Russia and the West: Playing by the Rules?
Ever since Mikhail Gorbachev made it to the top of the Soviet hierarchy in 1985, every change in leadership in Moscow has brought about an improvement in relations with the West. The presidency of Vladimir Putin was no exception: in spite of the negative impact of the recent Kosovo war and the conflict in Chechnya, Russia was able to achieve significant progress in its relations with the European Union, the United States, and even NATO. It is therefore understandable that the election of Dmitry Medvedev, regardless of how it was handled domestically, raised cautious hopes in the West about a possible fresh start after the ‘new Cold War’ of the previous months.
Of course, no-one expected any radical break with the past: after all, the new president was handpicked by the previous administration, and Vladimir Putin himself was to keep many reins of power in his new position as prime minister. The first developments, however, seemed to startle even inveterate pessimists. The new presidency started with a 5-day war in the Caucasus which many thought would have devastating consequences for Moscow’s relations with the West. Russia entered a new legal ground by declaring its military action against Georgia a unilateral ‘peace enforcement operation’ – something it had staunchly opposed as incompatible with international law ever since the 1990s – and by recognizing Abkhazia and South Ossetia. The Russian military are now permanently stationed in these breakaway republics, and the FSB border guard is threatening to use force to protect international maritime traffic to and from Abkhazian ports.
As the dust settled, however, it became clear that the war had been much less destructive than initially feared, at least for the relations between Moscow and western capitals. Moreover, with the arrival of Barack Obama to the White House, Russia was quick to signal it was ready to join the new administration in ‘hitting the reset button’ in bilateral relations. Opening the Russian airspace for U.S. military transit to Afghanistan was the first crucial step in that direction. One must not underestimate the unambiguous approval by Moscow of the new U.S. missile defence strategy (which included, by the way, a tacit consent to the supply of Patriot missile systems to Poland) and a much more constructive position on the Iranian issue.
Against this contradictory background, is it possible to discern any general trend in Russia’s policy towards the Euroatlantic community? Are there any qualitative differences in Moscow’s stance on key international issues under President Medvedev, or only marginal fluctuations within the limits set by the previous administration? First of all, it is clear that the answer to these questions cannot depend solely, or mainly, on personal views and priorities of any particular decision-makers. Structural factors, such as the current very peculiar double-headed configuration of the ‘vertical of power,’ the inescapable legacy of the Soviet empire, which any Russian leader would have to deal with, and the worldwide fatigue caused by the unilateralism of the previous U.S. administration, explain the recent twists and turns in Russia’s foreign policy course much better than any individual preferences. Yet apart from these contingent influences, there are also much more profound mechanisms that determine the basic assumptions of foreign policy thinking and therefore play a key role in defining Russia’s long-term priorities.
New policy documents developed by the Kremlin during the first year of the new presidency provide a useful starting point for the analysis of these mechanisms. Both the Foreign Policy Doctrine and the National Security Strategy show a good deal of continuity with previous conceptual documents and official statements. According to both doctrines, Russia is ready for pragmatic cooperation on key international issues, but deeply unhappy about western dominance in global affairs. The criticism of the ‘unipolar world’ and the very transparent, even if indirect, stream of invective against U.S. unilateralism have remained almost unchanged since the late 1990s when Russian foreign affairs were run by Yevgeny Primakov.
Today, however, as opposed to the turbulent times around the turn of the century, there is much more certainty about the fact that Russia is not going to present a radical challenge to western hegemony. Unlike Soviet ideology, which was based on the incompatibility of the two systems, current Russian quest for a great power status is framed in terms explicitly borrowed from western liberal democratic discourse. This position has crystallized in the following paragraph, which is very characteristic of the entire Foreign Policy Doctrine: “For the first time in contemporary history, global competition is acquiring a civilizational dimension, which implies competition between different value systems and development models within the framework of the universal principles of democracy and market economy.”1 The meaning of this passage is clear: different civilizations embrace different value systems, but they all share respect for the principles of democracy and market economy. Any value system which denies the significance of these universal norms cannot serve as a basis for a civilization in the proper sense of the word; any political force denying the universal significance of democracy positions itself outside of any civilization and writ large outside of humanity. Russia is going to compete with the West as a separate unique civilization, but this competition must not affect their common adherence to universal values.
Undoubtedly, official rhetoric tells us very little about the eagerness of the Russian authorities to implement democratic values in everyday political practice. Yet unlike the dictatorships of the last century, contemporary ‘illiberal democracies’ (to use Fareed Zakaria’s catchphrase2) rarely commit large-scale atrocities and are careful to put on a democratic front. Most importantly, however, they are incapable of presenting any alternative ideological platform which could even come close to liberal democracy in its global appeal. Consequently, they have no other options than to grudgingly accept western ideological hegemony and to struggle, with varying eagerness, for the right to take part in defining what democracy means.
In fact, we are dealing here with one of the most challenging theoretical problems of our times – the dialectic of the universal and the particular. Universal values, such as democracy, freedom or good governance, are relatively easy to define at the abstract level, but it is the political practice that fills these abstract and empty notions with concrete, historically specific content. This is always done locally at a particular juncture of time and space. This practical work always includes two formidable challenges. One is the danger of borrowing too much from countries with solid democratic credentials – here the risk lies in applying formal institutional models which might not work in a different social, cultural and historical context. The other challenge is normative relativism – a regime simply declares itself a democracy and rejects all criticism by claiming that the violations of established democratic principles result from its cultural specificity.
In the early years of its post-Soviet existence, the Russian state fell into the first trap by thoughtlessly following neoliberal prescriptions which, contrary to naí¯ve expectations, did not lead directly to a consumerist paradise. Disillusionment produced cynicism and this, in turn, led to a situation where the newly consolidated semi-authoritarian regime continues to describe itself as a democracy and very few Russians object to this view.
