Twenty years ago, on June 12, 1991 Russia elected its first president, Boris Yeltsin, with a convincing majority. This fact predetermined the events of the following months and became the final prerequisite for the Soviet Union’s imminent disintegration. The federal center was weakening and Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev was rapidly losing support. He never dared hold direct elections. Against this background, the popular vote gave Yeltsin a qualitatively different level of legitimacy. Given the split in society and escalating struggle for power this was to play the decisive role.
However, although this change in significance was clear inside the country, in the global arena the Russian president was not perceived as the number one figure until the fall of that year. It was only after the August 1991 coup and the total collapse of the Soviet state structure in September-November 1991 that Gorbachev’s friends and colleagues among the world’s leaders realized that he was no longer in the driving seat. Since then the Russian president has symbolized the country. Not only did the constitution give him enormous power but, even more importantly, he personified the centuries-long Russian tradition of one-man rule under which the ruler’s character leaves an indelible imprint on state policy or, at least, on how it is perceived by foreign players.
Stereotypes and the environment
Russia’s three presidents – Boris Yeltsin, Vladimir Putin and Dmitry Medvedev – are so different in character and psychology that it is almost impossible to resist the temptation to analyze Russia’s foreign policy through the prism of personality. Yeltsin is viewed as either a pro-Western liberal or impulsive whip-cracker depending on the ideological position of those passing judgment. Putin is described as an aggressive, anti-Western autocrat, and Medvedev as a reasonable politician lacking independence or a man who is continuing the policy of “national betrayal.” Such stereotypes determine how Russia’s international conduct is defined not only in the media but also in many ostensibly scholarly publications.
Meanwhile, it would make more sense to take the opposite view and analyze how objective conditions compelled any particular president to behave in a certain manner, rather than highlighting a particular president’s impact on circumstances. In this light, Russian foreign policy appears much more integrated, if not consistent, than it is usually portrayed. Russia developed as an international player during its first three presidents’ terms in office.
Retaining global status
The Yeltsin administration was acting in conditions of permanent crisis, whether political or economic. Few people now recall that the new Russian government had to tackle fundamental issues with great urgency, including Russia as successor to the USSR (i.e. its legal status in the world), nuclear weapons – in Russia and beyond – and relations with neighbors almost all of which were more names than actual states, but which all immediately started shouting about their “national interests.” The Russian Federation’s foreign policy could not continue along Soviet lines because although the USSR was in the final throws of disintegration, it remained not only a great power but also one of the two main supports for the existing world order. Russia wanted to inherit this status of a world power but could not and did not want to perform this particular role of systemic support.
In fact, Yeltsin’s foreign policy was aimed (leaving secondary albeit gripping details to one side) at preventing the total collapse of Russia’s status and preserving, at least on paper, Russia’s role as a key global player. The latter was by no means guaranteed – Russia had to fight all the way, even for its permanent seat on the UN Security Council.
Those goals set, Russia had to do three things. First it had to stabilize the domestic political scene, hence the acute struggle for power and suppression of political opponents in October 1993. The Chechen war was also designed to halt the powerful impetus to territorial disintegration imparted by the Soviet collapse. Second, Russia had to facilitate the cessation of hostilities and support fragile statehoods, which, if they collapsed, risked reinvigorating secession’s powerful centrifugal force. Third, Russia had to ape an active role in the world by attempting to join “the civilized community” (under Andrei Kozyrev) and later (under Yevgeny Primakov) by attending all international forums going (regardless of its ability to influence their decisions) and demonstrating its stance on all issues.
Russia achieved the goal it set itself of preserving its formal world status but by the late 1990s it was clear that it had to back this up economically and politically. Failing to do so would mean its power would again be called into doubt against a background of never-ending domestic conflicts. Considering that by that time the leading world players had tired of Moscow, the outside forces were unlikely to stand on ceremony in dealing with the faltering Russian bear.
Backing status with content
Putin’s presidency was largely devoted to this task of converting Russia’s nominal status as a great power into something real. Like Yeltsin, he reached for both carrot and stick. First, the aim was to integrate into Western institutions, primarily in Europe. In the first half of the 2000s Putin persistently offered the West lucrative strategic and energy deals, hoping to build Russia’s status as an equitable part of the European and Euro-Atlantic communities. Circumstances intervened, preventing him from achieving this goal, and the second phase of Putin’s presidency, embodied in his Munich speech, aimed to show the West Russia’s irritation at this inability to come to terms.
Putin’s presidential rule coincided with a stormy period in the world arena. Developments increasingly started to deviate from the chosen path, the forecasts of the late 20th century failed to come true, and the players were becoming less and less coordinated in their actions. Under the circumstances, Putin’s efforts to consolidate Russia’s domestic and foreign potentialities amounted to a rational choice. However, the emotions that Putin had accumulated towards his Western partners started to erupt, with or without cause, which only aggravated the general feeling that something was awry.
Tensions exploded two months after his presidential term came to an end: the war in the Caucasus broke out as a belated item of his mandate.
Domestic support for the military invasion of a neighboring country was considerably broader than usual. It reflected a feeling of psychological resurgence after almost 20 years of geopolitical retreat.
At the same time, the events of August 2008 completed the post-Soviet period – a period defined by overcoming the shock of the Soviet Union’s collapse.
Medvedev’s presidential term fell in this transitional period. The previous agenda had been exhausted and the new one had not yet emerged. Compared to his predecessor, the cheerful, calm third president looks positive. However, his tranquility reflects a wait-and-see attitude rather than any readiness for new joint undertakings. He rules in an era of the accelerating erosion of international institutions and the rapid shift of global influence from West to East. It is widely believed that Medvedev wholly belongs to the Western camp. In reality, things are much more complicated. He (much like Barack Obama in America) is the first post-European president. In other words, he is a leader for whom Europe ceased to be the starting point. It is no accident that Russia-EU summits always attracted attention under Putin but have since, under Medvedev, become meaningless and routine affairs: in part because of the total mess in which the EU currently finds itself and partly because Russia has lost interest in this particular partnership. The geography of Medvedev’s trips is also much more diverse than that of his predecessors.
Image and task
Indicatively, the public images of the three Russian presidents conform to their historic missions. The colorful Yeltsin, who, even with his weaknesses, embodied the Russian no-holds-barred spirit, had to prevent Russia’s main partners from forgetting it existed. Always on guard and ready to retaliate, Putin sought to consolidate Russia’s positions in order to compensate for previously incurred losses. Well-mannered and polite, Medvedev has led the country through this waiting period, trying to reduce the risks from unpredictable developments abroad. True, in this last case, Medvedev’s image represented only part of Russia’s foreign policy, because of the unconventional dual power setup – his mentor’s influence has continued to project itself onto his policy.
The next presidential term will decide Russia’s destiny, all the more so since it will last six years. It will not see comprehensive self-determination or the choice of the path the country will follow in years to come. On the contrary, the next few years will witness the final collapse of inherited structures, and a potential series of chaotic developments and regional crises. The president of 2012-2018 will have to act under the Hippocratic do-no-harm principle. His primary purpose will be to minimize risks and think thoroughly before taking any bold action. Yeltsin preferred competitive games and Putin endurance sports. They say Medvedev likes the concentration of yoga. The next president needs to be a strong chess player. Any coincidence here with the public political figures is purely accidental.
The editorial board of the newspaper Moskovskiye Novosti prepared this article as part of its joint project with RIA Novosti and the magazine Russia in Global Affairs “Twenty Years without the USSR.”
The views expressed in this article are the author’s and may not necessarily represent those of RIA Novosti.