Western news coverage of the St Petersburg International Economic Forum: a study in futility
by Gilbert Doctorow, Ph.D.
Given the outstanding speakers, given the large number of global business leaders participating and the accessibility of all members of the Russian government, the St Petersburg International Economic Forum 24-26 May provided global media with enormous riches to be mined as it suited the purposes of journalists and their editors/producers.
In Russia itself, media coverage of the Forum was in total immersion mode. The leading 24-hour news channel Rossiya-1 turned over nearly all its air time to full live broadcasts of the Plenary Session, of the business round tables of the featured guest nations this year (France and Japan), of the press conferences by Putin and the featured guest heads of state, Emmanuel Macron and Shinzo Abe. In between these blocks of live broadcasting were interviews with foreign and Russian business leaders and with Russian parliamentarians and ministers.
In this essay, I offer a survey of media coverage in the West, starting with France, the European country that should have had the greatest interest in the Forum because of the privileged position offered to its President Emmanuel Macron both in his working visit with Vladimir Putin on Thursday, 24 May and as lead speaker in the Plenary Session of 25 May.
Indeed, the French national newspapers Le Monde and Le Figaro both sent special correspondents to St Petersburg for the event, though from what they published it appears they could have spared themselves the expense. The articles in both papers highlight comments on the objectives of Macron’s talks with Vladimir Putin coming from an unidentified “diplomat.” Both focused their attention almost exclusively on the issues of Syria and Iran, which indeed figured prominently in the discussions of the presidents and in which certain agreements on common positions appear to have been reached during the 4 hours of private meetings on the first day of the visit. It would be safe to conclude that the Figaro and Monde journalists were working from handouts received from officers of the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
Otherwise, the writing is largely superficial if not frivolous. We read that “for Emmanuel Macron, the Russians are Europeans.” Or that Macron may come back to Russia for the World Cup if the French team makes it to the finals. Or that relations have been bad due to the Skripal case, due to Russian violation of human rights and that just now the Dutch and Australians came out with their finding putting the blame for the MH-17 catastrophe at Russia’s door. There is not a word about the Economic Forum itself, over who else is there and what is happening at its many events.
In a report that is very short on details behind headings such as the objectives being pursued by the “Small Group” on Syria initiated by France versus the Astana Group initiated by Russia, both of which groups are named here, the Monde journalist was given the space to note that Macron fulfilled his obligation as human rights defender and conferred in Russia not only with Power (“Cher Vladimir”) but also with those who speak Truth to Power: we are told he had a 5 minute meeting with the director of the iconic rights group Memorial and 13 minutes with the widow of Alexander Solzhenitsyn. The Russophobe readership will presumably rejoice.
However, not all is lost in this low-grade journalism. There are indications that mainstream French reporters actually do “get it,” do see the big picture even if they are sparing in their accounts. We read in Figaro that ever since his arrival at the Elysée Palace Macron has given France a new visibility and credibility in international affairs with an ambition to be “a driving force” within Europe, and that “this road necessarily passes through Moscow.” We find in Monde that Macron had invoked “strong multilateralism” and “independence” as key issues in his foreign policy, and that “dialogue with Russia is one element.” It is even possible that they took these points from what Emmanuel Macron said on stage and not from a press hand-out distributed by their minders.
German print media gave reasonable space to the Forum, but also cherry picked the events and the speeches to find what they wanted. None said it better than Spiegel online which headlined its report as “Meeting with Putin in St Petersburg: Macron remains hard on Russia sanctions.” In the context of mutually agreed desire to improve relations, Paris will not yield ground on the sanctions. Macron is quoted as saying “When nothing changes, we will not lift the sanctions.” The existing penalties remain so long as there is no progress on the Ukraine issue, the journal stresses. For those who may have been asleep for the past four years, Spiegel explains the origins of the tit-for-tat Russian-EU trade embargos.
Otherwise the article mentions Macron’s call upon the Russians to work together in the UN Security Council, where the US-Russian confrontation often leads to deadlock. It cites his remark that “in order to combat mistrust, we need sovereignty, cooperation and a strong multilateralism.” However, without the context in which this was issued the assertion falls flat. It was precisely part of a bid by Macron, speaking over the heads of his Russian hosts, to claim for France, as member of the Security Council and as one of the few countries in the EU with an army worthy of the name, the right to take over from Germany the leadership role in EU foreign policy making.
Macron was saying that countries not enjoying sovereignty and an independent foreign policy are incapable of building trust, but you would never know that from the Spiegel article.
In the big picture, Spiegel found it worth mentioning that “the Frenchman spoke to Putin as his ‘dear Vladimir, and said: ‘I deeply believe that Russia has had its history within Europe. We have had our history, our moorings together.’ Russia must also remain in the European Council....”
As for Putin, Spiegel called attention to his complaint that the rules-based order has been upset, with particular reference to the US withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal, and more broadly to Putin’s condemnation of unilateral acts leading to a cul-de-sac, that they are always counterproductive.
