What’s Yonder?
No. 3 2012 July/September
Mikhail Vinogradov

Mikhail Vinogradov is head of the St. Petersburg Politics Foundation.

Russia’s Foreign Policy Through the Eyes of Its Elite – Outside Dedicated Agencies

Over the 20 years since the emergence of new Russia its position in the world has changed drastically. The degree of integration in the world economic, political, cultural, scientific and sports context has reached a level never observed in the country’s history before. The pace of that involvement was far above the average world globalization rates. Foreign geography in Russia has stopped to be studied the way as if it were astronomy – a subject as thrilling as remote from the practical needs in the foreseeable future.


Russia’s foreign policy has changed a lot, too. Involvement in the situation on the world markets, the stepping up of relations with Latin America and the Asia-Pacific Region (including exotic Nauru and Tuvalu) alongside the traditional partners, immersion in practical nuclear non-proliferation issues, participation in setting the rules of play in various spheres, unification of ecological standards, broadening the range of countries with visa-free entry… These are the most obvious signs of Russia’s growing openness to foreign partners.

Of course, quantity by no means turned into quality in all cases. On the contrary, openness increased alongside stronger self-isolation in other respects. These days not only the man in the street, but also many journalists, teachers and officials have a very vague idea of who is the president of Bulgaria or the prime minister of Britain. Suffice it to watch the main evening news on TV for a while to see how low the general public’s interest towards the content of world processes really is.

The reasons for that are clear – from depoliticization of the public mind, which lasted for many years, to the loss of any sensible idea of goal-setting in the international scene – obvious in the past, during the era when the country enjoyed the superpower status. In those circumstances the architects of Russia’s foreign policy had a free hand: they were free to formulate their own tasks, to achieve them and to rate the effectiveness of the work done. Society and the elites distanced themselves from making any evaluations. Sporadic surges of attention (to the Balkans, the Ukrainian revolution, the Russian-Georgian war, the crisis in the euro zone, debates over multiculturalism, creation of an international financial center in Moscow) merely confirmed that the public interest towards the global context remained chaotic by and large.

Informal discussions of the external political realities inside the elites are very rare nowadays. The exceptions are topics sensitive to the establishment and directly related with the internal political situation, such as the London Court’s role in the Berezovsky vs. Abramovich litigation, or the Magnitsky bill. Usually this happens when the wish of the Russian ruling class to be deeply integrated with the world capitalist elite (the way political scientist Andrei Ryabov put it) is at stake. However, although this wish is quite obvious, the tradition of closely following international processes has not been formed yet. At best, over the many years there has developed the morning habit of half-listening to what’s on the Euronews today.

As a result, international processes in Russia enjoy no greater attention than the world markets (where the situation is presented very tentatively, with evaluations varying within a range of plus or minus 20 dollars per barrel) or the latest high-tech gadgets (most viewers are interested in the latest devices of the brand they are accustomed and loyal to).

These not very optimistic conclusions could cut the story short and round up the topic the Editors of this journal asked me to write about. After all, a great part of the elite do not feel involved in shaping the foreign policy. Nor do they show signs they might want to have a say in the process.

All this is very true, but at the same time one has to acknowledge that some ideas of the international realities (albeit sketchy and stereotyped) do exist, no denying that. And a number of issues and practices (for instance, the legalization of capitals, the risk of visa sanctions, etc.) are of decisive importance to many representatives of the establishment. Besides, there are interest groups hoping that their opinion will be taken into account somehow in forming the foreign policy course. First and foremost this is the case in the border regions, in the financial-industrial groups that are active on the world markets, among the lobbyists for major government projects and in the religious communities.

Alas, the sporadic attempts to analyze the situation in the outside world and in Russia’s foreign policy have never grown into projects of formulating national interests and Russia’s foreign policy goals. Yet one can say that there exist eight “typical pictures of the world” on that score (see Table).


