Putin Uses Gulf Trip To Boost Russian Role In Arab World
Putin brought along a sizable entourage: the head of the state-controlled gas monopoly Gazprom, Aleksei Miller; Russian Railways head Vladimir Yakunin, a number of other oligarchs, and some high-ranking Muslim officials.
Most important of those was Tatar President Mintimer Shaimiyev and Vagit Alekperov, the head of the petrochemical giant LUKoil and the only Muslim among the Russian oil magnates. In keeping with local tradition, all female members of the delegation and journalists wore chadors specially tailored for the visit by the Russian Foreign Ministry.
Putin completed his historic three-day visit to the Middle East on February 13, after visiting Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Jordan.
Talks Behind Closed Doors
On the surface, no big agreements were reached, although Yakunin did pledge to build a railway between Mecca and Medina.
Addressing Saudi businessmen and financiers, Putin called on them to open Saudi banks in Russia. Putin also promised that Russia would help Saudi Arabia develop a national nuclear program as well as launching several Saudi satellites in addition to the seven already boosted into orbit by a Russian missile in 2005.
For their part, the Saudis promised to allow LUKoil and other Russian companies greater access to Saudi energy projects and to continue talks on buying Russian arms, including the advanced T-90 tanks.
Although the majority of the talks were behind closed doors, many Russian observers believe that the two sides were discussing a future energy strategy -- in particular, plans for a gas cartel.
That was the focus of Putin's trip to the tiny Qatar, which is the third-largest producer of natural gas after Russia and Iran.
The plans for such a gas cartel, which first emerged during Putin's visit to Algeria in 2005, are still on the drawing board, but it potentially could include Russia, Qatar, Algeria, Iran, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and Venezuela.
Speaking at a press conference in Qatar on February 12, Putin repeated his earlier statement that a cartel is "an interesting idea," but said that there would be difficulties in making it happen.
Many experts would agree that a gas cartel is an unlikely proposition. Gas differs from the oil in that it is not traded on the stock exchange. And, unlike oil, it is usually sold on long-term contracts that eliminate price fluctuations.
Nevertheless, Russia and other countries who would likely be involved in a gas cartel will probably continue to float the idea as a way of exerting political leverage against the West, which is unnerved by such a proposition.
The Arab Gulf states have traditionally been among the staunchest allies of the United States and largely on the periphery of Russian interests.
Russia had virtually no relations with Saudi Arabia throughout the 20th century. Saudi Arabia did not want to deal with an atheistic Soviet Union, which suppressed Islam. During the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the Saudis supported the Afghan resistance. And Saudi Arabia has been accused of supporting resistance fighters in Chechnya.
New Cold War?
Relations thawed after the visit of Abdullah, then crown prince, to Moscow in 2003. Abdullah established personal relations with Putin and the two countries, the world's biggest exporters of oil and gas, started to discuss cooperation in energy and other fields.
But Russia's interest in Saudi Arabia goes beyond just economics. For Russia, with its 20 million Sunni Muslims, Saudi Arabia, as the spiritual center of the Sunni world, is important for Moscow in terms of balancing its relations between Sunni and Shi'a forces, such as Iran, Hizballah, and Hamas.
Putin's visit comes after his confrontational speech in Munich, which some commentators said revived the spirit of Cold War.
If relations between Russia and the West did descend into a new Cold War, it is perhaps worth remembering one of its lessons. One of the reasons the West won the Cold War was by building a strong coalition, which at the final stage included the majority of the Arab world. Now Putin is doing his best to have the Arab world on his side.
Putin Comes On Strong
He criticized the United States for going it alone in international relations and "forcing its will on the world," condemned the concept of a unipolar world, and accused the United States of undermining world security.
Russian-U.S. relations are perhaps at the coolest they've been for a while. In the last few years, both sides have failed to reach any significant bilateral accords, with the exception of the United States's approval of Russia's entry into the World Trade Organization.
It's unlikely that the Russian president believes such a speech could push the United States into changing its international approach.
So why make such an impassioned speech?
Filling The Leadership Vacuum
Putin's speech could be seen as a bid for leadership among those states and forces that are opposed to U.S. policy.
The Russian president seems to be trying to capitalize on international difficulties the United States is facing, particularly in Iraq. Putin is also, perhaps, responding to concerns, expressed recently by the world's political and financial elite at the World Economic Forum in Davos, about a deficit in world leadership.
Aleksandr Prokhanov, the publisher of a Russian nationalist weekly, said "Putin's speech positioned Russia at the center of anti-American resistance, together with the Arab world and China."
Another hard-liner, Deputy Duma Speaker Sergei Baburin, said that "previously Russia begged for its place on the international arena. Now it defines it regardless of whether somebody agrees or not."
