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Analysis & Opinion
22.07.11 Is “Tandemocracy” Bad For Russia’s Foreign Policy?
Introduced by Vladimir Frolov

Contributors: Vladimir Belaeff, Edward Lozansky, Vlad Sobell

It now appears that the tandem of Vladimir Putin and Dmitry Medvedev, while beneficial for Russia’s internal development, may not be such a healthy arrangement for Russian foreign policy after all. Where multiple centers of decision-making may be key drivers for progress in domestic matters, it is always a short-cut to disaster in the conduct of foreign affairs. It disorients foreign partners and paralyzes the foreign policy bureaucracy in an unhealthy rivalry for allegiance to one or the other member of the tandem. Is “tandemocracy” bad for Russia’s foreign policy? Does it upset the normal workings of the interagency process to develop sound foreign policy strategies?

One huge adverse effect is that the inherent rivalry within the tandem produces ill-prepared foreign policy initiatives with little chance of success from the outset. This reflects the desire of each leader to assert primacy in Russia’s external affairs and this frustrates Russia’s partners abroad. There are some troubling examples of that. Yet, the half-baked foreign policy initiatives, reflecting the priorities of only one member of the tandem, continue to be churned out with perplexing regularity.

Medvedev’s 2008 signature initiative for a new pan-European security architecture, a good idea whose time may never come, was put together so hastily that it was not immediately clear whom it was addressed to, while some practical details of the proposal emerged more than a year after its official roll out. It has now all but officially been declared dead.

Medvedev’s 2010 proposal for a joint missile defense with NATO bears the same marks of poor preparation, total disregard for political realities in partner nations and a desire to aim for maximum PR effect both at home and abroad. The best that Russia could hope for on missile defense with NATO is a unilateral U.S. or NATO declaration at the NATO summit in Chicago in May 2012 that the planned missile defenses would not be aimed against Russia. Some accomplishment.

Almost the same could be said of Putin’s reckless initiative in 2009, that members of the newly minted Customs Union would jointly apply for membership to the WTO, scuttling an all but complete deal with Washington on Russia’s WTO accession and forcing Medvedev to disavow this decision a few months later.

Medvedev’s eagerness to place a claim to a second presidential term by pointing to serious gains in Russia’s international standing has led to a childishly silent endorsement of NATO’s air war in Libya in support of anti-Gaddafi rebels. Now, four months into the unsuccessful operation, some Western leaders are wondering whether they all would have been better off had Russia, its foreign policy being safely in Putin’s adult hands, vetoed the damned UNSC resolution.

The other adverse affect is that some foreign players could play on differences within the tandem and capitalize on developing channels of communications to one of them against the other.

One example is U.S. President Barack Obama’s stake on a highly personalized relationship with Dmitry Medvedev, with specific policies tailored to strengthen his domestic position and increase his chances of reelection. Obama’s belated attempts to open communications channels to Putin through Vice President Joe Biden have failed, auguring a potentially testy relationship were Putin to return to the Kremlin in 2012.

Ukraine’s President Victor Yanukovich is also placing a similar bet on Medvedev, hoping to secure a better price for Russian gas deliveries. Yanukovich is doing all he can to ignore or publicly humiliate Putin by staging a monkey trial against former Ukrainian prime minister and Yanukovich’s bitter rival for the presidency Yulia Timoshenko, for signing a bad gas agreement with Putin in 2009. Yanukovich is also snubbing Putin’s proposals for Ukraine’s entry into the Customs Union or a merger between Russia’s Gazprom and Naftogaz Ukraini.

The strongmen of Belarus and Transdnestr, Alexander Lukashenko and Igor Smirnov, may be looking up to Putin for defense against Medvedev’s mounting pressure to unseat them.

Is “tandemocracy” bad for Russia’s foreign policy? Does it upset the normal workings of the interagency process to develop sound foreign policy strategies? Does it contribute to Moscow’s propensity for half-baked initiatives launched for primarily propaganda purposes? Does it disorient and frustrate foreign partners of Russia when they don’t know what number to call for a final word on Russia’s foreign policy positions? Does it allow Russia’s foreign partners to exploit the differences within the tandem to gain advantage in relations with Moscow? Does this arrangement expose a serious weakness in Russia’s handling of foreign affairs?

Vlad Sobell, Independent Analyst, London

I have always believed that the “tandem” is not an optimal arrangement – for reasons that seem obvious to me. To be credible, a leader of a country must possess – and be seen to possess – the ultimate and unambiguous responsibility for key state functions. Even where competences are not always precisely defined (as is the case in Russia, where the Constitution does provide for a powerful prime minister), there must be only one supreme leader, otherwise there will be no clarity over who is really in charge.

In Russia, this supreme official is the president, who, according to the Constitution, determines the “basic objectives of the internal and foreign policy of the state.” The president also appoints the prime minister. While obviously there will always be turf ambiguities and some overlap, the supreme responsibility clearly lies with the president. This was certainly the case under Putin’s presidency.

