MOSCOW. (Ian Pryde for RIA Novosti) – Following the visits to Moscow by the German and American foreign ministers and the EU-Russia summit in Samara, Russia and the West agreed to disagree and tone down the aggressive and unfounded rhetoric of recent months.
This is a welcome development, and the hope now must be that a civilized and sensible discourse will be more conducive to a modus vivendi and finding solutions.
At the same time, Moscow will not hold back from pointing out what it sees as flaws in Western arguments and positions.
The new, more conciliatory approach combined with criticism was immediately reflected in Putin’s public utterances.
Addressing the Russian cabinet early last week, Putin told Agriculture Minister Gordeyev to “keep trying and continue the dialogue with Europe” on disputed areas such as trade in general and the dispute with Poland.
Moscow has long claimed that Poland has been trying to export buffalo meat relabelled as beef to Russia, a practice which Moscow claims is against EU rules.
In a long press conference which many saw as a political program, First Deputy Prime Minister Sergei Ivanov asserted that a senior Polish official had told the Russians that Poland was now serving the meat that Moscow had banned on cruise ships in the Baltic – thus implying that the trade was still going on.
Last week, Germany confiscated a consignment of buffalo meat.
At the cabinet meeting, Putin also made several remarks reminiscent of Margaret Thatcher and Britain’s long-standing complaints about the European Economic Community, claiming that the European Union was providing heavy subsidies to European farmers and then dumping the produce in Russia.
Even so, during his visits to Austria and Luxemburg later in the week, his first to Europe following the Samara summit, the accent was firmly on cooperation and friendship, rather than on mutual claims of dependence or independence, although he reiterated his complaints about the EU farm subsidies at a press conference in Luxemburg.
As usual, many leading Russian businessmen accompanied the president, and some 30 deals worth 3 billion euros were signed in Austria.
Putin can give short shrift to journalists, but on this trip he patiently answered questions about the state of democracy in Russia, arguing that Western Europe had taken centuries to reach its current state of development and even so was not perfect.
Russia, he said, could hardly be expected to reach these standards, especially considering that it had seen one state disappear – the Soviet Union – and undergone a major economic collapse.
These are valid arguments, and ones I have been putting forward since the early 1990s and, more recently, in this column.
I have also argued here that the Kremlin is virtually unchallenged in Russia, and this was confirmed by an opinion poll of 1,500 respondents in Moscow published last week which showed that more Russians than ever before believe that things are improving in the country.
This is hardly surprising against the background of political stability, strong economic growth and the veritable credit boom in the last several years which is fast propelling Russia towards a consumer society – with all the positive and negative implications which that entails.
It is therefore hard to see how any opposition to the Kremlin could garner enough votes to oust the current establishment.
All the more odd, then, that Russia feels the need to prevent anti-government demonstrations or prevent Garry Kasparov from flying to the summit in Samara, or why it is so concerned about NGOs allegedly funded by western governments – the last thing most Russians want is to rock the boat and they are unlikely to be affected by western blandishments in any shape or form, especially after the experience of the early 1990s.
But as a result of these and other actions, especially the Yukos affair, Moscow has still to convince the West – and indeed, most people in Russia itself – that the rule of law applies in the country rather than the rule of men.
However, the Kremlin has precious little feel or understanding for this.
Like politicians everywhere, Putin often sees (western) criticism as unfounded and part of a negative PR campaign against himself and/or Russia.
But spin, no matter how good, cannot hide or make up for bad policies, which in turn leads to bad press.
This rather more subtle point has eluded many a politician, as George Bush and Tony Blair have found to their cost over Iraq.
If Russia wants to avoid devastating headlines and criticism on areas such as its human rights record, it must make far greater efforts to solve its problems in ways that are seen to be democratic.
The argument that Russia is only just developing democracy will not wash with many in the West, although this will not prevent trade and cooperation between the two sides continuing to increase.
On the other hand, the disputes over the EU farm subsidies and the relabelled buffalo meat show that Russia will not supinely accept western policies it perceives as bad or against its own interests.
Sharper disagreements are likely to remain on more fundamental questions such as Lugovoi’s extradition to the United Kingdom to face murder charges for poisoning Litvinenko and America’s plans to station ABM systems in Eastern Europe.
Putin and Ivanov have made it clear they do not accept the American argument that these systems are meant to defend Europe and the US against attacks from Iran and North Korea.
At the weekend, the rather nationalistic TV magazine Post Scriptum summed up what seems to be the Kremlin’s stance: “The American version of dialogue usually seems to consist of Washington taking unilateral decisions followed by pointless discussions with Moscow.”
Condoleezza Rice, however, has claimed that Washington told Moscow about its ABM plans long before they entered the public domain.
Conclusion: Russia and the West have made good progress lately, but more effort is required to solve their common problems.
Ian Pryde is CEO, Eurasia Strategy & Communications, Moscow.
The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s and do not necessarily represent those of RIA Novosti.
Originally written for Ian Pryde’s weekly column for the Opinion & Analysis section of RIA-Novosti’s English-language website.
Now available at https://sputniknews.com/analysis/2007052966239862/, the site of the Sputnik news agency, the successor to Russian state-owned RIA Novosti’s international branch, which became defunct in 2013.