Silvio Berlusconi’s resignation sparked particular interest in Russia. The longest serving Italian prime minister has been widely seen, and with good reason, as a close personal friend of the Russian head of government, which is why many in Russia fear that Russian-Italian relations will change now that he has stepped down. Berlusconi, an extrovert by nature, has been replaced by a man who seems the polar opposite in all respects: Mario Monti, a technocrat appointed to oversee the austerity policy.
Germany encountered something similar several years ago when Gerhard Schroeder resigned and the election of Angela Merkel stripped the country’s international relations of these elements of personal friendship. Jacques Chirac’s decision not to seek a third term as France’s president was another notable change this past decade. Chirac, who advocated active ties with Russia, was also succeeded by a radically different kind of man: Nicolas Sarkozy.
The individual’s role in history remains important and a personal relationship may bring great benefits to interstate ties. But a closer look reveals that solid economic interests and political views based on national traditions are what really keep countries together. Let’s look at the countries that are viewed as the pillars of Russia’s European policy – Germany, France and Italy.
Russian-German relations are rooted in the deep and lasting interest of Germany’s business community in the Eastern (predominantly Russian) markets. Even the two world wars, which pitted the two countries against each other, failed to alter the fundamental trajectory that developed from the 17th century. Indicatively, the Committee on Eastern European Economic Relations was established to promote the eastward march by German businesses in 1952, three years before the Soviet Union and West Germany established diplomatic relations. Furthermore, this eastward economic advance was the only form of expansion Germany was permitted after the end of WWII. Relying on government assistance, German businesses exploited this opportunity to great effect. In the 1960s, Germany was already Moscow’s strategic economic partner, and this connection was further cemented as Siberian gas supplies came on stream.
Politically, West Germany advocated energy cooperation with the Soviet Union even at the height of the Cold War, when U.S. President Ronald Reagan declared a crusade against the “evil empire.” To this day the geopolitical picture of Europe is largely determined by the pipelines built during the Brezhnev era. It is therefore only logical that Germany, whether led by Kohl, Schroeder or Merkel, should be Russia’s key European partner. The nature of these bilateral relations may vary, but the sustained interest that big business, which traditionally exerts a noticeable influence on German policy, has in Russia has never wavered.
Russia’s relations with France are, conversely, dominated by politics. French leaders have espoused radically different ideologies, but they never lost sight of France’s greatness, and all shared a particular vision of a stable geopolitical and strategic European architecture – with Paris at its core. There is, of course, the obligatory Atlantic component to this, but since France has always insisted on having special status in relations with the United States, this should be balanced out by a solid relationship with Russia. This is how it was during the Soviet era, and the Soviet Union’s collapse has not changed anything. When Nicolas Sarkozy, who has a strong business streak, was elected president, a commercial element was added to the geopolitical system of bilateral relations. In this sense, Paris seems to be trying to catch up with Berlin. The recent deal to sell Mistral helicopter-carriers to Russia is indicative: the deal itself is commercial, but the commodity is clearly political.
And lastly, to the most upbeat variant of Germany – Italy, which has been a vital gas market and has always considered Soviet/Russian business opportunities with a great deal of interest. This did not vary with the frequent changes of government. Recently (2006-2008) when Berlusconi was briefly replaced by Romano Prodi, there were barely any discernable changes to Russian-Italian relations.
This does not mean that European affairs have been static. The situation has indeed been changing, including with regard to that critical link between Europe and Russia: the energy market. This is why Gazprom sometimes encounters problems despite long-standing relationships, including with the most reliable partners.
Europe is on the verge of profound changes. The integration model that has been applied successfully since the mid-20th century is at breaking point. Some countries no longer rely solely on the EU in their relationships with non-members, and have been trying to develop individual relations with other key countries. Russia is one of them, and so close relations will remain a major goal irrespective of who comes to power in Europe. This is especially important because the European crisis will encourage the search for new markets, sources of income and political support if disputes within the EU escalate.
Putin is unlikely to find new friends like Silvio Berlusconi or Gerhard Schroeder. But as Lord Palmerston said, “Nations have no permanent friends or allies, they only have permanent interests.” The interests of Russia and the European countries are so closely intertwined that they will not part ways even if their leaders fail to hit it off on the personal level.