Russia sets its sights on Europe

Oct 10, 2005 02:00 AM

by Yefim Barban

Commenting on the results of the London Russia-EU Summit, BBC television showed a close-up of two numbers -- 50 % and 80 %. The first refers to the share of Europe's need for natural gas that Russia currently covers, while the second is an estimate of what it will be when the second section of the North European gas pipeline, passing below the Baltic Sea from Russia to Europe, goes into operation in 15 years from now.
Tony Blair rejected the theory that the EU countries would thus become economically dependent on Russia. He said that the project did not jeopardize Europe's energy security. British politicians and economists, however, are sounding the alarm. The London-based paper Guardian notes that the Russian-German project could alter the geopolitical situation in Europe.

In the run-up to the summit, Blair sent Malcolm Wicks, Minister of State for Energy at the Department of Trade and Industry, on a fact-finding mission to Moscow to test the waters and see whether it would be possible for Britain to join the new gas pipeline. In Moscow, Wicks pronounced a sacramental phrase to the effect that the stability of energy supplies to Europe in the next decade would depend on Russia. Thus, the word "dependence," which Blair, out of deference to diplomatic etiquette, did not venture to use, was firmly pronounced by the official in charge of the British energy complex.
Meanwhile, Michael Binyon, the diplomatic editor of the London Times, opines that the Russian ruling authorities regard the enlargement of natural gas supplies to Europe not as an economic but a political breakthrough, and this cannot but worry the EU countries.

British political circles, especially the opposition Conservative Party, are equally concerned by Russia's persistent striving to secure visa-free travel for its citizens to EU countries. According to police, at least one-half of the 150,000 to 200,000 Russians living in Britain are illegal immigrants. If they could so easily settle down in the UnitedKingdom with closed borders and strict visa regulations, what will happen once the borders are opened, the British are asking.
No readmission agreement is going to salvage the situation. In Britain, which does not use internal passports or any other IDs, illegal migrants have no problem getting lost in large cities. The compromise agreed to by Putin on the issue of readmission was in very large part based on the realization that there would be no mass deportation of Russian citizens from EU countries since this would be simply unrealistic with respect to "Slavic-looking people", who do not stand out in any way amid Europe's general ethnic mix.

Russia's originally tough position on the issue was caused by its concerns over the potentially huge expenses involved in extradition, the building of temporary camps, colossal organization efforts, and so forth. Soon, however, the Kremlin realized that readmission was not as black as it was painted. So Russia is now ready to sign a readmission agreement at any moment.
At the same time, Putin admitted that the negotiations with the EU on the general simplification of visa regulations were complicated by "Russia's porous borders, above all in the south."

Putin owes much of his success on this issue at the summit to Tony Blair, who managed to persuade President of the European Commission Jose Manuel Barroso and EU High Representative for Common Foreign and Security Policy Javier Solana to simplify visa procedure for certain categories of Russian citizens. Here the British prime minister acted as a kind of a Trojan horse.
The fact is that Britain is not part of the Schengen zone and is not particularly concerned by its immigration laws. Blair now holds the EU's rotating presidency so he had no problem persuading the European Commission leadership to make concessions to Russia before an "absolute readmission" agreement was signed, whereby Russia would have to take back the Vietnamese, Chinese and CIS citizens who had illegally got to EU countries and were caught by police. Given that EU police are quite effective, Russia will have to spend much money as a result.

Bilateral Russian-British negotiations the day after the Russia-EU summit brought Putin good political dividends and a flow of compliments from the British prime minister. People in the Russian colony in London quip that Lt. Col. Putin managed to recruit the British premier.
Indeed, they have a close and confidential relationship, going back to the surprise visit by the Blair couple to St Petersburg five years ago, when Putin was running for his first presidency (which drew heavy flak in the British parliament which saw the visit as thinly veiled interference in the internal affairs of another state).

Predictably, the talks focused on Russian energy shipments to Britain, and it seems that Blair succeeded in getting his country to access the Russian gas pipe. At any rate, Putin said that "if Russian natural gas was supplied to Great Britain, it would make a substantial contribution on the British market to ensuring a balance [of prices] and maintaining prices at an acceptable level."
Nevertheless, it was the war on terrorism that dominated the talks. Back in 2001, a Russian-British working group on fighting international terrorism was created -- a joint initiative of both leaders. MI5, the British counterintelligence service, has now practically switched from counter-espionage to anti-terror, closely cooperating with Russian intelligence and security services in this sphere.

Blair noted that the two sides had agreed to work closely together in combating terrorism, while the leaders' joint declaration refers to the unconditional censure of terrorism in all of its forms and practices. Some shrewd observers in Russia read this as a sign of change in London's official position on Akhmed Zakayev, who was granted political asylum in Britain.
Still, neither Blair nor his government can do anything here: Zakayev's fate is entirely in the hands of Britain's independent justice.

Source: The Moscow News
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