Vilhelm Konnander: „Russia’s strive for recognition as an equal in international affairs is, in my view, the greatest flaw in Moscow policy”
– One of the declared priorities of the Putin-Medvedev regime is to make Russia a regional and international financial power as well. Therefore, while both the media and Occidental analists sustain that Russia is on the verge of collapsing, Moscow tries to show the contrary (I speak here about the loan to Island, to the International Monetary Fund, the funds used for holding APEC). Moreover, premier Putin declared that the country development strategy set until 2020 is not going to suffer major changes, regardless of the international crisis. How much of all this is pure truth and how much is mistification from both the international analists and Moscow autorities?
V.K.: – There is frequently a tendency towards katastroika scenarios in western analysis of Russia. It is said that Moscow is digging its own grave. Still, despite regular crises, the country seems to have an extraordinary capacity of muddling through. For good reasons, many analysts now fear macroeconomic imbalances primarily due to a fall in international oil prices, reiterating patterns of the past: 1986, 1994, and 1998. In recent history, Russian crises tend to coincide with a decline in demand and prices of oil. So, it is now easy to jump to the conclusion that Russia again is on the verge of financial collapse, judging from such one-factor analysis.
What is the difference this time, is the big financial reserves Moscow has amassed during the good years. In biblical analogy, the big question is to what extent Russia, after seven good years, now is prepared for seven bad years. There are no good answers, but the observation that Russian state finances this time over are better than when the country has previously been confronted by great challenges.
As for the 2020 strategy, reform is always difficult during times of crisis. As is typical of Russia, policy formation is often an instrument both of state action and tending to the interests of politico-economic élites. This is also the case of the 2020 strategy – as its forerunner, the Putin plan. The importance of policy 2020 cannot be underestimated. It is on the one hand a strategy for economic development and diversification at a time when long-term macro-factors desperately need to be addressed, and on the other hand a vital formula for preserving élite interests. At the core, strategy 2020 is a far-reaching project to tackle problems ahead at the same time as it intends to ensure the internal cohesion of the élite and the continued redistribution of wealth underpinning it. Without continuous financing of a reform policy catering to the needs of the élite, both economy and political stability stand at peril. When Gleb Pavlovsky, Russia’s primary political spindoctor, floats the question whether plan 2020 will survive, most analysts should therefore raise their eyebrows due to the fundamental importance of this type of policy – regardless of what it is called at the moment. It was the policy that brought the Putin-Medvedev tandem into power, and should it fall, repercussions may be felt for a long time to come.
Concerning Moscow’s moves on the international financial markets, the political and economic rationales are intertwined. It is a combination of sustenance of the international financial system as well as investment and expansion into new markets. Thus, there is little particular to Russian actions within this sphere, as there is a objective need to invest state reserves and diversify investement risks.
Consequently, crying out collapse for the Russian economy is uninteresting without properly analysing facts and potential consequences a crisis might have for politics and society as a whole. Without this, the question of strong or weak is but a worthless value statement.
– Certainly you have heard many times: Gazprom is a weapon for blackmailing the West, or a tool for stuffing the pockets of the Kremlin bureaucrats. What is your opinion ? Even if never delivered, the status of Russia at present is tolerated because of the dependence of Europe its energy resources. Acceptance as a equal partner would change anything? Gazprom would have a gun less than feared?
V.K.: – In my view, this is simply an issue of classical dual use. If Gazprom, for pure economic reasons, acts against foreign customers not paying their due, it would be stupid not to expoit also the political fear of turning off the energy tap. It should thus be clearly stated that economic interests are primary to political, even if the latter may be forwarded as a consequence of actions to forward the former. As Bill Clinton once put it: „It’s the economy, stupid!”
– The Summit G 20 sessions showed a visible discrepancy (related to the solutions for the crisis) between USA’s and Europe’s (sustained by Russia, after Nisa Summit) points of view. Admitting that Bush administration is trying to minimize its mistakes by sustaining these points of view, do you think that there is going to be a reconciliation after President Elect Obama moves in the White House?
V.K.: – Hopes for a new Bretton Woods were highly exaggerated in the runup to the Nisa meeting. That no groundbreaking results were reached is only part of an ongoing political process, where it is far too early to speak of any rift between Europe and the US in handling the international financial crisis. With unrealistic expectations next to any result from such a meeting is bound to be disappointing. As for Russia’s role, it would be erroneous for the country not to forward its positions and interests, even if it means exploiting differences in the Transatlantic axis.
