Europe’s Elite Was Beholden to Russia. Then Came Ukraine.
(Bloomberg Opinion) -- The French call it retourner sa veste — to turn one’s coat to fit the changing political times. And with widespread international condemnation of Russia growing as its forces close in on Ukraine’s capital, there is a lot of coat-turning happening across Europe.
Traditionally pro-Putin political voices have been shifting from praise to condemnation since the invasion began, with both far-left and far-right politicians backing away from their past support of Russia. That includes Marine Le Pen, who met with Putin as a presidential candidate in 2017 and whose party got a 9 million-euro ($10.1 million) loan from a Russian firm in 2014. And Eric Zemmour, who once dreamed of France having a Putin of its own.
Former government heads are now starting to ditch cushy jobs sitting on the boards of companies linked to Russia. Francois Fillon, ex-French Prime Minister who in 2020 was convicted along with his wife in a fake job scandal, announced on Sunday he would step down from the board of petrochemicals firm Sibur and energy firm Zarubezhneft, both headquartered in Moscow. Esko Aho, Finland’s former premier, has stepped down from the board of Sberbank, Russia’s largest bank, according to the FT, while Italy’s Matteo Renzi stepped down from car-sharing service Delimobil.
This looks for now like convenience rather than conviction. Transactional ties with the Kremlin have clearly not delivered for either side. Le Pen seems no closer to the Elysee Palace than when she first met Putin, and supporting Moscow isn’t going to be a vote-winner as elections loom. In the business world, once-lucrative Russian board seats look uncomfortable given the hit to stock prices and the rising pressure of economic sanctions. Putin is now so toxic that the priority for European elites in his network of influence is self-preservation, says Anton Shekhovtsov, author of a book on ties between Russia and Europe’s far-right.
But this reshuffling of alliances doesn’t mean an end to the story of influence-peddling and elite capture in Europe — not least as holdouts like former German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder and former Austrian Foreign Minister Karin Kneissl cling to lucrative positions at Nord Stream (and potentially Gazprom) and Rosneft.
It’s time to confront some hard truths about what these ties reveal about Western democratic and economic weakness. The “Schroederization” of Europe has undermined the credibility of the political elite throughout this crisis. When Fillon recently blamed the conflict in Ukraine on the West and NATO’s provocations — after intense shuttle diplomacy by Macron to deter Putin — the subtext was: Your government is lying to you. When Schroeder called on the West to be careful in applying sanctions, it only added to the pressure on Chancellor Olaf Scholz to bolster Germany’s image as a serious and credible player.
Given the West’s initial struggle to deliver “shock-and-awe” sanctions that might deter Russia — from using the SWIFT banking network to squeezing the energy sector and its oligarchic beneficiaries — Europe should do more to shine a light on elite ties instead of waiting for other coats to turn.
This is not just an EU thing: the U.K. is under pressure to crack down on illicit money flows through the City of London. But if the political class of a country like Austria can be regularly picked off by Russian companies, it’s because there aren’t enough obstacles in the way. Low transparency, weak legal frameworks for access to information and high corporatism have bred corruption scandals and hurt European unity. A 2019 Russia-linked financing scandal ensnared former Vice Chancellor Heinz-Christian Strache, and Germany warned against sharing intelligence with its neighbor.
These are systemic problems requiring systemic solutions. A draft report by a European Parliament committee on foreign interference in democracy has called for the beefing up of restrictions on revolving-door jobs (where officials easily move from the public to private sector), tougher rules on lobbying and more consistent EU rules on political donations. U.K. Member of Parliament Tom Tugendhat has also recommended bolstering ethical standards and cracking down harder on illicit money flows.
These are encouraging proposals — but the sooner governments turn up the heat, the better. A former German diplomat recently stepped down as supervisory board chairman of a Nord Stream 2 subsidiary after direct pressure from German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock, according to Der Spiegel. This could be the first sign of a tougher approach, as Scholz eyes a historic bid to shift German defense policy.
Golden parachutes for Western elites will always be tempting, but there are ways to make wearers think twice before strapping them on.
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Lionel Laurent is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering the European Union and France. He worked previously at Reuters and Forbes.
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