Russian comeback

Monday, 12. October 2009     0 comment(s)
Arkady Moshes
Programme Director - The EU's Eastern Neighbourhood and Russia research programme

In recent years a lot was said about Russia’s resurgence. While some commentators are paying more attention to its rediscovered readiness to use force to back up the political statements, which culminated in the war with Georgia, others point out to the soft power in Moscow’s possession (money, media, alliance with the Orthodox church, and even energy leverage is sometimes seen through this prism).

Both definitely have a point. However, the argumentation does not sound fully convincing. It would suffice to look at three dossiers that are critical for Russia, in order to understand that despite certain tactical gains, there are not enough reasons to speak about the strategic reversal of previous trends.

The first issue is country’s economy. During the first year from the start of the global economic crisis (the second quarter of 2009 as compared with the second quarter of 2008) Russia showed the worst economic performance in the G 20. Its GDP fell by almost 11 percent, burying the myth of BRIC. And the problem is apparently not only the character of Russian exports. Saudi Arabia, for example, according to the IMF forecast, is expected to demonstrate small growth in 2009. Even Russia’s oil-producing CIS partners are doing better. In January – September 2009 the industrial output of Azerbaijan kept growing and that of Kazakhstan decreased by 1,5 percent only, while Russia lost 14 percent.

The second issue is the effectiveness of Russian policy in the CIS. If the comeback is taking place indeed, this should be immediately evident in Moscow’s ability to squeeze concessions from its post-Soviet neighbours. But this is not happening. None of the CIS states followed Moscow’s suit in recognizing the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Ukraine has retained the full control over its gas transportation system and foreign policy orientations (another thing is that for various reasons, including the “Russia-first” approach of some European capitals, the perspective of Euro-Atlantic integration is now de facto closed for the country, but that was not the choice of Ukraine). Belarus, despite trade wars with Russia, increases interaction with the European Union while its president is stepping up criticism towards Moscow and personally Vladimir Putin. Moldova has elected a government with pronounced European priorities, compared to which the previous oscillating regime of Vladimir Voronin would look pro-Moscow. Uzbekistan obstructs the creation of the rapid reaction forces within the Russia-led Collective Security Treaty Organization. Kyrgyzstan accepted Russian economic assistance, but eventually did not close the US air base on its territory, as expected, but simply found a different legal formula to preserve it. Tajikistan passed a new language law that does away with using Russian as a language of communication. Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan are seeking the ways to diversify their energy exports bypassing Russia. Armenia establishes contacts with Turkey and sees Georgia as an important priority. In turn, Georgia has formally left the CIS, which, however, does not promise to make this defunct organization any more cohesive or effective: its summit in Chisinau last week brought no tangible results worth discussing.

Finally, Moscow’s ability to exercise direct control over the Northern Caucasus is weakening. It has to rely on local clans, but neither their loyalty nor their ability to fight against terror and Islamism can be taken for granted in the long run. If the metaphor about Russia being “prisoner of the Caucasus”, which was fairly popular in the beginning of Vladimir Putin’s first terms in office, was true then, it is no less true today.

Against all this a sustainable power drive, a “comeback” of the great power can hardly be expected.

However, one can now envisage Russia’s comeback of another sort. The economic crisis seems to have started its sobering work on the state of minds of the Russian elites. When Dmitry Medvedev writes in his September article that harmonizing relations with Western democracies is not a question of choice for Russia and when Vladimir Putin promises the representatives of world-leading energy companies the country with open and liberal economy, this signals a possibility of a break with the rhetoric of “energy superpower” and “sovereign norms”, which should not be a subject to outside criticism. Of course, we are still at a very early stage. Words should not be confused with actions, which are yet to follow and which, unfortunately, may still never come. Yet, the readiness of the leadership to again admit that Russia cannot develop without Western investment and technologies keeps the hope alive that it may one day return to Europe primarily as a cooperative partner and not as an external challenger.


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