In Search of a Place in the World. (Russia)

By Khisamov, Iskander | New Statesman (1996), February 3, 2003 | Go to article overview
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In Search of a Place in the World. (Russia)

Khisamov, Iskander, New Statesman (1996)

Vladimir Putin's foreign policy must deal with new foes and support new friends. But where do his priorities tie -- in Europe or America?

At the end of 2001, the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, made a flying foreign policy tour that included visits with leaders of the EU countries in Brussels, negotiations with George Bush near St Petersburg, and trips to Beijing and Delhi. The trip ended in Bishkek, capital of Kyrgyzstan, a former Soviet republic in central Asia.

These meetings represent Russia's current foreign policy priorities: Europe, the US, China, India and the CIS (Commonwealth of Independent States), an alliance, including Russia, of 12 out of the 15 countries in the former USSR. The question on everyone's lips in Russia is: which priority will dominate. Many think the new Russia has yet to find its place in the world and thus which international partnerships to emphasise.

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, everyone thought the question of Russia's position was decided. In the Gorbachev era, Russia was already looking to get closer to the west and establish western-style democratic and market institutions. Russians were convinced that they would be "rewarded" for their victory over communism, for their voluntary withdrawal from Germany, and for letting go of the eastern bloc.

These expectations were not met -- and by the time Putin came to power in 2000, Russian disappointment with the west had reached its highest point. The country's new leadership understands that they have no friends to rely on and can talk only about tactical alliances. This new policy answers a question often posed in the west: who would Russia prefer as its main strategic partner, the US or Europe?

"Today, there are no symmetrical solutions," Gleb Pavlovsky, director of the Fund for Effective Policies and a political analyst with close ties to the Kremlin, says. "The old world order, along with the old system of international rights and institutions, has been shaken and is no longer functioning. In today's world, no one can give Russia any guarantees of security or territorial integrity, any guarantees that its interests will be respected."

Russia has chosen the tactic of "multilateral gratitude", concluding a range of bilateral settlements with the US, the EU, the Shanghai group and the NIS (newly independent states). This series of agreements is, for the time being, the only dependable means of guaranteeing the country's security and interests.

"Europe is of huge significance to Russia," argues Mikhail Margelov, who chairs the foreign affairs committee of the Council of the Federation, Russia's upper house. "Due to the geographic proximity and complementary nature of our economies, the EU remains our main trade partner, and the US could never take its place. However, a dialogue with the US remains a priority ... to guarantee our mutual security. This is connected to our numerous shared threats and our responses to them. Russia remains sceptical about Europe's ability to mobilise in the face of danger."

However, there is no consensus on this issue among Russian society at large. Surveys show a consistently high level of anti-American sentiment. In 1995 only 9 per cent of Russians felt negatively about the US, compared to 2002 when the Russian Academy of Sciences found this had grown to 45 per cent. Russians prefer a strategic partnership and accord with Europe, not America.

The events of 11 September forced Washington's Republican administration to revise its list of friends. It became clear that only two countries were realistically capable of standing up to the global terrorist network: the second was Russia. As a member of the anti-terrorist coalition, Russia has several advantages. It has a powerful military, a well-developed intelligence network and geographical proximity to terrorist breeding grounds. Most important, Russia has the will to fight extremists and terrorists that both Europe and Asia seem to lack.

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