Saturday 19 August 2017

Putin opens new centre of 'soft power' - on banks of the Seine

A woman takes a photo of the new Russian Orthodox Cathedral in Paris, with the Eiffel Tower in the background
A woman takes a photo of the new Russian Orthodox Cathedral in Paris, with the Eiffel Tower in the background

Mary Fitzgerald

Those who have not visited Paris for several years might do a double take as they stroll down the Seine towards the Eiffel Tower.

Rising out of a sprawling site next to the Pont d l'Alma is the imposing new Cathedral of the Holy Trinity, topped with four bulb-shaped gilded domes in the unmistakably Russian style.

Inaugurated in December, the gleaming Kremlin-funded Russian Orthodox cathedral has been the focus of much intrigue, with some seeing it as a clear attempt by Moscow to project power just a walk away from the French foreign ministry. The Russian government even secured diplomatic immunity for what it has dubbed a "spiritual and cultural centre" by declaring it the official chapel of its embassy in Paris.

Local media were quick to nickname the complex, which includes a school to promote the teaching of Russian, 'Saint Vladimir's' after the Russian president Vladimir Putin. It was, an embassy official told French daily 'Le Figaro', "a personal project" of the president.

On a recent visit, dozens of people - some clearly worshippers, others curious sightseers - queued up along the street outside as they waited to go through stringent security checks. Inside, Russian Orthodox women covered their heads to pray, some of them kissing ornate paintings of saints. The rest of the complex, consisting of cube-like buildings with frosted glass concealing everything inside, was closed off to visitors.

The story of the cathedral goes back to 2009 when then president Nicolas Sarkozy, keen to improve Franco-Russian relations, made sure Moscow secured the valuable piece of real estate. Saudi Arabia had also been interested in the vacant plot and hoped to build an embassy and mosque there. Russia footed the entire €170m bill for the complex. "There was nothing wrong with building a new church but nobody wanted to confront Russia's ulterior motives for creating what will inevitably become a symbol of Russian power in the heart of Paris," one French diplomat told 'Le Monde' newspaper.

According to reports in the French media last year, the French intelligence services were taking no chances, installing jamming devices around the complex to prevent electronic surveillance of nearby government offices.

Under Mr Putin, the Russian Orthodox church of the Moscow Patriarchate has become a key element of the country's soft power, working closely with the Kremlin to further common interests.

Funded by Russia's post-communist oligarchs, it has established a network of tens of thousands of churches at home and abroad. Many of the overseas outposts - like the complex in Paris - promote Russian culture through language lessons and other activities.

But under its head, Patriarch Kirill, the Russian Orthodox church has also worked with the Kremlin on foreign policy matters: Patriarch Kirill visited Syrian president Bashar al-Assad in Damascus - before Moscow intervened militarily in support of Mr Assad - and the church was involved in mediating the Ukraine crisis. Mr Putin regularly attends events organised by the Moscow Patriarchate and praises it as a defender of national identity.

Mr Putin was expected to attend the Paris cathedral's opening - which was overseen by Patriarch Kirill - along with his French counterpart François Hollande last year but the visit did not go ahead amid tensions between France and Russia over Moscow's veto of a draft UN Security Council resolution on Syria.

Given the close relationship between the Kremlin and the Russian Orthodox church under Patriarch Kirill, the Paris cathedral complex has fed the concerns of those already worried about Moscow's attempts to gain influence in Europe, including its support for far-right Eurosceptic movements and parties across the continent.

In France, the increasingly popular Front National, whose leader Marine Le Pen is expected to perform well in presidential elections in April, has received loans from Russian banks.

In the run-up to this week's elections in the Netherlands, Dutch officials feared Russian interference in support of the controversial populist Geert Wilders, whose anti-immigration and anti-Islam platform was ultimately rejected in favour of the centre-right party of prime minister Mark Rutte. Germany has also voiced concern about possible Russian meddling in its general election this September.

Last November, the European Parliament passed a resolution deploring what it called "anti-EU propaganda" by Moscow, referring to how the Kremlin has tried to frame it in ways that might appeal to Christian sentiment across Europe.

"The Russian government is employing a wide range of tools and instruments - think-tanks and special foundations, special authorities, multilingual TV stations, pseudo-news agencies and multimedia services - as well as cross-border social and religious groups, since the regime wants to present itself as the only defender of traditional Christian values," it said.

Russian attempts to exercise soft power in Europe takes many forms, of which the eye-catching Paris cathedral is just one.

Irish Independent

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