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Turkey – EU – Russia triangle: Geometry changed?

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The “new Turkey” of the president Erdogan

The past year can arguably be considered a turning point in the political history of Turkey. In August, the president Recep Tayyp Erdogan has been elected president of the Republic, after serving three terms as prime minister, the first directly elected by Turkish citizens.

Such an institutional step marked a substantive strengthening of the very president Erdogan and his party, the Justice and Development Party (AKP), as the former foreign affairs minister and Erdogan’s right-hand man, Ahmet Davutoglu, has been named as new prime minister. Since the last electoral campaign, “new Turkey” has become an important concept in the political Turkish lexicon. As an editorial in the pro-Erdogan daily Yeni Safak argues, «if the attack [on New Turkey] is coming from within, this is called betrayal. New Turkey is not a slogan. It’s not a party expression or a political show. New Turkey is a project. This is the redesigning and re-establishing of Turkey after a century».[1] The recent restrictive action of the government against the press seems to match some features of this insight of the State. On December 14, the Turkish police have arrested twenty-five members of the daily Zaman’s redaction and TV station, including its editor in chief, Ekrem Dumanli. Admittedly, the raids can be easily interpreted as addressed against Fethullah Gulen, the US-based islamic cleric, to which Zaman is closely tied. The move has been sharply criticized by the European Union. Additionally, the Turkey’s parliament has been discussing an “internal security” reform that is going to strengthen the powers of the police in handling demonstrations. The organization “Reporters Without Borders” points out that: «If the bill is passed as it stands, police officers will be allowed “in emergencies” to conduct searches of places, persons or vehicles on nothing more than a verbal order from a superior that must subsequently be confirmed in writing. Arbitrary searches of news organizations and journalists’ homes, which are already common, would inevitably be facilitated, at the expense of the confidentiality of journalists’ sources.[2]

The socio-economic agenda

One of the most thorny issues the Turkish government has to tackle is constituted by the socio-economic agenda. The question has been strongly raised, among others, on the occasion of the Taksim square’s demonstrations in 2013. The prime minister Davutoglu has recently formulated his economic priorities, as Turkey has been taking the G20’s presidency in 2015. It pivots on inclusiveness, implementation, and investment for growth.[3] Despite of political declarations, growth has lost momentum in 2014. After the high rates registered in 2010 and 2011 (around 10%), in 2012 the economy grew around 2%. In 2014 the target of 4% has been revised by the government. A relevant factor in such a drop is the fall of domestic demands and investments. Turkish economy is highly dependent on foreign capital (the current-account deficit hit 7.9% of GDP in 2013). According to the state statistics agency, Turkey’s unemployment rate stood at 10.9% in December 2014 rising from 10.7% in November. The issues of refugees and its economic and humanitarian implications is worth to be mentioned. Over 1.700.000 million Syrians have taken refugee in Turkey since the war began in March 2011. Nearly 30% of these live in twenty-two camps near the Syrian-Turkish border. In September 2014, attacks by the Islamic State against Kurdish towns and villages close to the Turkish border brought hundreds of thousands of Kurds to flee to Turkey. As the Danish Refugee Council reports: «In Turkey, refugees outside of camps face integration challenges such as language barriers and very few social ties, resulting in higher tensions with local communities and difficulty finding employment. Syrians in Turkey have very few opportunities to access credit with shops, and landlords generally demand rent/utility payments every month without exception or flexibility. Syrian men who do manage to find temporary jobs (daily, weekly, or sometimes monthly) often complain that they are not paid at the end of the work, and they cannot pursue any legal recourse because they have no right to work in Turkey. They say the Turkish employer will just find another Syrian to replace him, and generally not pay him either».

This issue triggers new dynamics in the labour market and in the very Turkish society. The huge increase of labour supply pushes wages down. A sudden upsurge of Turkey’s population by 1 million people has soared rents by 40-50%, especially in the provinces of Gaziantep, Sanliurfa and Hatay. The rising rent and increasing unemployment particularly hit the poorer portions of the local population. The chairman of the Mersin Chamber of Retailers and Artisans, Talat Dincer points out that the «refugees working at wages below the minimum wage and without social insurance cause the increase in unemployment. A solution has to be found soonest».[4]

The next June 2015, the general elections will constitute a significant test in order to assess the real grip of AKP’s power. It will be the occasion to test the institutional Turkish path to a presidential system, with the president Erdogan’s proposal to emend the constitution, and the challenges which the regional panorama presents.

