Forreign policy and Russia’s prospects: Groundhog Day or the Festival of Disobedience?

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In the first weeks of the new year, foreign affairs has become the dominant topic in the media. The media have discussed all the recent events. Gerhard Schroeder’s “Christmas holiday”, which turned into a cold shower for Russia: “No Christmas presents!” President Vladimir Putin’s visit to Baku, with the notorious award of the KGB diploma to President Geidar Aliev of Azerbaijan. The recently opened Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) session, which is completely dedicated to Russia. And, of course, the inauguration of George W. Bush, which poor Pavel Borodin failed to attend. And these are just the surface events.

In fact, observers are mostly wondering what will change in post-Yeltsin foreign policy, given the new geopolitical situation. And first of all, how will the changes in the US government affect relations between Russia and the US.

For instance, the Segodnya newspaper cites a report in the Washington Post: Putin has started learning English, in order to be able to communicate in the language of the new master of the White House. (It’s hard not to ask how someone with a degree in economics from St. Petersburg University could only become interested in English after becoming president.)

George W. Bush has no objections to meeting with the Russian president either; however, Segodnya notes significantly, so far Bush is not planning to study Russian. (And again we cannot help adding that George W. Bush scarcely needs to make such an intellectual effort: Condoleeza Rice probably knows as much Russian as Madeleine Albright.)

However, according to Segodnya, the Republicans believe that all the efforts of the Clinton administration to assist Russia’s reforms have been excessive and unsuccessful. As Michael McFall, a leading analyst with the Carnegie Endowment in Moscow, said in his interview with Segodnya, “This issue has been given too much attention”.

As a result, US politicians have lost confidence in both Russia and Vladimir Putin: “No one now believes that he is the savior of Russian democracy. We used to have such a feeling, but now it is gone.” (Another disrespectful note: what amazing and incredible feelings US political analysts sometimes have! It seems Putin’s former colleagues do have reason to admire him as a “recruitment genius”.)

McFall said to Segodnya that those who used to rely on the mysterious Mr. Putin are now asking themselves only one question: “How many backward steps will he make?” These are regrettable changes.

Meanwhile, not everyone is so pessimistic. For instance, the Kontinent weekly cheerfully announces that “the time when Clinton suffocated Russia in his embraces is over”. The United States will no longer worry about the fate of the Russian democracy; or, as the Kontinent gracefully put it, “with the new administration, the US will no longer be a plug for every barrel in the international political arena”.

This means that “the channels of foreign support for civil rights in Russia will dry up”; the current actions of civil rights groups, from the point of view of the weekl, “more and more resemble operations for countering the secret services”. Acutally, Russian civil rights groups are doing too many things at once: they either defend the rights of “two people who are relaxing in Gibraltar or Nice”, or they try to convince people that “the spies on trial are not spies at all, but friends of Russia” who are protecting the environment in Russia’s northern and eastern seas. Not to mention Chechnya. Kontinent, which describes itself as “the paper for ordinary people”, also says: “No wonder the term ‘civil rights activist’ has become a term of abuse.” It seems this is why “the end of channels of foreign support”, although a minor event, is still good news.

At the same times, it turns out that it’s too early to cheer. According to Segodnya, US journalists Peter Baker and Susan Glasser consider that initially the new Republican team indeed intended to limit its participation in Russia’s domestic affairs. “But given that President Putin is trying to suppress the independent media, and is strengthening the power of the state by all possible means, say Baker and Glasser in the Washington Post, it is not easy to turn away from the internal battle which still accompanies Russia’s changeover to Western-style democracy.”

The topic of “Russia’s changeover to western-style democracy” since the perestroika years has suddenly become very popular again. “Is a free market possible in Russia?” The Moskovskie Novosti weekly opened a discussion on this topic with an article by Vasily Aksenov. The famous novelist says: “The issue of strengthening the state power hierarchy is clear to everyone. However, there is some concern that this hierarchy may finally become a wooden stake through the heart of a corpse that won’t rest in its grave.” Although there is still “something reminiscent of a liberal economic background” in Russia, it is noticeable that Russia is being “slowly but surely turned around to face backward”. Aksenov says that a free market cannot exist without private property; but the Russian public is being deliberately incited against tycoons. “Instead of encouraging anyone who has enough courage to go into business in the post-Soviet chaos, the president is putting them in a rather precarious position.” The destructive phrase has already been uttered: “Soon we will have no tycoons.” Aksenov says: “This phrase is addressed not to the people, but to the oligarchs. The people will wake up only after the tycoons are destroyed, when the economy and all civil liberties start quickly sinking into the usual Soviet senility.”

