ISSUE 1-2008
Jakub Kulhanek
Павел Витек Petr Vagner
Мацей Фалковски
Отар Довженко
Ярослав Шимов
Лубош Веселы

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in the articles and/or discussions are those of the respective authors and do not necessarily reflect the official views or positions of the publisher.

By Jakub Kulhanek | AMO analyst, Czech Republic | Issue 1, 2008

     The conference “Russian Foreign Policy in the 21st Century” was held in Prauge in March 2008. Russkii Vopros used this opportunity to ask three leading experts on Russia about their take on Putin’s successor and many more.  

     Interview with Dr. Fraser Cameron (Director, EU-Russia Center): 

     How would you describe current EU-Russia relations? What are the main problematic points in EU-Russia relations? And could they be resolved? 

     The EU member states have mixed views about Russia. Some EU member states view Russia as a threat. Some EU member states want a close partnership with Russia, while some have very little in terms of content of their bilateral relations with Russia.
     So in terms of member states trying to reach a common position towards Russia it is very difficult because of different histories, different security, economy size, trade size, energy dependency, Russian diasporas and so on. So this is arguably the most difficult external relations area for the EU as it struggles to find a common policy towards Russia.
     Member states now realize, even the ones with bilateral problems like Poland and even the UK, that it is much better to try to operate within the framework of the European Union rather than having to deal with Russia on their own. With five hundred million people, the biggest single market in the world the EU is in far better position to deal with Russia.  I think the trend is towards the realization and willingness to operate the relationship through the European Union rather than bilateral relations.  

     What lies ahead for the EU relationship with Russia in the next ten years?

     Well, first of all let me say that I think Russia is not going to be in a fairly good condition as they will sooner or later run into some severe economic difficulties. As especially ominously looms the lack of available gas reserved to satisfy their domestic needs as well as their exports.
     Russia will need European investment, finance, technology know-how in order to help diversify Russian economy. Although in the short term Russia will be probably without serious problems. In the medium term, however, it will have many problems to deal with and at some point it will have to recognize that the only partner to help Russia diversify its economy is the European Union.

     In your view, is there any movement towards more coherent EU policy towards Russia? 

     I think the European Union together has a lot of advantages. As a single market as well as the biggest consumer market for Russian energy Brussels enjoys potentially quite significant bargaining power with the Kremlin. In addition, the EU is a very attractive area for Russians to come. The Russian elite want to send their children to European schools, spend their money in European resorts and so on. 

     What is the perception of the EU in Russia?

The Russian public has very little knowledge of the EU as such. As for the Russian elite, the picture is kind of different. Some in the elite see the EU as a threat to their interests, while others recognize that in the long term Russia will eventually have to figure out how to work with the EU more closely. So they believe they should do something to increase the knowledge about the EU in Russia.
     Russian media portray the EU as a weak and ineffective. Not surprisingly, it is very difficult to have any accurate impression of the EU in Russian media.  

     Do you think this rather negative perception can change?

     It may be that as a result of the rather aggressive Russian foreign policy the Kremlin would move to soften its abrasive behavior. Partly because they would recognize that having bad relations with the West is not good for their economic interests. We can see some signs of that already. Interestingly, during the election campaign people like Anatoly Chubais said exactly this. The Russian leadership is now perhaps more inclined to alter the course slightly.

     With almost omnipresent anti-Western sentiments in Russia is there any chance of reversing this trend?

     Now media is basically under the control of Kremlin again. If the Kremlin decides to change the policy the media will change their own course as well. This is particularly true of TV.

     What about Medvedev, though? What can we expect from him?

     I think it is really too early to tell. Perhaps it is a question of another two years before he begins to take positions on norms rather relying on order. This will be also determined by what Putin wants to do. Will he be satisfied with being prime minister? Will he go to do something else, perhaps, run a foundation or just retire and enjoy his life? But let us not forget that Putin is very young to retire. In fact, this has never happened before in Russian history. We are in the period of uncertainty.

     Let us now discuss what Russia calls its “Near Abroad”. Is there any room for cooperation between the EU and Russia? 

