As Dmitry Medvedev grasps the reins of Russia’s presidency, it remains an open question as to whether or not he or Prime Minister Vladimir Putin will control foreign policy and what their respective roles in this domain will be. There is no doubt that Putin is building up his own Prime Ministerial apparatus to oversee foreign policy and has already traveled to France and Belarus. But Medvedev’s trips to Kazakhstan, China, and Germany and appearance at the CIS Summit in St. Petersburg along with his major speeches in Germany and St. Petersburg indicate his intention to play a no less important role in this traditionally presidential domain. One area where he apparently aims to make his mark is in Russia’s overall policies towards the CIS.
BACKGROUND: It will be remembered that Putin and his subordinates openly indicated their preference for bypassing the whole CIS mechanism that has never really achieved any true integration of the former Soviet republics in favor of bilateral relations between them and Russia. Nevertheless the structure survived, even if in somewhat rickety fashion. But it remains clear that if this structure is to be invigorated, as Medvedev seems to be hinting, much work has to be done. This is not merely an issue of resolving the acute issues of NATO enlargement with Ukraine and Georgia or the latter state’s “frozen conflicts” with Abkhazia and South Ossetia. In Russian foreign policymaking there is a lack of coordination concerning the CIS that could vitiate Medvedev’s grand design.
Soon after he replaced Vladimir Putin as President of Russia, Dmitry Medvedev and Putin announced the creation of a new agency for the CIS within the Foreign Ministry. But they only informed Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov about this shortly before going public. As a result this department’s “best brains” are reportedly agonizing over what the new agency should do. This lack of foreign policy coordination, the failure of the CIS as an institution to promote genuine integration among its members, and the heritage of Putin’s policy that these CIS states should subordinate themselves to Russia’s objectives impede reconciliation of that last objective with the means available for its implementation. Therefore it appears that Medvedev’s team, which is obviously interested in promoting him as the authoritative foreign policy maker of Russia, is promoting a new direction for Russian foreign policy towards the CIS, which has yet to be translated into policies that can be carried out by the government.
Sergei Naryshkin, Medvedev’s Chief of Staff, is now telling audiences that the CIS has evolved from being a post-soviet “divorce court” for a “civilized divorce” into a fast developing entity promoting economic integration among its members. According to Naryshkin, business and governmental interaction among CIS members along with the mutually supplementary nature of their economies form the groundwork for the CIS’ future development. External observers may well disagree with these neo-Soviet propositions based on Soviet efforts to integrate the entire union economically since these states have now globalized their trade relations and several of them, such as Georgia, Azerbaijan, and Ukraine, look as much West as they do to Russia. Though Naryshkin admits that these states hardly approach the EU’s integration and admit of widely varying levels of development, energy and transport can become the real foundations leading to deeper integration. In other words, Russia intends to use its energy assets and control over pipelines and infrastructure to drive integration along lines of subordinating these states to its designs, not a true EU-like integration. Inasmuch as the other governments have long known of such plans and resisted them to the best of their varying abilities, it remains to be seen if a genuine economic zone can develop here.
IMPLICATIONS: Russia certainly will not stop trying to drive and accelerate this process. In Medvedev’s talks with CIS presidents at St. Petersburg, Uzbek President Islam Karimov urged that both the CIS and Shanghai Cooperation Organization be built up. Karimov proposed, and Medvedev enthusiastically took up the idea that the Eurasian Economic Zone (EURASEC), a hallmark of Putin’s policies for economic integration merge with the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), Russia’s military alliance with Central Asian and CIS members to eliminate duplication and implement their respective agendas more effectively. It is unlikely that Karimov thought up this idea without preliminary discussions with Moscow given Medvedev’s subsequent championing of it.
Medvedev is simultaneously (presumably along with Putin for whom this was an important policy line) continuing the military buildup of Russian forces in and around Central Asia and the strengthening of their power projection capability into the area. Thus Russia is considering enlarging its aerial deployment at the base in Kant, Kyrgyzstan and rearming its 201st Motor Rifle Division (MRD) at Dushanbe. These actions aim not just to enhance regional military capabilities but to demonstrate Russia’s resolve to support the existing status quo in these countries and their neighbors and to prevent any serious Uzbek-American and Uzbek-EU rapprochement, both of which seem now to be taking place. Perhaps Karimov rather than Medvedev proposed the amalgamation of the EURASEC and CSTO – either to cover himself with Moscow given his notorious oscillations back and forth between East and West, or because Moscow demanded that he support this forthcoming initiative. Time will tell.
But just as Russia is seeking to take control of CIS gas flows to shut this region off from Europe, it makes sense that, given Naryshkin’s perspective on the CIS – which we must assume is also Medvedev’s – Medvedev is now trying to implement a more active CIS policy and create an effective mechanism for doing so through this projected amalgamation of the CSTO and EURASEC. It remains to be seen what Medvedev will make of the SCO when he attends its annual summit in August at Dushanbe. For instance, will he, like Putin before him, try to make the SCO into an effective Russian-led military alliance or will he content himself with using the CSTO either as it is now or in a newly integrated organization with EURASEC for that purpose?
Vladimir Putin’s presidency was characterized by an unremitting focus on boosting Russian military and economic power over the CIS and at compelling its members to go along with Russian foreign policy objectives. Medvedev, both for reasons of geostrategic continuity and presumably to enhance his own standing as foreign policy leader appears to searching for new means to continue this pattern. He and his subordinates are devising new agencies or seeking to reshape existing ones to achieve those goals. But Russia’s relations with its CIS partners are in some disrepair, not least because of Putin’s efforts to force them into Moscow’s embrace. When it comes to issues of domestic reform and democracy many of them, particularly in Central Asia, there has been a consistent pattern of mutual support based on intense opposition to any liberalization or democratic reform. But on economic and defense issues it has proven much harder to forge unity, common policies, and lasting subordination to Russia because the wily leaders of these states have been able to exploit international interest in their states and ensuing rivalries to magnify their sphere of discretionary maneuver. Presidents Nursultan Nazarbayev in Kazakhstan and Karimov in Uzbekistan are particularly known for their differing but related “multi-vector” policies.
CONCLUSIONS: Russia’s efforts to lock up Central Asian and now Azerbaijani gas exemplify its modus operandi. But the growing demand by producers for world market prices and their growing ability to find other partners for pipelines also exemplifies their ability to sidestep the most onerous of Russian pressures. Georgia’s and Ukraine’s ability to ward off the consequences of severe Russian blows also demonstrates the fissures within the CIS. It is unlikely that these fissures can be overcome by merely another organizational reshuffle of the various agencies involved in the formulating CIS policies. The structural causes of the relationships, the asymmetries of power between Russia and its former sister Soviet republics, international rivalries, globalization of heir economic and security relationships all make spheres of influence a much harder and less rewarding policy to sustain. Nonetheless, it appears that driven both by historic strategic perceptions and the need to establish a foreign policy relationship of leadership at home and abroad, that Medvedev will try to achieve precisely that objective. This, of course, was the same objective of an exclusive sphere of influence in the CIS that dominated Putin’s foreign policy. Despite Putin’ many achievements he did not achieve this outcome. Can Medvedev succeed where he failed?AUTHOR’S BIO: Professor Stephen Blank, Strategic Studies Institute, US Army War College, Carlisle Barracks, PA 17013. The views expressed here do not represent the views of the U.S. Army, Defense Department, or the U.S. Government.