[home page][map of the server][news of the server][forums][publications][Yabloko's Views]

The Moscow Times, December 29, 2003

Will Putin Go Against the Foreign Policy Flow?

By Vladimir Frolov

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 mistake.

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 security institutions.

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 verbal vitriol).

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.


See also:

the original at

The Moscow Times, December 29, 2003

[home page][map of the server][news of the server][forums][publications][Yabloko's Views]

Project Director: Vyacheslav Erohin e-mail: admin@yabloko.ru Director: Olga Radayeva, e-mail: english@yabloko.ru
Administrator: Vlad Smirnov, e-mail: vladislav.smirnov@yabloko.ru