Medvedev offers Europe a deal during his first visit as president

By bne IntelliNews June 6, 2008

Ben Aris in Berlin -

Medvedev in Berlin

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev was in Germany Thursday, June 5 and made an offer to radically remake relations with rest of Europe. Europe, in the form of Chancellor Angela Merkel, was listening, but isn't sure she likes what she hears.

Press conferences of this sort are rarely exciting, but the platitudes exchanged by Merkel and Medvedev were telling, given the aggressive rhetoric that has marked recent exchanges. Both Merkel and Medvedev were very careful not say anything substantial or controversial.

Merkel, especially, was on guard and passed up the opportunity in the question and answer session with the journalists to hold Russia to account over human rights and other hot issues, restricting herself to saying, "we will watch and see how things develop." The result of the talks for the Germans amounted to Merkel telling the new Russian president: "This is our agenda. We are willing to work with you. Throw us a bone."

One of the many hopes that Medvedev brings with him as he assumed the presidency is the chance for eastern and western Europe to expunge the belligerency that has crept into relations and make a fresh start. This was Medvedev's first trip to Europe as president and the symbolism of his decision to stop first in Kazakhstan, then China before coming to Europe was very clear. Former president Vladimir Putin's first foreign trip on the job was to the UK and although it is hard to remember now, Russia enjoyed a warm relation with the UK to begin with. Medvedev's travel itinerary neatly lays out how the political relations have changed since then.

Give the dogs some bones

While Merkel dodged answers, Medvedev was more specific in his comments. He is saying the all right things, but also couching them in the conditional. The Russians want some bones too.

On the face of it, most of what Medvedev said has been said before: he reiterated Russia's commitment to the free-and-open market, he reaffirmed his resolve to fight corruption and support small- and medium-sized enterprise, and he batted back the inevitable, "will Yukos owner Mikhail Khodorkovsky be freed?" question. But all his comments had one common theme - the law.

Medvedev said the Kremlin couldn't interfere with the Khodorkovsky case, because the courts have convicted the man and any change to this must come from the Russian legal system.

Yeah, right, like the Kremlin doesn't interfere in the courts? This is the assumption that lies behind the question: the Kremlin ordered him to be convicted so the Kremlin can order him to be released. The irony of Medvedev's answer is that this is the answer he is supposed to give, that Merkel would give, but no one believes him.

But this is why Merkel is willing to cut Medvedev some slack; the hope is that Medvedev is the system-builder to Putin's tough-man act. Putin used the same answer and comes across as a hypocrite, but Medvedev could be sincere. His much quoted comment on Russia's "legal nihilism" suggests that the law will be a key issue for his presidency. Medvedev's answer to the Khodorkovsky question is not a statement of fact, but could be what he would like to see happen. Fighting corruption, supporting SMEs, running the country as a free market - all these issues boil down to having effective laws that are enforced.

The push to sideline the Kremlin clique with ties the security services, the Siloviki, whose modus operandi is "administrative control," is already a big step in the right direction. Giving Igor Sechin, chairman of Rosneft and a leader of the Siloviki, the post of deputy prime ministers tasked with overseeing industries and energy, was a clever move, as it brings him out of the shadows and makes him accountable to the public and so the law.

But Medvedev is not just talking about the rule of law inside Russia. He wants to bring it to the external relations as well. He made the point explicitly during his speeches in Berlin several times, both directly and indirectly. "In international affairs as well as inside the country, we will insist on the supremacy of the law, on the observance of international law by all states, above all leading powers," he said.

And these are the terms of Medvedev's offer to the rest of Europe. Lets stop bickering. Lets sit down and work out a new set of rules governed by treaty and international law. And lets treat Europe as a whole, not divided into east and west, which means recognising Russia's importance on the continent. "It is important for all nations to participate [in Europe] in their national quality, leaving aside the concepts concerned with blocs and groups," he said.

Medvedev called for a European summit to launch the development of a new treaty on European security like a new version of Helsinki Act that governed relations in Europe during the Cold War. This would be a radical rethink of the balance of power in Europe. It means ignoring the old alliances and remaking relations on a pan-European basis that stretches from the Portuguese Azores in the west up to, and including, the Ural mountains in the east.

The Russians are ready to deal, but Medvedev is mindful of the shoddy treatment Russia received at the hands of the UK after such a good start in 2000. So like Merkel he also remained evasive. Russian wants to be a full-fledged member of the European community, says Medvedev, but note his use of the conditional. "Having rejected the Soviet system and having refused to restore it in a certain historic period, Russia has laid the basis for the formation of a state that would be absolutely compatible with the rest of Europe," he said.

"Would." Not "is."

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