Russia's elite will grow up! (2)

In the second part of this important interview with polit.ru’s Boris Dolgin, veteran foreign affairs analyst Dmitry Trenin outlines an optimistic vision of Russia’s future. The country’s foreign policy will change as Russia’s elite matures, he predicts. In time, that elite will need the rule of law and democratic values, he believes. And in order to modernise, it will look to Europe
Dmitry Trenin
21 January 2010

Boris Dolgin: Putin may have no particular preferences, but where do you think Russia should be looking?

Dimitry Trenin:  In my view, Russia is not going to be able to modernise unless it develops a very close relationship with the European Union. In economic, social, humanitarian and other aspects. It’s also going to have to cooperate with the United States when it comes to security matters, it’ll have to develop a real partnership, I mean, one worthy of the name. This doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t work with China, Japan, Korea etc. But cooperation with Europe will be the engine of that process, from a humanitarian, economic and social point of view.

Cooperating with the United States would mean de-militarising the mindset, modernising our foreign policy thinking. As long as the USA is seen as a likely opponent, there can be no modernisation. That’s obvious. And at the moment part of the Russian elite has got problems with that. 

And if we are talking about Europe, I should say that I believe that it’s pointless our setting ourselves the task of joining the European Union…

B.D. Because they won’t accept us?

Dmitry Trenin

D.T. Firstly, they wouldn’t let us in, and they’re right about that – in their place I wouldn’t either. It would destroy the entire structure, and create enormous distortions, imbalances etc. Europe would not be able to manage it. Secondly, I don’t think Russia needs that.

Russia has many interests of its own which it needs to pursue more actively. For Russia, a more comfortable position would be that of a very close ally, a very close partner integrated into everything apart from institutions. The statement of the former chairman of the European Commission Roman Prodi that we would share everything apart from institutions is, I think, a very good description of the prospects of Russian-European integration. The same goes for the United States – no formal union is necessary, no membership in NATO. We should not make an enemy out of China, and for the Chinese the expansion of NATO into Russia would feel like a threat. Neither the West nor Russia would gain by that.

B.D. How should we deal with the fear of isolation?

D.T. I don’t think that we would feel isolated if we had a close relationship with Europe, if we enjoyed everything but shared institutions – open Schengen zone, a common economic space, a free trade zone, a real energy partnership which could become the equivalent of the European Association of Coal and Steel. We’ve got a lot in common with Europe. We could coordinate our foreign policy in some areas, and a great deal more. But we’d live in different houses. I think that’s important. When people live in the same apartment, relations between them are often worse than when they visit one another.

The same goes for the United States. In my opinion, we can maintain respectful, equal relations outside an alliance. If Russia joined NATO, it would start to break that up from inside too. Demands would be made of Russia which could not be satisfied within the alliance. That’s completely unnecessary.

B.D. But demands are already being made of Russia. Only from the outside.

D.T. Yes, but from the outside it’s much easier to accept than from the inside. It does not break the rules of NATO, it does not cause disorder. Russia does something, and NATO reacts by saying something. The problem is, though, that when Russia sits down to talks with members of the alliance, rather than with NATO as an organization, different countries may have different positions.

B.D. And this is divisive. Like in the European Union.

D.T. It does not cause division in the European Union, it exploits the divisions within the EU. Everyone exploits this, the US no less than Russia, only no one talks about this – not publicly, at least. As for the divisions in NATO, the idea of Old Europe and New Europe was not invented by Russia, and it wasn’t directly to do with Russia. And that was a more serious crisis than any that has been connected with Russia. I can’t remember a crisis concerning Russia which has been as painful and difficult for NATO as the 2003 crisis over the war in Iraq. The fact that NATO countries have different interests, and accordingly different positions – that’s normal. When there’s a military threat, it brings them together, of course. But when there’s no military threat, when they can relax and announce their position at the top of one’s voice, it’s very different.

Iran and sanctions

B.D. In Kommersant recently you wrote a column about the possibility that the US and Russia might exchange unilateral steps, but in areas where their interests coincide. Do you believe that Iran could take a serious part in this exchange? Are the interests reconcilable?

