March 07, 2008 (the date of publication in Russian)

Yaroslav Butakov


Relationship with CIS nations to become the crucial vector of the new President's foreign policy

In his first official statements, new Russian President Dmitry Medvedev publicized the major principles of foreign policy he is going to pursue. He identified the relationship with the nations of the Commonwealth of Independent States as a priority of Russia's foreign policy, promising to pay his first foreign visit to one of the CIS states – not telling its name.

His choice of the CIS state for the first visit is becoming the most intriguing subject of this month.

The most plausible candidate is Ukraine Ц not due to the permanent debate over gas prices and not only because of the recent intensification of Russian-Ukrainian diplomacy (in February alone, Ukraine's political leaders thrice visited Russia for top-level comprehensive negotiations). Vladimir Putin's successor has inherited a broad range of unsolved problems of Russian-Ukrainian relations, far exceeding the subject of gas: the status of Russian language in Ukraine; the situation around Russia's Black Sea Fleet and its major bases in Crimea; last but not least, the prospect of Ukraine's entry in NATO and its security implications for Russia.

Most of the mentioned issues were not included into the official agenda of the February negotiations between Vladimir Putin and Ukraine's President and Prime Minister. This fact can't be explained with the commitment of the two sides to restrict the bilateral relations to the diameter of the gas pipeline.

Andrey Okara, a prominent Ukrainian-Russian political scientist, recently indicated that Dmitry Medvedev is one of the few Russian politicians who is well acquainted with the Ukrainian political establishment and well informed of Kiev's political and economic problems. Ukrainians remember him visiting Kiev in 2004 when he endorsed the Presidential bid of then-Prime Minister Victor Yanukovich. They don't doubt that Medvedev, a longtime head of board of Gazprom and at the same time, a longtime head of the President's Staff, disposes a real possibility and a comprehensive political resource for improving the climate of Moscow-Kiev partnership Ц rather than anyone else of Russia's top political actors.

It seems quite probable that the burden of problems, accumulated in the bilateral relationship, is conveyed by Vladimir Putin to his heir with regard of Medvedev's own capabilities in this sphere.

The bilateral misunderstandings have lately been accumulating. The last summit of CIS leaders, convened in Moscow on February 21-22, revealed one more problem of Russian-Ukrainian relations. It emerges from the issue of recognition of political sovereignty of Kosovo, a breakaway province of Serbia. Views of CIS leaders on this subject are significantly influenced with the existing challenges to integrity of their own nations.

It is noteworthy that views on the status of Kosovo do not correlate with problems existing between a particular CIS country and Moscow. Kosovo's declaration of independence was negatively assessed by such reliable allies of Moscow as Belarus and Tajikistan, as well as by Georgia, Azerbaijan and Moldova that participate in the anti-Moscow alliances like GUAM and Commonwealth of Democratic Choice.

Ukraine's assessment of the Kosovo problem remained ambiguous. At the Moscow talks, President Victor Yushchenko admitted that his country will recognize Kosovo's sovereignty, though emphasizing hope that Kosovo's independence will not serve as a precedent for other breakaway regimes in various regions of the world. He claimed that Kosovo dwells "in a different legal field and different model of UN Security Council's legal regulation" than Ukraine. On February 26, the spokesman of Ukraine's Foreign Ministry confirmed that Ukraine has not yet decided whether to recognize Kosovo or not, and that the country is "in a process of special consultations with its strategic partners including the EU, the United States, and Russia".

Ukrainian leaders seem to perceive the Kosovo issue as an additional opportunity for displaying their exceptional loyalty to Washington and Brussels. In fact, Kiev rarely associates itself with Moscow on international issues Ц even in cases when accord with Moscow is definitely favorable for Ukraine' national interests. Generally, the foreign policy of the "orange government" is shaped on the "principle of the opposite", every act of decision-making being reverse to the choice of "the damned Muscovites".

Ukraine's leaders can't help realizing that Kosovo's declaration of independence provokes secessionism in the Crimea. Speculations over "a unique situation that can't serve a precedent" never convinces secessionists. Why can't?

Ukraine's irrational hesitation over Kosovo implies the possibility of a new change in the configuration of the post-Soviet borders. Relevant problems are to be dealt with by the new president of Russia.

Still, it is possible that Dmitry Medvedev will select not Ukraine but a different CIS country for his first foreign trip. It is equally possible that his first destination point will be Minsk.

During the last eight years, the project of the Union State of Russia and Belarus has not developed; on the contrary, the tenderness of bilateral relations has deteriorated. The earlier broadly advertised plans of unification, designed by Boris Yeltsin largely for purposes of domestic propaganda, were replaced with dry pragmatism in bilateral relations. Still, the idea of Russian-Belarusian unification remains very popular among the population of both countries, and the establishments of both sides are not going to give it up in the nearest time. It would be irrational in any sense to abandon the unification plans. Thus, the new President is expected to make his judgment on the very sensitive issue of the integration's prospects.

This author has grounds to suggest that with a high probability, the first-rate object of the new President's foreign policy activity will be Kazakhstan. This policy direction involves the development of the Eurasian Economic Community, built around the Moscow-Astana axis. The two sides recently established the joint Eurasian Development Bank, and signed the Customs Union, later joined by Belarus. Russian-Kazakh relations are also developing in the framework of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), as well as the CIS Common Security Treaty. Despite certain disaccord in oil and gas policy that surface from time to time, relationship in this sphere has also been steadily developing. Undoubtedly, the new President will be not less focused on this sphere than Vladimir Putin. Generally, Kazakhstan is the most important partner of Russia among post-Soviet states also due to objective geopolitical reasons. In addition, Kazakhstan is the most intensively modernizing of the countries of the former USSR.

During his trip to Central Asia, the new President is very likely to pay a visit to Tashkent as well. The improvement of relations with Uzbekistan was one of the most impressing achievements of Russia's foreign policy of the past eight years. In the period of 2005-2006, Uzbekistan developed from an explicitly pro-Western state into a reliable partner of Russia. Consolidation of this relationship and outlining new landmarks for its future is one more important task for the new President.

Russia is spectacularly turning its face to the CIS states, realizing that the leading role in this commonwealth is an indispensable task of Russia, a sort of an obligatory post-imperial mission. At the CIS summit in Moscow, yet before the presidential elections, Dmitry Medvedev delivered his own proposals of integration Ц in the sphere of mass media, as well as in high-tech cooperation in the CIS framework.

Is the Commonwealth of Independent States going to develop as a comprehensively functioning alliance of states, or to continue existing rather as a "club of presidents"? Today’s largely formalistic framework is likely to develop into a number of alliances, not necessarily unifying all the members of the Commonwealth Ц but based on real priorities, flexible and workable.

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