It is a tradition, as each year draws to a close, to nominate a person of the year: someone who stands out by dint of influence, achievement, or ability to reflect important trends.
This has been an eventful year in Russian politics, and there are many contenders for the title of person of the year. My personal choice is Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov.
When the government was being formed after the presidential election, many predicted a new face for Russian foreign policy. However, no replacement could be found for the foreign minister who has held this post for eight years, a record in modern Russia.
Lavrov is the first foreign minister after Yevgeny Primakov to go from technocrat to political heavyweight. Even Lavrov’s opponents recognize his mastery of diplomacy. His vast experience has equipped him with everything he needs to be a successful foreign minister.
Due to the unfolding situation in Syria, Lavrov was firmly center stage in 2012. In January he clearly articulated Moscow’s position: foreign intervention and its legitimization are unacceptable. If we are to believe the Arab press, then in December Russia and America proposed a joint plan for a political transition in Syria.
Between these two events a classic diplomatic game in true 19th century spirit played out.Moscow was unusually adamant in its rejection of foreign intervention. Contrary to widespread opinion, the Kremlin and the Foreign Ministry were fighting not for their specific interests but for the guiding principles of international relations.
During the past year, Russia was declared a loser and morally bankrupt many times when it came to Syria. Still, all players in the conflict appealed to Moscow again and again to help find a solution. They did so not only because of Moscow’s diplomatic skills – the impasse in Syria is the result of external, objective factors.
But this does not change the fact that Russia remains a key player, albeit one that will have to, eventually, exit the scene. It is impossible to win in a Syria torn asunder by civil war, and the outlook for the future is gloomy.
While Syria has proved that classic diplomacy remains relevant, the enmity that flared up between the parliaments of the United States and Russia at the end of the year has demonstrated its limits.
The US Congress has passed the Magnitsky Act in an attempt to embarrass President Barack Obama and interfere with his attempts to advance the Russian-US relationship (purely a matter of internal politics).
It also wanted to remind the world of its mission on human rights, and promote the concept of exterritorial legislation (America is continuously striving for global hegemony, even in the legal sphere).
A broad interpretation of Section 4 of the act allows the US authorities to blacklist any Russian official deemed guilty of human rights abuses. The act is clearly directed against Russian officials.
The criteria are arbitrary. Who to target and why is at the discretion of US authorities, with no recognition of the sovereign prerogatives of other states. This was the last straw for the Kremlin.
Moscow’s decision to retaliate by banning child adoptions by American families is bizarre. It does not hurt anyone in America except for a few dozen unfortunate families that are in the middle of the adoption process right now. A PR offensive against the only country, save Somalia, not to join the Convention on the Rights of the Child can only resonate in Russia, and with less effect than before.
The use of orphans in retaliation has been met with bewilderment around the world. Even opponents of the Magnitsky Act within the US are perplexed by this Russian boomerang.
The Russian-US conflict over the Magnitsky Act highlights the conceptual confusion in international relations. On the one hand, America is heading downhill domestically (inability to reach consensus on anything and polarization of society) and is losing its grip on global affairs.
Consequently, it is pursuing a tougher foreign policy, trying to impose on other countries what it cannot assert at home. Quite often, it weakens its own standing in the process.
Meanwhile, the Russian government is trying to use its weapon (like the ban on adoptions) to resolve three challenges – one domestic (strengthening society and patriotism), one external (a powerful blow to exterritorial encroachments) and one universal (an emphasis on moral values).
Paradoxically, the day-to-day working relationship between Russia and the United States is free of any fundamental disagreements that could spark a deeper conflict. Tensions over Syria, Iran or missile defense are typical for non-allied major countries.
However, the toxic mixture of emotions, complexes, self conceit and wounded pride could result in even greater enmity between the countries.Diplomacy would be powerless in this case.
Lavrov has repeatedly opposed including the ban on adoptions in the law passed in response to the Magnitsky Act. I cannot remember a case in which the Foreign Ministry – by definition a conservative department that toes the official line – publicly voiced its dissent from the position of the country’s leadership. But the minister’s actions are understandable.
As a professional, he feels slighted considering the enormous amount of work done to sign an adoption agreement with the United States (on instructions from the Russian executive and legislative bodies).
The agreement came into force on November 1, and it is too early to tell whether its oversight mechanisms work. In this case, a strictly professional approach would be more morally defensible than demagoguery.
As a disciplined official, Lavrov will seek access to Russian children adopted by US families, even though the United States will have little incentive to cooperate after the repudiation of the adoption agreement. Diplomatic skills will be a major asset, but even diplomacy may be powerless in the face of such a strangely defined political interest.