This year is the year of Russia in France and France in Russia - an “année croisée”, marked by around 400 events in the political, economic and cultural spheres. As both a Russophile and a rosbif (won’t extend that to Francophile quite yet, sorry) studying on a Franco-Russian programme in Paris, Dmitri Medvedev’s 3-day official visit here this week should have been just my cup of tea.
“Operation Charm” was what Le Monde chose to call the Sarko/Dima schmooze-fest, referring to the abundance of PR companies on hand to promote Medvedev and his country in France and Europe. But who was trying to charm who more? A quick glance at the snippets of the press conference on TV and I wanted to shout “get a room!” as Sarkozy spieled: “I know, Mr President, the extent to which you have engaged yourself for modernising Russian society. […] Your attachment to a state with rule of law, respect for the law, judicial security and defence of human rights, very much facilitates the rapprochement between our two countries […] Russian culture, the Russian language, the Russian people need freedom. You are currently giving and building this freedom and modernity for them.”
Bleugh. Had the debate surrounding the level of continuity or rupture in the Russian political system with Medvedev’s coming to power eclipsed the French President? Or had someone forgotten to point out the figures that show that the largest number of refugees accepted by France every year for the past few years have been those persecuted and unable to benefit from the protection of their own state… Russia? And, wait a second - can it be that the French president’s memory is so weak that he forgot the circumstances surrounding his last visit to Moscow – to negotiate a certain ceasefire?
Some of us have a tendency to forget, though the prospect of the sale of four warships to Russia - a much-needed boost for France’s ailing military industry – obviously has memory-loss-inducing qualities. I should probably point out here that I am not making any judgement on the sale of the warships, but just the vomit-inducing diplomacy that is surrounding it. The whole situation is also rather interesting as many commentators have pointed out - the sale of the ships is the highpoint in the two-year about-turn in French-Russian diplomatic relations, smoothed out by PR whitewashing to sell Medvedev as the “new Gorbatchev”.
Around two years ago I wrote a university presentation on France’s diplomatic relations with Russia (amongst others). At that point, ten months into his presidency, Sarkozy, who had presented himself in the run up to the elections as the candidate for human rights, was having trouble staying true to his loudly-defended principles. Criticising countries that favoured contracts over defence for human rights he was meanwhile getting chummy with Colonel Kaddafi. Then he jumped to felicitate Medvedev with his presidential victory, (foreign minister Bernard Kouchner contented himself with the comment that the election figures were “very surprising, not quite Stalinist, but 70% ain’t bad!”).
And two years on Medvedev’s visit, with all it’s pomp and ceremony, shows how far the situation has evolved. Putin never forgave Sarkozy’s pre-election declarations: “It’s not because Russia is a superpower that we should prevent ourselves from denouncing human rights violations that are committed there”; “the France of human rights cannot be silent faced with the assassinations of journalists, with the 200,000 war dead in Chechnya; the time of realpolitik that crosses our humanitarian principles for contracts is over” (from Le Monde). But Medvedev is the perfect excuse for France to patch over relations – and (supposedly) save face. The new democratically reform-minded President ticks boxes both home and abroad – allowing Western countries, like France, to justify a rapprochement. This “western wishful thinking” that we spoke of back in October takes on another, more cynical tone – not only does Europe want to believe that Medvedev is one of the club, but it is also prepared to actively pedal the myth in an attempt to avoid criticism when business relations come into question. Meanwhile, the reality is that a big fat question mark still hangs over many aspects of the new Russian presidency - 2009 was the worst year in recent times for politically-motivated assassinations and what will come of the Ministry of Internal Affairs reforms is, at least at this stage, anyone’s guess.