Also, there are ardent pragmatists. By virtue of their professional duties or indifference to the ideological hidden motives they are oriented towards tackling micro tasks. But considering them as some special group would be wrong, while disagreement over what instruments are most effective for achieving aims are considerable. The dispute over ways of securing easier visa regulations in relations with the European Union is quite telling. Russian diplomats put the emphasis on the importance of gradual progress. They suggest starting with allowing visa-free trips for the holders of official (or special) passports. Some critics make ethically-motivated objections – “those bureaucrats take care mostly of themselves.” Others present more solid arguments – this sort of proposal can be of no interest to the European partners. According to The New Times magazine, there are about 50,000 holders of navy-blue cover passports in Russia, while European officials interested in frequent visits to Russia number no more than a hundred. All the participants in the discussion act as opponents of the law-enforcement agencies and secret services, which (as far as I can judge) are by no means enthusiastic either about plans for canceling visas and thereby stripping them of the right to control arriving foreigners, or about projects for dropping the archaic rules of registering new arrivals from foreign countries at their residence address.

The corporate communities show their own interest in international affairs. The Russian Orthodox Church is the most active player in that field. It has managed to secure the Russian authorities’ assistance in its efforts for unification with the Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia, and it hopes for support from the state in restricting competition in its canonical territory. In fairness, one has to admit that although a trend towards harmony between the ROC and the state is a hard fact, there is room for disagreement in international matters. The latest graphic example is the ROC Synod’s refusal to incorporate South Ossetia’s Alanian Diocese, which has long been eager to shrug off control of the Georgian Orthodox Church. The church authorities, which are keen to ward off expansion into their territory, proved to be more scrupulous and delicate than the state about the risk of creating a precedent of redrawing recognized borders.

In his media interview (published in May 2012) the deputy head of the Moscow Patriarchate’s external church relations department, Nikolai Balashov offered the following point of view. The main criticism addressed to the countries of Western Europe is “Christianophobia” (“the ousting of religion from public space,” and in the Middle East countries and Northern Africa, “the instances of persecution and victimization of our brothers”). Balashov refers to Vladimir Putin’s statement at the St. Daniel Monastery in Moscow on March 8 to the effect the protection of Christians’ rights in the countries where they are victims of discrimination is one of the foreign policy guidelines. In his comments on China Balashov is clearly more reserved, although he mentioned the fact that visits to the Church of the Assumption on the premises of the Russian embassy in Beijing are allowed only to the holders of foreign passports and in fact prohibited to the citizens of China. “We respect the requirements of Chinese legislation, but we seek to build a dialogue with the Chinese side,” Balashov said in a very diplomatic way.

The foreign policy activity of the authorities in the border regions’ varies greatly. The Sakhalin Region is a firm advocate of the impermissibility of handing over South Kuril Islands to Japan – but it is not so much the local elites’ “cry from the heart” as an attempt to woo the local electorate. In the northwestern regions, the elites eagerly participate in various activities also attended by Finland and the Arctic states, but they refrain from expressing their special position. The heated debates in Arkhangelsk are possibly the sole exception. Over the past six months the city has seen a massive media campaign against the former rector of the Northern University, Vladimir Bulatov, “the ideologist of Pomor ethnic separatism.” Moreover, according to publications on the Svobodnaya Pressa (Free Press) and Regnum websites, “the Norwegians” (with Brzezinski and the United States – of course! – standing behind) in an effort to “weaken and split Russia” have in fact “bought the Northern (Arctic) University in Arkhangelsk for four million dollars” and now put the stake on support for the Pomors and the promotion of a special Northern identity of residents of Russia’s Arctic.

The ideological tensions in the south of Russia are still worse. In the local mass media the elites of the North Caucasus republics have been advocating the idea that the root cause of unfriendly actions towards Russia (support for the radical Islamists, Boris Berezovsky’s activity, etc.) should be looked for in intrigues by the United States and (for some reason) Israel. On the other hand, periodicals in the Stavropol territory adhere to a different point of view. They draw the readers’ attention to the dangers of radical Islam. As a confirmation of the growing threat they quote forecasts the Arab Spring may radicalize Islamic sentiment in the Middle East countries. It is quite clear that these speculations pursue the aim of mobilizing the local population against a potential threat of soaring tensions in the North Caucasus with ensuing effects on the Stavropol territory, where inter-ethnic tensions are rather high.

In contrast, business people are in no mood to discuss foreign policy in public. Of late, Oleg Deripaska was the only exception. As he addressed the Baikal Economic forum in September 2011, he came out with an idea of an “eastward turn,” re-orientation of the Russian economy east of the Urals towards China. According to some indications, this project met with no enthusiasm in Moscow due to its excessive Chinese bias. As for the activity of representatives of public or semi-public companies in the international scene, it hardly makes sense to consider it separately: it is hard to distinguish between lobbying for foreign policy decisions in their own business interests and assistance to the government in its international projects.

