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By Ralf Fücks
President Bush is meeting his Russian counterpart in a quite critical period of US-Russian relations when the language between Russia and the West has become icy as never before since the end of the Cold War. Russia today, spoiled by its booming resource revenues, is feeling economically strong and politically assertive – at least in its attempt to restore its role as a counterbalance to US power.
After a decade of dissolution of the Russian Empire, Putin’s Russia has learned to use its vast natural resources to regain influence in Europe and beyond. It is extending its oil and gas empire to Central Asia, thus expanding its control over gas supplies for Europeand undermining plans for a Trans-Caspian pipeline that would skirt the south of Russia. Embracing autocratic leaders in Kazakhstan and other Central Asian countries is no problem for Mr. Putin who offers them unscrupulous political backing, if they are willing to co-operate.
Ms. Rice’s recent comment that “no one needs a monopoly” in natural resources will hardly impress Russian officials. European dependence on Russia’s gas is just what they are longing for. President Putin and his men struggled hard to restore state control over Russia’s natural resources, and they succeeded at last, pushing Khodorkovsky aside and depriving economic giants like BP and Shell of their assets.
For them, exercising control over oil and gas is not only a way to get access to big money – it’s a tool to regain political might for Russia beyond its borders. While former officials from the security services took over political power, Russia turned from free-style privatisation to a new kind of state economy. Big government is in control over big business again, and it is using economic power to increase its political outreach. Using the price weapon to extend control over Ukraine’s and Belarus’ energy system was an example of that, as well as cutting the oil supply to Lithuania’s only refinery when a Polish company became its shareholder (replacing a Russian one).
You may find competing explanations regarding the motives of Russia’s aggressive resource policy in the academic community – is it about profit and more profit, or is Putin’s crew rather guided by political ambitions? I assume it’s both: The accumulation of wealth in the hands of the state capitalists surely is a strong motive, but the accumulation of political power is an even stronger one.
At the least, Mr. Putin’s mission is to restore Russia’s status as a global player. In his eyes, the nineties were a lost decade for Russia. His statement, that the breakdown of the Soviet Union was the worst geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century, is a telling one. To regain control over the now formally independent former Soviet republics – the “near neighbourhood” in Russian terms – is one of the major ambitions of the ruling class. Obviously, in the eye of the Kremlin, the former protectorates cannot demand full sovereignty. The other major ambition is to return to the world stage as a power that cannot be cast aside by the US.
Being regarded by the United States as a power of equal status is crucial to the self-esteem of Russia’s elite. America, as The Economist pointed out in its May 2007 issue, “is a yardstick of their own place in the world”. It is the other way around, to Americans “Russia is just one factor in its foreign policy – and not the biggest one.” This difference between the two sides in how much they matter to each other is a major source of tension between today’s Russia and the US. It’s true - there is widespread disappointment in Russia that its immediate solidarity with America after 9-11 was not rewarded. But it would be naïve to reduce their conflictive relationship to a matter of perception. Improving the climate between the White House and the Kremlin by better communication and enhanced consultation should be quite easy to manage, given a sufficient degree of good will and professional diplomatic skills on both sides.
But unfortunately, it will not be so easy to build up a strategic partnership between Russia and the West. Of course there are areas of common interest such as developing business relations, guardingnuclear non-proliferation or containing radical Islamist movements - and we should extend co-operation to these areas. But at the same time, there are profound conflicts of values and interests that turn into sources of conflict:
- Russia is no longer a country on its way to democracy: It has gone back to the tradition of an authoritarian state. All power is concentrated in the Kremlin, at the top of the pyramid. The parliament, most of the parties, judiciary, media, regional governors, the majors of Moscow and St. Petersburg, the dominant enterprises – they are all dependent upon the highest authority. The state acts beyond public control, and the society once again has become powerless.
- The economic systems of Russia and the West are hardly compatible. Foreign companies in the strategic economic sectors are cut down to the role of junior partners. They are welcome to provide know-how and financial resources but the Russian side has the say. Because there is no rule of law, there is no security for foreign investments. To large parts of the Russian economy, there is no or only limited access for Western companies.
- Russia’s ambitions to establish its political and economical hegemony over the former Soviet Republics from Central Asia to the Baltic Sea is colliding with strategic interests of the US and the EU – and, of course, with the ambitions of those countries, who see their future as part of the West. As long as Russia perceives the outreach of NATO and EU to Eastern Europe or the Caucasus as a threat to its own hegemonic interests, these regions will be areas of a power game instead of enhanced co-operation. That will be the case until Russia can agree that a democratic, stable and prosperous neighbourhood would be in its own best interest – in other words, until Russia is ready to agree that it is no longer an empire but an important state among other states.
- Russia up to now hasn’t managed to develop a strategy to use its new power in a constructive way. Its main goal is to counterbalance the US and to curb America’s global power. This seems to me the main reason for arms sales to Iran and Syria, for the obstruction on Kosovo, or the aggressive response to America’s intentions to extend its missile defence system to Central and Eastern Europe.
In my view, departing from the Russian Empire is the key issue both for Russia’s future and for its relationship with the West. And I’m afraid that Russia, for the time being, is going the other way: not ahead towards a modern democracy, but backwards to nationalism, autocracy, and old-new imperial ambitions. Integrating Russia in the West is a good idea, but it will not work for the foreseeable future. That must not lead into a new cold war. The most probable scenario will be a mix of limited co-operation and limited conflict between Russia, the US, and the European Union.
Is there a light in that gloomy picture? Yes, there is. It will never again be possible to isolate Russian society from the rest of the world – if, that is, the US and Europe will not be so foolish as to impose a narrow-minded visa-regime on Russian students, on scientists, artists, and on ordinary people who want to travel to the West as tourists. Wherever possible, we should deal with the Russian government in an inclusive, co-operative manner. But it is no less important to strengthen relations on the civil society level – between cities, universities, artists, non-governmental organisations etc. That, in the long run, could turn out to be the best way to regain trust and to develop common interests between Russia and the West.
Ralf Fücks is co-president of the Heinrich Böll Foundation, a German-based political foundation affiliated with the Green Party.