Andrew Osborn








Russian Revelation: the Kremlin divides and rules the EU

E!Sharp, 1st January 2010 09:43

The Kremlin has publicly hailed the anticlimactic choice of Herman Van Rompuy as the first permanent president of the European Council. Not out of any personal affection towards the Haiku-loving Belgian, of course, but out of pure pragmatism.

Russia’s deep-voiced Foreign Minister, Sergei Lavrov, said Moscow hoped the Union would start to “speak with one voice” and become a “stronger, more efficient European Union”. Just like US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger’s famous question about “who to call if I want to call Europe”, the Kremlin says it has long despaired at the fractured nature of the Union and the complexity of striking a deal with it.

Or has it? As Prime Minister Vladimir Putin’s recent trip to Paris showed, Moscow has become adept at doing juicy side-deals with friendlier member states such as France, Germany and Italy, bypassing Brussels in the process and freezing out pricklier customers such as the Baltic states and Poland. It is a classic divide-and-rule strategy that has worked well for Russia, boosting its push to build new pipelines into Europe and to woo foreign investment. Moscow would not have enjoyed such success in these areas had it been forced to deal with a single negotiator for 27 different countries. That would have meant contending with a very different amalgam of views.

So what the Kremlin really means when it says it hopes Van Rompuy can get the EU speaking with one voice is that it is hoping he can temper the voices of former Soviet satellite states the Kremlin now regards as hostile saboteurs. Russia wants a new framework treaty governing its relations with the Union and – if the terms are right – to cut a deal on energy policy. It does not want historical grudges to get in the way.

Old grievances are, however, understandably never far from the surface when it comes to Russia’s relations with Poland. To say there is little love lost between the two political elites would be an understatement.

The 1940 Katyn massacre of more than 20,000 Polish officers at the hands of the Soviets continues to cast a long shadow, as does the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact that carved up Poland between Nazi Germany and the USSR, not to mention post-war Soviet dominance of Poland. From the Russian side, there are lingering complaints about the death of thousands of Red Army prisoners in Polish POW camps in 1919-20. And, thanks to Vladimir Putin, Russians mark “Unity Day” each year, celebrating the 1612 expulsion of a Polish-Lithuanian occupation army from Moscow.

It is an old and deeply felt enmity – and one that has flared up again. It began with Russia and sometime-ally Belarus holding large-scale war games in September. Before long, it was being claimed in Warsaw that the real purpose of the war games was to simulate an attack on Poland itself. Moscow said that was nonsense. But a sceptical Polish Foreign Minister Radek Sikorski cried foul. NATO – on his urging – duly condemned the war games as “incongruous”, drawing an angry response from Moscow. Dmitry Rogozin, Russia’s outspoken ambassador to NATO, delivered the counter-strike. “Political dwarves” were trying to sabotage Russia’s rapprochement with NATO, he lamented. The spat was low-level. But it was a reminder, if one was needed, of how the Union’s complex history makes the prospect of a bona-fide common “one voice” foreign policy a hard-to-achieve dream. Compare for example Sikorski’s unease over Moscow’s agenda with Silvio Berlusconi’s fawning friendship with Putin. No wonder the Kremlin finds it easy to divide and rule.

There have been a lot of funerals in Moscow recently. Of course I don’t mean the last rites of people who died of natural causes. I mean the burials of people who have been murdered.

In truth, the contract killings that convulsed Russia during the 1990s never really stopped but, for a while, they did not seem such a routine part of everyday life as they do now. The list of recent victims is eclectic. A Russian Orthodox priest who railed against Islam gunned down in his own church. A millionaire spy turned businessman shot to death in his limousine. A corporate lawyer who represented a wealthy foreign investor dead in prison, allegedly due to complications to what should not have been a life-threatening disease.

At the same time, the people who should be preventing and solving these crimes – the police – seem to have fallen to a new low in public esteem after a string of murders and beatings perpetrated by – yes, you’ve guessed it – the police.

President Dmitry Medvedev has mastered the art of describing modern Russia’s problems in powerful and often emotional language. But while he has been talking, Moscow and many other parts of the country have been burning.