Former civil servants are far more talkative. Upon retirement they get wide opportunities for presenting their opinions in public. One might suppose that that their statements express the point of view of the elite still in power, whose members are unable to make frank comments. However, in practice it is hard to distinguish such cases from marginalization – this or that senior official’s loss of a place in the “premier league” (the way it happened to Konstantin Zatulin). Quite interesting is the example of Modest Kolerov, the former chief of the presidential department for inter-regional and cultural ties, who has become one of the most active commentators. His news agency, Regnum, in the spring of 2012 used a very remarkable tactic. For harsh attacks on Medvedev’s foreign policy it resorted to active quoting of comments by experts in the CIS countries and breakaway Transdniestria under captions reading “Russia Should Rid itself of Medvedev’s Foreign Policy Legacy”.

Kolerov’s own statements sounded somewhat milder. But in his remarks about Putin’s foreign policy decree he said that the new president “regrettably does not say a word to the effect the legislative legacy of his predecessor in the field of support for compatriots makes the implementation of all his good intentions regarding the compatriots absolutely impossible, if not illegal.” The effective law “is shameful and in glaring contradiction with the Russian Constitution, the reality and justice, for it does not see and does not wish to see on the list of compatriots anyone but ‘professional Russians’, listed in a wholesale fashion as ethnographic activists at Russian diplomatic missions.”

Kolerov’s other remarks about Putin’s decree are very telling, too. The emphasis on “multi-faceted cooperation” in the post-Soviet space and the need for focusing on the implementation of the free trade zone treaty is interpreted as a recognition that the CIS does not have a political future, and the stance on Moldova is seen as an indication the recognition of Transdniestria’s independence is inevitable in case of Moldova’s unification with Romania and its admission to NATO. Kolerov also hopes the presidential decree will herald an end of “Russia’s retreat in the ‘struggle for the Arctic’ in the field of humanitarian security infrastructures” and greater solidarity with the countries of Latin America and the Caribbean – “not confined to solidarity with Brazil within the BRICS group.”



For the Russian elite, foreign policy today is not so much a sphere of large-scale pragmatic expectations as a realm of professional diplomats. The requirements set for them are not high and in some cases their efforts are seen as sheer formality. If the professional or commercial interests are not directly linked with a specific country or sphere of international relations in general, the immersion into specific problems is sporadic and depends on the situation. Whatever the case, the West-centered picture of the world is the dominant one – it is Western Europe and the United States that determine the march of events in politics and the economy, while the alternative centers of power, like China or the Islamic world, are seen as very hard to understand, and, consequently, potentially dangerous.

The establishment of economic cooperation or the exchange of experience with a view to studying modern technologies (including managerial ones) remains the main measurable (albeit relatively) result of participation in international activity. The ongoing debates among experts about the likely priorities of Russia’s foreign policy in the foreseeable future (expansion into the Arctic, the role of an arbiter in conflicts, etc.) evoke no noticeable public response. The interest in the country’s future role in the international scene is relatively low.

This situation is quite stable and the factors that might throw it off balance are few. Yet one may point to some challenges the Russian diplomacy will be confronted with.

First, there is a growing demand for the government’s support functions. This issue is increasingly often discussed these days in the context of foreign policy, and sooner or later the international agenda will include the possibility for re-orienting foreign policy from servicing the interests of the state to lobbying for the positions of specific economic and political players. However, this will happen only if the elites, or at least some parts of society, develop rational understanding of their own interests in that sphere.

The second challenge involves the change of generations. Foreign policy these days is the business of the last Soviet generation of politicians and diplomats, whose views were formed in the period of the USSR’s international isolation. The psychological scars the loss of the superpower status left on the minds of these people have not healed yet. However, slowly but surely people of other age groups, who are better adapted to foreign realities, come to the forefront. Many of them have gained business experience, they are more open to communication and are more result-oriented. True, the possibility of a conflict of generations does exist here, but it is not imminent, either.

Lastly, the fundamental rethinking of Russia’s place in the world is potentially possible in case of obvious failures in the international scene – but only if this or that step is regarded as an indisputable defeat not just by the elites, but by the public at large as well.