Spiegel notes that during Macron’s two-day visit to Putin’s native city Russia and France signed a great many state-to-state agreements and companies concluded many contracts. It concludes its report with mention of Macron’s visit to the [Piskarevo] memorial cemetery of the victims of the three-year siege of Leningrad in the Second World War. No comment on who caused those civilian deaths.
Die Welt online opens its report on Macron’s visit to the Forum by asking whether Europe is not drawing closer to Russia under pressure from Donald Trump. It says that Putin has emerged as the ‘man of the hour’ for many, noting the presence at the Forum of the Chinese Vice President, Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, IMF chief Christine Lagarde and French President Emmanuel Macron. It adds this to the visit to Russia a week earlier by German Chancellor Angela Merkel concluding that we are witnessing a Dialogue with Russia campaign. As the geopolitical order becomes more fragile, there are more and more diplomatic missions to Moscow. This, Die Welt comments, is all the more the case ever since Trump’s withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal and attempt to pressure Europe to abandon the Nord Stream 2 project.
Die Welt notes that Macron spoke in the name of the EU about its readiness to seize the opportunity and cooperate with Russia. In this, it says, he went well beyond what Merkel had said a week earlier. But the content of this cooperation remains unclear. At the same time, Die Welt believes Putin is also ready to strengthen ties of cooperation and to talk about ‘central international questions’ whose solution is important for both France and Russia.
Die Welt tells its readers that Putin was using the Forum in his own interests, that he spoke about the destruction of the international order, about the need to return to shared rules.
In an recidivist exercise in ‘what-aboutism” Die Welt reminds its readers that Russia itself has violated international rules, mentioning in particular the downing of the Malaysian Airlines plane over Donbass which caused the death of 300 people.
So what common interests can there be between Russia and Europe? The paper names the Iran nuclear deal. In this matter, it says, the sides can enter into an impressive embrace. And it believes that in the present situation, “the goal of building the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline from Russia to Germany becomes ever more realistic,” all the more so given Merkel’s milestone agreement with Putin regarding continuation of transit via Ukraine. Per Welt, an unnamed representative of Nord Stream called US pressure on Europeans over the pipeline “crazy.”
With the Nord Stream project foremost on its mind, Welt closes out its report ostensibly on the Forum and Macron’s visit with the remark that EU Energy Commissioner Maros Sefcovic has not only congratulated Russian Energy Minister Alexander Novak on his reappointment in the new Russian cabinet but called for a new round of negotiations between the EU Commission, Moscow and Kiev.
For its part, in coverage of the Forum events and visit by Macron, the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (FAZ) puts the accent on the Syrian question. The online article reporting on the meeting of the two presidents on the 24th is headlined: “Macron and Putin want to coordinate their efforts in Syria.” The FAZ quotes Macron announcing “very significant progress” on this dossier. The progress in question is the planned launch of a “coordination mechanism” to align the work of the so-called Small Group of Western and Arab states with the Astana Process backed by Russia. Few details are disclosed, and nothing is said, of course, about how these two peace process formats differ from one another.
Let us close out our brief overview of Continental coverage with a written report filed by Euronews, which prides itself as presenting “all views.” Indeed, this is the only report in the selection I have presented which places the emphasis on economic aspect of the Petersburg gathering, as we see in the headline: “French and Russian businessmen strike deals at International Economic Forum.”
In passing,the authors of this article show that they appreciate more than business figures: they call the Forum “a moment for Vladimir Putin to show that his country is not isolated and for Macron to show he can play a key leadership role for Europe and to ensure French companies maintain their presence in Russia.”
Regrettably, after this point the quality of the journalism falls dramatically. The authors cite Gerard Mestrallet on why the political dialogue in the Forum is so very important to commercial relationships. However, Mestrallet is not merely “a French businessman who has been working with Russia for decades,” as we are told here. Mestrallet is the Chairman and CEO of Engie (former Gaz de France – Suez) occupying a critically important role in gas and energy distribution in Europe.
Alongside the heavyweight Mestrallet Euronews quotes extensively a delegate from the contingent of small and medium sized Russian enterprises in the Forum, Andrei Viktorovich Samoylov of the company Polymix: “..we Russians are not scared of anything. You know sanctions can have positive impact as well. Our brains start to work, how to get around with [sic] these sanctions…” One wonders where were the brains of the Euronews editorial collective when they prepared this piece for publication.
Lastly for the EU coverage, there is the United Kingdom. Reporting on the St Petersburg Forum was meager, as one might expect considering the utterly hostile position of British elites to anything having to do with Russia.
Of course, The Financial Times, as champion of globalization and as a media outlet defined by economic issues, did publish some articles on the Forum, consisting chiefly of interviews with selected participants rather than broad-brush discussion of the event. And they do not seem to have taken an interest in the talks between British Petroleum’s Group Chief Executive Bob Dudley and Rosneft Chairman Igor Sechin, which was covered on Russian news. It is telling that in its Weekend print edition, the FT did not have a single article devoted to the Forum.
The Times of London online posted an article on the Forum filed by its correspondent in Moscow. One wonders why he was not put on a train to the Northern Capital to see for himself rather than rely on the telly, as those of us in Western Europe had to do. Be that as it may, The Times report is focused on geopolitics, as we understand from its headline “Vladimir Putin backs Europe over efforts to save Iran nuclear deal.”