Overall, it seems Russia has once again failed the “free market test”, concludes the author of this article, which is headlined “The Sweet New Style”.

Incredibly enough, various papers and magazines have been using the same quote from Ecclesiastes: “What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun.” This quote, according to Andrei Novikov in Literaturnaya Gazeta, sums up the current directions in Russia: “So far they are not touched, but sooner or later something will have to be done, won’t it?” Novikov explains that he is not speaking of forced labor or anything like that. “Everything can be much more natural: social division by classes, by reservations. Then, handing out weapons to the elite and starting a shoot-out. Society will be monitored by special services, all kinds of ‘national security agents’. Honestly, it is unpleasant even to give details of all this. It is enough to understand that it is inevitable.”

On the one hand, Putin’s regime is a completely natural thing: “not only from the political point of view, but in the sense of social history”. On the other hand, “it is just a very long, protracted ending of the post-Communist era”. The Finansovaya Rossia paper also quotes the same passage from Ecclesiastes, but for different reasons: concerning Russia’s foreign debt. The paper comments on the rather complex position of the Russian government on this issue: “There is a clear intention to get at least something for free: to write off some of the debts, or to have them rescheduled.” In the meantime, the paper notes, there are no more Soviet debts: they all became Russia’s debts in 1996 – when, according to an agreement signed with the Paris Club of creditor nations, the Russian Federation gained the rights to the USSR’s assets abroad in exchange for taking on the obligation to pay back the debts of the USSR. “The value of the assets exceeded the amount of debts, so Russia lost nothing.” But now it is time to pay the bills. “If these issues are not resolved, but the debts are just rescheduled, postponing repayment, Russia will be stuck forever in its reforms – like Groundhog Day. It is the 21st century now, but we are still where we started.” After this, the Finansovaya Gazeta quotes Ecclesiastes.

At the same time, Izvestia believes that the “leadership crisis” which was triggered by the “incongruous statement of the Finance Ministry on January 4 about Russia’s refusal to make repayments on Soviet debts to the Paris Club in the first quarter” may be considered resolved following Friday’s meeting on financial affairs, chaired by President Putin. According to Izvestia, the current debt saga “exactly repeats last year’s discussion of restructuring RJES: the Cabinet and the presidential administration are quarrelling, the president reconciles them, and the essence of the whole problem remains a mystery shrouded in darkness.”

On the topic of foreign debt, Profil magazine quotes a “source in the Russian government”. According to him, the president is not overly concerned about this issue: “Overall, Putin has a very broad vision of all things: the main point is to hold the global aim in mind – restoring to Russia its former glory, after which all the minor matters will take care of themselves.” According to another person interviewed by Profil – Valery Khomyakov, head of the Applied and Regional Politics Agency – the president often uses the skills he gained as a “KGB agent”: “For a whole year, he was frightening everyone. He scared the people with the thought of terrorists; he threatened the terrorists with unconditional desctruction; he threatened tycoons with imprisonment and harassment; he threatened regional leaders with exclusion from federal politics.” However, Khomyakov notes, this tactic also has its drawbacks: “This is like using poison against cockroaches – after a while they adapt to it, and become even more annoying.”

In fact, that is what happened with Putin’s “cockroaches”. According to Profil, “some senior military officials, as well as their colleagues from the Interior Ministry”, have admitted that there is no solution to the problem of terrorists, which is the problem of Chechnya. Rumor has it that some of them have even tried to “cautiously tell the president what they have known since military college: it is impossible to win in situations like Chechnya, so Putin should not demand a victory from the army or the police.” The only way out in this situation is to leave things as they are: “there are numerous examples of long-term military action by the authorities in rebel territories”.

As for strengthening the state power hierarchy, and separating regional leaders from federal politics, this coin also has two sides. According to the Vremya MN paper, “the more power the president has, the more often Russian citizens address their complaints directly to him; since, despite all the forecasts, their living standards are deteriorating.”

According to Vremya MN, so far all opposition trends have mostly been verbal: “However, people have already started to block highways in the Primorie territory; but so far they have not thought of other forms of civil disobedience.” The approval rating of the Russian president is still quite stable, though it has started to decline a little. However, Vremya MN warns, if people understand that they have made a mistake in choosing the new president, it will cost the second president much more it cost Yeltsin, who managed to stay in power for two terms and resign voluntarily. This can easily be interpreted as almost a threat.

The Rossiiskie Vesti weekly quotes well-known economist Andrei Neshchadin, director of the Expertise Institute: “Currently the credit of trust in the government is running out. So far, the overwhelming majority of Russian citizens, regardless of their political views, have believed that changing the leadership would bring about the long-awaited era of stability and building.” Unfortunately, the authorities have failed to use this potential for the necessary reforms. And now the “widespread expectation of a miracle” is coming to an end. So, if the president finally decides to take some action, he will only be able to rely on the state’s resources.

