Who's Driving the Troika? Russian Foreign Policy

Article excerpt


More than a year after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the foreign policy of the new Russian Federation is still in a state of uncertainty. One reason for this is the political and constitutional crisis within the Russian government itself--no one is sure if Boris Yeltsin can dictate foreign policy himself, as an American or French president would, or if the assertive Parliament, with its communist and nationalist elements, will be able to make those decisions. Another reason is that the Foreign Ministry is trying to pursue one line, based on cooperation with the United States, while other ministries, such as those concerned with military matters, want the new Russia to play a more independent role.

But the most important reason for the uncertainty of Russian foreign policy is that a new force--public opinion--bas now come into play. While democracy is perhaps many years from being consolidated, in the past year strong popular emotions have emerged that limit what any official in Moscow can do. One obvious example is the question of the four Kurile Islands claimed by Japan (they were taken by the Soviet Union at the end of World War II): While it would be in Russia's interest to hand back at least two of these, popular sentiment is now against any such concession. Another issue on which nationalist feeling runs high is the U.N. sanctions against three countries: Libya, Iraq and Serbia. In the middle of last December Pravda, still the organ of communist sentiment, put on its front page a short table claiming that Russia's acceptance of these sanctions had cost it $16 billion. The moral of the story was clear: If Russia stopped going along with U.S. policy, hoping to get money from the West for its compliance, then it would not need Western money in the first place.

The acceptance of Western policy, especially on Iraq and Serbia, has touched a deep chord in Russian politics. Few in Russia may admire Saddam Hussein, not least because his regime looks rather like Stafinism. But Iraq is regarded as one of those old friends of the U.S.S.R. whom the new Western-oriented foreign policy has alienated. During the Gulf War the Soviet Defense Ministry tried on at least one occasion to send arms to Iraq, but the U.S. Navy stopped it. What gives Russian policy on Iraq stronger force is the link with Serbia. Here Russian loyalty runs deep because of the historic links between the two Orthodox Christian countries. Russia went to war in 1914 in support of its "little cousin" against Turkey, Austria and Germany, and today hundreds of Russian volunteers are fighting on the Serbian side in the Balkan war. Such issues as Serbia's need for a port on the Adriatic, and German influence in the Balkans, are ones familiar to any student of Russian history. Some Russian nationalist groups are sending members to Serbia to gain combat experience in the event of future conflicts in Russia itself.

Solidarity with Serbia is fueled by what has now become one of the main themes in Russian feeling about the outside world, namely a revived hostility to the "Islamic threat" in general and to TUrkey in particular. Even foreign-policy experts and academics will rehearse a set of arguments to the effect that, more than any other country, even Germany or Japan, TUrkey has been the "historic" enemy of Russia--for more than 600 years, including the two and a half centuries of Tatar domination; that TUrkey is now trying to steal the former Soviet republics of Transcaucasia and Central Asia from Russia; that the Russian market is being swamped with shoddy Turkish consumer goods; that Russian women are traveling to Turkey to work as prostitutes; that TUrkish policy is bent on an eventual breakup of the Russian Federation by fomenting separatism in the autonomous republics of Tatarstan and Bashkiria. …