Where to Focus If You Are Expecting Change
Editor's Column
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Fyodor A. Lukyanov

Russia in Global Affairs
National Research University–Higher School of Economics, Moscow, Russia
Faculty of World Economy and International Affairs
Research Professor;
Valdai Discussion Club
Research Director


SPIN RSCI: 4139-3941
ORCID: 0000-0003-1364-4094
ResearcherID: N-3527-2016
Scopus AuthorID: 24481505000


E-mail: [email protected]
Tel.: (+7) 495 980 7353
Address: Office 112, 29 Malaya Ordynka Str., Moscow 115184, Russia

Interest in next year’s presidential election is gradually
eclipsing all other current events in Russia. The main pursuit of
analysts and commentators has become peering across this political
Rubicon into the dense fog that enshrouds the opposite bank.

The supercharged intrigue in this instance is peculiar to the
Russian political system. Decisions are made behind closed doors,
shut off from virtually everybody. And the less reliable the
information available, the more room there is for people’s
imaginations to run free. Yet nobody doubts that President Vladimir
Putin will choose his successor from among his close colleagues. If
this is true, then from what quarter can we expect any significant

Since power is likely to remain in the hands of the same select
group, it follows that no substantial changes should be expected
after the 2008 election. So we are left with the question of what
we mean when we say things will stay the same.

First, relations with the West will not change. There is general
consensus that these have hit a post-Soviet low during Putin’s
second term. But a more objective appraisal shows that relations
with the West have followed a consistent pattern over the past 15
years. Under both Putin and former President Boris Yeltsin, periods
of thaws in relations and apparent rapprochement have been followed
by cold snaps and even crises. These then gave way to improved
relations and the cycle continued.

Actual cooperation has remained at about the same relatively low
level throughout. It is just that in the 1990s there was a lot of
fine talk about integration, despite the modest level of real
progress. Now, when it is accepted practice to emphasize the
differences and even ideological incompatibilities, interdependence
between Russia and the West is actually increasing. Don’t forget
that both Yeltsin and Putin have pushed for Russian membership in
the most prestigious Western clubs. At first, this meant the
Council of Europe and the Group of Seven, but then it was followed
by the World Trade Organization and the Organization for Economic
Cooperation and Development.

A sense of latent or even outright geopolitical competition has
always characterized relations with the West. Given the same
opportunities that exist today, Yeltsin might have followed the
same course Putin is following now. In fact, Yeltsin’s decision to
send Russian troops into Kosovo constituted the riskiest attempt in
recent history to demonstrate Russia’s independence from the

What has changed is not so much Russia’s approach to the West,
but prevailing global conditions, and economic conditions in
particular. Both sides react to these in their own traditional way,
and this is likely to continue after the 2008 presidential
election. Russia, having regained its role as a great power, will
continue to compete with the West for influence in international
affairs. But the Kremlin is not in a position to risk escalating
tensions, and the political elite understands that a full-scale
confrontation with the West is not in its interests.

There’s no doubt that Russia will attempt to strengthen its
position in the Middle East. The region is critical to ensuring
stability on world energy markets, and no country with an economy
so reliant on oil and gas can afford to ignore that region. Russia
also will continue its efforts to expand its presence in eastern
and southern Asia, as relations here are extremely important for
both global development and for the security and development of
Russia’s Far East. As for discussions with the European Union, the
positions on both sides have been clearly defined, and while they
coincide in part, there is still considerable disagreement. There
is little likelihood that a common set of shared values can be
established anytime soon.

Finally, nothing new should be expected in relations with former
Soviet republics. As the disintegration of former bonds continues,
these countries are likely to gravitate toward different centers of
influence. Competition between the great regional powers is
inevitable. Russia will take part, of course, but will face a more
even playing field. Given current trends, Moscow will eventually
accept that the former Soviet Union no longer exists as a single
entity, or even a zone of common interests.

So leadership changes in the Kremlin are more likely to alter
the style than the substance of foreign policy. A more effective,
balanced foreign policy approach might result from a fall in world
energy prices, which would result in a bit of a drop in the
country’s self-image. But basic positions will still be determined
by a basic compromise between groupings among the elite.

This doesn’t necessarily mean there will be no changes in
foreign policy in the foreseeable future. The new administration
will witness the final stages of the process that began with the
collapse of the Soviet Union, the main feature of which has been
the absence of an ideological basis for action. Early moves at
democratic reform were impossible to develop into a complete
ideology given the country’s deep political and economic crisis.
The entire period since perestroika has been characterized by
attempts first to preserve, then to imitate and, finally, to
restore Russia’s former international influence. There has been
some success here, but the foundation for this regained influence
is still shaky.

Whether generated by a fall in energy prices or some other
impetus, a real change in foreign policy can only arrive under one
of two conditions: the appearance of a serious pro- or anti-Western
doctrine, or the creation of a well developed strategy based on a
long-term evaluation of Russia’s place in the world. Neither of
these exists at present.

With regard to doctrine, the demand for a new ideology can only
spring from society itself. This doesn’t mean some contrived
doctrine imposed from above and as an ideological superstructure,
but rather a true aspiration toward ideological self-identification
that comes from the people itself. It is hard to imagine a return
to the liberal outlook that held sway at the beginning of reforms,
just as it is unlikely that any system of common values will arise
to serve as a basis for real partnership with the West.

The opposite is actually more likely: The formation of a
conservative ideology built upon rejection of Western precepts. In
the process of creating a nation-state — which is exactly what
Russia is attempting to do — traditionalism and a tendency toward
nationalism are natural. At the same time, Russia’s ethnic
diversity and relatively high degree of openness are probably
sufficient to limit this conservative trend.

The chief factor behind the development of an overall strategy
is likely to be conditions on the international stage. The world of
the 21st century, the outlines of which are forming quickly, is
both dangerous and harder to control. Rivalries will increase in
every sphere — from economic and geopolitical competition to the
battle for hearts and minds. By any significant criteria other than
wealth in natural resources — the quantity and quality of human
capital, the level of development in infrastructure and high
technology — Russia lags behind its major partners and rivals on
the international stage. The stakes are high, with success going to
those countries able to make far-reaching, less opportunistic and,
perhaps, unusual decisions. And the Russian intellectual class
should prepare for it right now, paying no attention to the fuss
over the «2008 problem» which, in fact, is not really a problem at

| The Moscow