Putin’s return: a déjà vu presidency? (2)

Russia lives in history, and history lives in Russia. Right now, Russia is hoping »»

Russia lives in history, and history lives in Russia. Right now, Russia is hoping that the déjà vu presidency will bring with it déjà vu success, but the public is looking further back than Putin's last term, all the way back to Soviet times when Russia was much more obviously a global power.

By describing the collapse of the Soviet Union as a real-life drama, the great tragedy of the 20th century, in a speech in 2005, Putin appealed to this collective yearning. Russians are in the shadow of a complicated and deep-seated collective identity crisis that has struck the very heart of the national consciousness. Thus, leaders of post-Soviet Russia, in seeking their own ways to tackle the practical challenges of the future, have continued to face perhaps the most daunting political obstacle of all: history.

Those familiar with Russia's recent past can assess the evolution of its foreign policy from the beginning of the new millennium to the Russia of today's rapidly changing world. When Vladimir Putin, as prime minister, published his first policy article in December of 1999 (“Russia at the Turn of the Century”), he stated bluntly and accurately that “Russia is going through one of the most difficult periods of its centuries-old history; it is in real danger of finding itself in the second or even third echelon of world states.” Just a few days later, he found himself being presented as the presidential candidate by Boris Yeltsin. The weak Russia of the new millennium became under Putin a powerful state with a stable and growing economy. Now, Putin has declared his foreign policy priorities before taking on the presidency, just as he predicted that during this new term Russia will struggle in a “changing world.”

Russia in a ‘changing world'

Putin, before retaking the presidency, published several articles. In one from February 27, 2012, called “Russia and the Changing World,” he considers the country's future international relations, revealing some elements of the Kremlin's foreign policy. As Putin describes it, Russia's foreign policy is strategic rather than opportunistic, indicating that the main course of development is in strengthening the “privileged area,” i.e., the post-Soviet space. Hence, Putin declared the geopolitical importance of this area as a potential Eurasian Union and, indeed, some progress has been made toward this vision. Notably, on January 1, 2012, the Common Economic Space was officially launched by Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan. In the Kremlin, the Eurasian Union now looks like a purely economic venture, but the long-term goal is to mimic the trajectory of the EU's development along the lines of a “political union through economic integration,” the original motto coined in Brussels.

Many believe that this promises a “mini Soviet Union,” and all are eager to know what strategy Moscow will employ to realize this goal, particularly in the Caucasus. Moreover, one of the crucial questions is how does Eurasian Union relate to the traditional flux in Russian foreign policy?

It seems that, on the one hand, in Putin's view, the Eurasian Union is “a model of a powerful supranational union that can become one of the poles of today's world while being an efficient connecting link between Europe and the dynamic Asia-Pacific Region,” as he wrote in Izvestia (“A New Integration Project for Eurasia -- The Future is Born Today,” Oct. 4, 2011). True enough, this is not necessarily seeking a revival of the Soviet Union; for starters, there would be differences because no one can artificially recreate the USSR as it was. It seems, for the most part, a copy of the European Union model, but with one difference -- in the words of International Eurasian Movement head Alexander Dugin, “A Eurasian Union will differ from the EU in that it will be based on Eurasian values, not European ones."

On the other hand, post-Soviet countries, especially in the South Caucasus, are likely to be reluctant to declare allegiance with Russia in such a blatant and binding form. These three countries prefer to remain silent on the matter of membership to the proposed union; only Georgia has spoken out, declaring the Eurasian Union as the Kremlin's new hegemony. But for Armenia and Azerbaijan, nor is silence a solution either; simply postponing their declaration has projected a new policy model for other allegiances -- not only with Moscow but also in relations with the EU and Washington. Generally, when former Soviet states don't get what they want from the West, or when they hear criticism from the EU, they can now publicly comment that “they have an alternative,” inviting the West to evaluate the pressure from Russia. This veiled message will probably help those who are seeking deeper integration with the EU to obtain more political and financial support, with increasing Russian influence used as a means of leveraging more Western aid. At present, it seems impossible to imagine seeing the post-Soviet countries in a new alliance when there remain open conflicts between them -- conflicts that have challenged Russia's role as a mediator and peacekeeper for the past two decades.

Regarding relations with the West, it seems likely that Russia is eager to continue in the same vein. No one is predicting a “reset back to the reset” in Moscow-Washington relations, but clashes will be greater on security issues, and on the questions of the situation in the Middle East, Iran and nuclear proliferation. In this sense, despite denials by the Kremlin that its foreign policy is not opportunistic, we surely will see that Moscow is actively seeking out examples of “the decline of the West” to use as political capital within its former empire. Today's view of Russian foreign policy understands the dynamics of this “changing world,” but, while Russia has changed, it still hasn't changed enough.