[an error occurred while processing this directive]
BBC News
watch One-Minute World News
Last Updated: Tuesday, 3 January 2006, 18:45 GMT
Russia: Bully or just applying the rules?
By Paul Reynolds
World Affairs correspondent, BBC News website

Russia might not be, as Churchill once described it, "a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma" but it is still a hard place to understand.

President Putin outside Kremlin
President Putin: bullying or playing by market rules?

In the West it is regarded these days as something of a rogue bear, not content with stamping its authority on its own territory but roaming around its neighbours' as well.

The row with Ukraine over gas is, according to this interpretation, part of President Putin's authoritarian approach, under which he has sought to re-establish state control over Russian institutions and is now using the power of Russia's energy resources to browbeat a country which turned its back on Russia during the Orange Revolution in late 2004.

The case against Russia

"Putin is not a democrat," says Margot Light of the London School of Economics. "He has a view of strong government and he wants state control over the commanding heights of the economy and of civil society."

"He decided that everyone not part of the Russian sphere will have to pay market prices for gas. Belarus is part of that sphere so is not being charged the full rate. Georgia and Armenia are not and have had to accept increases.

"However, I think he miscalculated and did not expect Ukraine to resist this much. He is also a realist and a pragmatist but has now been made to look foolish, as security of energy supply is one of the themes he has been proposing for the Russian G8 chairmanship, which has just started."

Putin energy proposals

Certainly, President Putin has been talking ambitiously about energy supply.

The Russian news agency Interfax reported him as saying that Russia is not only drafting proposals for the G8 but "is also ready to take part in their implementation".

It would emphasise "reliable deliveries of traditional fuel to the world economy on terms acceptable for producers and consumers".

He added that "diversification and security of energy supplies, including their protection from terrorist attacks" were other priorities.

The contrast between the high sounding words Russia has been using about energy supply and its actions towards Ukraine (increasing the price fourfold while offering a three month postponement and a loan to help pay for it) is something that Western governments have noted and are concerned about.

For them, Russia has been a disappointment and this is another manifestation of that.

Mr Putin is to host the next G8 summit in St Petersburg in July.

He will want this row out of the way by then but he has already suffered damage in that Russia's pride in being a good supplier has taken a knock.

The taps were never turned off to Western Europe even during the Cold War

It seems not to have taken into account the possibility that Ukraine would take a proportion of the gas passing through its pipeline.

The way in which supplies have now been increased to ensure that Europe does get enough shows that Russia is worried about this damage.

In addition, Ukraine argues that the Russians have a contract to supply gas at the much lower rate of $50 until 2009 and that any dispute should be go to arbitration (The Stockholm Chamber of Commerce is the agreed venue).

A defence of Russia

However, there is another view about Russia and it has been expressed in an article in the UK's The Independent newspaper by a former Moscow correspondent Mary Dejevsky.

She argues that Russia is simply applying market rules and that the West is operating double standards towards Russia on this and other issues.

For Ukraine the price of $230 is payment for its 'democratic choice'. Why should Russia pay for that choice?
Comment on BBC Russian Service website

As an example she says that Russia is being told to cut its domestic fuel subsidies as a condition of joining the World Trade Organisation.

"So it is quite right, indeed necessary for Russia to freeze its own children and pensioners, but when it comes to income-earners in a poorly-run foreign country such as Ukraine, this is bullying. What are Russians to make of this?" she asks.

Russian views

One sign of what Russians make of it comes from the BBC Russian Service website which is full of hostile comments about Ukraine.

This for example: "For Ukraine the price of $230 is payment for its 'democratic choice'. Why should Russia pay for that choice? You want to join the West? You want to join Nato? Go ahead!!!... If you change course, the price will change. That's normal. That's how all your Western friends behave. So stop crying and howling... At the end of the day the Ukrainian people always has a choice - the West, where no-one is waiting for you, or with us."

Or this with reference to Russian claims that Ukraine has diverted gas meant for Western Europe: "A thief should go to jail. If [Belarusian President Alexander] Lukashenko stole gas from Europe, then the EU would not remain silent about the fact that its gas was being stolen."

Of course, similar views about Russia can be found on Ukrainian sites but the point is that Russian nationalism is a force Mr Putin has to reckon with.

One question is whether he is encouraging it.

Ms Dejevsky does accept that Russia has, at the very least, a presentation problem.

"Sometimes, even those of us inclined to give Vladimir Putin's Russia the benefit of the doubt have to despair about Russia's abject inability to present its case and defend itself against the calumnies hurled in its direction."



The BBC is not responsible for the content of external internet sites


Americas Africa Europe Middle East South Asia Asia Pacific