A warship deal, a broadcaster and an irritated Kremlin
By Inge Snip
What happens when you pit a major shipbuilding deal between Paris and Moscow alonside the creation of a Russian-language Georgian television channel carried by the French satellite carrier Eutelsat? Simply: the satellite channel loses out.
On January 15, the Georgia-based broadcaster First Caucasian began airing via Eutelsat and was expected to receive a solid contract on February 1. However, in a surprise move, Eutelsat instead opted to discontinue broadcasting, citing an ever-fluctuating list of reasons that have failed to remain consistent. Although First Caucasian remains viewable on cable in Georgia and online, the channel’s satellite broadcasts were a crucial part of its strategy to be available to large parts of Russia to challenge the Kremlin’s near-total media monopoly. Of course, Russia would have none of that. As Russian deputy interior minister Arkady Yedelev stated on January 14, “the TV channel is definitely directed towards planting anti-Russian, anti-State stance and the ideology of extremism.” Right.
First Caucasian’s stated objectives are to bring unbiased and objective news in Russian about the Caucasus to counter the Kremlin’s one-dimensional portrayal of the region in the Russian media, an idea that is obviously not very appreciated by the United Russia cliques. In a typical Putin-era response, Russia’s solution to its predicament was to eliminate the threat, and a near-done deal with France over expensive warships seemed like the ideal tool to get their way.
According to the well-respected, well-connected defense blog Information Dissemination via sources in the Pentagon and in Paris, Russia has succeeded in linking the already-controversial warship purchase with the Georgian satellite channel’s fate. Translation: Russia has apparently conditioned the major, imminent purchase of the Mistral-class amphibious assault ship with French compliance to blocking First Caucasian, bowing to Russia’s propaganda agenda.
However, some argue that Eutelsat’s decision is unconnected the Mistral deal, believing that France would not have the power to overrule a commercial company. However, as my colleague Michael Cecire pointed out on our website Evolutsia.Net, labor-government relations in France are much deeper compared to most other countries, and corporate-government lines tend to be much blurrier in a heavily regulated economy like France’s.
For example, Michel de Rosen, Eutelsat’s CEO, was the Chief of Staff to the Minister of Industry and Communications from 1986 to 1988 (and not his first public role) making it far more likely that Paris could have easily influenced Eutelsat. This is especially noteworthy considering France’s longstanding reputation for policy ‘pliability’ over industrial, and particularly military, economic deals. As the contract has not yet been totally finalized, France is likely keen to do whatever it takes – even unofficially – to keep its shipbuilders working and its defense industry humming.
Of course, the Kremlin has pressured Eutelsat directly as well by expanding its contract via Gazprom Media, taking up almost all space on the satellite, which effectively blocks other channels from broadcasting to the Russian. Although Eutelsat has offered First Caucasian another satellite, the W2, the technical requirements for this alternative are mostly unavailable in the former Soviet Union and far beyond the capabilities of the small Georgian outfit.
For most Russia-watchers, the Kremlin’s approach should not shock anyone. However, it is in the amazing callousness and illiberal backroom dealmaking of Western leaders that are party to Moscow’s brusque worldview that should be the real concern. Of course, while France’s culpability in this affair is only the latest in a wave of Faustian arrangements bartered by Western European governments looking to placate Moscow, the United States also earns a share of the blame for being so passive about the Paris-Moscow Mistral agreement. As usual, the crime is not just that Russia is behaving badly, but that it’s being sanctioned by shortsighted game-players in Western capitals.
Inge Snip is a Dutch international human rights advocate and an analyst for Evolutsia.Net, a Georgia news analysis and commentary website. She lives in Kiev.