The Kremlin's foreign policy course for 2005 appears to be at a fork in the road. On the one hand, Russia aspires to join the "Western world." On the other, it cherishes a dream of restoring its status as a velikaya derzhava (great power) that dominates its geopolitical neighborhood. If a policy choice is not made, Moscow's performance on the international stage could prove as contradictory in 2005 as it was in 2004.
Most Russian experts agree that the country faces a critical strategy dilemma, yet views strongly diverge on how best to tackle the problem. Liberal commentators agree that in the past year Russia experienced two major setbacks with the deterioration of its relations with Western democracies and a decline in its influence within the former Soviet Union. A commentary published on December 20 in the weekly Kommersant-Vlast called the situation "the most serious crisis in [Russia's] relations with the West since the Cold War era." At the same time, however, experts who tend to side with the government assert that Russia suffered no serious policy failures in 2004 Ukraine notwithstanding and that it can look forward to, according to political analyst Alexei Strogin in Rossiiskiye Vesti on December 30, "all the chances for success in 2005."
Driving this divide is Moscow's relationship with the West, differing understandings of what Russia can gain from this partnership, and what, in turn, it can offer.
When Vladimir Putin succeeded President Boris Yeltsin in 2000, he also inherited Russia's official foreign policy doctrine of the 1990s. This envisaged Moscow's international identity as one that embraces human rights and democratic freedoms. That acceptance of "universal human values" formed the basis of Russia's cooperation with the West during the first post-communist decade, one that was expected to result in Russia's gradual integration with the Western world.
But Putin's backtracking on democratic reform, his insistence on the "unique features" of Russian democracy, and the Kremlin's continuous attacks on the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe and other European organizations constitute, in fact, a rejection of those parts of the foreign-policy blueprint that stipulated that Russia and the West share common political ideals and values. In Putin's opinion, however, this rejection does not necessarily mean a radical break with the West energy, in fact, is one area in which the Kremlin would like to intensify cooperation. But under this so-called "Chinese model" of cooperation, one analyst wrote in a December 8 commentary on the Gazeta.ru website, energy would be as far as the partnership would go.
The West's perception is, naturally, quite different. U.S. and European political elites, as well as the general public, hold the view that Putin's Russia has veered from the path of reform and modernization. But the West will still want to keep the appearance of cooperative and even friendly relations with President Putin, argues Fyodor Lukyanov, editor-in-chief of the influential journal Rossiya v Globalnoi Politike (Russia in Global Politics). But rather than democratic dividends, the West will be looking for more pragmatic windfalls, Lukyanov says, and will "use [these ties] to get economic or political advantages for their countries."
The erosion of Russia's influence in the Caucasus, Central Asia and, now, Ukraine is connected with these strained relations between East and West. This weakness is a signal to the leaders of post-Soviet countries that the protection of a Russian Big Brother will do little to guarantee their hold on power, said Lukyanov in a December 30 editorial. Consequently, he argued, they are prompted to take a more independent line with Moscow and seek the support of other, possibly more powerful, international actors.
At the same time, Russia's appeal as an attractive socio-economic or political model is definitely waning. Ukraine provides a case in point. [For background see EurasiaNet Insight archive]. Given the powerful pull of the European Union, Kyiv will likely withdraw from earlier plans to join a Russia-led economic bloc. As Sergei Karaganov, head of the Council for Foreign and Defense Policy, conceded in a December 20 interview with the daily Nezavisimaya Gazeta, the Kremlin's miscalculations in the Orange Revolution have presented the EU with "gigantic possibilities" in Ukraine.
To better compete with the West, some Russian analysts and policymakers suggest, Moscow has to draw lessons from its defeat in Ukraine and rethink its tactics in the Commonwealth of Independent States. In a wide-ranging policy paper published on December 28 in Nezavisimaya Gazeta, State Duma Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Konstantin Kosachev urged the Kremlin "to offer something understandable and attractive" to CIS countries that could give governments a reason to cooperate with Moscow. "The West does this under the banner of democratization, whereas, we, it seems, are only doing it on our own behalf," Kosachev wrote." The slogans of democracy (even given the clear geopolitical subtext) are addressed to the people directly, while our activity pursues Russian interests too openly."
Other Russian strategists suggest that Moscow should simply act more pugnaciously or, at least, as aggressively as its Western rivals. In a December 21 interview with the Moskovsky Komsomolyets daily, Gleb Pavlovsky, a political analyst with close ties to the Kremlin, argued that "we should act just like Americans do" and set up "foundations and programs which would advance our values" throughout the CIS. Pavlovsky, like other Putin-friendly analysts, maintains that Western democratic institutions "cannot be fully accepted in the Euro-East," but provides no clue to what the values of "the Euro-East" should be.
Russia will decide on a definition for those values in 2005, Pavlovsky believes, but despite the immediacy of the task, most analysts are much less specific as to what attractive objectives and inspiring ideas the Kremlin could offer its post-Soviet neighbors. Some see little hope that Russia will ever come up with any such package. "Only historical traditions that somehow prevent this [post-Soviet] space from being torn apart are currently saving us," commented analyst Vitaly Tretyakov in a December 6 interview with the Ekspert weekly. "We have nothing which would be equal in ideological might to Soviet communism or Western liberalism."
In the end, some experts have argued, Russia will have no choice but to reform its political and economic system. "If we don't have an economically viable and politically attractive model, other [CIS] countries will re-orient themselves towards the EU," noted Karaganov.
Or, as Vitaly Leibin, editor-in chief of the Polit.ru website, aptly put it in an October 18 commentary, Moscow has to show its neighbors a social model "with a human face." The remaining challenge? Finding this "human face" in today's authoritarian Russia.
Igor Torbakov is a freelance journalist and researcher who specializes in CIS political affairs. He holds an MA in History from Moscow State University and a PhD from the Ukrainian Academy of Sciences. He was Research Scholar at the Institute of Russian History, Russian Academy of Sciences, Moscow; a Visiting Scholar at the Kennan Institute, Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, Washington DC; a Fulbright Scholar at Columbia University, New York; and a Visiting Fellow at Harvard University. He is now based in Istanbul, Turkey.