     Actually, there is not much room for cooperation because the EU and Russia have different views. Russia views these countries as its dependencies and not as independent states.
     In contrast, the European Union views them as fully independent states so that they should be allowed to define their own future whether they want to join the EU or NATO or whatever. So that’s very different.
     Certainly Russia has clearly been using trade weapons. Russia resorted to cutting gas supplies to Ukraine or imposed ban on the export of Armenian and Georgian wine. The Kremlin also helped instigate the campaign against the Georgians living in Moscow. So they are willing to use these rather blunt instruments to try to pressure Georgia and Ukraine.
     At the same time they are in a very tricky relationship with Belarus because Putin and Lukashenka have not gotten on very well. They have been talking about the union for many years but that has not come around.
     There are different views on the common neighborhood and there is neither time nor willingness on the Russian side to push for settlement in Transnestria or Abkhazia or South Ossetia. And I think they are very happy with the conflict between Armenian and Azerbaijan. Basically, they are happy with the current statues quo.

     How successful is then the EU in offering an alternative to Russia in the CIS?  

     The EU is the magnet that all neighboring countries are attracted to. Since the EU is the largest internal market in the world, it comes as no surprise that the countries left outside want in. Apart from access to the internal market, they also want European investment.  
     We should also mention the European Neighborhood Policy (ENP) that gives EU neighbors a chance to participate in different policy areas. Let us say that an individual neighboring state reforms and shows that it is capable of meeting requirements to engage in that particular policy area it can simply do so.  This is the eventual conditionality behind the ENP.
     There are two fundamental questions concerning the ENP. First, should we split the neighborhood policy into South and East. Because you can see the difficulties the Europeans have with the Mediterranean countries, for instance. You cannot go on doing small things. It has to be a real EU policy with tangible results.
     The second point is: Do you actually offer Ukraine prospects of membership? And that’s the big issue. And the answer is no because Ukraine has to carry out the reforms itself. That is not what the Czech Republic, Hungary or Poland had to do to prepare for the membership. However, that doesn’t mean that the EU has lost its faith or Ukraine isn’t a European country. The EU has to encourage Ukraine and has to make Ukraine understand that only the Ukrainians can decide when they should apply for the membership. It is not ready now and it should continue down the reform path and decide whether to apply for the membership in ten or fifteen years.

     How real is Russia’s membership in the EU?            

     Not very real, at least for now. Let us not forget that Russia would be bigger than the rest of the EU in terms of territory. It was rejected in the nineties. I think Russia joining NATO is much more feasible than joining the EU. I doubt very much that Russia would accept the limitations on its sovereignty that comes with the EU membership. But this is certainly not a question for the next decade or two decades.

     Interview with Dr. Bobo Lo (Director of the Russia and China programmes, Center for European Reform)  

     What can we expect from Medvedev as the next Russian president in terms of foreign policy? Is it reasonable to expect any change at all?

     I think early on during Medvedev’s presidency there will be very few changes in substance of Russian foreign policy. There will be some small changes in style. Medvedev will probably present Russian foreign policy in somewhat softer, more conciliatory fashion. But I think when it comes to policy substance there will be almost no changes. At least, I would say for the next one to three years.

     What kind of changes do you have on mind?

     Well, it pretty much depends on the situation with the EU, with who is the next American president, whether some sort of stabilization takes place over Kosovo, or whether there is an agreement on what to do with Iran and its nuclear program. I mean there are areas where there could be change. But I don’t think that Russian foreign policy as such is going to change. I would like to say that it all depends largely on circumstances.
     Circumstances may improve slightly or they may deteriorate. I don’t think that Medvedev is going to be decisive. If there is a slight improvement in the atmosphere over a particular issue for whatever reason, then I think Medvedev will be quite good. But if there is deterioration then I don’t think that he himself will be able to change Russian foreign policy.

     Where is the Russia’s relationship with the West heading? In the short run, do you actually foresee deterioration or improvement?

     I think the Russia’s relations with the West can do anything. They can improve or they can fairly deteriorate further. But my guess is that they will remain more or less the same. In other words, the relations are not very good in many respects. However, in some areas they are more or less functional. So the two sides will continue to do business. The good example of which is the EU.
     The Union is still going to do commercial and political business with Russia. America is still going to have some kind of strategic dialogue with Russia. I don’t see a major deterioration but also I don’t see relations improving that much. I think what we have now is more or less what we will get from the next one or two years under Medvedev but maybe with a slight softening in style.

