MOSCOW, A preliminary glance at Russia’s extravagant May 9 Victory Day celebrations produces the image of a smash hit for the Kremlin. Digging slightly deeper, however, and one finds a Kremlin foreign policy that is struggling to balance the growing pressure from Europe and the U.S. against the desire to maintain the appearance of strength and independence from the West.
The celebration’s lavish pomp and circumstance attracted over 50 world dignitaries, including U.S. President George Bush, German Chancellor Gerhard Shroeder and new Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko, but it also fueled a barrage of criticism about the Kremlin’s democratic shortcomings and Russia’s failure to acknowledge its prior transgressions.
The Kremlin’s response to the new wave of criticism was significantly less than cordial. President Bush’s renewed calls for Russia to stay the course of democracy met a chilly response from the Kremlin. Bush’s itinerary alone, which sandwiched the Moscow visit between trips to Russia’s less-than-friendly neighbors, Latvia and Georgia, received an official letter of protest from Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov.
The Kremlin has been even less amiable with the Baltic states of Latvia and Estonia, whose leaders refused to attend the May 9 ceremonies due to ongoing arguments spanning border disputes to Moscow’s refusal to denounce the Soviet Union’s occupation of the Baltics following World War II. In response, Putin smacked the Baltic states in the face by saying they needed to “mature” before any agreements could be made.
The Kremlin’s foreign policy has begun to take the image of a nation under siege, closed off from comments and criticisms by the West. The anxious stalemate of Russia’s foreign policy is hardly new, however, and has been growing and developing since the Kremlin’s failed meddling in Ukraine’s presidential elections in November 2004, analysts said.
"Some of the recent foreign policy statements suggest a siege mentality in the Kremlin," Michael Heath, political analyst at Aton Capital, said. "Russia has seen three revolutions in its neighbors, and from its perspective, they are not due to corruption, incompetence and vote rigging on the part of the incumbent authorities, but the result of Western manipulation. As a result, most of the criticism coming from Washington and Brussels is viewed in Moscow through the prism of the West trying to undermine the existing Russian authorities."
The Kremlin’s standoffish response to the new wave of international pressure seemingly contradicts Russia’s declared intention to step up in the world community by tightening ties with the West and joining the World Trade Organization. Several government ministers have suggested that Russia could complete negotiations on Russia’s accession to the WTO by the end of the year, meaning Russia could receive membership as early as 2006.
“Russia is keen on improving relations with the European Union and the United States and Putin has stuck to this plan. The desire is there,” said Masha Lipman, political analyst for Carnegie Moscow Center. “That being said, not all of the policies the Kremlin follows are in accordance with this plan. There seems to be a priority to improving relations with the U.S. and the EU, but the policies take a different direction.”
The Kremlin’s most vitriolic remarks have been saved for the Baltic states. President Putin succinctly dismissed any chance of apologizing for the Soviet Union’s five-decade occupation of the states and focused on the poor treatment of the Russian-speaking diasporas in the three nations.
The Kremlin’s cold relations with the Baltic states are based on a two-pronged rationale, analysts said. Moscow is attempting not only to boost its bruised foreign policy image at home and abroad, but also to avoid potentially massive economic repercussions, analysts said.
“There is an apprehension in the Kremlin that conceding to the Baltic states could lead to monetary retributions, and looking at what has happened to Germany, there is a pragmatic sense to this reasoning. But if that is the rational reason, there is also an irrational motive that Putin genuinely feels frustrated about these tiny states making claims on Russia. They are very aggressive in their attitude toward Russia,” Lipman said.
The Kremlin has also been harshly critical of the potential expansion of NATO into Ukraine and Georgia, both of which have expressed a strong interest in joining the former Soviet enemy. “All enlargement of NATO does not (necessarily) improve security in the world,” Putin said, specifically referring to the inclusion of the three Baltic states in NATO last year. While analysts agreed that the expansion of NATO into the heart of what has long been Russia’s sphere would be
an insensitive and imprudent move by the West, they said that the Kremlin’s fears of NATO expansion are largely unjustified.
“NATO membership is largely a symbolic issue. NATO isn’t about to place its bases in Georgia,” Lipman said. “The broader public still reads NATO as the enemy. I don’t think the higher elite believe having NATO closer is dangerous, but symbolically this is another blow.”
On the other side of the ball, while the pressure on Russia has come from both the EU and the U.S., the harshest criticism has come from U.S. President Bush, not from the EU. The EU has been the strongest proponent of Russia’s accession to the WTO. The EU’s more subdued role comes despite the fact that, with the Baltic states as members, it would seem to have a greater vested interest in seeing Russia conform to its wishes.
Looking at the differences between the U.S. and the EU from an economic and political point of view, Europe has much more to lose by upsetting Russia, analysts said. The EU must use a modicum of tact in its approach because of its dependence on Russia’s natural resources, analysts said.
"The EU doesn‘t want to isolate Russia as a resentful Moscow is a potential source of instability on the continent and the events of the last century have taught all major European countries that this is something to avoid. The EU is also hooked on Russian oil and gas and therefore, at least its older members France, Germany and Italy, are keen not to antagonize Moscow," Heath of Aton Capital said. “Bush can afford to be more flippant while the EU has to be more pragmatic.”
Furthermore, the EU and the U.S. have different frameworks for dealing with foreign relations. While Bush has taken it upon himself to push democracy worldwide in a much vaguer context, the EU negotiates through a strict regimen of laws, regulations and treaties, analysts said.
“The U.S. and the EU are two different stories. Europe has ongoing talks with Russia. Its negotiations are in the form of regulations and the conformity of laws and such. Russia hasn’t complied, so there is nothing to talk about,” Lipman said. “And unlike Europe, it was Bush that pledged to be a democratic crusader. Now Bush is exposed to criticism if his partners let him down, and Putin has let him down.”
European Union Trade Commissioner Peter Mandelson again on Monday pushed for Putin to take a greater role in speeding Russia’s entry to the WTO. Mandelson told reporters that he still believes it is possible for Russia “to get the material part of the negotiations wrapped up in time for the ministerial meeting in Hong Kong in December.”
With neither Russia nor the West appearing ready to budge from their stance, the uneasy stalemate in Russia’s foreign relations is likely to continue for some time, analysts said. Even the progress towards WTO membership is unlikely to produce many changes in Russia’s policies, as WTO rules are themselves ways of forcing economies to conform to Western standards, analysts said.
“The situation is a stalemate in the longer-term. If Russia is not treated as an equal and is forced to make all sorts of concessions, Russian people will want to reap away those agreements sooner or later by voting for more nationalistic and authoritarian parties,” said Pavel Erochkine, research officer with The Centre for Global Studies in London.
That’s not to say that no moves could take place. One largely symbolic move that the Kremlin could use as a peace offering to the West would be the creation of an independent media outlet, analysts said. The state’s tightening control over press freedoms in Russia has been a focal point of Western criticism of Russia’s democracy.