Monday, January 03, 2005

Russo-German friendship

It is rather interesting to watch traditional foreign policy re-emerging and disentangling itself from the rather spurious idea of a European policy. Today’s example is the growing closeness between Germany and Russia, alluded to a few times already.

Chancellor Schröder, for example, has annoyed even his own party by his refusal to criticize anything his new best friend Vladimir Putin does. In fact, references were made to President Putin’s unblemished record as a democrat.

Little has been said in Germany (or other West European countries) about the fact that one of the memorial days celebrated in Russia with ever growing magnificence is Secret Police Day. I kid you not. December 20 is the anniversary of the founding of the ChK (Chrezvychaynaya Kommissiya, since you ask), the first of the notorious and terrifying Soviet secret police organizations, run by “Iron” Felix Dzerzhinsky. The organization has gone through various names: VChK, NKVD, MGB, MVD and KGB (I may have left one or two out). These days it is known as the FSB, though most Russians still refer to it as KGB. The word Chekist has once again become a term of high approbation.

But I was talking about Germany’s involvement. For it is not only Chancellor Schröder who remains mealy-mouthed. There is the interesting saga of the German banks, led by Deutsche Bank. The Sunday Telegraph Business Section (what my colleague calls the grown-up part of the newspaper) had a short piece yesterday about Yukos calling for an investigation into the role of these banks in the ongoing destruction of the oil company.

Deutsche Bank had led a consortium that was planning to finance the state controlled Gazprom’s bid for Yuganskneftegaz in the recent, highly irregular auction. Yukos had successfully filed for bankruptcy protection in a US court and the German banks regretfully withdrew from the affair. The new owner is Rosneft, which acquired Yuganskneftegaz through an unknown bidder. In fact, Rosneft and Gazprom will probably merge, recreating the old Soviet energy empire, controlled by the state. No doubt, the German banks will gleefully pile in, put in lots of money and, also no doubt, complain when things go wrong and the money will not produce as good a return as they had expected. Just like the old days, really.

Meanwhile, as we have reported before, Gazprom is tightening its control on energy supplies in eastern Europe and is trying to expand into the western part, especially Germany. Perhaps, that is what the banks are smacking their lips over but one wonders whether any of this is in Germany’s or Europe’s long-term interests.

Just to add some spice to the story, an interesting little tit-bit is reported in the Boston Globe by Masha Gessen, a Russian journalist and author. Describing the frightening and ever growing control of the media by the state in Russia, which is now beginning to extend to websites and small publications as well, as well as the imprisonment of teenagers for holding the wrong political opinions and "insulting" President Putin, she goes on to the following chilling story:
“Earlier this year, I reported a story that I found both ridiculous and very, very sad. The Russian edition of GQ, the men's magazine, had run its traditional "Man of the Year" contest. Some 26,000 readers had voted, and the winner was Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the oil tycoon, philanthropist, and political activist whose Yukos oil empire has been expropriated and who has been in jail for over a year on charges of tax evasion that are widely seen as politically driven. His well-publicized trial has sent a message to all Russian entrepreneurs, warning them that they will suffer gravely if they ever happen to displease the Kremlin. The publisher of Russian GQ banned the publication of Khodorkovsky's name in connection with the contest, forcing his editorial staff to falsify the results. According to staff members, someone actually had to fly to Italy, where the magazine is prepared for printing, to replace the offending page.

One remarkable aspect of this story is that the magazine's publisher, Bernd Runge, is a German national who has little to fear personally from the authorities: He doesn't even spend much time in Russia, since his turf includes other Condé Nast publications in Germany and Africa as well. But Runge has an intimate understanding of how the new Russia works. He hails from East Germany, and he went to college in the Soviet Union. Earlier this year, two major German magazines published multi-part exposes showing that Runge served as a Stasi (the East German secret police) agent during the Soviet period. Jonathan Newhouse, chairman of Condé Nast International, issued a statement affirming his confidence in Runge and calling the revelations "irrelevant" to today's realities.”
It seems that Lenin’s term: “useful idiots” has not yet outlived its own usefulness.

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