Besides, the Constitution (rightly) makes no provision for a “tandem.” While there are some advantages in this informal tandem, I continue to believe that the disadvantages outweigh them. The main disadvantage is that Russia cannot be seen as a normally functioning state on a par with Western democracies as long as it remains unclear where the ultimate seat of executive power and responsibility is.

So I would agree with Frolov that with regard to foreign affairs, the tandem has resulted in confusion, ultimately weakening Russia as well as preventing it from making a more constructive contribution to global affairs. Besides, Russia urgently needs to be seen as a normally functioning country in order to attract investment, reduce corruption and secure the respect of the international community.

That said, I do not believe that this unfortunate arrangement is due merely to the machinations of Putin and his “siloviki,” as conventional wisdom has it. To a large extent, it is also the outcome of misconceived Western policy toward Russia.

Although Russia overthrew communism by its own efforts and of its own volition, the West has always insisted on treating it as a defeated power. This implies that, like post-war Germany and Japan, Russia can become a member of the “club” only after an appropriate period of quarantine, during which it is guided and supervised by the “victors.” Unlike his predecessor, Putin clearly saw where this supervision led (the breakdown of the Russian state and potential capture of Russia’s resources by the victors) and refused to cooperate any further. He was promptly branded an “autocrat” and his regime excommunicated. (This also goes some way to explaining the sorry saga of Mikhail Khodorkovsky, who will be kept in jail as long as the “victors” insist on dictating to Moscow how it should deal with its internal affairs).

In August 2008 the United States, through its ally President Mikheil Saakashvili of Georgia, went so far as to test the regime’s mettle by covertly sponsoring an attack on South Ossetia’s civilians and the Russian military based there at a time when Putin, along with other world leaders, was watching the opening of the Beijing Olympic Games, and president Medvedev was on vacation. Such excesses were not permitted even at the height of the Cold War.

The fact that Putin’s regime, for all its faults, remains popular and that Khodorkovsky and his ilk remain unpopular cuts no ice with the supposedly “democratic West.” Russia remains excommunicated because it continues to insist on its independence. The dissident “liberal democrats,” whose diatribes are addressed chiefly to their external audience rather than the domestic electorate, continue to be seen in the West as the bona fide voice of Russia’s democracy.

Against this background it is perhaps not surprising that Putin clings to power and that a significant section of the elite would rather have continuity (however damaging to the country’s democratic development) than a genuine transfer of leadership to a modernizing president, however desirable that might be. Under his formula for ruling the country, Russia has maintained its independence, while the fear the “former KGB” officer has instilled keeps the domestic “boyars” at bay. It is conceivable that even Putin himself understands the need to move on, but, understandably, hesitates before taking the plunge and departing from the political arena. This view may well be naive, but it is reasonable to assume that, given his past performance, Putin is intelligent enough to see the need for change.

Above all, the Medvedev (and indeed, the “tandem”) phenomenon is an effort by the regime to develop a different, more “West-friendly” face, able to deflect the worst hostility coming from the “victorious” democracies. Put another way, it is a face-saving device intended to appease the West.

I would, therefore, give the following advice to Western democracies that want ultimate power to fall into the hands of Medvedev (or, eventually, someone other than Putin): firstly, stop censoring the Russian regime and please note that it is supported by the vast majority of the electorate. Secondly, focus on your own problems – namely, the moral decay and systemic flaws of your economies. Russia’s governance will normalize more quickly if the West stops interfering in its domestic affairs. This is the only realistic way forward.

Edward Lozansky, President, American University in Moscow and World Russia Forum in Washington, DC

Discussions on the effectiveness of the Putin-Medvedev tandem started right after the 2008 presidential election and will definitely continue at least until the next one in 2012. Whether such a tandem is good or bad for the country appears to me to be a moot point. Frolov believes it is good for Russia’s domestic development while counterproductive with regard to its foreign policy. In my humble opinion, though, even in foreign policy the picture is not necessarily all black: there are some clear white areas as well.

First, when Medvedev became president in 2008 he had practically no experience in international affairs. U.S. – Russian relations were at the lowest ebb since the collapse of the Soviet Union, and the new edition of the Cold War was almost there. Worse still, just a few months after the new president was settled in the Kremlin the war with Georgia broke out. At a certain point the situation was pretty close to World War III breaking out. Had Vice President Dick Cheney’s proposal to bomb Russian troops in the Roki tunnel linking South Ossetia to North Ossetia succeeded, the consequences would have been horrific indeed.

Frankly, I like Medvedev and wish him every success in the upcoming election. But! Please let us be honest, dear ladies and gentlemen. Do we really believe that a young and inexperienced professor of law was ready to calmly handle this quagmire without strong backing from his mentor Putin?

Apart from Georgia, the years that followed the conflict also saw some foreign policy successes under the tandem, including, above all, some positive developments in U.S. – Russian relations.

NATO membership applications from Georgia and Ukraine have been archived, as have the George Bush administration’s plans for ballistic missile defense installations in Poland and the Czech Republic. In Lisbon, NATO and Russian leaders as good as embraced each other as comrades in arms.

It may be argued, of course, that all this was due not so much to Moscow’s wise policy as to Obama’s new, pragmatic approach known as the “reset.” Let us recall, though, that, like Medvedev, Obama did not have much foreign policy experience, so at least in the beginning it was Biden who was calling the shots. And we all know that Biden is far from being a great friend of Russia.

