Kovacevic on Geopolitics

Putin is no stranger to the ex-Yugoslav republic of Slovenia. In fact, in June 2001, when Slovenia was still neither an EU nor a NATO member state, it was chosen as a neutral meeting place for the first official meeting between him and the U.S. president George W. Bush. Ironically, the meeting took place in the Brdo Castle near Kranj, one of the long-time Communist leader Tito’s summer residences. At that time, the U.S. high level officials did everything they could to flatter Putin and get him to accept their hegemonic geopolitical agenda for Eastern Europe, Russia, and Eurasia in general. For instance, during the press conference that followed their two-hour long discussions, Bush stated that he could fully trust Putin in international matters because “he’s an honest, straight-forward man who loves his country. He loves his family. We share a lot of values. I view him as a remarkable leader. I believe his leadership will serve Russia well.” [1]

But, when Putin, unlike Yeltsin, whose hand-picked successor he was, proved unwilling to play along with the U.S. plans, his stature in the U.S. foreign policy discourse quickly deteriorated from that of “a remarkable leader” and an honest patriot to that of a brutal dictator and even “a thug”. This of course should come as a surprise to nobody because, as Henry Kissinger stated long ago, paraphrasing the British prime minister Lord Palmerstone, perhaps the most Machiavellian 19th century leader (in very heavy competition), in the conduct of (realist) foreign policy, there are “no permanent friends or enemies, only interests.”

And yet, even at that time, one could see possible fissures in the U.S-Russia relations, especially regarding the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty and the expansion of NATO. At the press conference, Putin showed a declassified document from the Soviet archives indicating that in 1954 the Soviet government asked NATO member states for closer association and even participation in NATO structures. This request was rejected and Putin pointed out that Russia got the same reply from Clinton’s Secretary of State Madeleine Albright when it filed an almost similar request in the 1990s. This was Putin’s subtle, diplomatic way of exposing the long-term, persistent anti-Russian orientation of NATO. However, as neither the Bush nor Obama administrations had either understanding or patience for diplomatic subtleties and rational compromises, NATO expansion into Eastern Europe continued unabated. That is why now, fifteen years later, instead of being a stable zone of peace and prosperity from Lisbon to Vladivostok, Europe finds itself on the brink, not just of a new Cold War, but of a possible nuclear confrontation.

The Second Visit

More than 10 years passed before Putin visited Slovenia again. He was already in his third year as a prime minister (having served out two presidential terms) when he came to the Slovenian capital Ljubljana in March 2011. He met with the then-Slovenian prime minister Borut Pahor and the then-president Danilo Türk. The focus of their discussions was at the time very prominent topic of the South Stream pipeline which was supposed to supply Southeastern Europe with the Russian gas. The Chairman of the Russian state-owned gas giant Gasprom Alexey Miller and the Chairman of the Slovenian gas company Geoplin Plinovodi Marjan Eberlinc even signed an agreement on forming a joint company to build and manage the Slovenian component of the pipeline. [2] However, as is well known, the whole project was abandoned soon afterwards under the intense political and economic pressure by the EU Brussels bureaucracy and the Obama administration first on Bulgaria, and then on other Balkan countries.

Still, at the time, the prime minister Pahor spoke of “a strategic partnership” between Slovenia and Russia. Strategic partnership implies long-term political cooperation on transnational issues that transcend daily politics, such as international terrorism, radical extremism, organized crime, climate change, etc. as well as the strengthening of economic links and projects. If we know that the Slovenian foreign policy, since independence in 1991, has been very closely coordinated with the Germanic bloc of Austria and Germany, it is not difficult to see that behind the Slovenian embrace of cooperation with Russia, one can see the Berlin-Vienna handwriting. The same thing is true these days and, in my opinion, explains one of the key reasons for Putin’s third visit to Slovenia which took place on July 30, 2016.

The Hidden Subtext Behind Putin’s Third Visit

Putin’s July visit to Slovenia was described in the influential Western mass media outlets under the headline of Putin’s supposedly “testing Western resolve” and unity on the anti-Russian sanctions. [3] There is no doubt that both Washington and Brussels would have preferred if Putin had stayed home. However, it seems a stretch to imagine that the Slovenes invited Putin on their own without close consultations with their allies in the EU and NATO. In fact, I’d say that the approval they sought and received was from the Austrian and German political establishments. This shows that there is a growing rift in the Brussels corridors of power between the pro-American (Atlanticist) faction and the pro-European (Continental) faction regarding the future of relations with Russia.

