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Russia Profile
April 30, 2008
Mending Fences
With Regard to Foreign Policy, Dmitry Medvedev’s Constitutional Powers Are Irrefragable

By Dmitry Babich

As Dmitry Medvedev takes the reins of power into his hands, experts continue to argue over what degree of freedom he will have to make decisions. There is, however, one field in which his powers are virtually unbridled, at least constitutionally­foreign policy. Russian legislation states that foreign policy is determined by the president, with the parliament’s role reduced to ratifying treaties and agreements.

Under Vladimir Putin, two contradictory trends emerged in this field. As domestic opposition to the president’s foreign policy initiatives faded, foreign opposition to the same initiatives grew. Thus Medvedev is heir to a very contradictory legacy. He must mend fences where possible and maintain a tough stand in matters of principle.

Experts agree that by the end of Putin’s rule, Russia’s relations with just about all post-Soviet republics, save the four Central Asian states and Armenia, soured. The same can be said about Russia’s relations with the European Union and the United States. Relations with Japan have yet to recover from Tokyo’s disappointment over the failure to sign a peace treaty by 1998 under the late President Boris Yeltsin’s watch. Since Japan could not be satisfied with anything short of acquiring all the four disputed Kurile Islands, disappointment was inevitable.

Certain improvements in relations with China and Middle Eastern countries were a welcome respite from the avalanche of negative rhetoric which followed conflicts with some EU member states. By the end of Putin’s term, two major sets of conflicts emerged­in relations with CIS countries and with the EU.

Minimizing the Damage

Hours after his election on March 2 Medvedev declared relations with CIS countries to be the priority of his foreign policy. “I think conflicts between Russia and the energy consuming countries of the post-Soviet space were inevitable and they will stay inevitable,” said Vladimir Zharikhin, Deputy Director of the Moscow-based Institute of the CIS Countries. “There are energy-sufficient and energy-insufficient countries on former Soviet Union territory, and they have fundamentally different interests.”

In Zharikhin’s opinion, post-Soviet integration initiatives in this situation should come from the energy-insufficient countries, and not from Russia. Russia can live without Ukrainian food imports, but Ukraine can’t live without Russia’s energy exports. So, it is up to the poor countries to suggest integration to the rich ones and not vice versa. However, politicians in Ukraine, the EU and the United States keep mentioning Russia’s “energy blackmail” and “imperialist ambitions.”

“When the price of oil reached $65 per barrel, Russia stopped coming up with integration initiatives, such as the Joint Economic Space (JES), which was first suggested to Ukraine, Belarus and Kazakhstan in 2003,” Zharikhin said. “Instead, Russia concentrated on trying to get from the energy-insufficient countries a fair price for its oil and gas, which would be at least compatible with the European one. If Ukraine or Belarus are unable to pay this amount, Russia should give them loans or swap energy for other assets. But the old policy of subsidizing ‘fraternal’ countries should be discontinued.”

In the conflict between Russia and Georgia, energy did not play the primary role. “Georgia fully geared its foreign policy to the interests of the United States. This policy alone would not be sufficient for a conflict with Russia, if it had not been for two important nuances,” said Alexander Tchatchia, the head of the Tbilisi-based Globalization Problems Research Center. “One is to annoy and contradict Russia on every possible issue. The other is not simply to push for joining NATO, but also to ignore Russia’s urging not to install NATO bases on Georgia’s territory. In this, Russia sees Georgia’s not-so-secret hope to use NATO troops in resolving Georgia’s territorial problems.”

Unlike his Georgian colleague, Ukrainian president Viktor Yushchenko continues to stress the fact that Ukraine’s membership in NATO would not translate to NATO bases on Ukrainian territory, since the Ukrainian constitution forbids the presence of foreign troops on the country’s soil without the parliament’s approval.

Putin’s policy on the CIS, just like his foreign policy in general, went through two distinctly different phases during his tenure from 2000 to 2008. His first four-year term was characterized by mild integration initiatives and attempts to build solid relations with all post-Soviet countries with the help of more or less friendly elites.

This was the time of integration initiatives, such as the JES and a project of common currency with Belarus, initially planned to be introduced in 2005. The situation changed drastically after the “orange revolution” in Ukraine from 2004 to 2005. “Russia then chose the policy which one could call mercantile,” said Fyodor Lukyanov, the editor-in-chief of the Russia in Global Affairs magazine. “The country started pursuing its pragmatic interests, shedding all remnants of ideology.” This policy led Putin to a conflict with Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko from 2006 to 2007.