     You have mentioned Russian relations with the USA. How is the new U.S. President going to impact US-Russian relations? Especially considering that the possible victory of John McCain is speculated to result in significant deterioration in the US-Russia relationship.

     I suppose what McCain says in the election campaign is not necessarily what he would do as an American president. Let us say that he will become the next American president I think that he will have to be more pragmatic so I don’t really see McCain calling for Russia’s expulsion from the G8 which is something he has done before many times.
     I personally think that there would be a worsening in the relationship but it wouldn’t be quite as bad as people think it will be. In other words, I don’t think that the election of John McCain as the next US president would be disastrous to the US-Russian relationship. Moreover, I don’t think it would help very much but I don’t think it would mean that we have a severe deterioration in the relationship because I expect him to take a fairly pragmatic approach if he becomes President.

     Does this apply to the Democratic hopefuls as well?

     That might be quite different. When Hillary Clinton becomes the next US president, I could imagine that part of the Russian team working for her husband, Bill Clinton, back in the 1990s could again have positions of influence. I also think they would be fairly tough on human rights, political democracy as well as being very tough on Russia’s sphere of influence. I think that in many respects, although the Russians don’t think so, McCain will actually be better for the Russia-US relationship than Hillary Clinton because McCain is a Republican and he is used to talking tough but also being pragmatic. I mean there is a fine tradition in a sense of progress in Soviet-American relations when there was a republican president.  The Soviets/Russians say that a Republican president tend to emphasize realpolitik types of priorities rather than democracy building. I would argue that Hillary could actually be the worst of three options.
     Remember Eisenhower-Khrushchev, Nixon-Brezhnev, Regan-Gorbachev! They could push for big changes in the Soviet/Russian relationship with the United States. Under the Democrats it has always been difficult. Not impossible of course they could still do business and Clinton and Yeltsin had in some ways a good relationship. But the problem is if Hillary gets back the Democratic experts on Russia will return as well. They could cause a major problem not just in terms of substance but also in style. Indeed, the personal dynamics may be quite difficult. I hope not but I think we have to allow for that possibility.
     I think Obama will be slightly different. He will have his own team but he will also take people who are close to Hillary if he becomes President.

     Now back to Russian domestic politics. How is the proposed tandem leadership going to work?

     I think Putin clearly will remain the main man. Medvedev will do nothing to upset Putin. The question is how long this arrangement can last. I think that Medvedev will be content to play along for quite a while. And I also think that Medvedev knows that without Putin’s protection and patronage he is very vulnerable. Because Medvedev has no independent political constituency.
     This means, for example, if Putin were going to run under a bus tomorrow Medvedev would be exposed to the political pressure from “the Siloviki” and he would lose. He would definitely lose. Putin is essential to Medvedev’s political survival. So Medvedev knows full well he should do nothing to upset Putin. That doesn’t mean, however, that Putin is going to micromanage every thing that Medvedev does. I think he will allow Medvedev quite a lot of authority but there will be no doubt about who is the dominant political figure in Russia. So if we say it’s a tandem it is definitely a very uneven tandem.

     How imminent is Putin’s eventual withdrawal from the Russian political scene? Arguably, being a prime minister will certainly strip him of some of his power and influence.  

     I suppose such a withdrawal is possible, although not very likely to happen. But let us not forget that Putin could find a way how to retain his power. For instance, there could be transfer of power. And the way he would justify transfer of power is to argue that this is an essential step in Russia’s transition to a fully-fledged-parliamentary-party-based democracy. And then the Kremlin would be able to say to the West 'Look, you wanted us to develop democracy that is exactly what we are doing. We are moving from a presidential system to a parliamentary system. You should be happy. '
     Anyway, I think it is tremendously difficult trying to read Putin’s mind. Personally, I think Putin chose Medvedev because Medvedev was weak. If Putin really wanted to share power in a kind of even way he would pick Sergey Ivanov. But he didn’t. He chose Medvedev instead because he is no threat to Putin. He appears as the weakest person therefore he appears as the person most susceptible to Putin’s influence. I think that Putin’s selection of Medvedev shows how much he wants to hold on to the power. I don’t really see Putin ridding off in the sunset. We should remember Putin is only fifty-five and he is very public as well.   