Ankara and Brussels: accession process and common regional challenges

The EU-Turkey relations have recently showed interesting developments after a phase of substantial stalemate mainly registered on the issue of Turkey’s accession to the European Union. Remarkable changes have characterized the political life of the two actors in the last year. While a new Commission installed in Brussels, after Erdogan sworn in as president of the Republic and the new prime Minister Davutoglu took his charge, Ankara published a document containing the new strategy of Ankara toward Europe. It highlighted, among others, that «Turkey and the EU are encountering common challenges that underline the importance of Turkey’s accession process in shaping the EU project».[5] In the last period, EU-Turkish relations have been characterized by a certain diplomatic freeze. The crackdown of the nationwide demonstrations of Gezi Park, domestic scandals of corruption and the issue of press freedom have contributed to hamper a constructive dialogue. Although such elements of contrast, the situation seems to be address toward new scenarios. On December 2014, for instance, the EU High Representative, Federica Mogherini, visited Ankara and held a meeting with Davutoglu. The visit constituted the precious occasion for Mogherini to highlight «the strategic importance EU-Turkish relations and our desire to step up engagement in view of shared interests and common challenges». Then, she added that «we need to improve on the alignment onforeign policy and security policy. It’s never been so low and this is a problem for the European Union, but it is mainly a problem for Turkey». Surely, the essential core of such a renewed European approach toward Ankara has to be found in the increasing threat of the Islamic State. It is a major security concern for the European Union. The reluctance of Turkey in dealing with this issue in a coordinated multilateral effort has prompted the Western leaders to a closer engagement with Ankara. An important in the Turkish-EU relations involves the very perception of Europe by the Turkish public opinion. According to a public opinion survey conducted by the Centre of Economics and Foreign Policy Studies (EDAM) at the beginning of 2015, Turkey should cooperate with the European Union to have a stronger economy and foreign policy.

Economic and trade ties with EU

With the accession process still alive, some instruments shape the current relations between EU and Turkey.[6] First, they are linked by a Customs Union Agreement, which came in force on 31 December 1995. The agreement covers all the industrial goods and provides for a common external tariff. In the past years, it has been underlined the importance to upgrade the Customs Union into a deeper Union including also the liberalization of services and public procurement. On 9 January, Commissioners Johannes Hahn and Cecilia Malmström met Turkish Minister of Economy Nihat Zeybekçi. During the meetings the functioning and improvement of the Customs Union were discussed. The EU is Turkey’s number one import and export partner while Turkey ranks 7th in the EU’s top import and fifth in export markets. Turkey’s main exports markets are the EU, Iraq, Russia, USA, United Arab Emirates and Iran. Turkey’s exports to the EU are mostly machinery and transport equipment, followed by manufactured goods. In the meantime, with reference to gas supply, Turkey has formally started the construction of the Trans Anatolian Gas Pipeline (TANAP), which when operational by the end of 2018 will carry Azerbaijani gas to European markets and reduce the bloc’s energy dependence on Russia.[7]

Turkey and Russia: competition and cooperation

The aftermath of the crisis in Ukraine entailed a meaningful change in the very relation between Ankara and Moscow, particularly opening a specific dialogue on gas’ dossier between the two countries. On 1 December 2014, Alexey Miller, chairman of the Gazprom Management Committee, and Mehmet Konuk, Chairman of the Board of Directors of Botas Petroleum Pipeline Corporation, signed in Ankara a memorandum of understanding on constructing an offshore gas pipeline across the Black Sea towards Turkey. The agreement marks the end of the South Stream project, which had to transport natural gas from Russia, through the Black Sea, directly to Bulgaria and Europe.[8] «Turkish Stream is now the only pipeline», Gazprom’s chief executive, Aleksei B. Miller, stated. «There are no other variants possible. Our European partners have been notified of this, and their task now is to establish the necessary gas-transporting infrastructure from the borders of Turkey and Greece»[9]. As Alexey Grivach, Deputy General Director of Gas Projects at Russia’s National Energy Security Fund, argues: «This huge project brings the Turkish dream of becoming the huge gas transit hub to Europe closer. But first it was based on the gas from the Middle East and the Caspian, and now it is occurring that this hub will be based on the Russian gas. The first loser is Europe which will not have such a great project for the European economy, and even more importantly for some countries, not very rich countries of the EU, like Bulgaria. And they will lose the investments and transit fees, and this will go to Turkey and enforce the Turkish position in the market, and in the region as well».[10]

