Walker's World: Putin v. Europe

By MARTIN WALKER, UPI Editor Emeritus  |  Oct. 19, 2006 at 7:16 AM
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WASHINGTON, Oct. 18 (UPI) -- This weekend's Finland summit between Russian President Vladimir Putin and European Union leaders was intended to be a friendly and informal affair. Instead, the Europeans are arriving with clenched teeth and narrowed eyes, increasingly suspicious of Russian behavior but fearing that their energy dependency on Russia leaves them few cards to play.

Energy is the EU's strategic concern, but human rights groups and members of the European Union and the various national parliaments have mobilized considerable pressure for the EU leaders to make clear their growing alarm at Russia's trend toward authoritarian rule.

The assassination in Moscow last week of the well-known human rights journalist Anna Politkovskaya, just before she published a new salvo on Russia's brutal war against Chechen separatists, will be high on the agenda, because so many of the journalists covering the summit in Finland's southern city of Lahti are determined to keep it there. EU Commission President Jose Barroso and Javier Solana, the EU's foreign policy chief, both vowed this week to demand answers from Putin directly over her murder.

"Putin has suggested her killers might have been out to stain his government and insists they will be punished," Solana said Tuesday in Luxembourg. However, the International Federation of Journalists says the death of Politkovskaya -- the 13th journalist slain since Putin came to power in 1999 -- illustrates a "crisis of impunity" confronting the media in Russia.

The Europeans are also deeply concerned with Russia's continued blockade of Georgia, the former Soviet Republic that makes no secret of its dream to join the EU and NATO. The European media has portrayed Russia's actions as barely-disguised bullying in defense of its own sphere of influence in the Caucasus and its determination to keep the Europeans out.

The EU's council of foreign ministers declared Tuesday: "The council expresses its grave concern at the measures adopted by the Russian Federation against Georgia and at their economic, political and humanitarian consequences."

They were also troubled by the roundups of Georgian "illegal immigrants" inside Russia for deportation, which saw one deportee die at Moscow's Domodedovo airport this week, and urged Russia "not to pursue measures targeting Georgians in the Russian Federation."

Russian Ambassador to the EU Vladimir Chizhov raised European hackles when he dismissed EU concerns, warning that President Putin would not be happy to get human rights lectures from EU leaders in Finland "when our ethnic Russian people are being treated as non-citizens in Estonia and Latvia."

The Baltic states are currently being visited for the first time by Queen Elizabeth II of Britain, who is attracting huge crowds as a symbol of their new identity as members of both the EU and NATO, after decades of Soviet rule. Chizhov, who seemed irritated by the royal visit, also suggested that Russians needed no lessons in democracy from an EU which had its own failings, including Britain's second parliamentary chamber, the unelected House of Lords.

Behind these headline issues of human rights and Russia's apparent turn away from democracy, the EU's deepest worry is that Russia intends to use its new oil wealth and its near-dominance over Europe's gas taps to drive a very hard bargain for its oil and exports. Russia has refused to ratify the international energy charter and its transit protocol it signed in 1991, which would require Russia to open its pipelines for the transit of natural gas from Central Asia to Europe.

The Putin administration made state control over its energy assets and the pipelines into a top priority, clamping down on Western and private oil companies to ensure that state-owned energy giants like Gazprom dominate the industry in Russia. Deals that were reached in the 1990s, when Russia was poorer and had more need of Western expertise, are being forced into renegotiation on Russian terms. The clampdown on Georgia is also related to oil, since the new Western-financed pipeline through Georgia that carries Azerbaijan's oil from the Caspian basin is one of the few leaks in Russia's control of the pipelines.

Putin has bluntly refused to ratify the charter, saying it "does not accord with our national interest," even though EU leaders at the G8 summit in St Petersburg this summer warned that fulfillment of the charter would be "a test of Russia's integrity." Putin has also sought to use the oil weapon in ways that would divide the EU, reaching a deal with former German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder to build a pipeline under the Baltic that would feed Russian gas to Germany directly, without going through Poland and Ukraine and thus not allowing them any transit control. Schroeder later took a highly-paying job with the Russian-led consortium, outraging Poland.

Earlier this month, Putin tried to use this divide-and-rule tactic again, offering Germany unique access to the new Shtokman gas field, having already ruled out the expected participation of Russian and French energy groups. This time, under Chancellor Angela Merkel, Germany spurned the Russian offer, instead signing an energy pact with France that commits both countries to seek a single market of EU-wide contracts in a balanced energy relationship with Russia.

At some point a deal is likely, under which the Europeans will get pipeline and exploitation rights in Russian energy, in return for which Russia gets the rights to buy into European energy companies, including the retail gas and oil suppliers. In effect, this means allowing EU companies to go upstream in Russia, while Russia goes downstream into the EU.

But it will take a great deal of hard negotiation, and probably a lot of rhetoric -- but little action -- over human rights and Russia's authoritarian drift, to get there. In the long run, however, the cynical Russians who advise Putin are probably right to say that when the winters get cold, the EU will put their energy supplies above their concern for human rights.

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