As for a rapproachement between the White House and the Kremlin, president elect, Barack Obama, has signalled an interest in resuming a closer dialogue between the US and Russia. However, this is an issue of change in the overall American foreign policy paradigm where realism might be exchanged for a more ideaslistic approach to international relations. Speaking more about values might actually not be in the interest of Moscow, as it would create greater complexity than the current simplicity of realism. A value based dialogue can therefore prove a less tempting alternative to Russia than the current situation, not least as the country’s leadership wants to avoid a new Helsinki process or the resurge of coloured revolutions. In Russia, realism reigns, and reconcilitation remains a matter of symbolic policy, as long as soft values are not adjoined by real value – political or economic.
– In the same context, can we say that the international crisis has some good effects as being the premise for Russia and European Union to speak a common language? Or are we just dealing with a temporary solidarity that’s going to be forgotten as soon as new discussions about the security strategies, the dependency of the Russian energetic resources, Georgia and Ukraine adherence to OTAN start?
V.K.: – International politics contain little solidarity. Bandwagoning for avoiding or addressing a global financial crisis is something done only when the system itself is at risk. As soon as immediate dangers are averted, relations are likely to return to business as usual. Here, the European Union stands divided, and Russia may continue to exploit differences to its own advantage. To be frank, Moscow would be stupid not to. Thus, we might expect the continuation of Russian forum-shopping, advancing its interests in fora after fora, organization after organization, not least over differences among NATO-members over further expansion of the organization. It will take a new Gorbachev for this to change, and that would be the last thing most Russians would want now. So, differences are likely to live on, and various Russian state and élite interests will continue contrast to western, even up to the breaking-point in many issues. As the Georgia case illustrates, the difficulty now is to ascertain the position of this breaking-point, for both Russian politicians and western analysts. The biggest risk at the moment is that things get out of hand without most actors realizing the severity of a specific situation or combination of factors.
– You have a very good knowledge of the realities in the ex-soviet countries. On considering the harsh fight to control the underground resources as much as Russia’s will to conserve its influence, how much of Russia’s wish to be acknowledged as one of the region’s powers is eligible and how much is a sideslip from the international laws? (as suggested by the Occident, in different times). Also, you was part of the Swedish Defence Research Agency (FOI) which presented one of the first more comprehensive analyses of the recent war in Georgia at a press seminar in Stockholm. What conclusions can be drawn in this respect the analysis of the conflict with Georgia?
V.K.: – Russia’s strive for recognition as an equal in international affairs is, in my view, the greatest flaw in Moscow policy. Still, its history – originating in 15th century relations between Ivan III and Habsburg Emperor Frederick III – is too old for it to change. What use is there of influence if it only exhausts Russian resources and in the process makes most neighbours hostile to Moscow? The basic question should be how to use existing influence and not the per se possession of it. Any droit de régard must be regarded in terms of how it might forward Russian interests, and not merely having them. Anything else is but a waste of time and resources, which is something few big powers can afford in the long run. So, one should make a distinction between Russia as a natural big power in world or regional politics, and useless pretences for great power status. The rigidity of great power existence is but a curse to Russia.
As for international law aspects of the Russo-Georgian conflict, it is correct to point to the legal analogy of Kosovo and secessionist Georgian regions. However, when compared to Kosovo, the fundamental issue of proportion is difficult to address for Moscow. Motivating intervention due to an alleged genocide is no great method if it turns out that so is not the case, especially if Russian countermeasures are disproportionate. However, this is an issue for jurists to debate. What is at the core of the Georgia conflict, and the potential future behaviour of Russia, is whether this is the application of sovereign democracy – United Russia’s party ideology – to foreign policy. If so, the west and all neighbouring countries are up for a total reassessment of how Moscow regards and pursues world affairs. As I see it, this is clearly an issue that more western analysts should turn attention to.
– Starting from these “lessons” that would be how to resolve frozen conflicts in other ex-Soviet space (Transnistria, Nagorno-Karabakh)?
V.K.: – I have great difficulties to see why Russia would have any interest whatsoever of resolving any frozen conflict on post-soviet ground. There is simply nothing in it for Moscow. If something is working, there is little reason to change it out of some obscure benevolence towards the international system or the urge to end conflict. However, in cases where there is something to gain politically or economically from resolving conflict, diplomats at Smolensk square will certainly go along with any solution in the interest of their masters. Still, lacking such incentives, there is little to expect out of Moscow in terms of working for peaceful settlements of frozen conflict in the FSU.
Vilhelm Konnander is an expert on Russia and Eastern Europe, focussing on international relations and security. He has previously served as President of the Swedish Society for the Study of Russia, Central and Eastern Europe and Central Asia – the national “branch organisation” for regional analysts. Konnander currently works as a consultant for various companies, authorities and organisations.
Interview conducted by Gabriela Ioniţă
published in no.62, Cadran Politic Review, dec. 2008