In the framework of the December 2014’s last diplomatic meeting in Ankara, Putin and Erdogan agreed on some chapters of the bilateral relations. Despite of disagreements on some foreign policy issues like Syria and Ukraine, the two leaders opted to focus on areas of mutual interests as gas and trade relations. On Syria, for instance, Turkey is critical toward al-Assad regime and pushes for his removal. On the other hand, Putin is convinced that a lasting settlement cannot be achieved without Assad. Also, Turkey raised tough criticisms to Moscow about the annexation of Crimea as well as there are disagreements on border disputes in the Caucasus. Although such contentions, there are sound economic ties between the countries. Turkey is the second trading partner of Russia after Germany. The two governments expect to foster their bilateral trade relations from $33 billion to $100 billion by 2020. Moscow will invest $20 billion in constructing the Akkuyu nuclear power plant, the first project of this kind in Turkey.

 


[1]Akin, Ezgi, What exactly is “New Turkey”?, Al-Monitor, 26 August 2014.

[2]Reform package would leave police even freer to harass journalists, Reporters without borders, 17 February 2015.

[3] Turkish G20 Presidency Priorities for 2020, For the whole document see: https://g20.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/12/2015-TURKEY-G-20-PRESIDENCY-FINAL.pdf.

[4] Cetingulet, Mehmet, Syrian refugees aggravate Turkey’s unemployment problem, 9 July 2014, Al-Monitor.

 

[5] Turkish Ministry for EU Affairs, “Turkey’s New European Union Strategy,” September 2014.

[6] Turkey assumed “candidate status” during the Helsinki Summit on 10-11 December 1999. At the Brussels Summit on 16-17 December 2004, the Council affirmed that Turkey fulfilled the political criteria and decided to open accession negotiations with Turkey on 3 October 2005.

[7]O’Byrne, Davis, EU energy dream made real as Turkey breaks ground on Azeri gas export route to Europe, Business New Europe Intellinews, 17 March 2015.

[8] Among the obstacles to the realization of the South Stream there was the EU third energy package. It stipulates the separation of companies’ generation and sale operations from their transmission networks.

[9] Reed, Stanley, Arsu, Sebnem, Russia Presses Ahead With Plan for Gas Pipeline to Turkey, New York Times, January 21, 2015.

[10] Kudashkina, Ekaterina,Turkey Hopes to become a Gas Market-Maker Expert says, Sputniknews, 2 December 2014.

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Serbia bracing up for “difficult autumn“

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Serbia is preparing for a “difficult autumn” as it tries to resolve the Kosovo problem, President Aleksandar Vucic said following a visit to the United States. He described the discussions he had had in Washington as “extremely important,” all the more so amid the continuing disagreements over the situation in Kosovo.

“A difficult autumn awaits us, a difficult winter awaits us. First and foremost because of Kosovo,” Vucic said. Pledging continued fight for Serbia and the ethnic Serbs living in Kosovo, he still admitted that Serbia is too small to influence the policies of a “giant” like the United States. Aleksandar Vucic, Kosovo leader Hashim Thaci, French President Emmanuel Macron, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and possibly a senior member of the Trump administration are expected to meet in Paris later this month to discuss the situation in Kosovo. The participants are expected to agree a list of measures to normalize relations between Belgrade and Pristina, including provisions for redrawing Kosovo borders and the transfer of the country’s Serb-populated northern regions to Serbian control. The Serbian opposition strongly rejects the idea of signing such an agreement with Pristina under the auspices of the European Union and the United States.

President Vucic may still be forced to go for it as “the lesser evil,” which may require a certain degree of pragmatism on Russia’s part. According to the new Russian ambassador in Belgrade, Alexander Botsan-Harchenko, who formerly represented Russia in the mediating “troika” overseeing the Kosovo status talks, Moscow “supports and encourages everything regarding the initiative role of Belgrade. If some decisions are made, and if Serbia asks Russia to join a certain group of states, then we can (why not) go for it. But at the same time, our position and our commitment to Resolution 1244 must be taken into account. There is no other option for us and, I think, for Serbia either. We are now ready to contribute to the resumption of dialogue. ”

Serbia’s other option is refusal to continue negotiations with Kosovo and, therefore, to see its application for EU membership suspended. This is a possibility many in Europe and the US are fully aware of.