“Lukashenko wanted to continue reaping the benefits of imitating integration with Russia, in fact he writhed on ideological phantoms,” said Alexander Feduta, an independent political analyst from Minsk. “When Moscow made it clear it would not make its energy policy dependent on ideology, a conflict was inevitable. I don’t see how it could be avoided and how it can be avoided in future.”

A book recently published by the Council of Foreign and Defense Policy (SVOP), “The World Around Russia: 2017,” predicts that stagnation in the process of post-Soviet integration will continue. The Moscow-based cluster of foreign and defense policy experts write that CIS structures will continue losing their influence and a zone of free trade­the first stage of structural economic integration­during the next five years will be possible only between Russia and Kazakhstan.

SVOP also takes a pessimistic view of relations with Belarus. They see no further prospects for a so-called “Union State” under the current Belarusian leadership, and even predict this state’s “scandalous dismantling.” SVOP calls for a toning down of the rhetoric in relations with Georgia and Ukraine, although possible accession into NATO could create “a zone of conflict” on the Russian-Ukrainian border.

In the end, SVOP urges Russian leadership not to “let itself be provoked” by Ukrainian attempts to stir new public rows with Russia. In the opinion of SVOP’s experts, these attempts are aimed merely at “attracting the attention of Western powers and organizations.”

Preparing for a marathon

At the initial stage of Putin’s presidency, there was much reason for hope in relations with the EU, especially after Russia’s participation in the “war on terror” in Afghanistan in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks against the United States in 2001. Russia’s sudden “rapprochement” with such key EU countries as France and Germany in their opposition to the American invasion of Iraq in 2003 also gave some reason for optimism.

However, conflict erupted over disputed “spheres of influence” in the post-Soviet space. In 2003 the EU sent a very clear signal that it did not consider integration of Ukraine into the EU and Russia-dominated JES as compatible processes. From that moment, every country in the post-Soviet space was faced with a choice: integrate with the EU or with Russia. Most chose the EU.

“The problem is that the prospect of integration into the EU for most of the CIS countries is a very distant one,” said Svetlana Glinkina, Deputy Director of the Institute of Economy in the Russian Academy of Sciences. “For Ukraine, membership in the EU is a sort of a carrot, which is hung before its very nose but which it is unable to bite. However, Ukrainians made a clear choice in favor of this carrot, preferring it to Russia’s bread. This certainly poured some oil in the simmering fire of disagreements between Russia and the EU.”

The conflict with the EU was exacerbated by the fact that the EU adopted the policy of putting Russia before a fait accompli. “Since the late 1990s, the EU insisted that all of its decisions, including integration of new members into the Union in 2004 and 2007, would not be discussed with Russia,” said Glinkina. “Russia had to cancel its old trade agreements with new EU members; it had to change the rules of transit to Kaliningrad, and adapt to the EU’s standards and requirements. There was zero movement from the other side.”

“Until 2004, Putin probably had the hope of keeping good relations with the EU, while gradually making the CIS countries pay full price for Russia’s gas and oil. After that, this hope was gone,” said Yuri Rubinsky, a professor at the Institute of Europe in the Russian Academy of Sciences. “However, Russia suddenly got reinforcement from the new situation on the international energy market. Western Europe now needs Russian oil and gas more than ever before. So, the old dilemma of Russia being a competitor or a partner will not find a definite answer in the near future. Russia will be both.”

The complex internal structure of the European Union, where one country­Poland­continues to block negotiations on signing a new Partnership and Cooperation Agreement (PCA) instead of the old one signed in 1994­does not make the conflict any easier to resolve.

“President Medvedev should remember, that even if the PCA is signed, it will need to be ratified by the parliaments of the 27 EU member states,” said Chairman of the Council on Foreign and Defense Policy (SVOP) Sergei Karaganov. “So, we should brace up for a long wait, and possibly for real marathon negotiations.”

SVOP experts do not see much chance for immediate improvement in Russia-EU relations, although economically Russia’s and the EU’s interests overlap much more than Russian and Chinese ones, for example. “During the next five to seven years, Russia’s leadership should try to make an emphasis on bilateral negotiations with individual EU member states, without canceling attempts to improve relations with the European Commission in Brussels,” said Dmitry Suslov, SVOP’s Deputy Director on scientific research. “Russia is not interested either in the EU’s becoming a single state, or in its disintegration. So Medvedev should avoid taking a vocal anti-EU position. Rather, he should be quietly mending fences.”