|Russia takes a step backwards|
|September 29, 2011|
By Gideon Rachman
The world could do with some glad tidings at the moment, to cope with a global economic crisis and turmoil in the Middle East. Unfortunately, the return of Vladimir Putin to the Kremlin does not qualify as good news.
International co-operation is badly needed for both economic and political reasons, but Mr Putin’s now inevitable return to the presidency in March 2012 will strengthen the forces of nationalism in Russia. At a time when the world’s liberal democracies are struggling economically and losing self-confidence, the new-old Russian president will bolster the authoritarian camp in global politics.
If Russian foreign policy becomes more introverted and nationalistic in 2012, it may form part of a global trend. The US and France are going through presidential elections next year, which will limit the time their leaders can devote to world affairs, and the scope of their actions. The top Chinese leadership will also change next year, which could well see Chinese foreign policy take on a more strident tone. The turmoil in the Middle East is likely to continue throughout 2012, as is the financial crisis within the European Union.
In this situation, the personality of the Russian president will matter more than ever. Russia is one of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council, and remains a major military, energy and diplomatic power.
The ease with which Dmitry Medvedev, the current Russian president, has been eased aside, will strengthen the cynical view that he was always a glove-puppet for Mr Putin. That, however, was not the assessment of western leaders who have dealt with Russia over the past four years. The Americans and Germans in particular discerned a real difference between the Putin and Medvedev camps.
At home, Mr Medvedev’s rhetorical emphasis on the rule-of-law and his more critical view of the Soviet past seemed to mark him out as a relatively liberal figure.
Internationally, it was Mr Medvedev who represented the camp in the Russian government that is most open to co-operation with the west, and that gives some credence to the idea that there are universal values that all major powers should endorse. It was Mr Medvedev who worked closely with the US on the “reset” that has seen Russian-American relations improve sharply since the nadir of 2008 and the Russo-Georgian war – allowing the US and Russia to make progress on arms control. When Nato moved to intervene in Libya, Mr Putin in the prime minister’s office was openly hostile to the idea. But Mr Medvedev at the Kremlin was much more nuanced and may have prevented Russia vetoing the UN resolution that allowed intervention.
Russia remains a major geopolitical player that still thinks and acts like one of the big, global powers. Unfortunately, Mr Putin’s view of world affairs is marked by a nostalgia for the “respect” (or fear) that Russia commanded during the cold war – and by a deep suspicion of the west. According to the Putin world-view, the Americans and the Europeans deliberately took advantage of a period of Russian weakness in the 1990s, to betray promises and to enlarge Nato up to the borders of Russia, and then to foment anti-Russian “colour revolutions” in Ukraine and Georgia. Mr Putin’s vision of the world seems to be based on the idea of a small number of quasi-imperial powers, centred in Washington, Beijing, Moscow, Brussels and so on, jostling for power and “spheres of influence”. Fashionable ideas about interdependence get short shrift.
At home, Mr Putin has talked often about his belief in reform and his desire to battle corruption and diversify the economy. In reality, however, the Putin years saw Russia turn into a petro-state – where rival oligarchs battled for the ear of the Kremlin, and many of those who crossed the president ended up in prison or in exile. It is hard to believe that a second Putin presidency will change this well-established way of doing things.
Western leaders comfort themselves that while Mr Putin may be bad, he does not appear to be mad. His willingness as president to confront the US over issues such as human rights, Georgia, the Ukraine or Kosovo was almost always tempered by a shrewd sense of just how far he could go. Several western leaders, including George W. Bush and Tony Blair, initially felt that they had struck up a good relationship with Mr Putin. Mr Blair noted regretfully in his memoirs that while Mr Putin, as president, eventually pursued a “foreign policy of a very nationalist kind”, the British prime minister “never lost that initial feeling for him or the thought that had circumstances transpired or conspired differently, the relationship could have prospered”.
If Mr Putin remains a man that foreign leaders feel they can do business with, then the return of his hard-edged nationalism to the Kremlin need not be a disaster. Unfortunately, it is a well-established rule of politics that the longer a leader is in office, the more likely he is to succumb to megalomania and to make major errors of judgment.
Mr Putin has already served eight years as president and four as prime minister. Now that the presidential term has been extended to six years, he is poised for a further 12 years in the Kremlin. A president who occupies power for 20 years would be bad news in any country. In a nation with the tragic history of autocracy of Russia, it is a sad and ominous development.
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