“The Serbian point of view is that Russia defended its position on Kosovo in the UN and opposed NATO bombings,” former US ambassador to Belgrade, William Montgomery, said, adding that, according to opinion polls, Russia still tops the list of countries Serbians like most.

He described the EU’s position on Serbia’s membership in the bloc as short-sighted and a strategic mistake, emphasizing that the European Union will bear responsibility for the consequences of its failure to do more to bring Serbia into the bloc.

Serbian officials are equally aware of the complexity of the situation. In an interview with the Belgrade-based newspaper Vecernje novosti, diplomat Zoran Milivojevic expects a clash of “big power” interests in the Balkan region: “Serbia clearly occupies an important place in this standoff and will continue doing so since the West has not yet abandoned its interests in this region. Because Serbia plays such a decisive role in the Balkans, it will be the primary target of Western pressure.”

If Serbia rejects a deal with Kosovo, thus complicating its relations with Brussels, it will inevitably have to generally revise its foreign policy priorities and start to actively build up across-the-board cooperation with Russia and other global “centers of power” outside the Euro-Atlantic camp. This also implies closer trade and other economic ties with Russia and its Eurasian allies.

One such cooperation format is the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU), which can offer Belgrade a serious trade and economic alternative to European integration, while simultaneously allowing Serbia to serve as a “bridge” in the economic (and, therefore, political) relations between Russia and the West.

Meanwhile, Belgrade is already taking concrete steps in this direction. On August 15, Serbia officially joined the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) as its 73rd member with the country’s finance minister Sinisa Mali describing this as an important event, which offers Serbia access to easy loans to finance the implementation of priority projects.

In addition to members from the Asia-Pacific region, the Beijing-headquartered AIIB, which has been operating since 2016, also has among its members such leading European countries as Britain, Germany, France, Italy, the Netherlands and Spain.

In October, Serbia may sign an even more economically and politically significant agreement on a free trade zone with EAEU member-countries. According Russia’s envoy in Belgrade, Alexander Botsan-Kharchenko, such an agreement is expected to be inked on October 25.

“This is a significant event, which has naturally attracted a lot of media attention. The EAEU is an effective integration project that meets modern requirements. For Belgrade, the implementation of the document will mark a completely new stage of presence in Eurasia, with an access to a market of over 182 million consumers and a combined GDP exceeding $1.9 trillion,” Botsan-Kharchenko emphasized, adding that “Serbia may eventually become a bridge between the EU and the EAEU.”

Established on the basis of the Customs Union and the Common Economic Space, the Eurasian Economic Union has been in business since January 1, 2015 and currently includes Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Russia and Kyrgyzstan, with Moldova having an observer status.

During the August 2019 meeting by the Eurasian Intergovernmental Council  Russia’s Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev emphasized the need to speed up the preparation of agreements on the EAEU free trade zone with Serbia and Singapore. He also called for expediting the implementation of integration processes within the EAEU itself.

“Negotiations on free trade are successfully underway with Singapore, Israel, Egypt, and an interim agreement on a free trade zone with Iran, an agreement on trade and economic cooperation with China will soon be launched. This gives our goods certain advantages in these countries’ markets,” Medvedev said.  He emphasized that the EAEU also seeks to expand the number of its foreign partners, including through regional organizations such as ASEAN.

“We strongly support such activities. I think that it is necessary to expedite the procedures that are necessary to sign agreements on a free trade zone with Serbia and Singapore,” Medvedev added.

In addition to the EAEU, Serbia has spent the past few years trying to participate more actively in other integration projects outside the Euro-Atlantic area. Since 2013, it has had an observer status at the Parliamentary Assembly of the Collective Security Treaty Organization, and, according to various reports, is now mulling the prospect of its gradual “connection” to the structures of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. Increased US and EU pressure on Belgrade concerning the issue of Kosovo recognition will obviously give an additional boost to the abovementioned trend, which objectively meets the interests of the Russian Federation.

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President Macron’s plans and ambitions: Realism or rhetoric?

