By Lasse Lehtinen
The writer is a Member of the European Parliament
This article was published in NORDICUM 1/2008
“Gazprom has got a lot further than the Red Army ever did,” whispers one of the international wiseacres. “The USSR,” opines another senior member of the commentariat, “was a lot easier to deal with than Russia is today”.
It’s true that Russia was much more predictable in the good old days of the Cold War. There was at least a hotline you could ring up if things seemed to be getting out of hand.
Many Kremlin-watchers claim that Russia’s behaviour is irrational. Maybe it has pitched things about right. Maybe the Kremlin understands us better than we understand it.
For instance, it’s worth asking if we actually wish to be deceived and bullied – and always did. What was it the first fellowtravellers from England said about Stalinism in the 1930s? They’d seen the future, said the Webbs, “and it works”.
People see what they want to see, as a rule. It takes a special kind of person, and civil courage, say Bernard Shaw’s, to remove his rose-tinted spectacles and admit paradise has once again been postponed.
The West has always had near-Panglossian expectations about the Russians. Intellectuals, especially, have gone in for a romantic, secular-religious faith that Communism will somehow redeem degenerate Man.
European societies have paid dearly for this tosh. Unlike a few million Ukrainian peasants, for example, the faith easily survived such experiments as artificial famines to cleanse the world of kulaks. These, for readers too young to remember, were peasants who were good at farming.
A generation later and the intellectuals’ spiritual children fell for Castro and his Caribbean dreamland, and especially for his sidekick, the handsome and enthusiastic murderer Che Guevara, whose afterlife has been guaranteed by a single striking photo and the everlasting of putting his face on T shirts.
Even Margaret Thatcher fell in love, if not with Che then with Michael Gorbachev, “the man with iron teeth”, whom Vladimir Putin now blames for being too stupid with all that sentimental stuff about the “European House”.
The Putin orthodoxy has it that Gorbachev triggered “the greatest catastrophe of our history”, namely the collapse of the Soviet Union, the empire he is now progressively winning back, not least with the pipeline weapon.
When Putin was first elected President of the Russian Republic it was widely assumed this would guarantee Russia’s rapid development towards democracy and transparency and generally being more European.
Why exactly should this follow from the apotheosis of a KGB agent? The question is rhetorical: the triumph of hope over experience in Western attitudes is a marvel to behold.
“Russia needs time,” is the standard response to such cynicism. We should be more patient, we are told, about Russia’s lack of democracy, press freedom, the occasional death by plutonium in foreign capitals.
This is all very odd. Most Russians have not the slightest desire to accept our values, now or perhaps ever. Why, otherwise, would Putin be the most popular politician in the world? They appear to enjoy being pushed around. “Time” is not going to change that for the foreseeable future.
Here’s another odd, slightly worrying thing. Western politicians often seem hardly to conceal their envy of a leader who, as the Americans say, kicks ass, but whose people positively enjoy having the Putin version of law and order imposed on them.
He is unquestionably the most “elected” political leader on the planet. This is something to worry about, not imitate. But we have to deal with it, and the only way is to deploy the one authority that is respected in Russia – power.
In what does this consist? In a word: energy. It is the only major area where East meets West on an equal basis. Russia supplies half of the EU’s gas and oil; by 2050 we could become 75 % dependent on Russian energy.
But dependence works both ways. The EU is for the moment Russia’s one and only customer. It will take at least 10 years to build a pipeline to China, and ships capable of carrying gas to the USA are not even under construction yet.
Russia will need Western technology and expertise to develop reserves in its far North and East. The hard cash for this can in practice only come from the Europeans.
Instead of dealing with the EU democratic institutions it despises, Russia prefers to talk directly to leaders of Member States or CEOs of the big companies. Divide et impera, as the Romans used to say. Exactly here lies the best way for the EU to use its famous “soft power”. The European energy market will become liberalised in due course, meaning that supply and distribution of energy are separated.
That in turn will prevent companies – to take an example at random, Gazprom – from buying up distribution networks and dominating the entire market.
The EU also plans to ban non-EU firms from buying retail networks, unless the country in question grants reciprocal access. Which Russia does not – yet.
Europeans want assurances that Russia will develop new gas fields, and wants to become business partners with Russia. Isn’t that where “Europe” came in, with the Coal and Steel Union 50 years ago? And it did after all work rather well.
Mutual dependence should encourage both sides to compromise: Gazprom should feel flattered to be treated like Microsoft.
Europe needs to demonstrate it believes in itself and its values. That means insisting on transparency and political integrity from anyone seeking to invest in European firms.
We should welcome Russian acquisitions of our companies, but not at any price: on condition that European rules are genuinely respected and European companies get reciprocal rights inside Russia.
Persuasion will only work if it is based on willingness to use whatever leverage we actually possess. The phrase “soft power” can sometimes be evasive to the point of dishonesty, a way of dressing up surrender in a silk dressing gown.
Power can be as soft, non-violent, diplomatic, discreet as you like; it’s a matter of taste. The point is that it must be the real thing, and used strategically, if we are to defend what we stand for, and our way of life.■