Concerning the possible political strategies of the government, Neshchadin says: “It is high time to acknowledge that we have failed to create a civilized western-style society, so we should start creating an incorporated society, where each social group controls some area and is responsible for it to others, while the government works with each group on the basis of agreements.”

By the way, an incorporated society perfectly matches the police-state which Literaturnaya Gazeta described.

According to Expert magazine, recurring scandals within the president’s team and “an imperceptible change in relations between various members of the political elite” are the first signs of an impending “festival of disobedience in Russia”. The elite has finally understood that the former master of the Kremlin is out of the game; and “almost everything is possible without him”.

A year ago “the restoration of legal methods of government” became a priority for the new president. By that time, “nothing but the Family” remained in Russian politics. Practically all politicians had lost their political influence and social importance, because society delegated all political rights to one person, expecting law and order. This concerned everyone except the president. “The socio-political pyramid was turned upside down”. When the new president turned to be not so formidable as the previous one, very dangerous circumstances developed: “Since the top job was the only valuable commodity, politics turned into pretence and power struggles.”

Expert draws attention to how the political landscape has changed. A year ago talk of “a strong hand” (in other words, of a dictator) did not have any meaning, because of the absence of likely candidates. Now a lot of security ministers and generals have acquired national significance and turned into independent political figures. Expert names Yegorov and Pulikovsky, Shamanov, Troshev, Kazantsev, Kulakov, Patrushev – and breaks off the list with a warning that the names of generals have been given just to make the picture more obvious: civilian officials are not out of job either. According to the magazine, all these characters “are interested in fighting for the top job in the country, and nothing can prevent them from doing so”.

At the same time, Expert says that Russia has not lost everything in creating a democratic society. According to the magazine, all bourgeois-democratic reforms in Russia were initiated “from above”. The regime gave orders to copy new social institutions from advanced Western examples. But they consisted of “the most deformed substance”. It could not be any other way: “ideas which have not taken root among the people will not become a realistic force”. In the West all these laws, Constitutions, and plans were written in blood; but we have obtained all this free of charge. Society must mature in order to understand the importance of the democratic system. Expert expresses unexpected optimism, saying that first signs of a middle class which has sensed the need for reforms, and is ready to formulate a social contract and make demands of the state, have appeared in Russia. Of course, the regime has not justified people’s hopes. But fortunately, it has not done anything that cannot be mended: “Some people say: it’s been a zero year, with zero results. Others respond: a zero year, a zero cycle (they mean that the regime has cleared the site and laid the foundations).”

Nezavisimaya Gazeta asks in an article signed by three authors – Alexander Ivanchenko (head of the Independent Elections Institute), Vladimir Ryzhkov (a Duma deputy), and Alexei Salmin (head of the Russian Socio-Political Center foundation): “Ahead to the past, or back to the future? In what kind of country will we be living?”

Some people call 2000 the year of “the victory parade of the new regime”. Others view it as “an evolution without logic” when influence groups vied for the lead. Only one thing is clear: “the democratic revolution is over”. Fortunately, the regime has not suppressed it. The public was so demoralized and tired that it didn’t notice how the institutions which supported the restoration of the political-economic structure in Russia surrendered practically without a fight. “They were not suppressed, they were just squeezed a bit”.

In the meantime, the president has spent his first year in office on creating a new state power hierarchy. The usual Russian story has been repeated: “Without public or political support, reforms became a casualty of ministries and the conservative part of the Russian bureaucracy.” In other words, radical reforms require a strong state power hierarchy which is backed up by the bureaucracy. But when this state power hierarchy appeared, bureaucracy held back reforms.

Nezavisimaya Gazeta quotes St. Augustine: “Those who are lost walk in circles.”

According to Nezavisimaya Gazeta, Russia’s future depends on Vladimir Putin’s ability “to control the machinery of state created by him or on his behalf” and “to start vital reforms in Russia”. Will the regime and society be able to refrain from turning Russia’s domestic affairs over to the bureaucracy, which is trying to rule the country on their behalf? “If not, Russia will descend into bureaucratic stagnation, regardless of its flag or national anthem.”

It should be noted that such prospects are quite real. Nezavisimaya Gazeta published the annual “Global Competitiveness” report prepared by Harvard University and the international economic forum in Davos.

