This presidential election is such a cliffhanger. Will it be the rising star Dmitry “Obamovich” Medvedev? Or the veteran Gennady “McCainovich” Zyuganov? Aren’t we on the edge of our seats, nervously checking the latest opinion polls ahead of Sunday’s vote?
The Guardian, 28 February, 2008
Well, no. So little so, in fact, that even Hillary Clinton temporarily mislaid the name of the leading candidate in the other presidential election. Asked “Who will it be? Do you know his name?” in Tuesday’s television debate with Barack Obama, she replied: “Er, Med, er, Medvedeva … whatever …” Imagine such an exchange 20 years ago, when there was still a Soviet Union: “Er, Gorb, er, Gorbacheva … whatever …”
One reason most North Americans and west Europeans are not excited about this is that we don’t feel Russia matters as much as it used to, or that it really threatens us any more. Wrong, perhaps, but that’s the feeling. Another is that the election result is known in advance. And the winner will be … Dmitry Whatever. Putin’s poodle from St Petersburg.
Vladimir Putin’s Russia, you see, is not a democracy. It pretends to be. It calls itself a sovereign democracy. But the difference between a democracy and a sovereign democracy is like that between a jacket and a straitjacket. A liberal candidate for the presidency, Mikhail Kasyanov, has been disqualified from standing on what was almost certainly a fraudulent charge of technical irregularity. Dissenters such as the former world chess champion Garry Kasparov are roughed up and locked up. Most important media are directly or indirectly controlled by the Kremlin. Independent journalists go in fear of their lives.
A report just published by Amnesty International highlights the systematic curbing of Russian NGOs, as well as documenting many other restrictions on freedom of association, assembly and expression. The election monitors of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe described Russia’s parliamentary election last December as neither free nor fair. They are not even monitoring this one, because the Russian authorities will not allow them to operate properly. This political system is not totalitarian, like the old Soviet Union, but it is a nasty form of authoritarianism dressed up as democracy: a wolf in sheep’s clothing.
So what should we do about it? In recent years, the Russian wolf has run rings around the free countries of the world in general, and European ones in particular. Deploying gas pipelines, banks and embargoes instead of tanks and missiles, it has intimidated, or tried to intimidate, many of its neighbours. A Swedish researcher has identified 55 cases of energy cut-offs or threatened cut-offs between 1992 and 2006. While “technical” reasons were usually cited, most of the cut-offs just happened to occur when Moscow wished to obtain some political or economic advantage, such as influencing an election or letting state-controlled companies like Gazprom buy into energy infrastructure.
Meanwhile, the countries of the European Union have been at sixes and sevens in their relations with Moscow. It’s a general rule that if you want to see the EU at its most divided, supine and implausible, you should look at it from the vantage point of a rich, large, powerful country, be it Russia, China or the United States. Policymakers in Beijing, Moscow and Washington share views of the EU ranging from the sceptical to the contemptuous, for they see each national government privately coming, cap in hand, to make its own deal. Small wonder that Putin’s Russia feels it can pursue its own national interests better by dealing with individual European powers. Europe, as it currently behaves towards Russia, China and the US, is a standing invitation to “divide and rule”.
The kow-towing is personal as well as national. The former German chancellor Gerhard Schröder, having smoothed the way for Russia’s Nord Stream gas pipeline under the Baltic sea while in office, is now chairman of the pipeline consortium. In an interview less than 18 months ago, he was still publicly sticking by his claim that Putin is a “flawless democrat”. Oh yes, and black is white.
A recent report by the European Council on Foreign Relations, a pan-European thinktank (full disclosure: on whose board I sit), documents this pathetic disarray. It also points out that if you treat the EU as a unit, it is potentially far more powerful than Russia. Its total economy is 15 times the size of Russia’s, which barely outstrips that of Belgium and the Netherlands combined. About half Russia’s trade is with the EU, while Russian gas supplies only 25% of current EU gas needs. As for “soft power” – the power to attract – Russia does not begin to compete. It’s only because Europe is so divided that the tail wags the dog.
There is now a fairly widespread recognition in the capitals of Europe that the EU needs to “get its act together” about Russia, which means also about energy policy. But that is little use so long as Europe’s leaders cannot agree which line they should unite around. The election – no, the coronation – of a new Russian president is a good moment to consider what that line should be: for Europe, and for others as well.
Calling in Tuesday’s debate for “a more realistic and effective strategy towards Russia”, Hillary Clinton reflected a widespread view when she said that “even though technically the meetings may be with the man who is labelled president, the decisions will be made by Putin”. Since Putin will be prime minister, with an overwhelming majority in parliament, that is what most observers currently think; it seems to be what Putin himself thinks; and it’s probably what Medvedev thinks, too. In the short term, they are probably right.
But in the longer term, I wouldn’t be so sure. The constitution gives more power to the president, and there’s something about being the top man in the Kremlin that gets to you in the end. For all its natural resources, Russia is not immune to other influences, including the country’s slowly emerging middle class, the rise of China, and the policies of Europe and the US. And you never know, one day Putin might overdo the judo practice or fall under a tram.
In any case, I believe we should use this moment to signal the beginning of a new chapter in our relations with Russia. Both the EU and, next year, the new American president should engage active but robustly with President Medvedev and his team. He is a relatively young man and said to be slightly more of a free marketeer than Putin. He is on record as observing that “we are well aware that no non-democratic state has ever become truly prosperous” – an intriguing formulation.
In any case, we have no alternative but to engage with Russia on a whole range of foreign policy issues, from Kosovo to Iran, on which it has a veto at the United Nations and other spoiling powers. But we need to spell out much more clearly the terms of our engagement. These should, at a minimum, include more respect for the sovereignty of neighbouring states, and for human rights and the rule of law, both at home and abroad. That much needs to be said clearly, publicly and at once.
This article appeared in The Guardian on 28 February, 2008
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.