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By John Helmer, Moscow

The relatively new President of France is visiting Russia today for the first time since Francois Hollande’s election nine months ago. At the personal and policy levels relations between Hollande and President Vladimir Putin couldn’t be much worse. They disagree over which regimes they should support, and which they should topple. Hollande, his apparat announced through a Sunday newspaper, will be meeting Russians aiming to topple Putin.

The last time the two met – in Paris in June – they disagreed vocally over Hollande’s intervention in Syria on the side of the rebels seeking to overthrow President Bashar al-Assad. Hollande said of Putin at the time: “We have disagreements over who is responsible for the violence and over the need for Assad to leave. The actions of the Syrian regime are intolerable. Any solution to the crisis requires the departure of Assad.” Putin said Russia is opposed to foreign armed intervention for regime change. “We are not for Assad, neither for his opponents. We want to achieve the situation where the violence ends and there won’t be large-scale civil war. What is happening in Libya, in Iraq? Did they become safer? Where are they heading? Nobody has an answer.”

A fortnight later, Hollande and Putin were able to agree, along with US President Barack Obama, on a statement of non-intervention and abstention from the use of force. “Military force will not resolve the conflict and would only prolong the suffering and hardships endured by the peoples of the region for too long,” they said in a joint statement. “ Only a peaceful, negotiated settlement can allow the entire region to move beyond the status quo toward a secure and prosperous future.” They were speaking about the 20-year war between Armenia and Azerbaijan wich has recently become a shooting-match again on the territory of Nagorno-Karabakh. Elsewhere the Kremlin assessment of Hollande is that he’s a hypocrite, a weakling, a posturer.

So when Hollande started visiting Africa, the Russian assessment was that whatever he said about exporting “the aspirations of France: peace, respect, and the capacity to give peoples the right to free themselves from dictatorship”, he wasn’t serious. What he really meant – what the Kremlin thinks Hollande can’t afford not to mean — was to safeguard France’s €40 billion annual turnover on the continent, and repatriation of French investor and trader dividends.

“If we are present,” Hollande claimed on his second African trip in December, “ it is not to protect a regime, it is to protect our nationals and our interests, and in no way to intervene in the internal affairs of a country, in this case Central Africa. Those days are over.” Which days? — wasn’t a question Russian experts on French strategy needed to ask.

Early this month, when Hollande ordered military intervention in Mali, he claimed he was protecting the country from regime change. “The Malian authorities, and it is their responsibility, want to recover the territorial integrity that has been removed from them for some time and we will be by their side to continue this operation in the northern part of the country. But we do not have the intention of staying, because our African friends will carry on the work we have done so far.” “France has no intention of remaining here in Mali because it is Malians themselves, Africans, who will achieve security, independence and sovereignty in Mali. This is how I see Franco-African relations: respectful, democratic and transparent.”

Putin has yet to comment. But Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said on his arrival in Guinea in mid-month: “If we wish to avoid double standards, we need to stop guiding ourselves by them. I think that the recent events related to the development of the consequences of the so called Arab spring, will serve as a lesson to those who recently guided themselves by double standards.”

Hollande’s impact on Russian strategy has been slight because in Africa Russian investments are relatively small, concentrated mostly in South Africa, Angola, and Republic of Guinea-Conakry. Russian trade turnover with Africa peaked in 2008 at $7.3 billion – one-sixth of the French figure. Africa accounts for just 1% of Russia’s foreign trade.

The Russian figure is so small it doesn’t fit on to the charts of Africa’s main export and import partners. Academic studies like this one also suggest that Hollande is barking up the wrong tree – France’s shares of African country import and export markets are being lost to China, even in French-speaking former colonies, because the Francophone African dictators enjoy bigger personal rakeoffs from the Chinese. Regime change in Africa is working to China’s advantage, not France’s.

Head-on competition between Russian and French business interests in Africa is sporadic; for example, in South Africa’s tendering for nuclear reactors and weapons, when the French have won, and not by Hollande’s good-governance standards. Except for Guinea and the weakening regime of President Alpha Conde, the threat to Russian interests from Islamic regime changers marching out of the Sahara is much less compared to the threat they pose to the French.