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In the run-up to the G7 Summit in Biarritz, French media reports focused on the global political and diplomatic plans of President Emmanuel Macron. Journalists say that for President Macron the G7 summit presented a unique opportunity “to return France its historical role of a “ mediator ”in global conflicts and to contribute to outlining a new geopolitical agenda”. How realistic are such ambitions?

France acquired the tradition of demonstrating its sovereign and special international status in the times of Charles de Gaulle. Paris also succeeded in  securing effective mediation in various conflicts under Francois Mitterrand and Nicolas Sarkozy. Playing into Paris’ hands is the nuclear arsenal, the status of a permanent member of the UN Security Council,  and one of the leading roles in the global arms market. France’s mediation efforts have won perhaps the greatest trust among the Western powers. In the past, France was able to speak on behalf of united Europe, while Macron has repeatedly signalled his determination to consolidate the EU foreign policy.

The EU itself has long been showing a “tendency to strengthen its role as a major player in global crisis management.” But in order to expand diplomatic and humanitarian mediation efforts under the patronage of the EU one should follow the current format of making foreign policy decisions within the community, which requires the consensus among all the participants. Thus, to guarantee the agenda and the role claimed by President Macron it is essential to reconsider foreign policy priorities and probably reform the institutions of united Europe. It is also necessary to consolidate and coordinate the increasingly “mosaic” and diverse interests of member states, which are regularly at odds with one another even on issues that are declared by the EU leadership as being of top priority for all member countries. A long-term geopolitical strategy continues to play a significant role too, as a result of which the development of a pan-European foreign policy turns into a frantic search for the “lowest common denominator”.

In the meantime, Macron’s “mediation” on a number of priority issues  has been mostly about defending the interests of France. The second half of last year was marked by relations between the two “locomotives” of the EU – France and Germany – hitting a new level. However, the beginning of February this year saw serious disagreements between the two parties. As it turned out, the interests of Paris and Berlin clash. Regarding the construction of the Nord Stream-2 gas pipeline, France managed to impose on Germany “the format that the German government wanted to avoid.”  On the issue of transatlantic trade, the French position blocked the start of negotiations with the US, which was fraught with the introduction of duties against German-made products, in the first place. The EU members managed to overcome this discord only by mid-April. Finally, this summer, after a fierce backstage fight, in which Macron took center-stage, a “compromise” was reached in favor of France. The posts of presidents of the European Commission and the European Central Bank went to candidates who are politically dependent on Paris. This so-called realpolitik inevitably raises the question of whether Macron with his geopolitical ambitions might push Europe to an even greater internal split? In this regard, there have been suspicions that the French president wants to turn the EU countries into an instrument of Paris’s foreign policy agenda.

Some experts believe that Macron’s ambitions are great beyond description, that “his horizon is the future balance of strength in the world.” They talk about his determination to “go beyond European and Atlantic solidarity and return to the concept of multipolarity and multilateralism”. The Champs Elysees seeks to maintain a regular dialogue even with powers whose interests run counter to Western ones; and even with countries that oppose the allies of France. At the same time, Macron is committed to NATO and “is seeking to rely on the concerted effort of the North Atlantic Alliance” in a hope to give the organization a “new impetus”. In addition, Macron’s foreign policy follows clear “ideological principles,” which make his supporters look to him with double hope, while opponents see him as the main obstacle to effective diplomacy. All this restricts his “independence” and the possibility of new agreements.

Finally, many analysts say that Macron’s foreign policy is characterized by controversy. A few days ago he said that he wanted to turn France into a “power of equilibrium.” But just a year ago, he demonstrated strong support for the German idea of transforming the entire European Union into a balancer, “balancing” the international situation. What is closer to Macron, the “individual leadership” of France or the “sovereignty of Europe”? Over the previous two years, being at the top of power, he has significantly changed his views on the transatlantic model of globalism and signaled the need to give a new role to Europe, to “strengthen” its position in the new alignment of forces. A year ago, Macron urged the EU to “guarantee its own security”, since such powers as China and the United States hardly see Europe as an equal force. And if the Europeans fail to quickly change this state of things, then “we are in for a bleak future” . On August 27 this year, as he spoke at a meeting of ambassadors, Macron stated: “we are witnessing the end of Western hegemony in the world,” … “new powers are coming to the fore”, primarily Russia and China.” In this regard, it is important to understand what is behind the frequent change in rhetoric of the current French leader, adaptability of a far-seeing strategist or a time-serving pragmatism of a politician whose major concern is the next elections.

