Russia, The Gentle Giant?

(This piece originally appeared on Russia Beyond the Headlines)

At the end of November, a number of seemingly unrelated but important messages came out of different branches of the Russian government.  Taken together, they may signal a shift in the way the Russian political leadership wants to position Russia in the world.

First, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin wrote an article for the German newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung in which he forcefully advocated an idea of a strategic partnership between Russia and the European Union.  In essence, the Russian prime minister proposed the creation of a common Russian-European economic space "from Lisbon to Vladivostok."

In this context, Lisbon was not meant as simply a geographic landmark; Putin’s proposal came on the heels of the Russia-NATO summit held there.  At the summit, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev and the leaders of the alliance agreed to collaborate on building an anti-ballistic missile defense system (ABM) in Europe.  If implemented, such a system could pave the way to the creation of a common Russian-European security space.

Critics would argue that Russian-NATO cooperation on ABM is far from assured and that Putin’s strategic partnership proposal sounds more like a dream than a solid business plan, yet both Russia’s willingness to mend fences with its sworn Cold War enemy and its desire to get engaged economically with the EU seem to indicate that Moscow now considers the European direction of its foreign policy as a major, if not the major, priority.

Second, on Nov. 26, the Russian State Duma, passed a resolution acknowledging that the 1940 Katyn massacre of 20,000 Polish citizens was committed on the direct orders of Soviet dictator Josef Stalin.  The resolution went on to express the Duma’s "deep sympathy for the victims of this unjustified repression."

A cynic might wink mischievously and note that the Duma resolution conveniently preceded President Medvedev’s visit to Poland on Dec. 6-7.  However, presenting the resolution, sponsor Konstantin Kosachev, chairman of the Duma’s foreign affairs committee, called the document "historic" and stressed its importance for the Russian people, who were also victims of Stalin’s crimes themselves.  The competent and well-informed Kosachev could not, of course, be unaware that in January, President Medvedev will be holding a meeting of his Human Rights Council focused on the topic of de-Stalinization.

Third, three days before the Duma session, President Medvedev caused a stir among Russian pundits with a video blog address in which he warned about "stagnation" in Russian politics and called for more political openness.  However unlinked Medvedev’s video comments and the Duma resolution might first appear, they both work toward changing Russia’s image abroad – by trying to shed its reputation as a giant that craves its Stalinist past and menaces its neighbors.

Finally, on Nov. 30, President Medvedev gave his third annual address to the Federal Assembly. Given that Medvedev’s first address was devoted to political reforms and the second to economic modernization, many experts predicted that Medvedev’s third address would focus on social issues.  They were correct.  In the core of the president’s speech was the thesis that modernization, both in political and economic spheres, is just a tool to solve the country’s most pressing social problems: negative demographic trends, ecological deterioration, and worsening situation in education and health care.  But what made the address somewhat unique was Medvedev’s focus on child welfare.  In a show of passion, completely unprecedented for a Russian political leader, Medvedev concluded his speech with the following:

"…Everything we do, we do for those whom we love the most. It’s our kids, for we wish them to live better than us, be better than us and achieve what we didn’t have time to achieve."

Many Russian analysts called the address "bland" and accused the president of missing the opportunity to propose a set of breathtaking political reforms, including, for example, the formation of a new political party.  Well, apparently the president and his advisors knew what every political analyst is supposed to know, too: One year before the beginning of a new election cycle, the country’s president should focus on things the citizens care the most: the welfare of their families and, yes, their children. (Incidentally, political parties are held in very low esteem by ordinary Russians, as public polls repeatedly show.)

Besides, by publicly displaying his affection for Russian children, Medvedev, a father of a 15-year-old, might have again attempted to present Russia in a more positive way: As a kinder and gentler country.  The gentle giant, so to speak.

Medvedev could argue that it’s nicer to live in a country that is at peace with its neighbors.  He could also argue that it’s nicer to live in a country that cares for its children.  And that it’s much more fun to be the president of such a country.

About Eugene Ivanov

Eugene Ivanov is a PMI-certified Innovation Management Consultant who helps organizations increase the efficiency of their internal and external innovation programs.
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8 Responses to Russia, The Gentle Giant?

