INTO EUROPE THROUGH THE BACK DOOR

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INTO EUROPE THROUGH THE BACK DOOR

Moskovsky Komsomolets, August 29, 2002, p. 1

President Vladimir Putin has come forward with a proposal addressed to European Union leaders: to include Russia in the Schengen zone. The key point of his proposal is as follows: if the EU cannot guarantee Russian citizens visa-free travel from the Kaliningrad exclave to the rest of the Russian Federation, why not eliminate all visa barriers?

On the whole, this idea is sound and logical. Moreover, European leaders are quite well disposed towards the Russian president. And his proposal, officially described as a “new integration initiative”, is quite in line with the fashionable topic of globalization.

Nonetheless, there can be no doubt that European leaders will turn down Putin’s proposal – in the most polite and politically correct manner.

The reason for the refusal is obvious. Why should prosperous Europe want Russia, with all its many problems? The European Union simply cannot open its borders to a country like Russia. For European leaders it would amount to a crime against their own people, since the Schengen zone is not only a zone of free movement for people and goods. The most important point is that it is a union of countries with relatively equal standards of living. Suffice it to say that Greece was originally admitted to the Schengen agreement provisionally, and it had to spend several years bringing its economy into line with EU standards before it was allowed to fully open its borders to other European countries. But Russia is far behind Greece. If Europe opens its borders to Russia, millions of Russian citizens will rush to the West in search of a better life.

Moreover, Russia is a member of the Commonwealth of Independent States – and appears to have no intention of withdrawing from it. But this would mean an endless stream of people migrating from Central Asia to Europe via the territory of Russia, which would be too much for the EU economy.

The strangest aspect is that Putin certainly understand all this perfectly well. And he is prepared to accept the European Union’s refusal, for in this case the EU will have to make amends to Russia for its negative answer.

So Russia is likely to get something out of this, at any rate; which is not so bad.

RUSSIA’S OIL BARREL

Rossiiskaya Gazeta, August 29, 2002, p. 2

Energy Minister Igor Yusufov says the government “does not rule out” creating a state oil reserve. The minister emphasized that the Russian economy does not really need this, but it may be used to stabilize the oil markets “or to provide for the needs of other countries”.

Two sets of issues will have to be considered if the decision is made. The first is technical: where to store the reserve and how to transport it. The second is much more substantial: how to pay for it, why it ought to be done, and what the outcome will be.

Every self-respecting nation tries to maintain reserves of strategic resources, primarily grain and oil. For Russia, while grain has been a problem so far, it looks like an oil reserve will be arranged.

However, the state will literally have to purchase certainty for tomorrow, as soon as today. Tellingly, Yusufov let it slip that the government has no “common vision” of conditions for creating the reserve. Last year, Russia extracted 350 million tons of oil. Only 100 million tons remained in Russia, while the rest brought in the foreign currency revenues Russia craved; so there is no great wish to restrict even a small amount of oil. On the other hand, hard currency export revenue is always a problem for financiers; if there is too much of it, the ruble rises against the dollar, which is not good. Analysts say that using the state’s money to buy up oil ought to strengthen the ruble; which is not bad for importers, but makes Russian exports more expensive.

In this situation, it is difficult to find a balance.

THE BITTER WINE OF KAKHETI

Versty, August 29, 2002, p. 1

It seems that Russia and Georgia have never quarrelled as badly as now. Georgia is accusing Russia of “state terrorism”, while Russia accuses Georgia of sheltering up to 3,000 Chechen rebels on the territory of Kakhetia (Eastern Georgia). Tbilisi alleges that the Russian armed forces were responsible for the bombing of Georgian villages; whereas Moscow claims the attacks were the work of Georgian planes. All this is reminiscent of a “cold war”.

According to a poll done by the Public Opinion Foundation, 59% of respondents think relations between Russia and Georgia have deteriorated over the past year. Possible reasons include the Georgian government’s alleged collaboration with rings of Chechen militants (28%) or providing cover for them (25%). And 12% of respondents consider the current situation to be a consequence of the policies pursued by President Eduard Shevardnadze of Georgia. Nearly half of respondens believe the Georgian government “is capable of taking action against the Chechen militants, but does not want to do so”. A fifth of respondents think the Georgian government is incapable of coping with the Chechen rebels.

These poll results clearly indicate that individual attitudes to Georgia have changed among Russian citizens. In March, 41% of respondents said they were favorably disposed toward Georgia; this is now down to only 26%. In March, 14% of respondents took a negative view of Georgia; now it is 39%.

On the whole, pollsters believe Russian citizens are very concerned about the estrangement between Russia and Georgia over the past few years. Ordinary citizens living on opposite sides of the border do not want such confrontation, and they sincerely wish the governments of Georgia and Russia could find a common language.

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