Friday, February 1, 2013

Window on Eurasia: Putin’s Anti-Western Statements are Not About Russian Domestic Politics Alone, Makarkin Says

Paul Goble

            Staunton, February 1 – Vladimir Putin’s support for “the conservative wave in contemporary Russia” is not just part of his broader effort to set the country’s “silent majority” against the opposition, Aleksey Makarkin says. It is also a reflection of the Russian president’s disappointment in the foreign policy course he pursued earlier.

            In an essay in today’s “Yezhednevny zhurnal,” Makarkin, first vice president of the Moscow Center for Political Technologies and a frequent commentator on political affairs, thus makes an argument which undercuts all those who dismiss Putin comments they do not like as being “only” about domestic politics (

            During his first two terms, Putin sought to have Russia included in “’the club of the elect’ into that circle of countries who exert decisive influence on world processes.”  He succeeded in having Russia raised to full membership in the G-8 and viewed that as “symbolizing the continuity of his regime with Imperial Russia” and its role in Europe.

            As Makarkin notes, nineteenth-century Russia was very much “part of the system of European coalitions, be they those of the reactionary Holy Alliance or the Entente in which monarchist Petersburg interacted with republican Paris.”

            Moreover, the commentator continues, Putin was not only able to overcome Western suspicions about his KGB officer past, but he succeeded in developing “not simply positive but even friendly relations with three of his colleagues in ‘the eight,’” including Jacques Chirac, Gerhard Schroeder, and Silvio Berlusconi.

            With such “’friends,’” Makarkin argues, Putin could be sure that any high-level discussion of issues with which he was uncomfortable such as “Chechnya, Khodorkovsky, state control of the media, and pressure on the opposition” would not go very far. Indeed, had Magnitsky died then, the commentator says, “his death would have been little noted.”

            Moreover, at that time, objective factors were working in Putin’s and Russia’s favor, not just “subjective ones,” however important they may have been. Russia had high growth rates, and its emerging middle class was largely prepared to accept any actions of the authorities eveb the “odious” ones as an acceptable price for stability and growth.

            But the sense at that time that “Russia was again becoming a strong world player, played an evil trick on the authorities,” Makarkin argues.  They really concluded that they “could achieve everything without changing or adapting to contemporary challenges,” and consequently, they weren’t ready for the changes the world economic crisis brought.

            Now, Russia’s economy has recovered but it is not doing as well as “an ambitious developing market,” and “the European ‘friends’ of Putin have left office.” The Russian president hasn’t been able to get close to their successors, and US President Barak Obama has made it clear that he preferred working with Dmitry Medvedev, “not the best recommendation” from Putin’s point of view.

            Fluctuations in world prices for oil, slowing economic growth in Europe, and the natural gas revolution have all combined to “seriously reduce the role of Russian gas as a powerful foreign policy instrument” and made it a less certain basis for the expansion of Russian influence in the world than it had appeared only a few years ago.

            Consequently, the increase in Russia’s influence internationally, “Putin’s former pride,” turned out to be “in many respects temporary, Makarkin says. Russia is isolated in the G-8 on Iraq and Syria, and the Magnitsky Act is a measure of Russia’s and his own decline. As he certainly knows, no one would ever think of doing the same thing to Chinese officials.

             Increasingly, Makarkin suggests, the West views Russia “not as a prospective partner which one should not anger unnecessarily but rather as a country with an archaic economy and an equally backward political system, thereby undercutting the gains Putin feels he and Russia made a decade ago.

            Putin thus faces a choice, the analyst continues, “either to retreat having acknowledged the crisis of the former course or on the contrary [tighten the screws] having calculated that the course was chosen correctly and the problems reflect” secondary problems “which it is necessary to overcome.”

            For Putin, the first course is “entirely unacceptable both politically and psychologically.” And “therefore the reactionary variant has been chosen,” one that highlights rather than minimizes the distance between Russia under his rule and the “Western mainstream” and that means he is less interested in international cooperation.

            The unspoken reality, however, is that “isolationism at a time of falling growth, an economy based on raw materials and conflict with the most dynamic strata of his own society [are] a dead-end choice.”  Russia can proceed along that path for “a certain time” but not forever  “as the sad experience” of the Soviet system demonstrates.

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