D.T. The unilateral steps I described there are really trifling. They are symbols, PR, but necessary PR, because it is vital to demonstrate visibly, seriously, that something is changing on this front. It’s important for Iran, too. I wrote about the need to coordinate strategy on Iran. What do I mean by this? Not to respond to America on Iran would mean ruining the cooperation that has begun, ruining the chance we’ve got right now, one which potentially extremely advantageous for Russia, in respect of the goals I mentioned – modernisation and the demilitarisation of relations with the US.

But it would be wrong to concentrate just on whether or not Russia should join the sanctions regime, because the sanctions approach has no strategy behind it.

B.D. There is no mechanism behind it.

D.T. For a start, there’s no mechanism. It’s also unclear what our game plan is. What are these sanctions for? To make sure that these mullahs will never come to an agreement? To bully them and provoke a revolution in Iran? What is our plan? There’s no plan at all.

The major powers do indeed need to agree in order to solve the Iran problem. We must act in concert, but this united front needs to have a coherent strategy behind it. What strategy? To stimulate Iran, and not only positively, not just with a carrot, but with a stick too– through sanctions. But these sanctions need to be part of a game which the international community is playing with Iran. A game aimed not at humiliating Iran, forcing it to abandon its national interests etc. On the contrary, the endgame should be that Iran is able to join the international community, but under certain conditions. These conditions may be extremely favourable for it, but it will have to give up one thing. It might decide not to do so fully.  That which is prohibited should be subject to constant monitoring, and Iran will know that if the international community does not fulfill its promises, then it will be able to return to its weapons, and thereby ensure its security.

But if all goes well, Iran will have no reason to take that path, because it will receive a great deal of what it wants from the international community. It will have access to technology, to trade. It will have its debts unfrozen, it will finally gain diplomatic relations with the US. It will start transforming itself from being an outcast to a major regional player, and even, to some extent, a leader. For Iran, this is quite an interesting prospect.But if it wants it, Iran’s going to have to respond to the international community reciprocally. Again, no one should have to believe in anyone’s good will; everyone should be able to check everyone else, and if we get the combination of positive and negative stimuli right here, then I think it’ll work.

B.D. What will persuade Russia to pursue this course of action, rather than playing a zero sum game?

D.T. Firstly, the game is hardly worth the candle. Russia is only Iran’s 10th or 12th largest partner. It earns us very little money. Russia has sold Iran a certain amount of weapons. If it delivers more, it will lose incomparably more. Russia will lose out in diplomatic relations with America, Europe etc.

So Russia has little to gain from holding out for a different scenario. If the idea is that it’s in our interests for the Americans to get up to their neck and come to grief – I won’t even dignify that with comment. If anyone believes that Russia gains from an increase in oil prices – a boom which will be followed at some point by a colossal fall in price – that’s not worthy of comment either. It is clear that at some time, when Iran is re-integrated into the international community, it will want the same things as Russia – western technology and western investments. And TU planes will be in no more in demand in Iran than they are in Russia.

Yes, of course we can go all out for confrontation. But it’s pointless, whereas if we cooperate over Iran we’ll be able to make good progress with the United States. I don’t mean minor cooperation – like signing a resolution no one’s going to carry out, or something like that – but serious cooperation. If we really are potentially strategic partners, as we like to make out, then let’s sit down like serious partners, and discuss Iran, Afghanistan etc like equals.

B.D. Do you think they understand that the imminent delivery of the S-300s may trigger preemptive military action? (ed: Russia has delayed 8 months in delivering a consignment of S-300 anti-aircraft missiles to Iran)

D.T. I don’t know. Probably, but that’s not the issue. The problem is that this would lead to a drastic deterioration in our relationship with the West. No amount of success on the Iranian front would compensate for that.

From consumers to democrats

B.D. The Russian leadership usually refers to our interests when describing the international situation. But there have been recent exceptions. For example, in an article in the Polish newspaper Gazeta Wyborcza, Putin talked about values and morality. Medvedev does too, from time to time. What is the role of values and interests in international politics, in your view?

D.T. I believe that international relations are based mainly on interests. I have no problem with that idea. But unless interests are rooted in values they run the risk of losing their bearings, their meaning.

B.D. Do you not see our foreign policy and that of Europe as being based on a misunderstanding, when it comes to values and interests?

D.T. Well, Europe is a unique phenomenon. If you look beyond the rhetoric, at the reality of their foreign policy, America and Russia are closer to one another than either is to Europe.