Meanwhile, the mediatory efforts undertaken by Macron while getting ready and holding the G-7 summit were also filled with striking discrepancies. The participants failed to work out a “model” on the Iranian dossier, although the  media had reported a statement by the French president on reaching an agreement on “joint communication” on maintaining a nuclear deal with Tehran. However, it soon became clear that Paris is in no position to influence the United States.  In the Russian direction, Macron yet again tried to “entice” Moscow by the narrative about “Europe from Lisbon to Vladivostok.” However, Russia remembers that a little over a year ago Macron spoke as confidently about it as being “non-Europe”, thereby suggesting conflicting trends in international relations – the “Big Seven” is more and more like a relic of the past”,  and a return to this past in its “current format makes no sense”.

What inspires some optimism is the fact that Macron seems to understand that Russia is not the country that can be “excluded from all parties.” The broader its cooperation with Moscow, the fewer problems the West will face. Addressing the French ambassadors during a meeting mentioned above, the French president made it clear “that France needs to reconsider and build new relations with Russia.” But one of the many puzzles he has to solve along the way is the “paradoxical situation” that has developed to date, “when the same countries within NATO and the European Union support opposite political platforms regarding Russia.” As part of the NATO agenda, Europeans are pursuing a policy that combines  a “systematic (military-political) deterrence of Russia” with the need to maintain dialogue, despite the fact that all formal options for such a dialogue are frozen. As part of its own agenda, the European Union, whose 22 members are also members of NATO, terminated a “systematic political dialogue” with Moscow, based on the Partnership and Cooperation Agreement, in 2014. At the same time, there are statements about the expediency of selective cooperation – in issues that meet the interests of the EU. “How is it possible to develop selective cooperation without political dialogue?  How is this possible without coordination of mutual interests?” – an expert from the Institute of Europe of the Russian Academy of Sciences asks.

Meanwhile, the world is in acute need for “global legal standards”, and not only for the regulation of traditional “conflict-use of force” challenges. Issues such as climate change, threats to destabilize cyberspace, attacks on informational reality, cross-border social disasters, pandemics cannot be handled effectively at the level of individual states. More and more issues enter “the world level”. And if we are to address them, we need the appropriate “world order”, the harmonization of universal norms so that national governments could work together to “secure effective global governance”.

Russia welcomes and is actively participating in transforming international relations in the direction of “multilateral diplomacy”, “collective efforts at the level of the international community and the regions.” However, are the West as a whole, and France, in particular, ready for “restraint and compliance with the international law and order”, for “working in an open format”, and for abandoning the “ideology-dominated foreign policy”? Are they ready that the new model of diplomacy will be “complex and multifaceted,” sometimes fitting badly if at all into any previous formats in terms of the approaches that will be adopted by all participants.  For example, in the case of the “Big Seven,” Moscow suggests looking at the situation from a broader perspective and discuss the prospects for the Group’s modernization not only through the return of Russia, but also through expansion to include India and China. This transformation into the “Big Ten” may become “a powerful phenomenon in global politics that would change directions, approaches and formats”.

Emmanuel Macron is thus to provide the answers to a large number of difficult questions: to what extent can France be independent in determining its foreign policy? Also, is it possible to effectively play the role of an “intermediary power”, while remaining bound by the “strict obligations to other players”? And wouldn’t it be possible for France, in that case, to find itself squeezed between the “hammer” of the everyday realities of modern international politics and the “anvil” of the maxim, which they say belongs to the French, that genuine realists “demand the impossible”? 

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The Vatican and the Russian Federation

Giancarlo Elia Valori

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Currently the Vatican is the largest and most effective mediator between the various ideological worlds and between the old, great political alliances.

 A system in which the Church operates by mediating both between them and between them and the West.

 This is the case of the Russian Federation, with which the Catholic Church has a special and long-standing  relationship, which started with the mission to the Tsar in 1452 and later continued with a very long story of deep ideological contrast with the Marxist-Leninist State atheism, but also of friendship and support – especially nowadays.

 Full diplomatic relations between the two countries were resumed in 2009, with 178 countries now recognizing the Holy See diplomatically, while in 1978 the Vatican had official diplomatic relations with 84 countries.