I expect this internal conflict, which may even threaten the existence of the present European Union institutions, to spill into the public view more clearly in the coming months, especially as the Russian parliamentary elections, the first in four years, are scheduled to take place on September 18, 2016. The two factions are bound to back the opposing sides, both covertly and overtly. The Atlanticists will do all they can to assist, financially and logistically, the Russian neo-liberal opposition, while the Continentals would like Putin and his political partners to win again. However, considering that the U.S. political establishment is currently distracted by the U.S. presidential race, it appears that Putin will not have a hard time in defeating his political opponents. Perhaps this is the main reason why the date for the parliamentary elections was moved from December to September by the State Duma in 2015, though the decision was officially justified by budgetary savings. [4] The Russian presidential elections planned for March 2018 are of course a different story, but a lot of water will pass under the bridge until then. One can only hope that some of it will not be bloody.

Putin’s third visit to Slovenia was described as informal by the Slovene government. Just as during the previous visit, Putin’s main host was Borut Pahor, who is, since 2012, the president of Slovenia. It is important to note, however, that the presidential position in Slovenia is largely ceremonial and that the real political authority is wielded by the prime minister Miro Cerar (who comes from a different political party). This fits with the Slovene government’s characterization of the visit. Otherwise, it would be a serious diplomatic downgrade directed at Putin.

Pahor and Putin appear to have developed friendly personal relations over the years. It was reported that when they first met officially in 2011, they decided on the project of building a memorial for the Russian and Soviet soldiers killed in the WWI and WWII on the territory of Slovenia. [5] Now, five years later, Putin was present at the unveiling of that memorial in Ljubljana. He also gave a speech in the Slovenian mountains near the Vršič Pass at the site of a chapel built by the Russian WWI POWs in the memory of their fallen comrades. Evidently, while in the Baltics and Poland, the memorials for the Russian and Soviet soldiers are being removed, in the Balkans, they are being built and renovated. This is yet another sign of the rift between the pro-Atlanticist and pro-Continental EU member states mentioned above.

Some analysts connect Pahor’s apparent friendliness toward Putin and the Russian leadership in general to his youthful membership in the Yugoslav Communist party. Couldn’t he have been “turned” by the KGB as an ambitious young Communist politician in the late 1980s? This, in my opinion, is not a likely scenario. Pahor was one of the most fervent advocates for the Slovenian membership in NATO to the point of alienating even some members of his own Social-Democratic party. After Slovenia entered NATO in 2004, he has continued to campaign heavily for NATO membership of the rest of the ex-Yugoslav republics. [6] In addition, Slovenia and Island were the first two countries to ratify NATO protocol with Montenegro on June 8, 2016. [7] Therefore, it is unlikely that Pahor is a Russian agent of influence. What is closer to the truth is that he is a pragmatic politician on a mission assigned to him by more powerful Western allies (in this case, the German chancellor Angela Merkel).

A Slovene U.N. Secretary General?

In addition to that, there is another reason why Slovenia would want discrete Russian support. The Slovenian media reported that one of the political luminaries at the Vršič Russian chapel event was Danilo Türk, former president and current Slovenian candidate for the post of the U.N. secretary general. As I have already written in January 2016, Türk, who has had extensive diplomatic experience in the U.N., first as the Slovene ambassador (1992-2000) and then as the assistant secretary general for political affairs (2000-2005) has a great chance of being chosen for that post. [8] In order to do so, he needs at least the tacit, if not the public, approval of all five Security Council members who hold the power of the veto. I have stated that I believe that Türk has already gained the support of China. The support of Russia, which I am sure Pahor lobbied for, would mean that Türk could get ahead of the other candidates who appear much more polarizing in their political and geopolitical outlook.

All in all, Putin’s visit to Slovenia, following on the heels of his recent visit to Greece, another Balkan EU and NATO member state, shows that Russia is far from being politically isolated in the Balkans. On the contrary, in fact, it seems as if its influence is slowly but surely taking on more and more weight. It is only a matter of time before we see the resurgence of Russian-sponsored large economic projects in the region, such as the South Stream, for instance. However, one thing we can already be sure of. The response of the other side will not be long in coming.

NOTES

1.https://georgewbush-whitehouse.archives.gov/news/releases/2001/06/20010618.html
2.http://www.blic.rs/vesti/svet/putin-u-sloveniji-osnovano-rusko-slovenacko-preduzece-za-juzni-tok/rftg9zr
3.https://www.msn.com/en-ca/news/world/putin-tests-wests-sanctions-resolve-on-visit-to-slovenia/ar-BBv3f3U
4.http://www.vedomosti.ru/politics/news/2015/06/19/597158-gosduma-prinyala-v-pervom-chtenii-zakonoproekt-o-perenose-viborov
5.http://www.rts.rs/page/stories/sr/story/11/region/2403299/putin-u-poseti-sloveniji.html
6. http://dailycaller.com/2010/01/29/it-is-past-time-for-macedonia-to-join-nato/
7. http://www.slobodnaevropa.org/a/27787115.html
8.http://www.boilingfrogspost.com/2016/01/08/bfp-exclusive-will-the-next-u-n-secretary-general-come-from-the-balkans/

 

Originally published by BFP/Newsbud, August 10, 2016.

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