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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Rogozin Stays on Message in Brussels

BRUSSELS — He was once a firebrand nationalist politician who led rallies against illegal immigration, met indicted Serbian war criminals and ran a campaign ad that seemed to compare dark-skinned southerners to garbage.

Now, Dmitry Rogozin lives in a brick house located in a quiet, leafy neighborhood of Brussels. Inside, only a Russian flag, a picture of St. Basil's Cathedral and some snapshots of Rogozin with world leaders suggest that it is the official residence of Russia's envoy to NATO.

Since taking the post in January, Rogozin has brought his bombastic style from the streets of Moscow to the corridors of NATO, where he has made headlines and provoked controversy with his criticism of the alliance.

"I express the viewpoint of my country," he said in a recent interview at his residence in the Belgian capital. "I am a thermometer that reflects the emotional level of Russia's reaction to steps taken by NATO, among other things."

The temperature of Russia-NATO relations has been rather hot lately, as Moscow has pushed back furiously at NATO proposals to admit Ukraine and Georgia into the alliance and to support building elements of a U.S. missile shield in Central Europe.

Despite assurances from U.S. President George W. Bush and other Western leaders, President Vladimir Putin has called the missile shield dangerous for Russian security and threatened to target missiles at Ukraine if NATO installations ever appeared there.

Against this backdrop, Putin made his surprise appointment of Rogozin, who rose to prominence as a leader of the nationalist Rodina party, as Russia's permanent representative to NATO.

In Brussels, some argue that Rogozin is not much of a diplomat. They see him more as a blunt instrument designed to convey Russia's stance as loudly as possible to the West.

"Clearly, he is not a person who is trying to find some solution to harmonize," said Rihard Piks, a former Latvian foreign minister who now represents Latvia in the European Parliament.

Piks, who said he knew Rogozin from his days on the State Duma's foreign relations committee, called him a "nationalistic and arrogant politician" with an aptitude for stirring up controversy.

"From my experience, Mr. Rogozin sometimes does not know very much what he is speaking about," Piks said. "His main aim is to make some noise, to surprise the people around him and to win attention."

Rogozin defends his style and insists that it is the correct response to the challenges he sees facing Russia.

"Diplomats who hide the meaning of their words are bad diplomats," he said. "I had one acquaintance, a Russian diplomat, who could speak for two hours and not say anything. He thought this was super, that it was a sort of mastery. But I considered him an idiot."

The reason he needs to be blunt, Rogozin said, is that NATO expansion and missile defense pose a clear and present danger to Russia. The envoy dismissed suggestions that Moscow itself was being the aggressor by meddling in the affairs of its Soviet-era dominions.

"Any of our objections, any of our occasionally emotional outbursts, are seen as signs of aggression," Rogozin said. "But who are the real aggressors here? They are the ones building new military bases, the ones moving ever closer to our borders, the ones digging foundation pits for rocket bases near our defensive perimeter."

A NATO official denied that the alliance's expansion posed a threat to Russia. "That's something that we don't agree with at all," he said, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to comment.

The official linked NATO expansion to the spread of democratic values and downplayed the military aspect of the alliance.

"If you were to look very carefully at the actual effect of enlargement," he said, "you have, first, an enlarged area of predictability and transparency, and second, you're talking about countries which are in the process of ensuring the highest standards which NATO expects. And military standards are just one part of this."

Rogozin does not buy that argument.

"Imagine if the Warsaw Pact were alive today," he said, "and we were telling Bush that the entry of Venezuela and Panama did not pose a threat to America, but was simply an expansion of our democratic alliance. It would be interesting to see how Washington would react to such rhetoric from our side."

Earlier this month, Moscow appeared to win a skirmish in the ongoing struggle when NATO decided not to offer Membership Action Plans — the concrete steps needed for admission — to Ukraine and Georgia.

But the compromise deal reached at the NATO summit in Bucharest, Romania, affirmed that the two countries would eventually join the alliance.

For Rogozin, this means he still has work to do.

"In Bucharest, they once again confirmed that it would be good to swallow up Ukraine and Georgia," he said. "Their appetite is excellent, which is something they can be complemented on. My only concern is that, from the viewpoint of NATO's external appearance, it resembles those people who eat too much at McDonald's."

Though some may call him an unyielding hard-liner, Rogozin said he wanted to be constructive and find areas where Russia and NATO can cooperate.

In the interview, he repeatedly mentioned an agreement signed in Bucharest allowing the alliance to ship supplies across Russia to forces in Afghanistan. Other potential areas of cooperation, Rogozin said, are the fight against radical Islamic groups like the Taliban and international drug trafficking.

"NATO seems to understand that the main threat to it today comes from the south, but it continues expanding to the east," he said.

This is not the first time that Rogozin has sought to win people over by emphasizing a threat from the south.

Illegal immigration from the Caucasus and Central Asia was one of Rogozin's signature issues during his decade-long career in the State Duma. In 2005, he was accused of racism after appearing in a Rodina campaign ad that showed dark-skinned immigrants tossing watermelon rinds on the ground. The television commercial showed Rogozin chastising them and ended with words "Let's clear the city of garbage."

The Moscow City Court ruled that the ad incited ethnic hatred. Rogozin called the ruling politically motivated and denied that the term "garbage" was supposed to refer to the immigrants.

In 1996, before he was first elected to the State Duma, Rogozin met with Bosnian Serb Army leader Ratko Mladic, who had been indicted in The Hague on charges of genocide and crimes against humanity. Rogozin has also spoken at ultranationalist rallies in Moscow where demonstrators displayed Nazi and anti-Semitic signs, although he has denied holding racist beliefs himself.

Perhaps the peak of Rogozin's career came in December 2003, when his Rodina party won 9 percent of the vote in the Duma election. Rodina, which means "motherland," had been cobbled together a few months earlier and was widely seen as a Kremlin project to steal votes from the Communists.

Rogozin's relationship with the Kremlin quickly soured, however, and after the court ruling against his "garbage" commercial, Rodina was barred from the 2005 Moscow City Duma elections.

In 2006, Rogozin resigned as the party's leader, citing heavy Kremlin pressure, and was replaced with a more compliant, less charismatic leader, businessman Alexander Babakov. Last year, Rogozin attempted to start a new nationalist party, Great Russia, but its registration was denied on technical grounds.

While conceding that he disagreed with the Kremlin on some aspects of domestic policy, Rogozin stressed that he saw eye to eye with Putin on international affairs, especially since the shift toward a more muscular foreign policy in the second half of Putin's presidency.

"I was interested in helping my president defend the nation's interests," Rogozin said. "And the president was probably interested in having adequate people who were up to the task."

Rogozin added that he was no stranger to diplomacy, having led the Duma's foreign relations committee for four years.

Though some may find it hard to square with his reputation, Rogozin's resume is highly cosmopolitan. He graduated from the international department of the Moscow State University journalism school, and he speaks English, Spanish, Italian and French, according to the biography on his web site.

News of Rogozin's appointment broke late last year. Putin was expected to sign the decree sending him to Brussels in December, but the decree only came in January, and the delay caused some speculation.

Expressing satisfaction with his new job, Rogozin said it was nice to be working with the Kremlin again after his efforts to lead an opposition party.

"The problem of being in the opposition is that it's always a passive role," he said. "You end up as a critic of everything taking place in your country, and you don't participate in the formation of government policy.

"This is okay if your country is stable and perfectly safe, if your country is a well-fed Western democracy. Then it might even be preferable to having real responsibility.

"But if you care about the fate of your country — and I care what happens to Russia — and you know what needs to be changed, then you can't remain in the opposition. You need to strive for self-realization within the system."