In the international arena, however, Russia encountered increasingly tough criticism. It found refuge in the old concept of multipolarity, which was marketed for a while under the label of ‘sovereign democracy.’ This slogan has never been formally approved by either Putin or Medvedev, and it is no longer part of the active political lexicon. Nonetheless, it is still there as a model which is utilised to search for legitimacy on the international stage. Moreover, far from its initial role as an instrument for defence, it has been converted into an offensive ideological weapon in the struggle for global leadership in a rapidly transforming world. The Estonian public is familiar with this tactic because the Baltic states have been accused by Moscow of violating human rights of their Russian-speaking populations ever since the mid-1990s. But now we are dealing with a much more ambitious claim on the part of Russia who wants to play a greater role in defining what democracy means in practical terms. Criticising the West for its unilateralism, Russia does not stop at merely describing itself as a democracy, but also demands the right to criticize others, including the U.S. and the EU. It has, inter alia, established Institutes of Democracy and Cooperation in New York and Paris with the official mission to monitor the situation regarding human rights and democratic freedoms. And it is actively working to develop ties with those world leaders, such as Venezuelan President Hugo Chí¡vez, who are most vocal in their criticism of U.S. ‘interventionism.’
It is hardly a secret that the predominant view in Estonia, as in many of its Central and East European neighbouring countries, is that Russia has no moral right to pass judgement on democratic values and their practical implementation due to two major flaws in Russia’s position. Firstly, it is quite possible to argue that as the Russian government does not respect basic political freedoms, it cannot legitimately speak in the name of the Russian people. Secondly, Russia positions itself officially as a successor state of the USSR in legal, but also in political and moral terms, and it is therefore held responsible for the crimes committed by the Soviet regime. Convincing as they are for the Central and East Europeans, these arguments are far from self-evident in the Russian context. When they are bluntly put to a Russian audience, they usually produce an aggressive reaction because the Russians feel that they are pushed into a corner and deprived of the right to present their views. Undoubtedly, some people in the region insist that this is the only treatment Russia deserves. But it is certainly not a universally shared belief that isolating Russia is the best, or indeed the only, strategy.
Those in the West who do not want to corner Russia at the cost of potentially provoking it into acting aggressively and uncontrollably must pay attention to the fact that Russia is actually playing by the western rules. These rules are, however, not the ones set by the West for Russia, but rather those the West has established for itself. After all, Russian ‘sovereign democracy’ is based on the formal imitation of western institutions and procedures. In other areas, the similarity is even more striking. The whole ‘peace enforcement operation’ against Georgia was explicitly modelled on NATO’s 1999 Kosovo campaign in terms of both its legal justification and – with due regard to the difference in capabilities – the way it was carried out militarily. The recognition of Abkhazia and South Ossetia was presented as a sui generis case – again in a clear reference to the recognition of Kosovo by the United States and its allies earlier in the same year. Even the crusade against the ‘falsification of history,’ which culminated in the presidential decree of May 2009 that created a special commission to protect the official version of the Soviet past, had precedents in European legislation against Holocaust denial as well as in the 2006 Ukrainian law that defined the famine of 1932–1933 as ‘genocide against the Ukrainian people.’3
To repeat, Russia no longer presents any radical challenge to the established western-dominated normative order. Far from being a revolutionary power, it wages a war of position about the interpretation of the norms and values that it understands as universally applicable. It is true that some of the interpretations offered by the Kremlin are quite peculiar, to say the least, and accepting them would amount to accepting the notion that ‘anything goes.’ At the same time, however, Moscow remains faithful to certain rules that some in the West have perhaps too hastily declared obsolete. Thus it seems that Russia prefers to set Abkhazia and South Ossetia aside as truly unique cases and to go on defending state sovereignty as the cornerstone of international law and order. Given the mixed experiences in Kosovo and Iraq, one should give a second thought to the relative merits of democracy promotion vs. the principles of non-intervention and sovereign equality of states. In a world where the balance of power is unstable and probably shifting, value-based interventionism – instead of being a tool for liberalization (and westernization) – can be used by emergent powers to justify their geopolitical expansion efforts. In the future, we might be better off by embracing Carl Schmitt’s image of the world as a political pluriversum rather than a universum.4
The experiences of the twenty years after the collapse of the Berlin Wall make it clear that we are still nowhere near the end of history and that the idealist dream of remaking the whole world in the image of western liberal democracy remains as remote as ever. We will remain different in our approaches to universal values, but at least we have agreed that such values exist. This provides grounds for possible compromise solutions and a mutually enriching dialogue, but also for a more vigorous search for new definitions of universal values more suitable for our changing world.
1 The Foreign Policy Concept of the Russian Federation. Approved by the President of the Russian Federation on 12 July 2008, http://www.un.int/russia/new/MainRoot/koncept.html. Official translation slightly amended with reference to the Russian original.
2 Zakaria, Fareed, “The Rise of Illiberal Democracy,” Foreign Affairs, 76(6), 1997, pp. 22–43.
3 For a more detailed discussion on the significance of history, see Kurilla, Ivan, “Memory Wars in the Post-Soviet Space,” PONARS-Eurasia Policy Memo no. 63, September 2009, http://ceres.georgetown.edu/esp/ponarsmemos/page/78355.html; Morozov, Viatcheslav, “Protecting ‘Our’ History: Politics, Memory, and the Russian State,” PONARS-Eurasia Policy Memo no. 64, September 2009, http://ceres.georgetown.edu/esp/ponarsmemos/page/78356.html.
4 See Schmitt, Carl, The Concept of the Political, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996.