Hollande’s involvement in regime changing in Russia itself – in his election campaign he called it l’exigence démocratique (“the democratic requirement”) — hasn’t drawn a riposte from Putin. This may change if Hollande goes as far as Mikhail Khodorkovsky (image centre) is asking him to go.

But Hollande has drawn a Putin joke — ribald enough to prick Hollande where he’s vulnerable at home, and cause French investors in Russia to scoff at their own president. That’s the reason for the Russian passport, and the apartment on 1 Democracy Street, Saransk, for the actor, Gerard Depardieu (image left). His public protest in France against Hollande’s wealth taxation scheme is an issue which Putin has exploited to position himself in French domestic politics as supportive of French business interests – and the individuals who manage them. It’s a reminder to Hollande to count votes for the next election.

The one Africa playing field on which Hollande and Putin might be said to be competing at present is the Republic of Congo-Brazzaville. This is the story so far.

Subdued though the competition is, French media close to the Elysee and the corporations have reported that French interests in Brazzaville are lobbying the Congolese not to follow through with the major Russian project President Denis Sassou Nguesso (image right) signed up for when he and Putin met in Moscow last November. That’s a billion-dollar pipeline between Nguesso’s home town of Oyo, in the northeast of the country, through the capital of Brazzaville to the oil centre and port of Pointe-Noire.

There was a brief announcement on the day of his meeting with Putin. This was followed by a communique from the Russian Ministry of Energy, announcing it had signed a memorandum of understanding with the Congolese Ministry of Regional Planning and Capital Construction for an oil pipeline of about 900 kilometres. The communique says that Stroitransgaz (STG), owned by Gennady Timchenko, is “ready to implement the design, construction and commissioning of this major infrastructure project in the Congo.”

But nothing has happened. Last week La Lettre du Continent, part of a Paris-based group owned by Maurice Botbol, reported that ENI and Total are working through Jerome Koko, head of the Societe Nationale des Pertoles du Congo (SNPC), to defeat efforts Stroitransgas is making to build up a technical data file in order to make a feasibility study of the pipeline project. Botbol has lifted the Russian materials from Moscow media, and proposes to charge €5.20 to reread them in French. To the left they are free.

Asked whether Gazprom has run into the reported interference from the president’s son, Denis Christel Sassou Nguessou, Gazprom claims it has nothing to do with the pipeline project, and referred questions to Stroitransgas. The latter says it is too early for the French to declare victory over the Russians in Brazzaville. For the record Stroitransgas says “Now the negotiations are underway. Therefore, we do not comment on any details.” A source familiar with matter says the Russians are reserving their hand. If the Kremlin gives the green light to neutralize the French, the fight will be carried to President Sassou Nguesso, not his son; and to the chief executives of ENI and Total, which have substantial interests themselves in Russia.

A recent commentary by Alexander Shipilov in a publication of the Russian Council for International Affairs cautions that Russian strategy in Africa lacks the interests, and also the resources, to support African regimes if they come under pressure from the NATO allies or China. The tactical requirement is for flexibility, not predictability. “Open confrontation with them would jeopardize Russia’s ‘return’ to the Congo and Africa as a whole. It is therefore necessary to build against them a flexible policy aimed at cooperation even with those of our competitors willing to accept Russia as one of the key players on the African continent (e.g, Chinese or French companies). This is the only way, given the practical extent of modern Russia’s influence in the region, we are able to protect our own interests.”

In a month’s time Putin is scheduled to make his second trip to South Africa – the first was in September 2006 – when he will attend a summit meeting in Durban of the BRIC countries – Brazil, Russia, India, and China. What African countries will also be visited on Putin’s itinerary his press office says will not be confirmed until one or two days in advance. When that happens, it will be a signal of Putin’s African priorities, and of where Hollande can expect the Depardieu ploy to get more serious.

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