Vladimir Putin may no longer be President of Russia, but you wouldn't know that by the head-of-state treatment he's receiving in France. On Thursday, Putin began a two-day trip to Paris his first major foreign excursion since swapping his presidency for the job of Prime Minister where he'll meet with both his French counterpart, François Fillon, and President Nicolas Sarkozy. The unusually reverential treatment for a visiting head of government reflects the belief among France's leaders, like most others in the West, that Putin remains the eminent political force in Russia regardless of his title. But the visit also reflects Putin's belief that the road to repairing Russia's strained relations with the European Union runs through Paris.
Russian officials quoted in the media acknowledge that the timing and focus of Putin's visit indicate that Moscow sees a diplomatic opportunity in the fact that France will assume the E.U.'s rotating presidency on July 1. Efforts to renew expired strategic accords that shaped Russo-European relations have floundered for nearly two years amid tensions over military and energy concerns, and European complaints of alleged human rights violations and election-tampering in Russia. Recently, however, both sides have signaled a greater willingness to normalize ties especially since new E.U. members Poland and Lithuania expressed satisfaction with Russian responses to their objections on a now-lifted beef ban, and over Moscow's use of its oil pipeline to the West as a de facto political weapon. Indeed, just last Monday, all 27 E.U. states agreed to resume formal talks to reestablish the defunct accords that cover a wide range of security, economic, energy and administrative issues.
"This topic will be primordial during the meetings with Prime Minister François Fillon and President Nicolas Sarkozy," a Russian government source told the RIA Novosti press agency. "Since we've always considered dialogue with France as an important factor in the rapprochement between Russia and the E.U., our cooperation will be accorded a choice spot during the French presidency."
Despite the fact that neither side has an interest in maintaining the E.U.-Russia chill, many eyebrows have been raised at Putin being seen so openly to be managing the weightiest affairs of state nearly a month after he handed the keys to the Kremlin to President Dmitri Medvedev. Critics have long suggested that Putin picked his protege Medvedev to serve as a figurehead President who would allow his predecessor to run the country from the Prime Minister's office. Putin appears to be doing little to disabuse the world of that suspicion, and France is clearly playing along. According to Elysée officials, Sarkozy "promised Vladimir Putin to receive him in Paris for his first foreign voyage" last October during the French President's state visit to Moscow, when Putin had already made public his intention of becoming Prime Minister.
And Putin will surely feel comfortable visiting a head of state who has accorded him fraternal treatment even while other European leaders criticized the Russian leader. Despite campaign promises to prioritize human rights in his foreign policy, Sarkozy has said very little about abuses in Russia since becoming President. According to the Kremlin, Sarkozy also telephoned Putin in December to congratulate him on his party's victory in legislative polling applause withheld by most foreign leaders to protest elections widely decried as less than free and fair. Sarkozy later defended that plaudit, stressing that any possible vote-rigging was minimal in comparison to the groundswell of popular support for Putin. He also meanwhile praised the Russian as a loyal and valuable partner on issues such as terrorism and Iran's nuclear program.
The friendship between Sarkozy and Putin also reflects a common view on some major strategic questions: France shares Russia's concern over NATO opening formal membership talks with former Soviet republics Georgia and the Ukraine. Paris also echoes some of Moscow's suspicion over U.S. plans to deploy its missile-defense system in Eastern Europe. Such sympathy for Russian positions should leave Moscow feeling more comfortable with France assuming the E.U. presidency just as negotiations over new Russo-European accords kick off June 26.
French voters may not share Sarkozy's enthusiasm for Putin, but few will object if it results in improved Russo-E.U. ties. And improved ties between Moscow and Paris are good for French business. Talks between Putin and French officials will cover cover contracts for French military, aerospace, energy and technology companies including plans for oil giant Total's involvement in developing Russia's giant Shtokman gas field. Though France is only Russia's sixth-largest trading partner, improved bilateral relations have recently helped triple the value of their annual exchange to $25.7 billion. And in an economically sluggish France, there will be few voices willing to shout nyet to that.