I am talking here not only of his famous statement, when he was still a Senator from Delaware, that Russia must not be graduated from the Jackson-Vanik until it buys a lot more American chicken. Let us recall also that it was Biden who screamed, along with many others, about Russia’s “aggression” against Georgia. More than that, he delivered $1 billion of U.S. taxpayers’ money, most likely borrowed from communist China, to reward the real aggressor Saakashvili for destroying the South Ossetian capital Tskhinval and murdering Russian peacekeepers and hundreds of South Ossetian civilians.

For all these reasons I do not believe the policy of “reset” would ever have materialized had its authors not seen Putin’s chilly eyes behind Medvedev’s shoulder. Despite obvious shortcomings and weaknesses in handling the country’s foreign affairs from two centers, certain advantages still accrue to the good cop – bad cop policy. This policy is still on the books, and I believe this particular tandem has used it as wisely as could be expected.

However, if Medvedev wins in 2012, this “tandemocracy” arrangement may not be necessary any longer since his experience of four years should have been enough for him to learn the ropes, and I am sure both he and Putin are smart enough to figure out how to handle their future relationship with dignity.

As for the future of U.S. – Russian relations I completely agree with Andy Kuchins who stated in his latest CSIS report that “U.S. policies will be a far more important factor in affecting Russian leader and elite views of the United States than who the next Russian president is.”

I’d add that instead of meddling in Russia’s election campaign by advising Putin not to run, the United States should show and prove with real deeds rather than words that it does take into account Russia’s core security and economic interests. Accepting some meaningful joint missile defense system would be a major step in building a mutually beneficial and long-lasting relationship. Discontinuing an obviously unfriendly pipeline policy of bypassing Russia in the energy flows on the post-Soviet space would be another important factor.

Vladimir Belaeff, Global Society Institute, San Francisco, CA

Russia’s track record in foreign policy during the past four years is far different from the pessimistic images presented by Frolov.

One should remember that all countries make foreign policy in a competitive environment, which can be covertly or even overtly, hostile. Foreign policy interests of all nations, great and small, do not coincide, and whenever any nation presents international initiatives (whichever nation one may consider: United States, China, the EU, Mexico, Brazil, etc.) it can encounter diverse obstacles – technical and competitive.

Another important factor is that observers are not privy to the dynamics of world diplomacy. Therefore, what may appear as “half-baked” or “failed” initiatives may be quite the opposite – only progress along those lines might not yet be public.

Therefore, it may be premature and unfairly biased to proclaim “failures” in cases where the results are not yet known. Diplomacy is a process.

As counterexamples for alleged “failed” initiatives in Russia’s foreign policy one can mention major successes: the successful conclusion of the START III treaty, the beginning of normalization of relations with Poland, the continuing increase of economic ties with major world players, the successful overcoming of the global economic crisis as it impacted Russia.

The same “tandem” that is so disparaged by opponents achieved the above.

One should remember that Russia does not operate in an entirely benign foreign relations environment. Some competitors are adversarial and still actively pursue policy residues from the Cold War, such as “containment” and even “roll-back.” Now these policies are aimed at Russia exclusively out of all the former Soviet republics. By the way, this foolish adherence to an obsolete legacy resonates within Russia and sustains there groups that aspire to gain political power on a wave of Russian anti-West disillusionment.

The Libyan situation is a different kind of throwback: this one is specific to residues of Soviet thinking within Russia.

Russia’s public opinion about the events in Libya remains shaped by Soviet internationalist propaganda. For the Soviet Union, Libya was another element in the “arch of Arab socialism,” which was supported as Soviet commitment to global Marxist revolution. This Soviet foreign policy goal was not only inimical to Russia’s proper national interests, but also harmful to Russia – consider the amount of Russian blood and treasure spent in Afghanistan for the sake of an arbitrary “internationalist duty” (to expand the ideological domain of Marxism).

Libya is remote from Russia’s true national interests. So from a perspective of national interests, Russia’s abstention in the vote on UNSC Resolution 1973 was quite appropriate, matching China and Germany, for example. In fact, a veto would have been impossible to justify: which Russian national interests would be served by vetoing a UNCS resolution on Libya?

Russians who today express a pro-Gaddafi position are in fact themselves captive of an obsolete Soviet “socialist internationalism” – just like some foreigners remain enthralled by paradigms and formulas of the Cold War.

The foreign policy track record of the “tandem” is not as dismal as it is portrayed. There have been some definite successes, as noted above. There have been some delays (but no outright rejections) of some of the “tandem’s” initiatives – these delays can be due to many factors that are not intrinsic to Russia’s leadership, like the global economic crisis or the diplomatic opposition by Russia’s international competitors.

Ultimately, no government can deliver 100 percent success in its foreign policy. International relations are a process of compromise. On balance, Russia’s “tandem” is no worse than America’s “tandemocracy:” the Obama-Biden “tandem” or the Bush-Cheney pairing, or the long list of previous U.S. presidents, vice presidents and secretaries of state.
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