 Certainly, the present-day Russia, like the Tsarist and later the Marxist-Leninist one, has an Orthodox Church closely linked, by its very nature, to the political power. Not even Stalin could escape said rule altogether.

 Still today, however, remnants of the past Communist regime can be found not in the mass aesthetics of the current system centred on Vladimir Putin, but in the one focused on some inveterate and deep habits of the population.

 Recently, during a visit paid to the ancient monastery of Valaam, President Putin himself ideologically associated Communism with the Christian tradition.

Still today, many Russians regard Lenin’s Mausoleum in Red Square as a ” sacred place” while, according to reliable statistics, 51% of Russians still admire Stalin.

 Why the return of Stalin’s myth, and exactly now? Because the “Man of Steel” is seen as an enemy of bureaucracy and “elites” and, above all, as the architect of the Soviet great victory against Nazism. 

This shows to what extent the deep tendencies and trends  of contemporary society and the old ideas about the Second World War mix up in popular myths.

 Probably – as Curzio Malaparte already noted in his book, “The Technique of Revolution”, written in 1931 when he was an Italian diplomat to Warsaw – nowadays Stalin embodies the simple and virile assurance and stability of the Russian peasant, while Trotzky acted nervously and unconfidently, “like a modern European intellectual” -just to put it in Malaparte’s words.

 Moreover, the current Russian relationship with the Catholic Church and the other national autocephalous and autonomous Churches stems directly from Putin’s new strategy of expansion into the so-called “near abroad”.

 Ukraine is, in fact, at the heart of Putin’ strategic project. Without Ukraine no expansion is possible, however along with the Caucasus and Central Asia.

 But one of the centres of Ukrainian power and national identity is the Greek-Catholic Church, which still follows a Byzantine rite and is closely linked to Rome.

After the great repression of 1946, it has been the largest and fastest growing religious community in the world.

 The passion with which the Greek-Catholic Church proposes the Social Doctrine of the Church has long been a very credible substitute for Marxist eschatology or, in any case, for the Soviet social ideas.

Currently, however, the relations with the Patriarchate of Moscow are excellent.

Throughout his papacy, however, Pope Francis has always been proposing dialogue instead of confrontation.

Hence,  while the EU and the USA are increasingly opposed to Putin’s Russia, the Vatican listens carefully and deals effectively with Russia.

 The naive superiority – typical of the weak subjects – with which the EU and the USA deal with the Kremlin will be the sign of a harsh defeat, in Syria as in other parts of the world.

In the sixth visit paid by the Russian leader to the Vatican, Pope Francis spoke with him about various international issues.

 Never – not even during Stalin’s rule – did Russia think that the Vatican diplomacy was uninformed or powerless. Indeed, during the Second World War he used it for the matters concerning Hitler and his demise, as well as to deal with the USA, which had already adapted to the Cold War.

Reportedly the Pope and Putin discussed at length about Syria – where the stance of the Holy See is very far from the empty and ambiguous “democraticism” of the West-and about the whole Middle East and its new set-up, as well as about the status of Jerusalem and finally about the moral decadence of the West and, hence, about a sort of alliance between Putin’s Russia and the Vatican to defend ancient and eternal values.

So far, however, the Pope has paid no visit to Russia. Obviously the Synod of the Ukrainian Greek Church would create some understandable problems.

Putin has already had two confidential conversations with Pope Francis, in 2013 and 2015.

 He will be in the Vatican next January, when, an exhibition of Russian art will be inaugurated at the Holy See.

 Foreign Minister Lavrov often has contacts with his counterparts of the Roman Catholic diplomacy, at all levels and constantly.

Here we can find, in essence, the great idea of Pope Francis, his careful and profound opening to the Russian Orthodox Church that counts 150 million believers and has considerable economic power, which has sometimes been used also to rescue public finances.

 In 2016, Pope Francis and Patriarch Kirill met in Cuba and a month later the Pope approved the appointment of Archbishop Celestino Migliore as Apostolic Nuncio to Moscow.

In 2017 he was also conferred the Apostolic Nunciature of the Holy See to Uzbekistan.

 The Vatican Secretary of State, Cardinal Pietro Parolin,paid a visit to the Russian Federation from August 20 to 24, 2017, expressly invited by the Russian State and by the highest hierarchies of the Orthodox Church.