Today's Russia is not afraid of being isolated, or losing access to Western loans. Moreover, it is not afraid of losing Western investments. For the last two years Moscow has snapped up the most attractive assets in the energy market and foreign investors are not hurrying to invest in other sectors in Russia.
Middle East Trip
Putin could well have been trying to create a favorable image in the Arab world on the eve of his trip to the Persian Gulf.
According to an interview with "Al-Jazeera," one of Putin's main goals for his Middle East trip is to attract new investments.
During the Cold War, conservative regimes in Arab countries, in particular Saudi Arabia, helped the mujahedin in Afghanistan fight against Soviet troops.
Today, however, Russia has managed to establish dialogue with some conservative Sunni Arabic states like Saudi Arabia and is bidding to restore its role in the Middle East.
Strong National Leader
The speech was intended for a domestic audience to cement Putin's place in history as a strong national leader.
In recent weeks, Putin loyalists have advanced the idea that although Putin is set to leave the presidential office in 2008, he can not abandon his role "as the uncontested national leader," as Kremlin spin doctor Gleb Pavlovsky put it recently.
Analysts in Russia have floated the idea that in 2008 Putin could become a "co-ruler" or "co-president." Or perhaps, as another pro-Kremlin commentator, Sergei Markov, put it: "a new position will be created for Putin as the head of a confederation uniting the biggest Russian companies and public organizations."
Whether Putin wanted to or not, his Munich speech has certainly made waves. Or as a businessman from Voronezh, quoted in "Komsomolskaya pravda" on February 12, noted: Putin's speech has had the same impact as when Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev pounded his shoe on the table at the UN in October 1960."
Then, as now, the West listened.
Aleksei Mitrofanov, a State Duma deputy of Vladimir Zhirinovsky's Liberal Democratic Party of Russia, told NTV shortly after the incident: "They [the West] inherently dislike us. During the Soviet Union, when we were poor and traveled abroad with $25 in our pocket, they were suspicious, seeing us all as KGB agents. Now when we are trotting around the globe with large sums of money, they are still suspicious of us."
Many Western and Russian observers agree that relations between Russia and the West are getting worse -- but they disagree about why. Westerners blame rising tensions on the Kremlin's more aggressive policies, not only with regard to its CIS neighbors but also Western energy companies and the European Union. Russian observers, on the other hand, accuse the West of failing to consider Russia's legitimate national interests and indulging in unreformed Cold War attitudes, the worst expression of which is "Russophobia."
Russian President Vladimir Putin has indicated that he shares Mitrofanov's sentiment. Asked by a journalist in Dresden last year about Russia's negative image in the world press, Putin said, "They dislike us simply because we are big and rich." He elaborated on this thought during his January 24 meeting with Italian Prime Minister Romano Prodi in Moscow.
"As Russia's economic, political, and military capabilities grow in the world, it is emerging as a competitor -- a competitor that has already been written off. The West wants to put Russia in some pre-defined place, but Russia will find its place in the world all by itself," he said.
Regardless of who or what is ultimately responsible for the worsening relations, the Kremlin has been concerned enough by Russia's rapidly deteriorating image abroad to launch a series of public relations events designed to enhance not only the image of the Putin regime, but also such key institutions, as Gazprom, the Federal Security Service (FSB), and the armed forces.
The first in a series of such events was a visit by presidential hopeful First Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev to the World Economic Forum in Davos last month. According to many Russian commentators, the main purpose of Medevedev's trip was to present him to members of the world policymaking elite. Medvedev's 16 percent public approval rating is second only to Putin's, and it is double that of his closest contender, Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov.
Gazprom is also seeking to buff its international image following damaging publicity around the very public gas spats with Ukraine and Belarus and the company's reputation as a state-controlled monopolist. According to the Russian media on January 16, Gazprom's management has had negotiations with a consortium of Western public relations firms led by the Washington, D.C.-based company PBN about improving Gazprom's image in the United States and EU.
Inside Russia, Gazprom has a wealth of public relations tools and resources at its disposal, since it owns fully or partially hundreds of media outlets, including Channel One and the Ekho Moskvy radio station. Gazprom is currently conducting negotiations to acquire Putin's own favorite mass circulation newspaper, "Komsomolskaya pravda." Aleksander Prokhanov, the publisher of the national-patriotic weekly "Zavtra," regularly praises Gazprom for its "imperial role."
Trip To The South Pole
Following the killings of journalist Anna Politkovskaya and former security services officer Aleksandr Litvinenko, the FSB has also been in dire need of an image makeover. And, like the Kremlin and Gazprom, it too has initiated a public-relations campaign, although its effort has a more unorthodox flavor. At the center of its campaign has been an expedition to Antarctica, the declared purpose of which was to reinforce Russia's claim to that frozen wasteland, undermining the United States' "monopoly" over the South Pole.
