Medvedev Unveils Little New In Russia’s Foreign-Policy Course

July 16, 2008
When Dmitry Medvedev became Russian president in May, many wondered whether the soft-spoken young lawyer would find ways to set himself apart from his domineering predecessor, Vladimir Putin.

Medvedev’s freshly minted policy strategy, in most ways, is a close match for one published eight years ago at the start of Putin’s presidency.

Medvedev, who presented the strategy during a speech to Russian ambassadors gathered on July 15 at the Foreign Ministry, picked up where Putin left off, emphasizing Russia’s rising role on the international stage and delivering harsh criticisms of issues like U.S. missile defense and Kosovo’s independence.

Medvedev — whose main difference from his fire-and-brimstone predecessor is his preference for measured, low-key speech — said Moscow is determined to play a key role in charting the future course of global relations.

“Having rid itself of the Cold War, the world still cannot find a new balance,” he said. “Moreover, the tilt toward the use of force in many spheres, which was inherited from the past, is only increasing, and you know it very well. Under such conditions it is important to preserve restraint and sober judgment, and to continue to defend our national interests with competence, without confrontations, both independently and together with our partners.”

Medvedev gave a suggestion of what his vision of the “new balance” in world affairs will be, dedicating much of his speech to the importance of fostering ties with rapidly developing nations like China and India.

On the West, he cast a dimmer view. The Russian leader maintained a harsh line on the United States for pressing ahead with plans for a missile-defense system in Europe, reiterating a Putin-style threat that Russia was prepared to deliver an “adequate response” if Washington persists in its plans. He also criticized Kosovo’s Western-backed independence declaration in February, calling it the “latest example of the undermining of international law” and saying that “for the EU, Kosovo is almost what Iraq is to the United States.”

The comment was a disappointment to many in Kosovo, including political analyst Ramush Tahiri. “I hoped that Russia would have a more realistic attitude toward Kosovo,” he says. “The Kosovo question was resolved the minute that its institutions declared independence, which was the will of the majority of the Kosovo people. To see Kosovo as a trouble spot or a black hole for Europe is not correct; Kosovo is a factor for stability in the region. To compare Kosovo with Iraq was the wrong step, because the intervention in Iraq was totally different from the intervention in Kosovo [in 1999]. In the case of Kosovo, the intervention was humanitarian, to stop the genocide.”

Medvedev had praise as well as criticism for the West, however, stressing that great potential remains in the Washington-Moscow relationship. His policy strategy cites the European Union as a long-term economic and strategic partner, and singles out France, Germany, Italy, and even Britain — with whom relations have been notoriously thorny — as highly desired partners.

Fyodor Lukyanov is the editor in chief of the “Russia in Global Affairs” journal. He tells RFE/RL’s Russian Service that although much of the rhetoric remains the same, Russia has come a long way since Putin first introduced his foreign-policy strategy in 2000.

“You can look at it in various ways, but the fact is clear that Russia under Putin came to occupy a completely different place,” Lukyanov says. “Today it’s impossible to overlook what Russia is doing, as it was eight or 10 years ago. This is in part because of some policies undertaken by Russia itself, and in part because of some extremely serious mistakes committed in recent years by, first and foremost, the United States — mistakes that lead to its weakening and, consequently, to the strengthening of those forces which present themselves as an alternative.”

New Approach To The Neighborhood?

Medvedev’s 2008 foreign-policy strategy is as significant for what it leaves out as for what it includes. A number of stated goals from 2000 are now notably absent — including an emphasis on the creation of the Russia-Belarus Union, and an upbeat forecast of “good prospects” for cooperation with Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia.

The new strategy gave some hints as to Moscow’s evolving approach regarding its own post-Soviet backyard. The past several years have seen attempts by Russia to reestablish its former influence among the former Soviet republics.

The strategy, however, no longer looks to the 12-member Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) as the tool for integrating the neighborhood. Instead, it stresses the importance of bilateral ties, as well as smaller groupings like the CIS’s Collective Security Treaty Organization and the Eurasian Economic Commonwealth.

In his speech, Medvedev stressed that Russian policy would be dictated by practical, rather than ideological, concerns. Lukyanov says that even in countries where Russia’s approach is viewed as aggressive and unwelcome — as in westward-looking Georgia and Ukraine — its policy cannot be called an ideological one.

“Russia’s approach to relations with the post-Soviet countries is not ideological, but political — or, rather, geopolitical,” Lukyanov says. “Russia, acting according to the classical scheme of realpolitik, is trying to strengthen its position along its perimeter, to project power, and this is absolutely not ideological, but a geopolitical tool. Ideology in foreign policy, which was the basis of U.S. and EU policy five, seven, or 10 years ago, is now moving into the background. I think what is meant here [in the Medvedev statement] is that any construct for the advancement of democracy and so on won’t bring any results. Therefore, it is necessary to act strictly according to classical schemes.”

To be sure, Medvedev’s speech was watched nervously in CIS capitals, where even the subtlest nuance can take on alarming overtones. In Georgia, officials are watching tensions with Moscow near the boiling point over the breakaway region of Abkhazia.

Georgian lawmaker Nikoloz Rurua, who serves as the deputy chairman of the parliamentary Defense and Security Committee, tells RFE/RL’s Georgian Service that he expects Moscow’s foreign policy to continue along a regressive, hostile path.

“We should not expect a single progressive development from Russia — any development that would be oriented toward freedom and democracy,” Rurua says. “Russia remains a country that is afraid to have free and democratic states as its neighbors. And, in fact, what is suitable for the entire civilized, free world, is not suitable for Russia. Progressive countries of the world see NATO expansion as an expansion of democracy, free space, transparent and open societies. Russia is afraid of this.”

Moldova, like Georgia, is struggling with its own frozen conflict in the predominantly ethnic-Russian region of Transdniester. Although that separatist conflict is far less volatile than either Abkhazia or Georgia’s second breakaway region of South Ossetia, Russia is considered crucial to any resolution of the Transdniester conflict, and has used its leverage to reel in Chisinau’s Western ambitions.

Anatol Taranu is a former Moldovan ambassador to Russia and current vice president of the opposition Liberal Party. He tells RFE/RL’s Romania-Moldova Service that much depends on whether Medvedev honors his professed respect for legal principles in dealing with the frozen conflicts.

“It was very clearly stated in this foreign policy concept that Russia intends to resolve all international conflicts within the framework of the CIS, respecting the sovereignty of the states involved in those conflicts and observing the principles of international law. Of course, under these circumstances — if this is the real policy pursued by Moscow — Chisinau, of course, is interested in seeing that these principles were observed in the settling of the Transdniester conflict,” Taranu says.

“There is the hope that with the arrival to leadership in Moscow of the new president, a person who has been judged around the world as a political figure of liberal views — at least, he grew up within the intelligentsia, among university graduates — as a result, it can be expected that these principles will be applied to practical policy and, in that case, it can be expected that the frozen conflicts within the CIS will be settled on precisely these principles.”

Perhaps the surest sign that Russia is sticking to the path laid out by Vladimir Putin is the fact that Medvedev, in his new foreign-policy document, grants the former president a role in foreign policy.

The strategy extends, for the first time, the right to implement foreign-policy measures to the prime minister. Although the Kremlin has so far declined to comment on the new delineation of powers, the move appears to confirm that Putin, as many suspected, is far from ready to relinquish control over Russia’s foreign-policy agenda.

RFE/RL’s Russian, Georgian, Romania-Moldova, and South Slavic and Albanian Languages services contributed to this report