Vladimir Putin

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. 

Putin and BarrosoIn today’s paper, we have a story about the history of bad blood between Russian prime minister Vladimir Putin and European Commission president José Manuel Barroso, an account based on dozens of US diplomatic cables that we got our hands on thanks to WikiLeaks.

The two men are summiting today in Brussels, so we thought it would be worth posting the full text of a cable from the US embassy in Moscow detailing the last time the two men summited in February 2009. Although we have redacted the names of the officials who briefed US diplomats, they included a senior European Commission official and a top diplomat in Russia’s ministry of foreign affairs. 

There is an amusing and rather revealing story doing the rounds in Brussels about a conversation that took place at last month’s European Union-Russia summit in Stockholm.

In the course of a conversation with European Commission president José Manuel Barroso, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev made a mischievous allusion to the EU’s imminent institutional changes, under which Barroso will for the first time deal with a full-time EU president representing the bloc’s 27 governments – Herman Van Rompuy, Belgium’s ex-prime minister. 

October 30 saw one of the most important moments so far of Dmitry Medvedev’s presidency in Russia.  On a video blog posted on the presidential website, he squarely addressed the issue of the mass repressions carried out under Josef Stalin, the Soviet dictator from the mid-1920s to 1953.  I agree with Tomas Hirst, who wrote on the Prospect magazine blog that this was a brave step on Medvedev’s part.

Medvedev didn’t simply condemn Stalin’s crimes.  He criticised Russians – and, sad to say, there are an awful lot of them – who make excuses for Stalin by saying some supposed “supreme goals of the state” justified the arrest, deportation, imprisonment, execution and death by starvation of millions of people.  It is still quite common to hear Russians defend Stalin by saying that he led the Soviet Union to victory over Nazi Germany.  Significantly, however, Medvedev entitles his video blog “Memory of National Tragedies is as Sacred as the Memory of Victories”.  

Everyone interested in modern Russia should read a report out this week on the nation’s deepening demographic crisis.  It’s published by the United Nations Development Programme, but it’s written by a team of Russian academic experts, so no one can say it’s tainted with bias.

The report describes the stark reality of a country whose population is falling fast, to a considerable extent because of rampant alcohol abuse among men, who on average are dying before they make it to 60 years old.  “Short life expectancy is the main feature of this crisis, though by no means its only feature.  The birth rate is too low, the population is shrinking and ageing, and Russia is on the threshold of rapid loss of able-bodied population, which will be accompanied by a growing demographic burden per able-bodied individual.  The number of potential mothers is starting to decline and the country needs to host large flows of immigrants,” the report says. 

Predictably, the 70th anniversary of the outbreak of the second world war provoked a few rhetorical skirmishes this week between Russia, Poland and Poland’s western allies.  It reminded me of an unusual evening that I spent in 1989 in Waldkirchen, a small town in southern Germany near the Czech border, on the 50th anniversary of the war.

I was the guest of a German friend who in her youth, when I was a young boy, had lived as an au pair with my family in the UK.  She had spent months walking me to school, taking me swimming, reading me stories and fixing meals for me.  As we grew up, we stayed in touch, and now I was staying the night with her and her husband in Waldkirchen.