Foreign policy was the issue that was conspicuously missing in the recent
State Duma elections. This is hardly surprising for several reasons.
Voters understandably care much more about domestic problems when making
their choices in a parliamentary election. Wages, pensions and housing
costs are always more salient campaign issues than international affairs.
Foreign policy is also the only area where President Vladimir Putin's
job approval ratings really exceed 70 percent (on his handling of the
economy, it is closer to 40 percent). Russian voters feel comfortable
with the direction Putin is taking Russia internationally and it makes
little sense for a party seeking votes in the Duma elections to challenge
a policy that is so overwhelmingly popular.
And finally, the Duma is simply not the place where the country's foreign
policy is set. Its constitutional role in foreign affairs is limited to
approving ambassadorial nominations (have you ever heard of a nomination
fight in the Duma?), ratifying international treaties, and passing flowery
but toothless statements denouncing the United States, NATO, the European
Union and assorted Baltic countries.
Nonetheless, it is still very disappointing that a good opportunity
has been lost to debate the alternative visions of Russia's role in the
world and the direction the country needs to take in the years ahead.
None of the parties participating in the election chose to present the
voters with a coherent foreign policy framework.
One notable exception was Anatoly Chubais' "Liberal Empire."
It was the closest you can get to a "vision thing" in Russian
foreign policy: daring, provocative, forward-looking and reasonably messianic.
It was almost Reaganesque -- Russia as the "Shining City on the Hill,"
or Tony Blair's "pivotal force for good in the world." It exuded
a new kind of feel-good patriotism that could be very appealing to younger
generations of voters. Most importantly, it provided a strategic conceptual
framework that could easily shape specific policies with sufficient domestic
political support. But it was widely criticized as an election ploy, and
Chubais uncharacteristically decided not to push it further. A costly
United Russia had a relatively well-developed foreign policy platform
that called for more assertive defense of Russia's interests abroad, particularly
in the former Soviet Union, while maintaining the primacy of cooperative
relations with the West. However, it chose not to participate in televised
debates and the voters never heard about its foreign policy concept. And
without United Russia's participation, the TV debate on foreign policy
was, to put it charitably, sterile.
The only other party that came up with its own set of foreign policy
ideas was Rodina. It put forward a vision that was Russia-centric -- a
vulnerable but righteous country in a sea of international uncertainty
and danger, surrounded by potential enemies like the United States and
NATO, suspicious of a rising China and assertive on the former Soviet
territory. It called for some limited cooperation with the West in areas
of interest to Russia, but spurned as unrealistic and even treasonous,
any talk of integrating Russia more closely with Western economic and
It opposed ratifying the Kyoto Protocol and WTO membership on conditions
unfavorable to Russia and called for a more aggressive defense of Russian-speaking
minorities in the former Soviet republics. This set of ideas is not radically
new and it has largely been tried before without much success (Yevgeny
Primakov's foreign policy came somewhat close to it, although with less
Although a few of the Rodina faction members are somewhat nutty in their
worldview, its program is basically mainstream and its two leaders, Dmitry
Rogozin and Sergei Glazyev, are rational people. When push comes to shove,
they are quite capable of abandoning the fiery rhetoric in favor of finding
a practical solution (witness the Kaliningrad deal with the European Union).
In fact, Rogozin advocates quite a robust engagement policy toward the
EU. He is a big champion of introducing a visa-free regime between Russia
and the EU, and even wants to set up a special "European commission"
in the new Duma.
Those positive elements notwithstanding, the new Duma will lack the
strongest advocates of establishing a much closer relationship between
Russia and the West. The electoral defeat of Yabloko and the Union of
Right Forces means, among other things, that the policy of closer partnership
with the West is simply not popular with voters or is not perceived to
be benefiting them directly. The Russia-centric foreign policy platform
of Rodina currently enjoys more popular support, whereas the United Russia
has yet to assert itself in foreign affairs (perhaps through the chairmanships
of the foreign affairs committee and the committee on security).
This presents a certain challenge to Putin and his foreign policy. The
foreign policy bureaucracy is very sensitive to the political winds and
it is a distinct possibility that policy formation could be modified to
accommodate prevailing political sentiments in the Duma, favoring a more
assertive, nationalist line in world affairs.
Thus, it is left almost exclusively to Putin to decide whether to continue
the relatively unpopular policy of close partnership with the West, and
particularly with the United States, or to take his cue from the populist,
but electorally safe, signals coming from the new crowd in the Duma.
The first approach would require an aggressive exercise of pointed presidential
leadership, coupled with strenuous efforts to build much broader popular
support for Russia's closer relationship with the West -- something that
Putin has so far been reluctant to do.
The second approach just means swimming with the flow.
The presidential election campaign that has just commenced presents
Putin with a good opportunity to make clear where he wants to lead the
country internationally during his almost assured second term.
Vladimir Frolov, an independent foreign policy analyst, contributed
this comment to The Moscow Times.
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