Thanks to Dmitri Medvedev, the West’s hands are no longer tied

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President Dmitri Medvedev announced on August 26 that Russia has recognized the independence of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. Experts say that the Russian-Georgian conflict marks the final stage in the disintegration of the Yalta-Potsdam world order, thus opening up opportunities for certain nations to “refashion the world to their own advantage.”

Gazeta.ru looks back at history: after World War II, the victorious nations sought to avoid rivalry amongst themselves due to their divergent strategic interests, so they agreed that key problems would be resolved by consensus and regard for each other’s interests.

Despite the arms race and the Cold War, the USA and its NATO allies refrained from intervening in Hungary in 1956 or Czechoslovakia in 1968; and in 1976 the Kremlin did not respond to requests from Portugal’s left-wing military, which had come to power in Lisbon, for Portugal to join the Warsaw Pact.

That bipolar world collapsed in the early 1990s with the break-up of the USSR. Gazeta.ru says: “In fact, that was merely the starting point of a process spanning almost two decades. Even after the bipolar world collapsed, institutions established within the framework of the Yalta-Potsdam system continued to function: primarily the United Nations and its Security Council in their present form.” But now the support system for this world order, based on the understanding that global players (Western nations and Russia) should take each other’s interests into account, is close to being destroyed.

The Kommersant newspaper’s sources in European diplomatic circles said that although Russia’s recognition of South Ossetia and Abkhazia had been expected, it has still come as a shock to many. Several sources compared these events to 9/11, in terms of extensive consequences; they noted that world politics will never be the same. One source even likened Abkhazia and South Ossetia to the WTC Twin Towers.

In the Vedomosti newspaper, Nikolai Zlobin, director of Russian and Asian programs at the World Security Institute (Washington), argues that by recognizing Abkhazia and South Ossetia, Russia has abandoned its principled role as chief defender of the idea that the international relation system should remain unchanged.

Zlobin says: “Russia has set everyone an example far more radical than Kosovo: resolving an international – moreover, a territorial – problem without resorting to any traditional mechanisms at all, whether international courts or the UN Security Council.”

Zlobin goes on to say: “Once the West gets over the emotional phase of its reaction to Moscow’s decision, many there will breathe a sigh of relief – realizing that thanks to Dmitri Medvedev, their hands are no longer tied. In effect, he has taken a decisive step toward the formation of a new world order.”

No one appears to have a clear idea of what this new world order will be like. Zlobin advises taking advantage of the situation and “not missing one of these strategic opportunities, so rare in history, to refashion the world to one’s own advantage.” But Gazeta.ru warms that “any attempts to base such a system on the right of the strong to dictate their will to the weak would only lead to the modern world becoming more chaotic.”

Alexander Konovalov, president of the Strategic Assessments Institute, says in an interview with Radio Liberty that amongst other things, Russia is planting a very powerful time-bomb under the whole North Caucasus: “If it’s all right for the Ossetians to quit Georgia along with the Abkhazians, why can’t the Chechens and Ingushes walk out of Russia, along with the Dagestanis, the Kabardino-Balkarians, and how many others?”

Gleb Pavlovsky, president of the Effective Policy Foundation, takes a more optimistic view at the Radio Liberty website. In his opinion, recognizing the independence of the two South Caucasus republics provides some breathing space to work out some sort of new security system in the Caucasus, “which would unite all the peoples and countries of the Caucasus, and remain open for all participants and international decisions.”

Vedomosti notes that the South Ossetia and Abkhazia decision is interesting from the standpoint of the management tactics used by the Putin-Medvedev tandem: “Dmitri Medvedev, not Vladimir Putin, makes the historic decision that leads to Russia’s isolation; Medvedev is the one who threatens the West, thus losing any remnants of his image as a pro-Western liberal law expert. Is he doing this consciously, or has he been placed in these circumstances? It doesn’t really matter.”

In his addresses and speeches, Putin has said on more than one occasion that his goal is to restore our country’s political might as well as its economic might – the might that was lost with the break-up of the USSR. Evidently, says Vedomosti, this idea runs deeper than campaign rhetoric. To a large extent, it is personal. Presumably, Putin (who was certainly responsible for the decision) is now experiencing a mixture of relief and excitement: at long last he can stop pretending and seeking compromises – he can declare his interests proudly and boldly, engaging in a serious top-level battle.

The decision on South Ossetia and Abkhazia creates the impression of rapid success. It has unconditional support within Russia: according to the latest poll from the All-Russian Public Opinion Research Center (VTsIOM), 71% of respondents support recognizing the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, while only 10% oppose it.

