Bistros and the art of Russian diplomacy

14th November 2008, Comments 0 comments

According to legend, the French word "bistro" comes from the Russian "bystro!" meaning "quickly!"

Nice, France -- Before European Union leaders can fully appreciate Russian President Dmitry Medvedev's expected proposals on European security at Friday's EU-Russia summit in Nice, France, they need to consider the importance of one word: bistro.

According to legend, the French word "bistro" comes from the Russian "bystro!" meaning "quickly!" and was brought to Paris in 1814 by Cossack troops who occupied the city and had the habit of yelling the phrase at reluctant waiters.

While etymological scholars insist that the derivation is, at best, unproven, it has entered the French consciousness as a symbol of the reputed wealth and arrogance of Russians abroad.

And nowhere does that image resonate more strongly than in Nice, now a haunt of Russian oligarchs, where top restaurants boast menus in Cyrillic -- and where staff members regularly complain that at least some of their Slavic clients have truly Cossack manners.

"They're so rude: the rich Russians and Ukrainians are the worst clients we have. They treat the staff like they weren't even human," a hotel receptionist who identified himself as Stephane told DPA.

Some observers say that the difference is cultural, and that behavior which Europeans see as blatant rudeness is interpreted in Russia as a sign of importance or businesslike directness.

But in recent years Russian diplomacy has begun to display signs of the same abrasive "bistro" quality, with increasingly nationalistic rhetoric seen internally as a sign of the nation's resurgence.

"It shows that Russia is back, and it's a great power," Hans- Henning Schroeder, head of Russia studies at the SWP German institute for international politics and security, told DPA.

Lilia Shevstova, a senior research at the Moscow Carnegie Centre, reached a similar conclusion in an online article published earlier this month. She said Russia's newly aggressive foreign policy is for domestic consumption and is designed to build consensus.

"Patriotism, focused on the idea of finding an enemy and opposing the hostile surroundings has proved to be a very successful, although not a new, idea of consolidation," she wrote.

This August, that assertiveness reached levels not seen since the Cold War as Russia invaded and occupied much of Georgia -- an aspirant to NATO membership - and threw Western diplomats into confusion.

Just days later, Russia's deputy army chief warned Poland that it would be open to nuclear attack if it built a US missile defense base on its territory.

And on November 5, Medvedev said that his country would site missiles in the exclave of Kaliningrad, right on the border of EU and NATO members Poland and Lithuania, if the US plans went ahead.

The missile shield and NATO expansion are "clearly red lines in Moscow ... The Russian point is that its returning influence and assertiveness should be accepted by its counterparts, especially the US," said Thomas Gomart, director of the Russia center at the French Center for International Relations (IFRI).

But at Friday's EU-Russia summit, Medvedev is tipped to set out for EU leaders some details of his plans for a "new European security architecture," which he first proposed on June 5.

And analysts say that the abrasive, aggressive, bistro-style diplomacy, which has characterized Russia's return to power is now, paradoxically, a diplomatic liability.

"The more Russia indulges in coercive or threatening behavior towards its neighbors, the more it antagonizes them," Michael Emerson, head of security studies at the Brussels-based Center for European Policy Studies, wrote in a paper ahead of the summit.

Russia's recent diplomacy on issues such as NATO expansion and the US missile shield has been based largely on negative tactics, using its influence over allies such as Germany to block NATO decisions and resorting to open threats to counter the US plans.

But to sell the idea of a new security pact for Europe, Medvedev will have to win not just the compliance of allies but the agreement of long-standing critics such as Poland, Britain and the United States.

And those countries are hardly likely to lend a sympathetic ear to the regime, which just invaded one key ally, Georgia, and threatened another, Poland, with nuclear war.

Russia's diplomats "will have to change the rhetoric if they want to be seen as credible," Gomart said.

"Diplomacy with the US and EU can't be based on threats. Russia will have to move away from the use of threats if it wants to find room for maneuver (for its proposals)," Schroeder agreed.

Thus, if Medvedev wants to be taken seriously at the negotiating table, he might have to step out of the bistro first.

Ben Nimmo/DPA/Expatica

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