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Analysis & Opinion
08.04.08 New Style, Old Values
By Larisa Saenko

Americans are still trying to spell correctly the name of the new Russian political obscurity who will replace Vladimir Putin in the Kremlin in May. What’s to be expected after the newly elected President Dmitry Medvedev starts his first term was the main subject of a round table discussion at Columbia University, organized by the Harriman Institute, Russia Profile and RIA Novosti in New York.

After a period of great Western optimism, following Russia's decision to aid the United States in the war on terror, U.S.-Russian relations appear to have gone into a free fall during Putin's second term as president. In Western opinion, one of the main reasons behind this downturn has to do with the increasingly harsh tone of Russian diplomacy. But the relationship between the two countries remained troubled on a number of issues not only due to rhetoric, but also because of the U.S. stance on NATO’s expansion policy and the status of Kosovo, Western and Russian analysts said.
The outgoing Russian president has firmly opposed President George Bush's plan to build a missile defense shield in the Czech Republic and in Poland, and has signaled potential changes to an important post-Soviet arms pact. Flush with cash from its oil and gas, the Kremlin has increasingly rejected Western leadership and sought to assert itself internationally in ways that have often been damaging to American and Western interests.

A change of style

Since the beginning of the decade, Moscow's foreign-policy behavior has been largely determined by Russia's head of state personality. Political analysts emphasize the fact that his worldview, personal style, and character traits have as much influence on Russia's foreign policy as do objective tasks that the country faces, as well as external circumstances.

Alexander J. Motyl, Deputy Director of the Center for Global Change and Governance, and Co-Director of the Central and East European Studies Program at Rutgers University mentioned during the panel that the emotional style of the Russian president has often been seen as "chest beating" or even a "slap in the face." As one of the toughest critics of the Kremlin’s policy, Motyl, recalled Putin's famous speech in Munich in February 2007, when the Russian president accused the United States of trying to impose its will on the rest of the world. For veterans of Cold War diplomacy, Putin's strident tone brought back memories of past confrontations.

The result has been a series of clashes between Moscow and Washington over everything from energy sales to the fate of arms control agreements, to Russia's involvement in Iran's nuclear program.

"Putin was a person who has restored national pride, but his excessive use of expressions, sometimes hardly translatable into foreign languages, was not necessarily productive. Clearly, a change of style is coming which will open a window of opportunity to improve relations between Russia and the West," said Andrei Zolotov Jr., Editor and Publisher of Russia Profile website and magazine.

On the evening of March 2, Dmitry Medvedev, 42, made his first appearance as newly elected president in front of young people waving Russian national flags at a rock concert on Red Square, wearing jeans, a leather jacket, and broad grin. He introduced himself as a man of a different generation, different upbringing, different experience, and a different profession than Vladimir Putin.

"As a lawyer, he understands the importance and weight of every word differently; therefore he will be reserved, cautious and accurate in statements. A change in style is very important, since it was the style of foreign-policy behavior that has largely determined the atmosphere of relations in the last few years," said Fyodor Lukyanov, Editor in Chief of the Russia in Global Affairs magazine.

“In his former position as First Deputy Prime Minister, Medvedev’s responsibilities have been mostly in the field of social welfare, but still he has spoken about foreign affairs and mostly said the right things,” said Nina L. Khrushcheva, Associate Professor of the International Affairs Program at the New School for General Studies.

Although he served as Chairman of the Board of the state gas monopoly Gazprom before his presidency, Medvedev has called for opening Russia to outside investment. In a major speech to the All-Russian Civic Forum in late January, Medvedev said that Russia needed to focus on promoting internal development, rather than engaging in foreign adventures. Medvedev sounds much more optimistic about U.S.-Russian relations, claiming that both countries share common values that will lead them to cooperation. He criticized the use of the term "sovereign democracy," and firmly stated in an interview to the Financial Times that “Freedom is better then non-freedom.”

"Medvedev is softer then his predecessor and it is possible that some changes may occur in foreign policy, but I don't think Medvedev will change system," Khrushcheva agreed with other speakers.

Numbers speak louder than words

What will be the real change? Putin’s course has been incredibly popular among Russians. The Time magazine has chosen Vladimir Putin as a “Person of the year,” who “with an iron will--and at significant cost to the principles that free nations prize--has brought Russia back as a world power.” For the first time since the fall of the Soviet Union, Putin has transformed the presidency into a source of pride and respect for many Russians, coming to symbolize personal and national success.

The discussion touched upon opinion research conducted at the BBC's request in December 2007 that revealed overwhelming support for Putin’s foreign policy, with 86 percent of Russians agreeing with it and only 4 percent objecting. A poll carried out by the Levada Center in Jan. 2008 showed that 60 percent of Russians believe their country has a rational course in the international arena (compared to 41 percent in 2005), while the percentage of those thinking that Russia's policy is confined to reacting to momentary circumstances has decreased to 21 percent.

