On 25 June a delegation of ten French MPs and senators completed their visit to Russia. Over a period of four days, they had been to Moscow and three cities in Crimea (Sevastopol, Yalta, and Simferopol), as well as met with their Russian colleagues. As reactions by Russian, Ukrainian, and French media and politicians demonstrate, everyone interpreted this event differently.
These are not the first foreign politicians to visit Crimea since March 2014. However, those who came before were either representatives of minor parties or no longer serving in an official capacity, such as the former Japanese Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama. In this sense, the visit by the currently-serving French parliamentarians was unprecedented.
The French-Russian Dialogue Association organized the visit. Though about 20 people originally wanted to go, at the last minute all but ten decided to stay home. They were successfully convinced to abandon their plans by their colleagues and the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The initiator of the trip and head of the delegation was Thierry Mariani, a member of The Republicans Party (formerly the Union for a Popular Movement) and Commission of Foreign Affairs at the National Assembly.
The other delegates are also well-known. The names of the parliamentarians being widely published facilitated the efforts of some to occupy themselves with attempts to comprehend the motivations behind their decision to go. The Russian opposition paper Novaya Gazeta wrote briefly about each of the parliamentarians, making ambiguous selections regarding their activities. The article was then reprinted in Ukrainska Pravda. In France, L’Obs recounted the story of Thierry Mariani’s business ties to Konstantin Malofeev of Marshall Capital. But other publications did not ask such questions.
The difference in emphasis with regard to which facts were chosen for articles also influenced how the visit was understood and presented. Pro-government Russian politicians spoke of the “landmark visit” and “strategic friends” (ITAR-TASS). Experts downplayed its significance. In Gazeta.ru commentaries, Yuri Rubinsky from the RAS Institute of Europe and Fyodor Lukyanov from the Council on Foreign and Defence Policy spoke of how, thus far, the visit only shows that there are a variety of opinions in the West.
The Russian opposition saw little more in this trip than if it were a visit from the National Front’s Marine Le Pen – an action by marginal politicians, markedly deviating from the norm. Novaya Gazeta, apparently attempting to expose things, characterized the trip as a “scandal” and reported that the arrivals “do not represent the French Parliament” but are a “statistical error”. Moreover, they embody the Republicans’ farthest right wing, and some openly sympathize with Russia. Opposition politician Vladimir Milov also shares opinions on the “most extreme right wing”, close to the “National Front. (He wrote about this on Facebook.)
In Ukraine, it was not so much the issues over who came and where they came from as much as the fact of the trip itself which aroused indignation. “The taboo is broken,” wrote the Ukrainian Ambassador-at-Large Dmytro Kuleba on Facebook. According to him, the French have opened a “second front in the Crimean diplomatic and information war”. His fellow diplomat Bogdan Yaremo called the parliamentarians “corrupt idiots having no choice and living on Kremlin money” in a blog on Obozrevatel. Prior to the trip, there were reports that Ukraine could place those French who were coming to Crimea on a blacklist.
Prominent Socialists in France condemned the trip (the foreign minister, the president of the parliament, the chairman of the Commission of Foreign Affairs at the National Assembly). Meanwhile, it was perhaps the head of the faction Bruno Le Roux who was the most outraged; he himself is on Russia’s blacklist. The party, however, only expressed its “regret” in a message on its official site.
As for The Republicans, they reacted rather reservedly. They neither condemned nor approved of the actions of their colleagues, emphasizing the need for “balanced relations” with Russia (L’Obs). Moreover, according to Deputy Claude Goasguen, the trip had the blessing of the former president and candidate for the position of party leader Nicolas Sarkozy (ITAR-TASS).
This completely follows the logic of all the steps of a potential leader for The Republicans in the 2017 presidential elections. Although there are still two years to go, elections for party leader will be held next year; and he is already actively preparing internally and externally. His message is entirely obvious: he wants to show that The Republicans are the ones working towards real solutions while the Socialists are engaged in debating. The publication Mediapart notes that Sarkozy is planning to visit India, Saudi Arabia, Great Britain, China and Russia in the near future.