The purpose was twofold. To show that the FSB is at the frontline of Russia's national interests and revive the Soviet-era "heroic" image of the KGB. In 2003, FSB head Nikolai Patrushev made similar efforts and erected, with a group of FSB officers, a Russian flag at the North Pole, and, in 2004, an elite FSB force led by Patrushev put a Russian flag at the peak of Mount Elbrus, the highest mountain in Europe.
So on January 3, two FSB MI-8 helicopters flew from Punta Arena in Chile with Patrushev, First Deputy Director and Federal Boarder Guard Service head Vladimir Pronichev, and other assorted FSB officers on board. The expedition landed at the South Pole on January 7, where Patrushev telephoned Putin to extend his best wishes for the Russian Orthodox Christmas.
Russian television channels covered the FSB expedition extensively, noting that the trip was wholly supported by private sponsors and that the Russian flag planted at the South Pole symbolizes the restoration of Russia's superpower status.
Russian television broadcasts, however, failed to inform viewers that Patrushev was calling from the permanent U.S. Amundsen-Scott South Pole station, staffed by almost 100 U.S. citizens. Patrushev's team was bivouacked there waiting for suitable flight weather. And the phone he used to call Putin? That was actually borrowed from a U.S. explorer, according to NTV.
Back in Russia, the FSB organized another event at its Moscow headquarters. On January 13, it invited 118 representatives of international foreign intelligence services accredited in Moscow to a Russian Orthodox New Year's reception. Attending the reception were representatives of 55 countries, including the United States, the United Kingdom, Israel, and China.
It was the first time the FSB had organized such an event. Following the reception, the semi-official "Rossiskaya gazeta" published a lengthy interview with Patrushev on January 18, in which he extolled the quality of his agency's antiterrorist operations, saying the FSB is the "best partner of the West" in the fight against international terrorism. The FSB now has official representatives in 31 foreign states, 20 of which are located outside the former Soviet Union. According to Patrushev, the FSB has even created a special Directorate for Foreign Special Service Cooperation designed to oversee contacts with foreign security services,.
The Russian Defense Ministry, riddled by stories of soldier hazing, desertion, corruption, and public mistrust, has also joined the image-improving effort. On January 15, Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov announced the creation of a new Public Council for the Defense Ministry, which was founded at the behest of President Putin. The Public Council, which includes clerics, pop stars, and others from many walks of life, is chaired by Nikita Mikhalkov, an Oscar-winning filmmaker known for his pro-imperial and monarchist views. It will also include Muslim and Jewish clerics as well as popular singer, actors, and composers.
And in trying to improve its image Moscow might also set up its own network of nongovernmental organizations. For example, Anatoly Kucherena, a member of the Public Chamber, told RFE/RL on February 2 that he wants to create Russia's version of the U.S. rights watchdog Freedom House.
Russia is also aiming to increase the amount of "positive news" in international media. To this end, Moscow has reinforced foreign television and Internet broadcasting. For example, Russia has extended broadcasts of the English-language Russia Today television station and has launched Internet portals like rtnews.ru and russiaprofile.org.
Or as Putin's EU envoy Sergei Yastrzhembsky has said, "Russia needs rebranding."
'Gas OPEC' Moves Closer To Becoming Reality
It's hardly a new proposal, however.
An Idea Whose Time Has Come
Putin first floated the idea of a gas cartel in 2002, during his second year as president. He quickly met with opposition from Western energy companies and -- in what was to become a feature of his style of governing -- retreated and put the issue on the back burner.
At that time, he was supported by the leaders of Central Asian gas-producing nations, who were lobbying Moscow to create such a cartel.
But Putin, seeking to regain state control over Russia's vast energy sector, had his hands full. He apparently decided to wait for a more opportune moment to return to this idea. It seems that this moment is rapidly approaching.
"We're already trying to coordinate our actions in the markets of third countries," Putin said during his annual Kremlin news conference on February 1. "And we also intend to do it in future."
The Russian leader then backtracked, saying that Russia supports "coordination" in the gas market, rather than the "creation of some kind of cartel."
In May 2006, Gazprom Deputy Chairman Aleksandr Medvedev leveled a threat against the West, saying Russia, if it didn't get its way in energy negotiations with Europe, would create "an alliance of gas suppliers more influential than OPEC" -- the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries, which groups 12 major oil exporters.
A few months later, in August, Russia decided to move forward with the concept of an "alliance of gas suppliers" when Russia and Algeria signed a memorandum of understanding calling for coordinated gas prices, which many saw as an attempt to set up a cartel.