     Alright. Putin is certainly to stay. But that may be because Putin has to stay to limit the infighting in the Kremlin lest his regime unravels.

     That is certainly one way to look at it. Putin has to think 'How am I going to protect my legacy'. Because you don’t want this transition end with the return of instability under Medvedev’s watch. People would then say that you were lucky and that the stability was only temporary due to high oil and gas prices. But clearly what Putin wants to do for his own legacy is to ensure some of his stability is durable.
     To that extent I agree that he wants to control the infighting. I think so long as Putin is there very visible the Kremlin’s infighting will continue but it will be within controllable limits. The problem is though what Putin will do after he leaves the political scene. 
     There is a big question what he will do after he leaves. There is not much else he can do after retiring from the Russian politics. Become a head of Gazprom? That is a ridicules suggestion certainly. Putin doesn’t want to be another Mikhail Khodorkovsky. He is not going to be a UN Secretary General. So what else is he going to do? The situation in Russia shows that the political power is more important than economic power. To remain politically influential he has to stay in power in some form or other.

     Your area of expertise is also Asian politics. What is Russia’s role in the Far East?

     Russia just really wants to be taken seriously as a world power. Russia knows that as an Asian-Pacific power has very little influence. Almost none, in fact. There is a realization that Russia is weak in the Asia-Pacific. However, the image which Russia wants to project is that it is a genuine multivector global power. In other words, the Russians say “We aren´t only part of Europe, but we´re between Europe and Asia but we´re between East and West; between the developed North and the developing South. So we´re interface of international affairs.” Therein lies Russia’s unique, indispensable quality. That´s the message that the Kremlin really wants to suggest to the world.

     Staying in Asia, what can you tell me about the Sino-Russian relationship? How much of a factor can this be on international relations?  

     On the one hand, Russia-China relations are the best that have ever been in those countries’ shared history. However, it is not a strategic partnership. Although people talk about strategic partnership they have very different views of the world, of their respective places in the world and so on. Furthermore, Moscow and Beijing have very different policies. They have a lot of unresolved issues although for the time being it is all quite there. They have very different ambitions . China is going to be the next global super power. Russia would like to be one of the global super powers in the multipolar order. But it has to be said that neither the US nor China imagine Russia ever reaching that exorbitant status.
     For Russia, the partnership with China enables Moscow to say 'Look we have friends'. Having good relations with China is fundamental to Russia’s ability to conduct the so called independent foreign policy. But to China, Russia is much less. China needs a good relationship with Russia, especially for three reasons: it doesn’t want any trouble on its northeastern frontier so it can concentrate on what really are the priorities for the Chinese foreign policy. These are to provide for the most favorable external conditions for domestic modernization and the unification with Taiwan. The third aspect of course is to ensure continuing access to resources. That said, however, China treats Russia as a secondary bilateral partner. For Russia, China is a primary strategic partner. This is a highly asymmetrical relationship.        

     Interview with Prof. Yury Fedorov (Associate Fellow, Chatham House)

     Is the Putin-Medvedev joint leadership a disaster in the making? Can it work in Russia?

     I am not quite optimistic about the future of this dual leadership or diarchy if you like. I mean there have been some cases of two centers of power existing side-by-side in Russian history. The latest one was between President Yeltsin and Parliament which ended with the shelling of the White House, the seat of Russian parliament
     I think that Medvedev and Putin sincerely believe they will be able to work with each other. But my guess is that both of them are rather ambitious individuals. Mr. Putin is obviously fairly ambitious, that’s for sure. But I also think that Mr. Medvedev is very ambitious person. And it will be very difficult for him to be in a secondary position. President can appoint and dismiss Prime Minister but not vice-versa. 
     Let us remember that bureaucratic influence is very important in Russia. It may be that competing centers of power will eventually drag Medvedev and Putin into confrontation. It is my guess that sooner rather than later the conflict between those two will develop. This is largely thanks to the state of nature of the Russian bureaucracy. In fact, people in the bureaucracy, especially the regional bureaucracy, will demand to know who the boss is.  I would say that this sort of diarchy will undermine the stability in Russia.

     Why did Putin choose Medvedev?