America and Europe do, of course, share the same language, the same terminology, they share the values of societies that are very advanced. Russian society is less well developed. It may have adopted the terminology, as Russia’s leaders did in the 1990s, but there’s a huge distance between that and really internalising the values.

We can talk about democracy as much as we like, but there’s not much demand in our country for democracy. We’ve got a lot of consumers now, and that’s a good thing. But these consumers haven’t yet become citizens. One day they will, I hope. But it’s going to take some time. When they do, then we can start talking about real democracy.

You could say that our country is authoritarian, because it is. It is mildly authoritarian. In politics, one group has a monopoly on power. But the people who really support this regime aren’t really interested in politics. They’re interested in the size of their salaries, what they can buy with their money etc. This is normal. People have the got the right to decide what interests them and what does not.

They did not bring communism down in order to establish democracy, but so that they could have food and freedom in their private lives – and they’ve got that, more or less. People got what they were fighting for.

B.D. How can you turn consumers into citizens? What is it going to take?

D.T. I think that the consumers need to get established. 15 years ago some of us were still unsure whether or not there was going to be a civil war, whether we might have to leave the country. Now that’s no longer an issue. There’s going to be no civil war, and no one’s  going to have to leave the country – or you can if you like. You can live in Moscow, and you can live in Voronezh. Everyone can go where they like – that’s settled now. It’s no longer a question of ‘sauve qui peut’.

And once people settle down, they start trying to make things work. Look at the way the rich live in Moscow. It’s fairly normal, fairly like life in the West. They’ve got decent cars. I look at the cars parked in the courtyard of my completely non-elite building in the centre of Moscow: they’ve changed a good deal over the last 15 years, and crisis or no, they go on changing. But once you leave your personal space, your house, you find yourself in a place which no one looks after. People regard that as the responsibility of various organizations, officials, councils, the building maintenance board, etc.

As long as you stay in your apartment it’s fine. But as soon as you go out onto the stairwell things aren’t so great. They may not be terrible, but they’re not great. Considering what people earn, and what they could do, it could be better. People aren’t getting their act together to improve things for everyone. Though in some respects this is starting to happen. People with cars – you know what a problem parking has become – don’t want just anyone to be able to park in the courtyard, and so they decide to get together and put up iron gates, so that only people with an electronic key can enter. That’s a small improvement for a small territory.

If you’ve got children - not a lot of those being born right now, but still - you don’t want alcoholics hanging around their playground. You try and get something done about that. And so on and so on.

The way I see it is that people who live in a place and have decided that they’re going to go on living there – in Moscow, Kostroma or wherever – are starting to want to do something to make it nicer.

No one is working on building democracy. Democracy grows out of a need, as I see it. You have to want to take part in a common cause. Democracy means a republic. As we do not have a republic, there’s no common cause – everyone sticks to their own private affairs – so we don’t feel much of a need for democracy. It’ll happen. I’m sure will in due course.

B.D. You mean the public will grow out of the private, from the ground up?

D.T. Yes. People have different kinds of interests too,  not only playgrounds. People who’ve made fortunes, who’ve got factories, newspapers and ships. They’d like to hold on to their fortunes, to pass them on to their descendents. Then some group comes along that’s got connections with those who’ve got a monopoly on power and they try and take it away. And you start to resist. But you realize that resisting on your own is dangerous, pointless and useless. As an owner, you don’t think in terms of revolution, of using rocks as weapons, you think about the law. You want law in the country, for everything to be done according to the law. Things were very different when those fortunes were made. That was 20 years ago. That’s over now. From now people are going to want to start seeing that the law is upheld.  I’m not saying that this will happen quickly, painlessly and easily, but I’ m sure that’s the direction in which we need to be going.

Then, though this may not have been what they set out to do, those elites will start building a nation. It’ll come about as a by-product of their wanting to improve not literally the buildings they live in, but the social order, the common house of that elite. Whatever their taste or background, they’ll find they have interests that coincide. And that’s when a national elite will start to emerge, one whose interests are wider than those of a ruling bureaucracy governing a virtual, non-existent nation. One whose interests will be truly national.

We’ll have to wait until then to get a decent foreign policy, in my view.

Dmitry Trenin is Director of the Carnegie Moscow Center, Senior Associate of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and author of many books, including Getting Russia Right (Carnegie Endowment for Peace, 2007)


Part 1 of Dmitry Trenin’s interview can be read here

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