PUTIN’S DIFFICULT VISIT


11.10.06
MOSCOW. (RIA Novosti political commentator Boris Kaimakov)

Early October turned out to be a trying time for Russian President Vladimir Putin. The murder of investigative journalist and his staunch critic Anna Politkovskaya, who was gunned down in her apartment block in Moscow last Saturday, provoked a whirlwind of negative emotions around the world.
It happened shortly before Putin’s visit to Germany, a country he loves, and so he was not expected to follow the protocol, which requires trite words about friendship and understanding between Russians and Germans.
The first thing he had to do after talking with U.S. President George W. Bush on the phone was to speak about the journalist’s murder.
I don’t know why he did not do it before going to Dresden. I can assume that he is made of flesh and blood, not iron, which would explain his restraint on the issue. A public statement immediately after the murder could even have been considered hypocritical, because Anna criticized not only his policy, but also him as an individual.
This is why his statement in Dresden is so important, and not only because he spoke in reply to a direct question from Chancellor Angela Merkel. His words show that he was thinking hard about the murder, and that it shocked him.
Some of his statement could have been omitted, but the final words about an “abominable crime” sounded very personal and even a bit guilty.
Dresden gave Putin a mixed welcome. Some people held posters accusing him of suppressing democracy, whereas others offered heartfelt greetings.
Before earning an academic title and becoming a well known poet, Mikhail Lomonosov studied at Marburg, which reveres his memory. Putin had his Dresden. The city authorities have not yet mounted plaques on park benches commemorating his time there, but he is well remembered in the beer hall he used to frequent. In fact, many people here claim to have been friends with the future Russian president and are proud of that fact.
Officially, Putin’s visit to Dresden and meeting with Merkel was part of the Russian-German forum “St. Petersburg Dialogue”, which he had initiated jointly with Gerhard Schroeder. There are not many meetings of this kind in international practice, but this forum stands out even among those that do exist. The leaders of the two countries are patrons of this event, whose participants openly discuss major issues of bilateral relations and global politics.
Gas has become a key word in Russian-German discussions in the past two years. Moscow has made Berlin an offer it can’t refuse: it has invited it to participate in building a gas pipeline along the bottom of the Baltic Sea directly to Germany, which should become the main conduit for gas to Western Europe.
Putin has shown Merkel an enticing picture, promising Germany up to 90 billion cubic meters of gas annually. If his promise becomes reality, Western Europe will become dependent on Russia, which will in turn depend on Western Europe to keep up its image as a reliable supplier. (Last winter’s gas troubles with Ukraine showed how easily a reputation that took decades to develop can be destroyed.)
The promise eased Putin’s way to the difficult part of the visit, the Shtokman gas condensate project. The Germans suspected that their participation hung in the balance because Moscow has grown economically stronger and is no longer satisfied with such joint projects as Royal Dutch Shell-led Sakhalin 2, or Western offers regarding Shtokman.
So, when German businessmen told Putin he had not lived up to their expectations, the president was shocked into silence. But then he recovered and said: “Gazprom analyzed all the offers. It did not want investment, but an asset swap. None of the foreign companies offered assets commensurate with their potential involvement in the development of the Shtokman reserves.”
This statement seems to cover all aspects of the problem. Putin remains true to his policy of strengthening state control of national resources. I fully agree with The Washington Post in that Russia “continues to assert its position as a global energy power”. This sounds scary to the West, but although the Kremlin is criticized for many things, nobody has so far proved that its policy is irresponsible.
German business is preparing to take up the Russian challenge, and producers of equipment are lining up at Gazprom’s office. The process has started.
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