Putin in Brussels, and what it could mean for Libya

By Peter Spiegel

Vladimir Putin and 12 of his ministers blew through Brussels Thursday, reiterating many of their long-stated complaints about the European Union’s energy policies, which Russian leaders believe discriminate against Russian energy giant Gazprom.

But Putin’s remarks on Libya may deserve more scrutiny, especially since the UN Security Council will be meeting today to discuss possible sanctions against the regime of Libyan leader Muammer Gaddafi. Russia is, of course, one of the five permanent members of the security council.

Russia long proven resistant to US and European efforts to impose sanctions against another regional oil producer – Iran – and could prove so again, if the prime minister’s comments at a press conference with José Manuel Barroso, the European Commission president, are any indication.

The Kremlin, of course, faces a threat of radical Islamism from within its own borders, and Russian leaders have frequently blamed a recent spate of terrorist attacks in Moscow on radicals from Chechnya and Dagestan, the two southern Russian republics that have become most Islamicised in recent years.

Asked at the press conference whether he was concerned that instability in North Africa and the Middle East could cause problems for him at home, Putin was quite blunt: he was indeed concerned.

“Despite the calming statements from radical groupings exercising more power in North Africa, it is still of concern for us,” Putin said. “If [radicalism] takes place, it cannot but affect other regimes of the world, including of course the North Caucuses.”

He went on to give a brief history lesson, as viewed from Moscow, where he appeared to blame Europe and the US for embracing revolutions in the region in the past – only to turn on them when they put radicals in power.

The head of the Iranian revolution lived in Paris, and on the whole he enjoyed the support of the western community. Now, the whole western community is fighting against the Iranian nuclear programme. Not long ago, our partners were actually calling for fair democratic elections in the Palestinian Authority. That’s great. Good job. Hamas won, and it was declared a terrorist organization and they started fighting against it.

Putin also used the opportunity to take a shot at his host country, Belgium, which is now in its eighth month with a caretaker government because of a fractious party system that has prevented an agreement on a new governing coalition.

Now we’re in Brussels, it’s a wonderful country and a wonderful city. People in Russia like this country a lot. But for more than 250 days, it exists without a central government.

Other than to poke fun at Belgian political oddities, Putin’s point seemed to be that a country with an established democratic tradition can still function without a properly constituted government – but that countries without such a tradition can find themselves quickly dissolving into chaos. He appeared to cite the 1991 Chechen elections as an example of what can happen when Muslim countries gain democratic rights after the fall of a dictatorship.

In the 1990s, we had democratic elections in one of the North Caucuses republics. Elections were based on ethnic principles, and the party won, which exercised more votes. At that very night, people started shooting and there were lots of victims.

Putin’s lesson, it seems, was this: Europe and Libya may just be separated by a few hundred kilometres of Mediterranean waters, but in his view, Europeans should not expect Libya to turn out well.

“These are very different conditions,” he said. “We cannot duplicate the situation in different regions of the world. We cannot use the same pattern that is very comfortable to us.”

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev is nominally in charge of Russian foreign policy, and he is known to have a more pro-European view of the world than his predecessor. But with Putin still holding many of the formal and informal reins of power, his position could spell trouble for US and European efforts to get international agreement on a way forward in Libya.