This article was published in the European edition of the Financial Times and on its web-site.
Europe’s right finds excuses for the Kremlin
27 November 2008
For much of the post-1945 era it was axiomatic that Europe’s centre-right parties were hostile to Russia. Charles De Gaulle frightened France by saying the Red Army was ready to strike only the distance of two stages of the Tour de France from French borders. Konrad Adenauer, West Germany’s first chancellor, refused to recognise any state that talked with Russia’s satellite east of the Berlin Wall. Britain’s Margaret Thatcher endorsed the "empire of evil" language about Russia, while Germany’s Helmut Kohl faced down huge demonstrations against US missiles aimed to counter Soviet short-range nukes. By contrast, the European left spent much of its time finding excuses for whatever the Kremlin wanted.
Today, there has been an odd reversal. The biggest supporters of prime minister Vladimir Putin and president Dmitry Medvedev as they shape a new authoritarianism and try to alter Europe’s frontiers by force are leaders of the centre-right. While Silvio Berlusconi patronises Barack Obama for his "sun tan", the Italian prime minister has only smiles for Mr Putin. Germany’s Angela Merkel went to Tibilisi as Russian tanks rolled past the disputed enclaves of South Ossetia and Abkhazia and appeared to show solidarity with the beleaguered Georgians by saying they could join Nato. Back in Berlin, the chancellor’s briefers claimed she meant no such thing.
The most curious 180 degree turn is that of France’s Nicolas Sarkozy. During his presidential campaign in 1997, Mr Sarkozy denounced "the silence on the 200,000 killed in Chechnya" by the Russians and promised to invite Putin’s arch-enemy, Gary Kasparov, to the Elysée. Today, Mr Sarkozy has decided to be Russia’s new best friend. In Moscow during the Georgian crisis, he said it was "completely normal for Moscow to defend the right of Russian-speakers" outside Russian frontiers.
Worse followed when the Kremlin responded to Mr Obama’s victory by announcing that short-range nuclear missiles would be installed in Kaliningrad, near Poland, where Immanuel Kant wrote Perpetual Peace. Formerly Königsberg, the city is a reminder of Russia’s historical desire to be present far beyond its frontiers.
Instead of asking the Russians to ratchet down talk of a new missile race in Europe, Mr Sarkozy told a beaming Mr Medvedev at a European Union-Russia summit in Nice that the real problem was the decision of the Poles and Czechs to accept a US proposal to base a missile shield on their territory. This prompted a furious reminder from Poland and the Czech Republic that they were sovereign nations and would decide their own foreign policy and military alliances, merci beaucoup. Mr Sarkozy has alienated eastern Europe with his pro-Kremlin leanings.
Other conservative governments in Europe constantly find excuses for the Kremlin. Italian politicians say Italy’s energy dependence requires soft words with Russia. Mr Berlusconi has delivered a near-fatal blow to the Nabucco project to deliver oil from the Caspian without going over Russian-controlled territory. Now he has signed the so-called South Stream project with the Kremlin which will place Italy at the mercy of Russia’s energy politics.
In Britain, the conservative foreign policy establishment of retired ambassadors found plenty of excuses to justify Russia’s invasion and deplore Georgia’s response. Malcolm Rifkind, the former foreign secretary and Tory grandee, defends Mr Putin in the House of Commons while Conservative members of parliament sit in the same group as Mr Putin’s Duma clique at the Council of Europe.
Meanwhile, it is in liberal, left and human rights circles that some criticism of Mr Putin’s new authoritarianism can be heard. Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have long criticised the erosion of the rule of law and freedom of expression in Russia. David Miliband, the British Labour foreign secretary, spoke in Kiev of Russia’s habit of treating her neighbours as either "vassals or enemies". Carl Bildt, Sweden’s liberal foreign minister and Europe’s most experienced foreign policy official, has also used firmer language. In France, the leftwing Libération newspaper has been the firmest critic of Russian expansionism.
To be sure, much of the European left, including Germany’s Social Democrats, find it easier to criticise the fears and hopes of Georgians and Ukrainians than speak out against Russia. Yet the fact remains that, today, Russia’s best friends are to be found on the European ruling conservative parties.
This poses a problem for the Obama administration. After 1945, Americans could rely on European conservatives to support a clear line on Russian Sovietism. Now when Washington calls Europe and asks what the line on Russia should be, the European right of Mr Sarkozy, Ms Merkel and Mr Berlusconi would prefer not to answer and the left is irrelevant. Again, it will be Washington’s duty and responsibility to decide, alone and without a clear, united European line, how the democratic world should respond to today’s Russia.