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Are they listening to themselves - Part X

Posted by Helen Monday, October 25, 2004

We all know politicians live in a different world from the rest of us, but you’d think they might pay some attention to what goes on in the political dimension. Clearly not as far as Pierferdinando Casini, the Speaker of the Lower House in the Italian Parliament is concerned.

Hosting the 5th Italy-Russia Parliamentary Conference, he said the following to his Duma counterpart, Boris Gryzlov, who, back in Moscow, is essentially Putin’s messenger boy:

“The EU - especially Italy - supports a democratic Russia as a rightful member of the wider European community; as such Russia has a right to aspire - by means and at times of its choosing - to intensify procedures for its closer participation in the construction of the European community.”
Well, speak for yourself. The rest of us are a little wary of the idea of Russia deciding when it should try to become part of the EU (not that it will be all that anxious after the way it had been blackmailed over Kyoto).

Nor are we all that certain about Russia’s democratic credentials. On the whole, some of us might listen to last Saturday’s demonstrators in Pushkin Square (shades of the old dissidents), who were protesting about Putin’s policy in Chechnya and his solution to the terrorist problems: abolish regional gubernatorial elections. We might also think twice about the democratic credentials of a country where most of the media is controlled by the state directly or indirectly and where every large business has a chum of the President sitting on its board, the latest one acquiring a member of the siloviki being Aeroflot.

Signor Casini did not stop there in what, one assumes, must have been an unfortunate Italianate oratorical flourish:

“Your great country is instrumental to the stability of crucial quadrants of the world in view of its historic influence over parts of the Middle East, Central Asia and the Caucasus. Your diplomacy has succeeded in unravelling difficult situations, such the transition in Georgia. [...] What matters most is Russia's irreversible commitment to democratising politics, to access the free market, and to pursue euro-Atlantic integration. Not an easy choice and not one that can only be implemented gradually thanks to a greater awareness among the Russian people and thanks to the firm commitment of the Duma.”
Is Signor Casini listening to himself? Surely not. Russia’s influence in the Middle East has been even more baneful than that of the EU, in its support for the worst regimes and many terrorist groups. And that is not even beginning to describe Russia’s role in Iraq and in the oil-for-food scandal.

In Central Asia, Putin’s concern has been largely to establish economic and, above all, military bases in the post-Soviet, supposedly independent republics. In the Caucasus … ah, yes the Caucasus, as bloody a mess as anyone has seen for a century or so. Has Signor Casini not heard of Chechnya, Dagestan, Northern Ossetia, Northern Cherkessk? Does he not know of Russia’s role and behaviour in all these places? Clearly not. Though he had heard of Beslan, so why not about the rest of it?

Georgia? Far from unravelling the still rather ravelled situation, Russia has armed, financed and otherwise supported the various rebel groups in Abkhazia, and has tried to use the problems thus caused to move its troops into Georgia itself.

As for Russia’s irreversible commitment to either democracy or free markets, well, only someone who speaks on behalf of the EU can possibly even say that, never mind believe it. The truth is that democracy is gradually and not so slowly being rolled back in Russia and that famous access to the free markets is hampered by ever tightening state control, not to mention threats of phony criminal charges. The EU has not, perhaps, reached that level. In particular, it cannot control the media (but then, it probably does not need to and, even if it does, it prefers to use carrots rather than sticks as my colleague’s blog explained). It prefers to rule by regulation rather than direct control of economic entities. But its understanding of freedom and, indeed, democracy (remember that deficit?) is on the low side.