Security For Producers
Meanwhile, Putin could be heard complaining that consumer countries in the West focused too strongly on their own energy interests while slighting those of producers.
Speaking as the head of the country that would most certainly lead any future gas cartel, Putin in September said that consumer countries wanted suppliers to pledge continuity of shipments for the long term.
So, he reasoned, "consumers should not be able to turn around and say, 'We don't need it now.' Security works both ways. We need assurances, too."
With that, it seemed, the groundwork for setting up an alliance was in the works.
Massive PR efforts had already catapulted Russia's state-controlled gas monopoly Gazprom into the upper echelons of international corporate fame. Western companies were being brusquely booted from the Russian energy market. And Russia steadfastly refused to ratify the European Energy Charter treaty that would give foreign investors greater access to Moscow's deposits and pipelines.
Any group of gas-producing nations would likely include Iran, Algeria, and Qatar, in addition to Russia. Iran has signaled it favors such a grouping. Together, Tehran and Moscow control one-half of the world's natural-gas reserves, and a cartel-style partnership would be profitable for both.
A little known quasi-cartel already exists. The Gas Exporting Countries' Forum (GECF) first met in Tehran in 2001, with Algeria, Iran, and Russia among its founding members.
Consisting of 15 gas-producing nations, it controls 73 percent of the world's gas reserves and 41 percent of production.
So far, the GECF is more of a talking shop than a bona fide organization. It has no staff and no headquarters, and it has never attempted to set prices. But with the signing of the Russian-Algerian agreement, it may be only a matter of time before the organization gains prominence. Gazprom and Sonatrach, the Algerian state gas company, may launch a joint marketing of gas in Europe -- something that hints at the potential transformation of GECF into a cartel.
NATO is worried by these developments and in November 2006 warned members that Russia may be seeking to create a natural-gas cartel stretching from Algeria to Central Asia to use as a political weapon in dealings with Europe.
The outcome of Putin's upcoming visit to Qatar, which has the world's third-largest proven gas reserves, might shed more light on Russia's plans.
Another factor is the upcoming presidential election in gas-rich Turkmenistan, the outcome of which might throw a monkey wrench into everyone's plans.
If the new Turkmen leadership decides to lean more toward the West, Russia may be forced to create a gas OPEC in order to insure itself against any disruption of supplies from Central Asia, a region where its standing is no longer as strong as it was when Putin first proposed a cartel in 2002.
Misprint Or Provocation?
Freedom House, the U.S.-based organization promoting democratic principles, on January 17 issued its annual "Freedom in the World" report.
The report, which ranks countries around the world according to their protection of political and civil liberties, this year marked no change in Russia's score.
Freedom House researchers did note a further deterioration of human and civil rights in the country in 2006, citing mounting state control of the economy and the intensified crackdown on nongovernmental organizations. But the downturn was not enough to alter Russia's ranking.
Bad, But Not The Worst
On a scale of 1 to 7 -- 7 being the lowest -- Russia received a 5 for civil liberties and a 6 for political rights. It also retained the general "not free" rating it has had since 2004.
On February 1, however, the state-run news agency RIA Novosti reported -- either intentionally or unwittingly -- that Freedom House had given Russian the lowest grades in both numerical categories, ranking it alongside countries like Cuba, Libya, and North Korea.
The Freedom House report is readily available on the Internet. But that wasn't enough to keep the semi-official "Rossiiskaya gazeta" and "Kommersant" newspapers from quickly running with the RIA Novosti report. Even the liberal Ekho Moskvy radio station repeated the figures.
Angry reactions from Russian officialdom followed shortly. "The absurdity of such an evaluation leaves no room for comment," huffed a statement from the Russian Foreign Ministry.
Ella Pamfilova, head of the presidential council on civil-society institutions and human rights, said Russia has no need for "incompetent preaching" and accused Freedom House of maintaining "links with the CIA." Mikhail Margelov, who chairs the Foreign Affairs Committee of the Federation Council, announced Russia would ignore the report.
The reports stumped even veteran rights activists like Lyudmila Alekseyeva, the founder and chairwoman of the Moscow Helsinki Group, who told journalists that although Freedom House was correct in noting the overall deterioration in liberties, equating Russia with North Korea was an exaggeration.
Getting It Right
Remarkably, even as the falsified figures were spreading throughout Russia's mainstream media, a number of publications tied to the secret-service community -- including the St. Petersburg-based RosBalt news agency and the "Trud" daily -- printed the correct ratings.
The situation leaves Russia watchers with a question: Were the wrong figures published by RIA Novosti and "Rossiiskaya gazeta" a mistake -- or an effort to discredit Freedom House?