It’s no secret that in 2013, just like during the Soviet era, Russian agents are operating in Europe. But today, no one calls them “agents” anymore. Spies have been displaced by professional lobbyists, members of parliament, journalists, writers, PR experts and economists.
That’s one of the ways in which the Kremlin promotes its agenda in France.
Many of these people believe in an Eternal Russia; whoever is in power is irrelevant to them. During his first state visit to Russia, French President François Hollande was accompanied by dozens of CEOs of some of the major French corporations. Diplomatically, it was a smart decision. It showed Hollande’s good will towards the Russian government. During the visit, the meeting with Russian opposition members was held behind closed doors. What’s more, Hollande was uncomfortable when asked about the state of human rights in the Russian Federation and about the Magnitsky case. “I’ve not come to judge,” he declared. “I’m here to observe. We have an open dialogue with Russia.”
French companies sign contracts with Russian state companies and then become advocates in France of policies favorable to Russia. SNCF, Renault, Air Liquide, Société Générale, Caisse des Dépôts and many other large corporations become agents of influence not only in the business world, but also on the diplomatic front.
It’s easy to explain Hollande’s timid stand regarding human rights in Russia: just when the French president ranks lowest in the opinion polls in his own country, he cannot criticize Putin, a powerful ally to help him improve the French economy. It also helps Hollande to demonstrate gratefulness to Putin for helping French forces pull out of Afghanistan or giving a blessing to the French operations in Mali. (At the outset of the war against Islamist radicals, the state company Rosoboronexport, the biggest Russian importer and exporter of technology and defense equipment, started negotiations for the delivery of arms to Mali’s government).
Yet if the last thirteen years have taught us anything it is that Putin is contemptuous of such geopolitical deference. In the eyes of the former KGB agent, Hollande is weak and hypocritical. The French can still remember another Hollande during the presidential campaign, last spring, when he was lecturing Putin on the virtues of democracy. It seems that during the three hour flight to Moscow, Hollande forgot all about his campaign platform. Probably a side effect of jet-lag.
While in Moscow, Hollande also pushed for a lifting of restrictions on visas for Russians seeking to enter France. As a result, at the end of March, the French Foreign Minister and the Interior Minister, who oversees the police, issued a statement announcing that French authorities will make the delivery of visas easier for businesspeople, students, scientists and tourists.
Russians have already opened an office of the RGD, the Russian state-owned railway company, on the prestigious Champs Elysées. A Russian Orthodox church will be erected right next to the Eiffel tower — the most symbolic national monument — despite the opposition of Paris’s mayor, Bertrand Delanoë. Moscow will also import one of Zourab Tsereteli’s monumental sculptures in the French capital. Tsereteli is the president of the Beaux-Arts Academy in Moscow and one of the artists close to Putin.
Hollande has been determined to show through his actions that he’s very different from his predecessor, Nicolas Sarkozy. Socialists and conservatives have at least one thing in common: their love of Russian contracts.
Recently, the French president announced he would launch a campaign against offshore tax shelters. But he has to take into account the fact that France has become a haven for Russian dirty money. If he is serious about rooting out corruption, Hollande won’t be able to ignore Russian “investments” in his own country.
Putin has found another unlikely ally in the France: the descendants of the White Russians who took refuge in France at the beginning of the Soviet revolution of 1917.
A few years ago, in Sainte Geneviève des Bois, a middle class suburb of Paris known for its world famous Russian cemetery (super-star dancer Rudolph Nouriev is buried there as well as a great number of great dignitaries from the tsarist era), a woman came to me in the street. She asked me if I were not a White Russian. “I hope you’re not,” she said, “because they don’t shake hands with those of us who are Soviets.”
Years later, I understood that this lady was completely wrong. If she’d looked around she would have discovered that the White diaspora was not as homogenous as it might have seemed then. One of my acquaintances, a descendant of a great Russian family, whose mother and grandmother used to tell him stories about Tsar Nikolai II, was dreaming of coming back to the land of his ancestors which his family had fled in 1921. He left the United States where he was born and raised and moved to Moscow. After starting a successful business, he was given a Russian passport and discarded his American papers.
Receiving a Russian passport transformed his way of looking at the world. To my acquaintance, Russian opposition was financed by Western countries, the punk outfit Pussy Riot was guilty of blasphemy, Mikhail Khodorkovsky was an assassin, Barack Obama was a loser, and Vladimir Putin the heir to the last Russian emperor they had lost in 1917.
Putin and Dmitri Medvedev gave back to the descendants of the White Russians more than a motherland. French citizen Alexandre Trubetzkoy, an heir to a great Russian family, is now the chairman of the board of Russia’s biggest telecom company, Svyzinvest. According to the country’s law, only Russian nationals can be named head of a company’s board. This explains why Trubetskoy, like French actor Gérard Depardieu, was handed a Russian passport. Before, prince Trubetzkoy, with Societе Generale Semiconduttori Microelettronica and Thompson, imported to Russia equipments for Russian national airline Aeroflot. Afterward, he imported computer systems for the Russian Academy of Science, the State information agency and even for gas giant Gazprom. A passion for Russia has great value — even a financial one.
Descendants of White Russians are not of a single mind regarding the Russian Orthodox Church. Some want the churches in France to remain independent from Moscow as they were since the Revolution and until around 2000. Others, like Nikita Krivoshein, claim that all the Russian churches should be under the tutelage of the Moscow patriarchy even though they simultaneously maintain that there should be a separation of church and state. The trial of the Pussy Riot shows that it’s a false claim.
The story of the Orthodox Church in Nice illustrates perfectly that the separation between the two institutions is an illusion. After many years of legal battling, the Russian government won its lawsuit against the church board in Nice. A few weeks ago, the French Supreme Court decided that the land on which the church had been built was the property of the Russian government which then, without any compensation, decided that the Moscow patriarchy had jurisdiction over it. The Church in Nice had been independent since its founding in 1912.
Not everyone in the White Russian community is inclined to have close relations with Moscow. I have met some members of this community in demonstrations to support political prisoners in Russia. They feel, like Nikita Strouvé, who was born and lives in France, that the Russian authorities enlist churches for their moral prestige. For descendants of White Russians it is important to maintain their independence from the Kremlin, just like it was for their forefathers.