Kommersant has an interesting observation about polls done by the Public Opinion Foundation (FOM), which has been studying the Georgian-Abkhazian and Georgian-Ossetian conflicts since 2001; poll results indicate that most Russian citizens regarded Abkhazia and South Ossetia as independent republics long before President Medvedev announced his decision.

The conflict has had a favorable impact on the ratings of Medvedev and Puin. According to Vedomosti, the Levada Center polling agency reports that Medvedev’s approval rating has risen from its pre-war level: from 70% to 73%. Putin’s rating has risen from 80% to 83%.

Vedomosti notes that the West’s confusion and lack of coherent counteraction are also perceived as a win for Russia.

All publications are pointing out that the important detrimental consequences of Medvedev’s decision will include disruption of the WTO negotiations process. However, as Gazeta.ru argues, this does have some advantages; not for Russia’s ordinary citizens, unfortunately, but for Russia’s lobby groups.

Throughout the post-Soviet era, most of Russia’s bureaucrats and magnates have viewed the ideas of free competition and an open economy as bizarre and harmful, and simply contradictory to everything actually taking place in Russia. As Gazeta.ru points out, however, bargaining with the WTO has continued all this time – although joining the WTO would mean accepting a certain minimal selection of free-market principles.

Gazeta.ru says: “This fateful August has cut that Gordian knot, producing an instant of inner well-being for our elites – and material well-being as well.” After all, “suspending” WTO accession enables Russia to revise any and all of the foreign trade deregulation measures implemented to date. And what could be a finer gift for all our lobbyists than the opportunity to get rid of their foreign competitors?

Gazeta.ru observes that Russia’s elites could relax and enjoy these gains, were it not for apprehensions about convenient travel to the West and the safety of their assets abroad. The most comforting news from the authorities came in President Medvedev’s interview on Russia Today television. He acknowledged that a “confrontation scenario” is a real possibility, adding that “we have survived all kinds of conditions, and we will survive this too” – but he didn’t say exactly how this could be done.

As Gazeta.ru reports, a more alarming statement came from a certain Kremlin-linked newspaper, which declared that “for the sake of our country’s development, the elites will have to risk the capital they keep in the West.”

Meanwhile, the West is hearing increasingly frequent calls for the foreign bank accounts of Russian tycoons and state officials to be frozen. RBC Daily reports that the sums involved may total $300 billion to $700 billion. Political analyst Sergei Kurginian notes that Russia’s current political-economic system was created with the aim of becoming part of the West, not engaging in confrontation with the West. This explains many of the Russian government’s decisions, such as investing Stabilization Fund money in American securities.

How will relations between Russia and the West develop from now on? The experts approached by Novye Izvestia all predict that confrontation is set to intensify, but they disagree on how long this will last.

Dmitri Orlov, general director of the Political and Economic Communications Agency, maintains that “there is a negative trend in relations between Russia and the West at present.” However, he doesn’t think this will be a long-term confrontation: “Another three or four months, and everything will be back to normal. That’s if nobody starts making aggressive moves, of course.”

Alexei Makarkin, deputy general director of the Political Techniques Center, predicts a drastic reduction in Russia-West contacts at the official level – via the government and the military. Russia could also be expelled from the G8. “Relations will remain very difficult for a long time to come, but I hope that neither side will cross certain boundaries,” says Makarkin.

Alexander Rahr from the German Council on Foreign Relations says: “There is every reason to believe that this conflict will go a very long way, and will be fairly serious, since it’s increasingly becoming a campaign issue in the United States.” In Rahr’s view, much will depend on Russia: “Everything will change for the worse, for Russia, if it doesn’t withdraw its troops from Georgia completely. That would be the greatest challenge to the West.”

Dmitri Rogozin, Russia’s permanent envoy at NATO, says the current situation reminds him of “how the situation in Europe developed in 1914, before the First World War, when the actions of a single terrorist led to a clash of the major world powers.” Rogozin added: “I hope Mikheil Saakashvili won’t go down in history as another Gavrilo Princip.”

Gazeta.ru expands on Rogozin’s allusion to history: “Rogozin didn’t realize what he was implying. If Saakashvili is Princip, that makes South Ossetia the equivalent of Bosnia, where Princip committed his anti-Austrian act of terrorism; and the role of Austria-Hungary, which started a world war over that incident, is allocated to Russia.”

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