Drawing parallels

“The main principle of Russia's foreign policy is a buildup of its own relative strength. At the same time, Russia, despite its bellicose rhetoric, does not cross the line where international stability would be threatened by real upheavals. There are grounds to believe that these principles will continue to be fundamental for the new president,” said Lukyanov.

But the West remains concerned about Russian gas policy in regard to the CIS countries, interpreting Russian threats to cut supply to regional rivals like Ukraine, Georgia and even allied Belarus, as a political pressure. Motyl identified Russian political reality as a form of "hypernationalism," and suggested a parallel between “revanchist Weimar Russia” on one side and Germany and Italy of the 1930s on the other.

“[Russia’s] democratic institutions are at best moribund, having been transformed into pliant tools of the Kremlin; civil society and the press have been severely circumscribed; representatives of the military and secret police (the siloviki) dominate all ruling elites and suffuse them with their antidemocratic ethos; and the state promotes capitalism while making sure to control its strategic heights by means of controlling key industries, especially energy, defense, mining, and manufacturing,” said Motyl. The comparison of modern Russia to fascist states has generated a heated discussion during the first of the two panels, which was titled “Rossiyane or Russkie? The Clash of Civic, Ethnic and Imperial Nationalisms in the Formation of the Russian Nation-State.” In the course of the discussion, Lukyanov suggested a parallel between Putin’s Russia and post-World War II France under General Charles de Gaulle. But the main thrust of this first panel was not on the international aspect, but on internal dilemmas of consolidating the multi-ethnic nation around the ethnic Russian majority, which nonetheless feels vulnerable and thus subject to the growth of xenophobia both on the periphery of the former empire and in the heartland and big cities.

Allies, rivals, and interests

One of the main goals of Russian foreign policy is an equal partnership with the EU. In the past decade, new pipelines and strengthened economic connections cemented the existing historical and cultural ties. The EU is trying to redefine the way it imports much of its oil and gas from Russia, and to persuade the latter to open its vast energy sector to investors from Western Europe.

But Moscow has so far resisted subjecting its energy sector to western rules, defending its control of energy resources and pipelines. Although the EU still formally backs Russia's bid for membership in the World Trade Organization, the issue of access to energy is beginning to loom over Moscow's application.

Half of the EU’s energy needs are covered by imports, a level that will reach 70 percent over the next 20 to 30 years. Gas imports alone may reach 80 percent in that timeframe. Finding an effective balance of interests that would satisfy both parties, as well as agreeing on the principles of energy security and reciprocity of investment, would give a strong impetus to the development of Russia-EU relations as a whole. The round table participants also emphasized that a basic energy agreement between Moscow and Brussels would help defuse tensions in Russia's relations with its neighboring countries.

“I think that one of the main goals of Russian foreign policy toward the United States is to make sure that the United States will not block possible new integration plans between Russia and the European Union,” Zolotov said. The participants agreed that the main issue that will continue binding Russia and the United States is strategic stability. No matter who wins the presidential race in United States, American elites are interested in engaging Russia on matters of strategic importance, such as securing Russia's vast stocks of nuclear materials in order to avoid nuclear proliferation. Though Russians have traditionally preferred to see "any Republican" in the White House, preferences are now being shifted toward Democrat nominees. Both democratic candidates--Hillary Clinton and Barrack Obama--promise to take a more moderate approach to the new Russian reality than the Republican John McCain. But whoever shakes the hand of the new Russian president in 2009, both sides are bound to continue following their own strategic interests.

Positive Nationalism

Jack L. Snyder, professor of international relations at Columbia University, expressed moderate hope that Russian nationalism might be a kind of "positive nationalism.” Positive nationalism can be perceived as economic pragmatism, considering some of Russia’s neighbors who were subsidized by Moscow for a long time and enjoyed natural resources at prices lower than those on the Western market, although Moscow no longer divides post-Soviet countries into "pro-Western" and "pro-Russian" regimes.

“In recent years, the Russian leadership has adopted the idea that the best ally is the most profitable partner. But Moscow is not yet ready to invest in long-term relations, and has not come to realize that allied relations need investment,” Lukyanov said.

“On March 8 of this year, at a joint press-conference with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, president Putin stated that the West should not expect the newly elected president to be less of a Russian nationalist--in the good sense of the word--than he was himself. In Putin’s mind, Medvedev will defend Russian national interests regarding relations with the West in the same way,” said Professor Emil Pain, Director of the Russian Center for Ethnopolitical Studies.
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