Dealing with Civilising Europe in the Black Sea Region

Even though Russia failed to play the role of a great power in the Balkans, the Black Sea region retained a special status for Russian identity. First of all, the Black Sea was perceived as a sort of Promised Land—the destination and locus of adventurous freedom for President Putin. In one of his biographies, V. Putin gave extensive descriptions of a fascinating trip to the Black Sea region, a voyage from the Caucasus to Odessa, which he and his friends made dodge-faring a number of times for lack of money. The fact that the Russian President wanted to convey the story in great detail showed that, even after years of KGB discipline in the Soviet and postSoviet bureaucracy, V. Putin associated the Black Sea region with adventurous freedom and a sort of escape from Soviet routine life to an exotic destination. After becoming the Russian leader, President Putin did not give up on this idea. Pursuing his dreams, Putin participated several times in motorcycle gatherings in the Black Sea cities of Sevastopol and Novorossiysk. Riding a bike himself, Putin spoke to the crowd and repeated the idea of the Black Sea as the locus of adventurous freedom and brotherhood. When delivering his speeches to the bikers, Putin addressed them with the rarely used term “brothers” and even stressed that a bike is the most free and adventurous means of transportation, a symbol of freedom.29 President V. Putin seemed to enjoy the moment of freedom in an informal bike gathering so much that he did not hesitate in arriving four hours late for the meeting with his host, the then Ukrainian president, Viktor Yanukovich.

The Black Sea region was also a Holy Grail of sorts for President Putin. The Russian leader personally supported the narrative of Russia being organically linked to Europe through the Black Sea. Speaking at a similar bikers gathering, Putin reproduced the discourse of the Black Sea as a gate to European history by saying:

People are here from various European countries—from Eastern Europe and Western Europe. And you know, it is symbolic and noteworthy that we travelled specifically here, we found this specific place for such a gathering. Why? Because this is a special, one-of-a-kind place for interaction between Russia and the rest of Europe... Not far from here, in Kherson, in the tenth century, in 988, the head of the early Russian government Prince Vladimir, adopted Christianity and baptised early Russia... The event that occurred in 988 had a significant and fundamental meaning because it created a foundation for building a unified pan-European humanitarian space.30

Within the same discourse, Putin picked the Black Sea region as the place where he wanted to implement several ambitious projects and to spend time on various political and non-political activities. First, Putin’s favourite summer residence, Bocharov Ruchei, where he receives official guests, is on the Black Sea coast. Second, Putin personally lobbied for the Black Sea resort city of Sochi to host the Winter Olympic Games of 2014. In addition to winning against strong competition, Sochi 2014 presented the additional challenge of a summer resort situated in a subtropical zone to host the Winter Olympic Games. Putin’s affection for the Black Sea region, and Sochi as a regional jewel, made a famous Russian political analyst, Yulia Latynina, conclude that Putin established Sochi as the third capital of Russia after Moscow and St Petersburg.31

Given the significance of the Black Sea region for Russia’s great power identity, most international crises in the region were framed in terms of great power politics. Colour revolutions in Serbia, Ukraine, and Georgia, spy scandals in Russian-Georgian relations, and Russia’s military build-up in the Caucasus, all of these were construed in terms of great power politics.32 The conflicts in the Black Sea region provided Russia all the opportunities to claim the right to change the fates of nations together with Europe. It was through managing crises together with the EU that Russia could promote True Europe and “educate” Civilising Europe. To this end, Russia pursued a three-fold policy. First, Moscow tried to demonstrate its control over the conflict resolution process by putting an end to violence and taking a leadership role in the conflict-resolution negotiations. Senior Russian policymakers described this tactic as “imitation of painstaking effort” (imitatsia burnoi deiatelnosti)—a Soviet era, army-related euphemism connoting well- planned performative acts, which bring no substantive results. Second, Russia tried to keep the EU engaged in the conflict resolution process so as to make Brussels interested in the Russia-led conflict-resolution efforts. In accordance with this approach, Russia would not block “its European apprentice” from engaging in certain practices, which could be of some help for the conflict resolution, e.g. in supporting Russia-led negotiations, development aid, economic assistance, diplomatic reconnaissance, and so on. Third, without becoming too aggressive, Moscow did its best to neutralise other actors’ attempts at disrupting the initiative and bypassing Russia in the conflict resolution process including seizing physical control on the ground. All three elements were meant to send one important message to the EU—that Russia was the only competent and powerful peacekeeper and mediator in the region and that only with Russia could the EU become a serious international actor. I will now consider these three elements in order by analysing conflicts in Moldova and Georgia.

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