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EU/Russia: Is European Silence On Putin Outburst Good Manners Or Good Politics?

  • Jeremy Bransten

Russian President Vladimir Putin's highly undiplomatic statement this week in Brussels about the threat posed by radical Islamists has drawn a surprisingly muted reaction from his European Union hosts. One U.S. commentator compared Putin's tirade to former Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev's famous shoe-banging performance at the United Nations. But it appears Europe's politicians and commentators have pragmatically decided to overlook the incident.

Prague, 14 November 2002 (RFE/RL) -- The silence from Europe, to use the old cliche, has been deafening.

Russian President Vladimir Putin threw diplomatic protocol out the window in Brussels on 11 November, using a press conference with top EU leaders to launch into a tirade aimed at Chechen separatists and what he termed Muslim radicals in general. It was a performance unimaginable of any Western president, especially Putin's thinly veiled threat of castration.

European Union spokesmen seized on the fact that the cruder portions of Putin's remarks initially went untranslated by the Russian leader's interpreter to cast doubt on whether he had actually said what he did. But the taped remarks, in the original, are not ambiguous and have by now been correctly translated for the attention of all interested parties. This is what Putin said, in answer to a French journalist's criticism of his policies in Chechnya: "I think you are from a country that is, in fact, an ally of the United States of America. You are in danger. They speak about the necessity of killing all kafirs [nonbelievers], all non-Muslims, all 'cross-bearers,' as they call them. If you are a Christian, you are in danger. But if you reject your religion and become an atheist, you are also slated for liquidation, according to their way of thinking and their rules. You are in danger. If you decide to become a Muslim, even this will not save you, because they consider traditional Islam to be hostile to their aims. Even in this case, you are in danger. If you want to become a complete Islamic radical and are ready to undergo circumcision, then I invite you to Moscow. We are a multidenominational country. We have specialists in this question [circumcision]. I will recommend that they carry out the operation in such a way so that afterwards, nothing else will grow."

Most of Europe's politicians and commentators seem to have chosen to ignore Putin's remarks. The question is why? When Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi earlier this year said he believed Islam to be a backward religion, he was immediately assailed by fellow European leaders and forced to retract his undiplomatic words. Former French President Valery Giscard d'Estaing got into hot water himself a few days ago, when he said in a newspaper interview that predominantly Muslim Turkey did not belong in Europe.

In speaking to commentators across Europe, two main reasons emerge to explain the continent's silence on Putin's outburst. The first is that unlike Italy, Russia is not part of the EU family. Hence, like a guest who behaves inappropriately in your house, the first reaction is not to criticize but rather to politely pretend no offense has been caused.

The second is that European politicians continue to believe in what they term "quiet diplomacy" -- what some might less charitably call appeasement -- believing they can manage disagreements over Chechnya without upsetting their overall ties with Russia.

Michael Emerson, senior research fellow at the Centre for Foreign Policy Studies in Brussels, said the fact that Putin's remarks came so soon after the Chechen hostage-taking crisis in Moscow might also explain the EU's unwillingness to challenge the Russian president. "The European Union is typically very cautious about reacting to statements made by political leaders in highly emotional, politically charged situations. And of course, this Moscow hostage-taking event has been a very important event in terms of the Russian mindset," Emerson said.

European leaders are fully aware of Putin's extreme sensitivity on the Chechnya issue and have gotten used to discounting his comments on the topic. As Michael Wines, writing in yesterday's "The New York Times," noted: "Chechnya has long been a transforming topic for Mr. Putin. It is the one issue that has repeatedly turned him from the articulate and persuasive Euro-Russian who is welcome at any table of global leaders into something closer to Nikita Khrushchev -- another forward-thinking leader for his time, but one who made a famous point with his shoe."

According to analyst Geir Flikke, at Norway's Institute of International Affairs, the EU once before downgraded relations with Moscow over Chechnya, and it appears keen not to have to repeat the move, although it may, in the end, be forced to choose. "As you know, many of the actual programs that the EU had towards Russia were in general frozen because of the conflict in Chechnya. So there seems to be a deliberate strategy, from the EU at least, to defocus on that particular conflict. That said, it is clear now that once the struggle against terrorism resumes, it might be a problem for the EU that Russia follows its own rules in its struggle against terrorism," Flikke said.

Nicholas Redman, at the Economist Intelligence Unit in London, believes the EU will not give up on efforts to encourage Moscow into negotiating an end to the war in Chechnya, but he also thinks "quiet diplomacy" is the order of the day. "We have to deal with Putin. We have to get a resolution to this problem in Chechnya, if it all possible, and probably quietly is the way to do it. Yes, I am surprised that they haven't come out and said something publicly about this language that isn't acceptable, but maybe so soon after Nord-Ost [the Moscow hostage crisis], it's a difficult line for them to tread," Redman said.

Of course, there is yet another, more pragmatic reason for Europe's remarkable display of tact. It could be a case, Redman said, of making a virtue out of necessity. "Don't forget the gas side of things, in that there's a huge European reliance on gas, and that's going to grow. There is an interdependence. You're certainly right, Russia needs Europe more than Europe needs Russia, but nevertheless, Europe does need Russian gas," Redman said.

Redman also believes that, although Putin's outburst came during a European forum, it was in fact primarily aimed at the United States -- a further attempt by the Russian leader to make common cause with Washington. "Putin's focus in foreign policy is far more on the Americans rather than the Europeans. [Getting] closer to the Europeans is not the first order of the day for Putin. You can argue that it should be [a priority], because there's a lot more commonality of interest between Europe and Russia than there ever will be between Russia and the United States. But nevertheless, its focus is mainly on relations with the U.S., certainly in terms of its political and international diplomatic alignment. So, in that case, the comments that he's made are, if you like, the sort of thing that he might hope to get away with, with an American audience," Redman said.

The irony, of course, is that Putin overshot. If there is anywhere in the West where comments like Putin's would be considered the least appropriate, it would probably be the United States, with its multicultural population. In the aftermath of 11 September 2001, U.S. President George W. Bush visited a mosque and emphasized that the war on terrorism did not equate to a war on Islam. Many European commentators, however, point out that the U.S. administration's unwavering support for Ariel Sharon's Israeli government, even in the face of serious questions about its tactics against the Palestinians, undercuts Washington's attempt to portray itself as friendly to Muslims.

But that does not stop Washington from trying to get its message of tolerance across. In recent weeks, the U.S. administration has even been preparing a series of promotional videos for broadcast abroad that feature American Muslims discussing why they feel at home in the United States.

Putin, by contrast, appears to believe his brand of tough talk will earn the most points. It may win him plaudits in Moscow, but analysts warn that Europe's conspicuous silence should not be interpreted as tacit approval.

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