     Putin is a rather secretive individual and it is very difficult to predict his next move. And nobody, except for him, seems to know what he is thinking. But my guess is that Putin chose Medvedev because he is known as a person with no power base within the bureaucracy. In contrast, Sergey Ivanov he has his own power base within the security service. Perhaps Medvedev has some group of followers who are loyal to him but those people are little known, probably with little bureaucratic leverage. Medvedev will have to develop his own power base. And perhaps that was one of the reasons why Medvedev was chosen.
     Or else, it may be that Putin believes that he and Medvedev have similar views on the strategic issues with regards to Russia’s development.

     Is Putin so powerful as we see him?  

     Well, this is an absolutely important question. The various influence groups in Russia want an arbiter to between them, because without such an authority there is no one to say who is right or who is wrong. So quite naturally, all of them are interested in having such a figure.
     Interestingly enough look at Yeltsin he was this kind of supreme arbiter as well. And even during his second term all those different cliques looked up to him and they wanted him to step in to decide. And I believe Putin is in a similar position. Putin is, of course, in a much stronger position. But his main source of power is his ability to manipulate.

     Can Medvedev become the supreme arbiter?

     According to the constitution, the ultimate authority resides with the president. And both Putin and Medvedev said they would not change the Constitution.
     The president can appoint and dismiss ministers including the prime minister. He/she can also appoint local governors in provinces. The president is in much stronger position.
     It´s only a question of time before members of the bureaucracy start regarding President Medvedev as the supreme arbiter . So the fate of bureaucracy depends on the president and not on the prime minister. The president can move a person to a higher position.  

     What is behind Putin’s decision to give up his reins of power?

     Some people in Russia say that Putin is tired of politics and would like to move to private live, perhaps run a foundation or something. I believe there is some truth to that. Well, at same time they say that Mr. Putin would like to play a role of regent to support Medvedev during his first and a half year of presidency to prevent any challenge to his successor from the people who might not be that happy with the new president. In other words, Putin wants to act as a protector for Modvedev in order to make the transition work.
     Another theory maintains that Putin wants to stay in the position of prime minister for one or two years and then to return. This scenario is also very widely discussed in Russia, the Russian political community, Russian academic community and mass media. I don’t think that this scenario is utterly ridicules. However, my guess is that some of his body language and his statements support the former.
     Because you remember he said “I was working for eight years as a galley slave.”  That might suggest that Putin is indeed a little bit tired. Being a president in Russia, who controls everything or wants to control everything, must be really exhausting.  

     Now moving from domestic politics to what is also one of your areas of expertise and I mean military affairs.  What can you tell me about the reform of Russian military? How is it proceeding?

     First of all, I would like to say that actually there is no military reform in Russia. Because the military reform in the Russian setting implies that the former soviet armed forces are to be radically restructured and adjusted to meet current or future military challenges, which in Russian case are low intensity conflicts on Russian boarders. Russia may also have some problems with China in the Far East or in Central Asia
     But a radical military reform which is necessary means that many high ranking commanders in the Russian military have to change their way of thinking and operating and quite naturally they are not so happy with it. To be precise, they would like to retain the Soviet style military. Some of them still promote the idea that the Russian forces must be ready to fight NATO. There have been some attempts to increase the number of professional soldiers and professional military personal. However, this has gotten us nowhere. Also there is no clear vision for the future for the military even with the high budget as they have nowadays.

     As for NATO, what makes the Russian military still view NATO as a threat?

     First of all, part of the Russian military is motivated by ideological reasons stemming from the Cold War days. It´s a rather emotional issue and thus it is very difficult for them to move on. On the other hand, the official line which is voiced by the Russian ministry of defense is that they say 'NATO is our partner'. The ministry says that they want to develop some kind of partnership with NATO. Yet at the same time they say, indirectly though, that NATO is still a threat. So what we have now is sort of Strategic ambivalence.
     There are some groups in the Russian military and within the security sector who are interested in having NATO and the West as a threat. It is, for instance, the Russian military industrial complex because they want more funding for research. And some of these arguments can be used to get the money. So using NATO as a threat helps advance their interests. But there are some in the military that say 'Look, but we need more general purpose forces to fight more effectively low intensity conflicts'. There are different views within the Russian military establishment. For Russia, there are two sorts of threats. The traditional threats such as NATO and unconventional ones such as proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and terrorism. Furthermore, for some there is not much difference between NATO and the USA. But it is very difficult to say what is going on right now.

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