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Russia Profile
April 1, 2008
Winds of Change
Who Will Be in Charge of Shaping Russia’s Foreign Policy?
Comment by Vladimir Frolov

One month before President-elect Dmitry Medvedev is to take charge of Russia’s foreign policy, there are small but noticeable signs of change, both in the tone and substance in the way Russia has begun to engage the West.

Gone, at least for the time being, is vitriolic rhetoric that sought to blame the West for everything that was thought to be going wrong in Russia. There is less public concern over Western interference in Russia’s internal affairs and, correspondingly, less overreaction to Western criticism of the political process in Russia.

Recent reports from Freedom House, Transparency International, Reporters Without Borders, the U.S. State Department and the British Foreign Office, containing strong criticism of Russian democracy and the just completed presidential election, were met in Moscow as they should have been – with a shrug and a yawn.

The usual lineup of Russian political commentators, who since late 2004 have been delivering an unremitting barrage of anti-Western propaganda, often quite geeky and downright slanderous, has begun to change to allow for more moderate voices and more serious commentary to be heard. Seeing Alexei Arbatov, a leading member of the oppositionist Yabloko party and a respected international security analyst appear on Channel 2, or Mikhail Fishman of the Russian Newsweek on Channel One, one wonders whether the winds are really beginning to blow in a different direction.

In many ways this is a reflection of the Kremlin’s sense of relief, that the meticulously planned presidential transition in which Vladimir Putin transfers power to his hand picked successor and still maintains considerable influence over Russia’s political and economic trajectory, has been completed smoothly.

Not only was the West sidelined and provided no tangible support for the anti-Putin forces during the parliamentary and the presidential election in Russia, it has largely accepted, and in some cases (Nicholas Sarkozy, Angela Merkel, and George Bush) heartily endorsed the power transition outcome in Moscow. No one in the world except some U.S. presidential candidates questions the legitimacy of Medvedev’s presidency, or Putin’s scheduled relocation to the Prime Minister office.

Suddenly, the principal rationale for demonizing the West and warning the Russian public about the dangers of a foreign-inspired orange revolution was gone. It instantly became clear that the substance of Russia’s engagement with the West has shrunk to symbolic levels. Medvedev and some people in Putin’s Kremlin began to realize that the new president would have to start from a very small base.

Kosovo’s declaration of independence and the Western recognition of it somewhat delayed the needed reappraisal of Russian foreign policy. It was unimaginable that the Kremlin, having spent so much political capital on opposing this independence, would reconcile with the inevitable without spinning this event in its political favor domestically. Thus, for a few weeks Moscow engaged in theatrics of publicly debating the need to recognize independence for Abkhazia, South Ossetia and Transdnestr.

The Duma held televised public hearings on the subject, and even passed a non-binding resolution calling upon the government to be open to considering the case for recognizing those entities at some point in the future. But the symbolism of these actions was evident, particularly after the announcements of major improvements in Russia’s relations with Moldova (whose president suddenly pronounced himself in favor of a neutral status for Moldova) and Georgia (where President Mikheil Saakashvili had embarked on a major fence-mending exercise with Moscow, resulting in the lifting of economic sanctions).

For a while, the upcoming NATO summit in Bucharest loomed like a potential diplomatic train wreck. Moscow feared that the Bush administration would push hard for NATO to issue Membership Action Plans (MAPs) to Ukraine and Georgia. Bush’s announced intention to precede the NATO summit with a visit to Kiev and a joint flight to Bucharest with Ukrainian president Victor Yuschenko was perceived in Moscow as a clear sign of the coming disastrous news for the start of Medvedev’s presidency. Until recently, Putin’s speech in Bucharest was thought up in the Kremlin as a sequel to the one in Munich, were MAP invitations to be issued.

Germany’s Angela Merkel, on the first visit by a Western leader to Moscow after Medvedev’s election, bluntly told the Kremlin that Germany, with major help from France, would block MAPs for Ukraine and Georgia. The Bush administration had no choice but to accept the scuttling of its plans by major NATO allies, and decided to use this suddenly presented opportunity for an outreach to Russia on missile defense and other strategic stability issues.

Bush’s trip to Sochi is not only an opportunity to secure a legacy deal with Putin on missile defense (which is still quite tentative), but also a chance to engage with Medvedev and probe as to the amount of real influence he would have on Russia’s foreign policy (Washington strongly requested Medvedev’s presence in Sochi next Sunday).

The major unknown here is whether Medvedev would be able to form his own foreign policy and national security team that would provide him with the best possible advice, untainted by the political interests of Putin and some people in the latter’s inner circle.

The Moscow rumor mill has so far been unmerciful to Medvedev. Sergey Ivanov is said to be slated to succeed Lavrov as Russia's new Foreign Minister, although Medvedev would clearly be very wary of Ivanov stealing the international spotlight.

Another rumor has it that the Foreign Ministry will go to Vladislav Surkov, Deputy Presidential Chief of Staff. Although this could be a good appointment, since Surkov is one of the brightest men in the Russian government and is ideologically close to Medvedev, it is unlikely that Surkov will accept the job.

Surkov would have made a very effective National Security Advisor with expanded powers to coordinate all the security agencies, putting them under Medvedev’s political control. But Putin wants to keep the security services under his wraps, and the current FSB Chief Nikolai Patrushev is rumored to become Deputy Prime Minister in charge of the siloviki.

A more promising rumor has leading members of the Yabloko party, such as Alexei Arbatov and even Grigori Yavlinsky himself, drafted for senior foreign policy positions in Medevedev’s Kremlin, to offset the influence of the siloviki. But something tells me this is not going to happen.

Whether Medvedev would be able to capitalize on the winds of change in Russia’ relations with the West would largely depend on his ability to reassert his leadership and control over foreign policy decision making.

But Medvedev is conscious of the risks this might entail. He is unlikely to follow in the footsteps of Mikhail Gorbachev and Boris Yeltsin, who used their growing support and influence with Western leaders as leverage to fight battles against opponents within the Russian ruling class.

Medvedev knows this to be a recipe for disaster. He does not view a more productive engagement with the West as an end in itself, as Gorbachev or Yeltsin used to do, but rather as a means to increase Russia’s international competitiveness and secure Russia’s uninterrupted economic growth.

The West should not count on seeing another Eduard Shevardnadze running Russia’s foreign policy under Medvedev. It will be someone more like Surkov.