Friends in High Places
Russian President Vladimir Putin, in his first official foreign visit since his inauguration in May, visited Italy in the first week of June. He met with Italian Prime Minister Giuliano Amato and the officials of several leading Italian companies, but not before he first held a much-anticipated meeting with Italy’s most renowned leader, Pope John Paul ii.
Why did President Putin choose Italy as his first official (and high-profile) foreign visit? Putin emphasized the importance of his meeting with the pope, saying, “It was my decision [to come to the Vatican]. For me, this is a very significant visit.”
Mr. Putin mainly talked to the pope about his vision of a Russia better integrated with the West, as well as security concerns common to Europe and Russia. Referring to the relationship between Russia and the Vatican, Putin said, “We are working actively with the Vatican, particularly in international organizations, in the cause of maintaining peace.”
“Maintaining peace” in the large and volatile region sandwiched between Rome and Moscow is a lofty goal at any time. So why would Putin turn first to the Vatican as a partner in securing peace in the region? Maybe because he is fully aware that the papacy has had almost 2000 years’ experience in learning how to be a very influential, if at times underlying, regional power.
The Vatican’s underwriting of Poland’s solidarity movement in concert with the cia ten years ago certainly proved that it is capable of affecting political outcomes as far away as Moscow, to the point of initiating the collapse of the Soviet Union. Putin, in seeking first to make friends in Rome, was merely giving due credit to the fact.