03/14/2007, 00.00
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More than business behind Putin’s visit to Italy

by Maurizio d'Orlando
The Russian president inked the last economic and trade deals in Italy before flying off to Greece. His reasons to visit Rome and the Vatican largely reflect Russia’s eternal fear of encirclement and its quest for ‘warm’ waters.

Bari (AsiaNews) – Putin’s visit to Italy reflects an array of religious, political and strategic interests. Following his meeting with the Pope yesterday during which extremism, intolerance and ecumenism were discussed, the Russian leader will focus on energy and security during his summit with Italian leaders in Bari. He will then travel to Greece.

Today’s agenda included banks, planes, international adoptions as well as several hot spots like Kosovo and Iran.  Several agreements are expected to be signed with Italian companies like Enel, Finmeccanica, Italian Railways, and banks like Intesa and Mediobanca.

Enel is set to sign a letter of intent with the Russian Atomic Energy Agency for cooperation in producing electric energy. Finmeccanica will sign a protocol of industrial collaboration between its affiliate Alenia and Russia’s Sukhoi to build passenger planes for regional routes over the next 20 years.

The expected deal between Italy’s energy giant ENI and Gazprom has however been postponed. The meeting between the two companies’ top executives did not take place. Still “technical talks” will continue. When it is sealed, the deal should give the Russian giant access to the Italian market where it could directly sell its gas. In exchange Italy gets guaranteed supplies till 2035. When fully implemented it could involve up to three billion m3 of gas annually.

Economic and strategic interests

Although not fully ironed out the accord would represent an economic victory for Russia as well as a strategic breakthrough because it would give Moscow an outlet to ice-free waters and a presence in the Mediterranean, a goal pursued by the tsars from the Crimean war till the Great War. Then, the goal was Constantinople and the straits.

Russia has always suffered from an encirclement complex which explains its role in the Sarajevo conspiracy.  Its goal was Constantinople and the Bosporus (aim pursued in 1914 by Tsarist Foreign Minister Sazonov and the Pan-Slavists) at a time when the Ottoman Empire appeared on the brink of collapse.

Behind it all was and is the idea that who controls Eurasia controls the world, a theory formulated for the first time in 1904 by the founder of modern geopolitics Sir Halford John Mackinder, 1861 –1947). Russia already occupies much of the Eurasian landmass but does not control it. Natural resources would be Moscow’s tools to pursue such goals. Indeed, controlling the Mediterranean—whose hub is Rome—would give Russia control over the Eurasia’s Heartland and therefore over Eurasia.

Today like yesterday the Dardanelles and the straits are the key chokepoints that to control most energy supplies that reach the Mediterranean and Italy.

Direct gas sales in Italy would offer Gazprom good commissions but also valued added. Such access would enable it to get better wholesale prices than it does today when it has to sell to Italy’s de facto ENI monopoly. In the tug of war between the two energy giants, Gazprom won. But for Italy the gain is greater domestic competition and guaranteed supplies. This is important since a wave of privatisations left Italy heavily dependent on foreign energy and, like many other Western powers, on hydrocarbons taxes.

On the short run, gas shipped via pipeline from Libya, Algeria (with which Gazprom has monopolistic deals) and Russia could be replaced by liquefied gas transported by ship and re-gasified at Italian terminals. This could reduce the price of natural gas by a lot.

Religious and political interests

Putin’s trip to Italy also has a religious-political dimension that should not be overlooked since it is also his first visit to the Vatican. For the Russian president meeting Benedict XVI reflects a desire to have the Vatican on his side in the great strategic game that is being played out on the energy, political, ideological and religious fields. Support from the Church of Rome would help Putin dismiss European and US criticism over Russia’s human rights record, its political use of energy supplies and its reticence vis-à-vis sanctions against Iran. It would also reduce the country’s historic fear of encirclement.

This is especially true in the Middle East, where Putin like his predecessors probably views Russia as the traditional protector of Christian Orthodoxy in the Holy Land, and wants to break its isolation by preventing the Vatican from aligning itself to the staunchly pro-Israel positions of the US right. This way Russia would not have to make compromise with Islamic fundamentalism which Russians, too, view as a danger.

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