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By John Helmer, Moscow

Moe (Moses Horwitz) of Three Stooges fame stuck his fingers so often in Curly’s (Jerome Horwitz) eyes, it was Curly the audiences loved — until he died of too much drinking and eating. No chance that if Russia’s President Vladimir Putin keeps giving French President Francois Hollande the two-fingered, two-eyed poke, the audiences will fall for the latter, or that Hollande’s fate will be as ignominious as Curly’s. This time the audiences prefer the Moe character. But what exactly has Hollande done, and keeps doing, that he deserves Putin’s eyeball treatment?

The first of Putin’s pokes at Hollande was the award in January of this year of a Russian passport and an apartment on One Democracy Street, Saransk, for Gerard Depardieu. This was followed in February by Hollande’s first visit to Moscow when he and Putin pretended to be businesslike, and Hollande dropped his regime-change talk, at least his earlier support for the overthrow of Putin himself. It’s quite clear that Hollande has struck the Russians as a duplicitous hypocrite. But it’s just as clear that he is so feeble domestically that it’s the French who are giving him the double-eyed poke. His approval rating (Ifop measurement) was 26% in June; last week it was 27%. No French president has proved to be so deeply and widely unpopular so quickly.

According to the Valdai Club of anti-Putin academics and reporters, Putin’s Depardieu ploy lacked motive and resulted in a mistake. “I must say that Hollande took this badly,” claimed a French analyst, Arnaud Dubien, in an interview arranged by the Valdai Club just before Hollande’s arrival in Moscow. “I guess the Russian leaders did not fully grasp the situation. They did not mean to cause any harm and merely improvised, as often happens in Russia, especially during holidays. Nor did they fully understand in full how French society and the government would perceive this. So it’s hard to see how this move benefited anyone.” Although Valdai portentously titled the interview, “Is there a place for Russia in Francois Hollande’s foreign policy priorities?” it provided no answer at all.

Better to ask, Is there a place for Hollande in Putin’s priorities? now that the second eye-poke has been delivered by Putin in Hollande’s face. This time the French instrument is Dominique Strauss-Kahn.

Last week Rosneft arranged for Strauss-Kahn to take a seat on the board of its pocket bank, Russian Regional Development Bank (the Russian acronym is VBRR). The action was taken so quickly, there was barely time for the bank to put Strauss-Kahn’s name on the Russian version of the board. On the English –language version, the bank website continued today, more than a week later, to list the three Morgan Stanley bankers hired eight months ago by Rosneft’s chief executive, Igor Sechin. Their names are still on the English version of the board – Rair Simonian, Elena Titova, and Walid Chammah – Strauss-Kahn’s is not yet.

The resignations of the Morgan Stanley trio, made public in Moscow on July 12, were put down in the Russian business media to a switch of the bank’s client strategy from investment to consumer banking. In the process, or in parallel, Titova reportedly clashed with Sechin. What Strauss-Kahn can contribute instead of the Morgan Stanley trio hasn’t been announced, and he didn’t have time to say himself before the Russian Direct Investment Fund (RDIF) issued an announcement that Strauss-Kahn is to take a seat on its 9-man board. That this July 19 move had been cleared with Putin in advance is certain. Sergei Ivanov, Putin’s chief of staff, is the second- ranking member of RDIF’s board.

RDIF was asked to explain when the shareholders of the fund met to decide to enlarge the board by the additional seat; why Strauss-Kahn was appointed to the Supervisory Board rather than the International Advisory Board; and why there are now two Frenchmen on RDIF’s controlling committee. The other is Laurent Vigier, Director of European and International Affairs at the Caisse des Dépôts Group, a French state institution without private, individual or corporate shareholders. Vigier was a protégé and advisor of former president Nicolas Sarkozy. He has government experience, but no banking.

The RDIF spokesman Maria Medvedeva refused to reply.

According to the RDIF releases, Strauss-Kahn “is an expert on the global economy and politics.” Politics, that’s the key word. When Strauss-Kahn ran into his sexual trouble in New York in May 2011, Putin was the only head of government in the entire world to publicly suggest that he had been framed by the New York Police Department, and possibly by others too.

The following was staged by the then-prime minister as a press opportunity on May 27, 2011:

“Question: Candidates for the post of the IMF managing director are now being discussed. Whom would you support? And what is your attitude towards the scandal surrounding Dominique Strauss-Kahn? Was he framed for political reasons?

Vladimir Putin: I don’t know much about the possible political reasons and don’t even want to touch on this issue, but it really is hard to believe that everything is as it was initially presented. I just can’t believe that – it is beyond me to understand it.”

The dismissal of the criminal charges against Strauss-Kahn thirteen weeks after his arrest wasn’t an exoneration of Strauss-Kahn’s conduct. But it was a vindication of Putin’s position that there had been a political plot against him. But why, almost two years later, has Putin given his approval for his two subordinates, Sechin and Ivanov, to reward Strauss-Kahn financially and help resurrect his public reputation?

There is no obvious answer – unless Strauss-Kahn, like Depardieu, has been assigned the Stooge role – that’s Moe the Stooge – with the intention of striking Hollande personally. That Hollande must have done something to Putin behind the scenes, as yet undisclosed, to warrant two two-eyed pokes in six months is likely. But if Putin were to deal out two-eyed pokes to every duplicitous hypocrite he meets in the course of running the Russian government, he’d run out of arms, fingers, and wit.

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