It was the first visit of a Vatican Secretary of State after 1989 and after the great, historic visit of Cardinal Agostino Casaroli in 1990, immediately after the collapse of the Soviet regime.

 Cardinal Parolin had some “important and constructive meetings” – as he himself defined them – with President Putin, with Foreign Minister Lavrov, with Patriarch Kirill and Metropolitan Hilarion, as well as with some other members of the Patriarchate of Moscow.

Later Cardinal Parolin met with Putin in Sochi. Many of the topics discussed during their conversations are still very confidential, but one of them is already known: the issue of Christians in Syria and all the conflicts in the Middle East, considering that the Vatican recognizes the fait accompli, i.e. the Russian Federation as a great decisive power for the destiny of the whole Middle East.

 They also discussed  the status of Christians in the various areas with an Islamic majority – where the Russian Federation already counts very much – and their possible protection.

Russia is already available, while some Western countries not.

 The following day, when Cardinal Parolin met with Foreign Minister Lavrov, they discussed the fight against terrorism and jihadism, as well as the promotion of a stable dialogue between countries and religions, and finally the protection of ethnic, religious and political minorities in all the possible solutions – partial or not-to the conflicts in the Middle East.

Cardinal Parolin and Minister Lavrov also discussed how to put an end to the clashes in Syria, using both the Astana Accords and the Geneva talks. The Vatican accepts both of them.

 Furthermore, the Secretary of State reminded Lavrov and his aides of the urgent need to re-establish contacts and resume talks between the State of Israel and the Palestinian world, as well as to try and solve the strong tensions in Venezuela, where Russia still has a strong power projection.

Also the Catholic Church, however, has undisputed power.

 Cardinal Parolin never discusses in vain and with an abstract and academic tone.

Later the Secretary of State vigorously outlined to the Russian leadership Pope Francis’ pragmatic and rational position on all the issues under discussion.

We can imagine that, with specific reference to Syria, Pope Francis and his Secretary of State want a concrete commitment by Assad – they implicitly recognize – for the protection and support of the population, as well as the return of refugees to Syria.

With specific reference to Libya, Pope Francis wants the conflict to end immediately, through a credible and substantial dialogue between the parties, possibly supported by the Vatican diplomacy and by the Russian Federation itself, which currently backs General Khalifa Haftar, the strongman of Cyrenaica.

As to South Sudan, the Pope wants President Salva Kiir and the rebel leader Riek Machar to meet and, in fact, a few days later Kiir asked Machar to form a government of national unity.

 One of the many silly conflicts generated by oil and by the carelessness of the most important powers at economic level.

 In addition, Russia seriously supports the Vatican’s efforts in Venezuela to stabilize the local political system peacefully.

Reverting to the Ukrainian issue, with specific reference to the current political and military situation in Ukraine and to the annexation of Crimea, Cardinal Parolin stressed that “international rules shall be fully enforced”.

In fact, the Holy See wants the 2014 Minsk Protocol, which has so far remained dead letter, to be clearly implemented by all parties.

Minister Lavrov clearly appreciated the Vatican support for the Minsk Protocol.

 In short, as can be inferred from the messages of Cardinal  Parolin coming back from his Russian missions and visits, it is good for the West not to neglect and, above all, not to isolate the Russian Federation.

 It would be a fundamental strategic mistake.

Nevertheless, considering this geopolitics based on empty morality and political superficiality, there is not much to hope for in the West.

 Catholics in Russia – the first traditional duty of the Vatican mission there – are very few: 773,000 believers in four dioceses that were established by John Paul II, the Pope  who consecrated Russia to the Sacred Heart of Mary.

 As the Virgin had long wanted in her messages of Fatima.

 The Church of Rome does not proselytize in Russia, but the climate is not yet good for the Roman Catholic Russians.

 And, in this case, the discussions and meetings of Cardinal  Parolin with the leaders of the Orthodox Church were as important as those with Putin and Lavrov.

 Meanwhile, Kirill II suggested the possibility of joint humanitarian operations between the Church of Rome and the Patriarchate of Moscow, especially in the Middle East.

Moreover, the Orthodox Christians will have the relics of Saint Nicholas at their disposal, temporarily transferred from Bari to Moscow and Saint Petersburg.

Hence a new phase has begun, characterized by stable and close relations between Russian Orthodoxy and Roman Catholicism, a phase that will certainly not be cancelled in the near future.

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