We Write Kyiv, While Thinking Moscow

7 September 2011, 18:08

The three-year term of the current French ambassador to Ukraine is over, so Paris is pondering who should succeed him. The agrément and credentials are still a while away, so evaluations can only be made tentatively. But the undertaking is worthwhile, nevertheless.

“If the Foreign Ministry picks Alain Rémy of all candidates, it can be surmised that the habit of looking at Kyiv through the Moscow lens is very likely to make a comeback,” says an administrator in a French diplomatic institution who spoke on condition of anonymity. “Mr. Rémy was posted to Russia twice: first back in the Soviet era and then during Putin's tenure. This does not in the least mean that the diplomat himself is charmed by Russia. It may be the other way around. But it suggests that the current leadership of French diplomacy believes that in order to understand Kyiv, it is enough to be knowledgeable in Moscow’s political practices.”

An indirect argument supporting this conjecture may be found in France’s significant rapprochement with Russia recently. More exactly, this is true of foreign economic relations. “Sarkozy does not see Russians as a prospective political partner,” economic journalist Renaud Rebardy explains. “Politically, they are interesting only because of their relative influence on Iran and the air corridor they can provide to Afghanistan. Now the economy is a different matter. Here large French businesses are trying to outdo the Germans at any cost in their competition for Russian markets.”

Renault and EDF, Gaz de France and Vinci, Alstom and EADS are actively seeking to cooperate with the Russians. “Don't look for a deep political strategy in this,” says a French banker who has worked for nearly a decade in Moscow. “It’s not there. There is a desire to create jobs for French specialists at the cost of a solvent country. We want Russian oil dollars to be invested in projects that are beneficial to us.”

In spring 2011, Nicolas Sarkozy, who promised to be “demanding” of Russia during his presidential electioneering campaign, appointed Jean-Pierre Thomas as his special representative in Moscow – as if the official embassy and numerous private lobbyists were not enough. “No country, not even the United States, has presidential authorization of any kind,” the Foreign Affairs Ministry administrator told me.

Thomas was posted to Russia not to monitor human rights enforcement but to promote French business. There seems to be nothing extraordinary about this. But additional powers granted in the exclusive mode of his role are a revealing detail to add to the picture of the current Paris-Moscow relations.

In a recent interview for the Russian press, Thomas said: “In the near future, Russia can not only join the common economic space with the European Union but also join the EU itself and even before Ukraine and Turkey.” He also called on Russians to “unite in the economic and geopolitical confrontation between the USA, China and India.” Sarkozy does not seem to have said anything of the kind with regard to the United States.

It is the format of Ukraine's future relations with the EU that will be the first major headache for the new ambassador, regardless of whether Rémy or someone else assumes the office. Not only Paris but also Brussels, London, Berlin and other European capitals are now hesitant about which tactic to pursue in the negotiations with Ukraine scheduled to take place during the Ukraine–EU summit in December.

Some politicians favor signing an Association agreement and then, under this agreement, demand that Ukraine follow democratic standards.

An alternative position is to postpone this move until Yulia Tymoshenko and Yuriy Lutsenko are released on their own recognizance with restricted travel. “It's hard to say what the real proportion of the hawks and doves is,” the Foreign Ministry official explained. “One thing is certain: the decision is pending and discussions continue.”

It is also too early to say how much the statements made by Thomas reflect the policy of the French president. “These statements may be a show of standard diplomatic flattery,” the above-mentioned banker says. “The things you can do to obtain orders! It will be a long time before Russia has transparent tenders.”

After all, even the prospects of France again looking at Kyiv through the Russian lens is nothing more than a logical, albeit sad, consequence of politics in Ukraine. Ukrainians themselves elected a president who subserviently signed the Kharkiv Treaties. They let him declare non-aligned status for Ukraine and essentially abandon the aspiration of membership in NATO. So today we must quietly sit back and watch how the prospects of having a state ruled by the law are drifting away from us and hiding beyond the cloudy horizon. Why then should we be surprised at the reaction of foreign politicians?

If France is looking for a diplomat who knows Russia more than Poland or Hungary to take the ambassador’s office in Ukraine, this can mean only one thing: Kyiv has fooled no one with its declarations about “European priorities.” Pragmatic Western politicians draw conclusions from the things they see with their own eyes.

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