzi was very popular in Brussels after coming to power in a palace coup in February 2014. He was a pro-EU reformer, who seemed keen to engage in European politics.

After the Brexit vote, he was photographed with Merkel and Hollande on the Italian island of Ventotene, where a landmark manifesto by the EU’s founding fathers was written.

This staged communion with the past was swiftly forgotten as Renzi indulged in increasingly virulent Brussels-bashing over EU budget flexibility in a bid to shore up his plummeting popularity. 

Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker even publicly reprimanded Renzi for demonising the EU.

Renzi’s vow to resign personalised the referendum. He gave voters a chance to give him a bloody nose when his popularity was at an all-time low.

Some of the reforms he wanted were marked “to be confirmed”.  The referendum question was astonishingly verbose and complex. He was asking for a blank cheque from the voters.

Ironically Renzi’s reforms to the constitution and senate would have made it easier for the eurosceptic Five Star Movement to gain power in upcoming elections in 2018.

For reasons best known to themselves, they campaigned against the changes to their own disadvantage.

Thanks to the reforms, a Five Star government would have found it far easier to push through a “Quitaly” referendum, which now seems very distant.  

As things stand, Five Star has said it would push for an advisory vote on membership of the euro but not necessarily the EU.

The Italian constitution bans the overruling of international treaties by popular vote, so Five Star would need to amend the constitution. That would require a two thirds majority in both houses of parliament and then another referendum on euro membership. Even that could be blocked by one of the country’s supreme courts.

The Italian referendum was closely watched in Brussels. It was hailed as another triumph for euroscepticism by the likes of Farage and Marine Le Pen. But Italians are far more likely to be concerned about the possibility of financial turbulence, which has so far been mildly volatile, than any prospect of leaving the EU in the near future.

James Crisp is the news editor at EurActiv.com.