Without committing itself, The Times presents Putin in a constructive light: “Although relations with Russia are at their worst since the end of the Cold War, because of Syria and Ukraine as well as alleged Russian meddling in western elections, some analysts say that European countries have no choice but to engage with Mr. Putin if they want to save the [Iran nuclear] deal.” The Times also repeats without comment what Macron told French media before his trip: “that he sought a ‘strategic and historic dialogue with Vladimir Putin, to anchor Russia to Europe so it doesn’t turn inward.” Given that in his every speech the Russian President says precisely that his country is and will remain open to the world and talks with everyone, it seems The Times reporters have been dozing.
For expert opinion on what is afoot in the political side of the Forum, The Times defers to Vladimir Frolov, whom they identify as a “foreign policy expert.” It might help to know that Frolov is determinedly anti-Kremlin, anti-Putin. Perhaps with his help they close out the last quarter of the article with a listing of all the bad things Putin has done since his election, how many were detained at the 5 May nationwide demonstrations against his rule, the jail term meted out to Alexei Navalny, and the Pussy Riot’s call upon Mr. Macron to raise the case of a Ukrainian film-maker who is now serving a 20 year sentence in Russian detention for terrorism. This report may not be well-rounded but it covers a lot of ground while managing to say almost nothing about the Forum itself.
Like EU journalism, the United States mainstream print media was only slightly less dismissive of the Forum, judging by column inches of coverage. To its credit, The New York Times posted an article datelined St Petersburg co-authored by its Russian news office under the title “Hosted by Putin, Leaders of France and Japan Castigate Trump.”
The article has been structured to get two birds with one stone: bad Trump and bad Putin. We read at length about Macron's sharp criticism at the Forum of Trump’s decisions on the Iran nuclear deal, on the move of the US embassy to Jerusalem. We are told about Shinzo Abe’s criticism of the US withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific trade pact. And the head of the IMF is quoted saying that Trump’s recent threats of trade war with China were “not the right way to go.” Their conclusion is that this was “a peculiar forum for airing grievances against the United States.” Indeed, already in the third paragraph we find that “Mr. Putin sat, nodding approvingly, on a stage beside these heads of state and other senior officials at a business forum that veered into what sounded at times like a group-therapy session for world leaders slighted by President Trump.”
Having taken a good swipe at Trump by showing what world leaders think of his policies in the international arena, The New York Times then moves on to wrap itself in the flag: “The complaints by the French and Japanese leaders play into Russia’s long-term effort to drive wedges between the United States and its traditional allies.”
The last half of the article moves off in various directions, telling us about Putin’s critique of the present world order as chaos, as a game that is neither soccer nor judo but a weird combination of the two. We are told that the Western alliance against Russia is fracturing. And we hear assorted gossip about US Ambassador Hartman dropping out of a round table lest he meet with the US-sanctioned Russian business leader Viktor Vekselberg. One wonders how this hodge-podge article lacking in substance made it past the editors.
US electronic media were significantly more generous in coverage of the Forum than print media. Bloomberg led the way, providing live streaming of the key events as well it might given that editor John Micklethwait was chosen by the Kremlin to moderate the Plenary Session, an honor that in the past had gone to CNBC. However, feature articles from the Forum on the Bloomberg website focused on interviews with key participants such as Christine Lagarde and were not necessarily about Russia. The only overall commentary on the Forum was provided by the website’s Opinion contributor Leonid Bershidsky, whose remarks, as always, are skewed against the Kremlin, claiming that Putin failed to put together an anti-Trump coalition at the Forum, as if this were necessarily one of his key objectives.
In conclusion, this survey of leading Western media demonstrates why a well-educated and well-intentioned reader-viewer in New York or London or Paris or Berlin following one or two favorite and familiar mainstream news and commentary providers will receive, perhaps, a sliver of what is going on in the great adversary nation that is called Russia. That sliver will have been preselected to support the generalizations about Putin, about Russia, about Trump that the same media outlets are serving up every day without relation to the newsworthy event in or about Russia being covered on the given day.
A very energetic and determined reader-viewer may do as I did and take in news sources from several Western countries and from media aligned with several different positions on the domestic political scene. However, even in that case he will not get a comprehensive picture of the St Petersburg International Economic Forum, which is Russia’s answer to Davos. Least of all will he know that at the many different signing ceremonies of the Forum the global business community concluded contracts valued at 30 billion euros with a country that is under sanctions of the United States and the EU.
© Gilbert Doctorow, 2018
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Gilbert Doctorow is an independent political analyst based in Brussels. His latest book, Does the United States Have a Future? was published on 12 October 2017. Both paperback and e-book versions are available for purchase on www.amazon.com and all affiliated Amazon websites worldwide. See the recent professional review http://theduran.com/does-the-united-states-have-a-future-a-new-book-by-gilbert-doctorow-review/ For a video of the book presentation made at the National Press Club, Washington, D.C. on 7 December 2017 see https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ciW4yod8upg