According to this report, Russia is last on the list in some areas. For instance, Russia is ranked 56th on “favoritism of state officials” (this shows their assistance to companies and business). Only Zimbabwe, the Philippines and Ecuador are worse than Russia in this respect. As far as “the independence of government policy from insider groups and interests” is concerned, Russia is 59th. We are 58th on time spent communicating with bureaucrats (only Vietnam is lower). Russia is ranked second-last on public confidence in the judicial system. In general, Russian bureaucracy is on a roll, and is sure of its omnipotence.

However, in certain circumstances this confidence can play a trick on the Russian powers-that-be. Exactly this has happened with the magnificent Pavel Borodin.

Vitaly Portnikov says in the newspaper Vedomosti that the “Borodin syndrome” is a unique feature of the psychology of Russian officials: “That’s why it is very likely that Pavel Borodin does not understand what has happened. Russian prosecutors are at a loss: they would never violate the sacred laws of hospitality and arrest the president’s guest, not even if it were Al Capone. The Russian Foreign Ministry sends wrathful notes – as if it did not understand that the Department of State cannot influence the judiciary.” According to Portnikov, it does not occur to members of the Russian ruling elite that the judiciary is there to monitor their activities, not to serve their interests. Nothing will change in Russia until those who are in charge of it learn “to at least fear the law”.

The opinion that the Russian establishment is not at all competent in understanding its capabilities (outside this country, of course) is expressed by other observers as well.

Dmitry Shusharin notes in the newspaper Vremya MN: “Only Soviet and post-Soviet officials think that investment doesn’t depend on democratic liberties. The most advanced Western politicians and business leaders view these liberties as a guarantee of their investments.” That’s why Ted Terner tried to obtain the Kremlin’s promise not to intervene in NTV: the media industry under condition of dependence is nonsense, in principle. However, all other members of Russian business are interested in stability in the country: the state must not change the rules during the game, as it did with Russia’s foreign debts. The West cannot understand such tricks: “Even the Christmas visit of German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder to Moscow did not make German politicians forget about Russia’s debts, nor make German journalists forget about the use of German banks in laundering Russian money.”

Unfortunately, the Russian regime “lacks a systemic understanding of politics, especially under the conditions of an open society, especially in a country integrated into the modern world”. According to the newspaper, this incompetence is worse than malicious intentions, like stupidity is worse than theft. No one expected from the new president that he would become a protocol figure.

Sergei Karaganov, head of the Foreign and Defense Policy Council, says in an interview with Segodnya that “until recently, Vladimir Putin’s performance was fairly good.” His foreign policy actions were aimed at restoring Russia’s reputation, damaged in 1998-99. These actions were justified. But according to Karaganov, now Putin’s actions have started to show some exaggerations: the activation of dialogue with Iraq, “the unnecessary visit to Cuba”, and suspicious contacts with North Korea. Russia’s policy is in danger of being considered anti-American by the new administration in the White House: “It is possible that Putin does not want to run into conflict with the US. At the same time, his actions aimed at restoring Russia’s position in certain regions show that we are trying to give the US a push.” If the US draws such conclusions, it will take appropriate measures. However, it is most unlikely that anyone but specialists can understand such logic. Russian society has accumulated a huge charge of anti-US sentiments as a result of the Clinton administration’s attempts “to push through the ruinous reforms”. Karaganov notes that during Clinton’s time in power, “Russia built up a huge desire for revenge for its self-inflicted humiliation”. At the same time, the US is annoyed with Russia, “because Americans think they spent money on Russia, and we misused it”. This is a excellent background for starting dialogue with the Republican administration.

In his campaign, George W. Bush criticized Clinton’s policy on Russia. Alexander Livshits says in Izvestia: “If the US president forgets his campaign promises, someone will surely remind him about it.” That’s why Russia should not rely on the assistance of the US: “I just wish they won’t hinder us.”

According to Livshits, on the other hand this is not so bad: “Our relations with the Republicans were always difficult. We used to quarrel. Later our relations improved.” With the Democrats everything was the opposite: “Let’s consider the Yeltsin-Clinton era. Mutual understanding and cooperation in the first years. Then it turned out that Russia does absolutely everything wrong: in the Balkans, Chechnya, and its economy. Judging by the US media, Russia is not a nation – it is the empire of evil, stupidity and theft.”

However, it should be noted that judging by the Russian media, the impression is no better. That’s the influence of freedom of speech! Sometimes people have a longing to read a newspaper from the Brezhnev or Stalin era. What a PR effort that was! “Life has become better, life has become happier!” Gleb Pavlovsky, you couldn’t sum it up any better.

On the other hand it’s better to have a long life: who knows what awaits us in the future? It is possible that the media will develop higher standards. Now the regime is promising us the 1930s, a time when the screws were turned tight.

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