Marriage Of Convenience

1 August 2011, 14:17

Russia is gradually becoming a true Samuil Marshak’s Mister Twister for France. Just like this unforgettable comic character from the poem, Russia is purchasing things in abundance: French enterprises, newspapers and cutting-edge warships. Russian churches and business centers are appearing in landmark Parisian districts. These days you will not hear French President Nicolas Sarcozy mention tough measures against Russian politicians. On the contrary, he treated Prime Minister Vladimir Putin at the Paris Air Show as a truly welcome guest. After the breakup of the USSR  French-Russian relations went through a series of stages. Pro-Yeltsin enthusiasm gave way to brief wariness at the beginning of the Second Chechen War and then was again replaced by an intensive exchange of technology and capital. The recent contract to purchase French Mistral-class warships is an element of this bilateral cooperation affecting the entire continent.

In the Language of Symbols

A new Russian Orthodox Church will soon be built a stone’s throw away from the Eiffel Tower. “I hope that the church will adorn the banks of the Seine,” Putin said on his most recent visit to Paris. Not all Parisians would agree. France’s meteorological service is already vacating the plot of land which has been sold directly to the Russian presidential administration.

Paris has multiple Russian churches but the number of parishioners has not increased significantly. The Russian community in France does not seem to be lacking churches. Practicality notwithstanding, Russian churches will soon be built in Madrid, Rome, Havana, Astana and even Tokyo. In view of this it is only reasonable to agree with French historian Alain Besançon who spoke about a “Spiritual International” as a new vector of Moscow’s diplomacy.

Of course, the Kremlin has vehemently denied any connection between the future church and its special services. However, its location – a five-minute walk from the French Foreign Ministry building and ten minutes away from the Élysée Palace – gives food for thought. “The Communist International has exhausted itself ideologically,” says another French historian, Stéphane Courtois. “Gas diplomacy is suffering from its patent consumptive narrowness. The conception of the Russian World (Russkiy Mir), on the other hand, creates an opportunity to use Orthodoxy to expand Moscow’s influence.” At the same time, Moscow plans to build two 323-meter-high skyscrapers in Paris’s exclusive La Défense region which will consist of an office centre, elite residential quarters and a deluxe hotel. “This will be a symbol of new Franco-Russian friendship,” said Putin, who intends to lay the symbolic first stone into the foundation.

The cost of the construction is tentatively estimated to be €2 billion. Russian contractor Ermitazh will invest €300 million of its own money. “European bankers have promised another €700 million. Regarding the other billion Euros, the Russians are certain they will receive it from future owners of residential facilities,” reported French business magazine L’Expansion. Political analyst Mario Bonetti believes the investment has prospects “not only in view of its evident profitability but also as a way to establish a presence in the epicenter of French business circles.”

The Language of Technology

Two years ago, news that Russia was intending to buy French Mistral-class warships drew heavy criticism from not only local opponents of a close friendship with Putin but also experts and politicians in NATO member countries who were not ready to see cutting-edge military technology being exported and used outside the alliance. “If we had refused to sell them, the Dutch or someone else would have offered their own ships,” Sarcozy said in justification of the deal back then.

After the contract was ceremoniously signed in Saint Petersburg, its price (€1.2 billion) became public knowledge. “Whether it is under the tsars, communists or Putin, Russia puts the interests of its expansion above the well-being of its people,” said Françoise Thom, professor of modern history at the Sorbonne. A number of experts emphasized that for purely defensive reasons Russia does not need four helicopter carriers each of which is capable of additionally carrying 450 paratroopers. “That these dual-purpose ships can be used for attack purposes creates a dangerous precedent,” says French philosopher André Glucksmann. “It appears that a NATO country is giving Moscow a green light to carry out imperialistic wars.”

Ukraine, Georgia, Lithuania and Estonia are worried that the purchase has more of a geo-political, rather than economic, purpose. A specialist at the Foreign Policy Institute, within Ukraine’s Diplomatic Academy, says that Russian investments of this kind are aimed at creating tensions within NATO and the EU.

In the past five to six years, Russian businesses have diversified their activities in France. Their representatives purchased a stake in the EADS aviation concern and in Hédiard, a symbol of haute cuisine. They also became owners of Deshouillières, a leader in elite porcelain production, and the Croiset cognac distribution network.

“‘New’ Russians no longer confine themselves to real estate in Monaco, villas in the Riviera and private yachts,” writes Challenge magazine. “Now they are investing in France’s industry, energy sector and the production of luxury goods.”

Why Russian oligarchs collectively became, of all a sudden, more palatable to Western Europeans is a hard question to answer. But one can note that large French businesses have recently gained access to very closed Russian markets. Alstom produces locomotives jointly with Transmashholding; EDF is included in the South Stream project and GDF-Suez in  Nord Stream; Renault undertakes joint production with Auto-VAZ and so on. Any amount of love only makes sense when it goes in both directions, right?

In the Language of the Mass Media

Not long ago Sergei Pugachyov, an oligarch who is considered Putin’s personal banker, gave his son the French newspaper France Soir as a gift. After shelling out €50 million, the foreign owner ordered the staff to increase the print run from 20,000 to 200,000 copies within two years. “An unheard-of miracle happened: the newspaper’s print run quadrupled within this period,” says one of its former employees. “But the new owner was enraged. He fired the editor in chief because of alleged ‘poor results.’ The whims of a capricious child had not been satisfied.”

Others say that the “wild management” of France Soir resembles a museum of Soviet despotism in a capitalist country. “Alexandr Pugachyov, aged 25, does not know a thing about the publishing business,” says the same journalist who spoke on condition of anonymity. “He is interested in nothing except money. But the newspaper is unlikely to ever generate serious profit. His father, SergeiPugachyov, is said to be on good terms with the Sarcozy family. We will have a better idea of why he bought the newspaper closer to the (French and Russian) presidential elections. In both Russia and France, they will take place next year.”

Business without business is perhaps the Kremlin’s particular foreign policy strategy. How else can you explain a regular insert in the newspaper entitled “Russia today” that is included together with the popular newspaper, Le Figaro? Its authors do not conceal the fact that the insert is being paid for by the Kremlin. Is this periodical, which for years had a reputation as being one of Russia’s consistent critics, now honoring the right of its readers to unbiased information?

At the symbolic level, the situation resembles another breakthrough in Russia’s propaganda in foreign countries. France does not resist a downpour of Russia’s money. But it should not be taken for granted that Paris is really ready for the kind of reciprocity Moscow is demanding.

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