Two weeks ago, I wrote about the surprising pro-détente feelings of Belgium’s French-speaking social elite who openly criticize the anti-Russian policies being pursued by the government here, in line with the EU consensus. My comments were based on conversations I had with a good many participants in a Russia-themed gala dinner at the country’s most prestigious gentlemen’s club in downtown Brussels. The fact that such a dinner could be held and that its more than 160 seats were sold out speaks for itself.
For the record, my interlocutors were retired senior officials of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, administrators working for the royal family, successful entrepreneurs in the financial services industry and a number of barons and lesser members of Belgian noble families.
In what follows here, I offer impressions of another sampling of Belgian society, this time diplomats in active service and the middle level or senior managers of Belgian corporations with large investments and ongoing business in Russia. The occasion was a gathering last night of the relevant Chamber of Commerce dedicated to commercial ties with Russia and celebrating the new year with speeches and cocktails. The atmosphere was subdued. One might say funereal, given how the numbers of business members in the Chamber has plummeted in recent years so that trade related bureaucrats from both Belgian and Russian sides now outnumber genuine people doing business, and fonctionnaires serving time are not an outspoken bunch.
The key to understanding what occurred and why Belgian business will do absolutely nothing to pursue its own interests in trade with Russia in the face of an anti-Russian Belgian and EU foreign policy may be found in the opening remarks to the assembly by Belgium’s ambassador to Moscow.
It must be said that the given ambassador is an upbeat and very sociable person, who deftly blends sports and other human interest trivia into his speeches. He mentioned his hosting in his Moscow embassy Belgians who came to cheer on their Red Devils during the FIFA World Cup this past summer. No doubt he is a genial host.
The problem is that for a position of such potential political importance in one of the world’s key cities for diplomacy, the Kingdom of Belgium chose as its ambassador a person who, by his own admission last night, is just beginning to speak a bit of Russian after two years on the job. There is so much of interest around him he said, so much to learn that he would like to have another ten years to immerse himself in Russian life.
His openness of spirit is laudable, but his admitted ignorance of a country that is not exotic and sits at the doorstep of Europe does not speak well of the professionalism of the Belgian foreign service. By contrast, the Russian ambassador to the Kingdom of Belgium, who also spoke to the assembly, has full mastery of French and English, if not Flemish, and enters into direct dialogue with all leading figures in Belgian society without the assistance of interpreters or seeing-eye dogs.
Given the institutional biases of the staff he would take over upon assuming office, the Belgian ambassador to Moscow is a faulty instrument for detecting nuanced intelligence on what is going on in the country of his assignment, which could and should be part of his job in this age of omnipresent propaganda and megaphone diplomacy.
Be that as it may, this likable man opened his speech with a compliment to his hosts and to the audience, remarking that trade relations are an important positive influence on political relations between states. Sadly, as he made clear in what followed, he got cause and effect backwards.
In effect, during 2018 Belgian trade with Russia fell by 8%. According to the ambassador, a good part of the story was the worsening perception of Russia in Belgium due to two events: the Skripal affair in the spring and the Kerch Straits incident in the autumn. Since he is the spokesman for the Belgian Ministry of Foreign Affairs which has an unequivocal, never questioning view on ‘bad boy’ Russia as Washington, D.C. and fellow Member States of the EU decide, the best he tries to do is to keep open lines of communication with Moscow so that both sides can set out at length what their respective views are on any given issue.
Compared to thinking in Washington, which since 2014 if not before has been hell-bent on totally isolating Russia and cutting all lines of communication, we may say that the role assumed by the Belgian Ambassador to Russia is enlightened even if it is unproductive of change.
In this regard, the ambassador is only doing on a regular basis what the Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel did a year ago when he paid a visit to Moscow and held lengthy talks with his counterpart Dmitry Medvedev and with President Putin. We are told that relations were cordial on that visit. But by the nature of the constraints set by Belgian political elites and by the EU, nothing more than briefly improved atmospherics and photo opportunities could result.
Then there was the spring visit to Moscow and St. Petersburg by the mayor of Antwerp, leader of the country’s largest single political party, the NV-A, together with a substantial Flemish business delegation. Here there were concrete commercial topics to be discussed including shared interest in the diamond trade, supplies of Russian petroleum and development of the port of Zeebrugge to receive Russian liquefied natural gas. However, as already mentioned, the impact on actual trade figures was zero due to worsening numbers in other sectors where the ongoing EU sanctions and Russian embargo bite.
Looking to prospects for 2019, the Belgian ambassador to Moscow did not hold back the ugly truth. Everything will depend on what new sanctions the United States decides to impose on Russia. Belgium and the EU will swallow this bitter medicine whole, given the extraterritorial effect of United States legislation and jurisdiction. Not even a whimper of complaint on his part. Nor did I notice any rush of the few business leaders in attendance to ask the ambassador for details during the cocktail.
And so, the activities of the Chamber of Commerce, which has a full agenda of official visits to Russian regions, and hosts the periodic Russian business delegations to Benelux, are form without content. It will take a change in government from the complacent center-right, center-left to the “populist” parties on the left and right fringes which denounce the status quo in foreign policy just as in domestic policy before any real prospect for improved political and commercial relations with the big neighbor to the East can be hoped for.
© Gilbert Doctorow, 2018