  1. Very thoughtful piece which I’m in agreement with Eugene.
    During the recent Larry King interview, Putin said he declined to be at the FIFA World Cup bid because he didn’t want to appear overbearing. In some ways, the Russian government is taking a more savvy approach.
    The topic of Katyn and Russo-Polish relations is of special interest to me. The highest levels of post-Soviet Russian government officialdom already acknowledged Soviet culpability with Katyn. The latest move on this matter by the Duma provides further support for this stance.
    In Russia, some are uncomfortable with such an acknowledgement. Part of me is cautious, while believing that a full disclosure of what happened at Katyn is the right thing to do, in conjunction with supporting better Russo-Polish ties.
    One, two, three or more wrongs don’t make a right. Hypocrisy and one-sidedly inaccurate perceptions aren’t virtuous as well. I continuously see one-sided depictions of the Russo-Polish relationship over the centuries. When he was in the US as a staff person for the AEI and Freedom House, Poland’s current Foreign Minister Radek Sikorski regularly made it a point to stress Polish reservations of Russia, based on centuries of history. I never once heard him acknowledge any Polish fault in that relationship. In one article, he expressed what some might reasonably construe as a bigoted stance.
    I’m interested in learning more about the Polish treatment of thousands of Red Army prisoners, resulting from the Polish-Soviet War of the last century. (Among some other sources, kudos to Mark Chapman’s Kremlin Stooge blog for hosting a discussion on this matter.) I initially thought that the bringing up of this issue might be a not so bright “whatboutism” point made by some in Russia – as Katyn was raised.
    Up to 70,000 or more Red Army prisoners are said to have died due to poor prisoner conditions, inclusive of lack of healthcare from illness and poor diets. The Polish reply is one claiming that difficult wartime circumstances, rather than a calculated killing was the result of this. Some sources in Russia dismiss this as insulting.
    This matter brings up something I came across at a Russian based venue. Note what’s said at the end of this link:
    “It’s quite understandable. German, Austrian, Hungarian and other foreign sources are willingly paying for the researches intended to figure out the destiny of their countrymen, who fetch themselves at the Soviet and Russian prisoner’s camps. At the same time our historians — due to the lack of funding — are willingly grasping these grants. It’s a pity that Russian state institutions, foundations or entrepreneurs do not rush to give an incentive to continue such research projects, studying the destiny of their own compatriots. Are we really the nation of people who don’t know who they are and where have they come from?”
    We see how some Russian views are more preferred than others at certain venues.
    On the subject of some little known historical issues, these links among others have been forwarded to my attention:
    There’s an abundance of historical follow-up to consider. Regarding Russo-Polish relations:

  2. Very good. I think we have suffered through a vicious cycle that we are coming out of. I believe that Putin in 2000 really believed that Russia could have fallen apart and that this fear was reinforced by NATO’s unending expansion, by the “colour revolutions and the suspicion that one was being cooked up for Russia. History teaches Russia that there really are enemies out there that will try to utterly destroy Russia. The West took the Yukos trial and the “Putin is really just a KGB officer” and everything just spiralled downwards with each reacting to the other.
    Now I think we may have the possibility of a virtuous cycle in which each side opens a bit, the other opens some more and so on.

  3. Mark says:

    Mmmmm, yes…creation of a new political party is just the sort of “breathtaking political reform” Russia needs. Typical of political analysts that they could see no further than the injection of more self-interested or sycophantic parasites when advocating for national progress.
    The shift in focus toward a more Eurocentric foreign policy also imples both a realization that Russia is unlikely to achieve its goals through the United States, and a quiet acknowledgement that the hamstringing of the American government caused by internal division continues to weaken its influence in world affairs. Russia is patient, but its patience appears to have limits.
    Few analysts have pursued the simplest explanation – that Medvedev is sincere. He’s never seemed particularly subtle or dissembling to me, which is probably why Putin is always portrayed as the cynical puppetmaster whose inner thoughts cannot be discerned by mere mortals. Isn’t it possible that Medvedev is just a nice guy who means well, but who would have been eaten by the wolves by now without a ruthless veteran like Putin to watch his back?

  4. Eugene says:

    The Russians have already quitely asked the Poles “what about” the Red Army prisoners, and is the Seim going to do anything about it. The answer was “not yet.” Disappointing, but hardly surprising: the Poles have traditionally had problems with recognizing the dark pages in their past. Just ask Ukrainians and Lithuanians.
    And yet, I welcome the Duma move. For years, the official line has been “we’ve alredy acknowledged that; no further comments.” Now, Russia has no problem with repeating the same and following on with additional 60+ volumes of secret documents. Good for them! And Kosachev is right: Russians need such resolutions for their own sake.
    As for ungappy people in Russia…Somehow, long ago, I lost habit of losing sleep over the grievances of the Communists. The ability of these guys to whine can be matched only by that from the “democratic opposition” camp.

  5. Eugene says:

    Hi Mark,
    Briefly on each of your points.
    Few among Russian analysts seemed to like Medvedev’s speech. Conspiracy theories abound that Putin almost personally forced Medvedev to take away the most “sexy” parts of his address. For obvious reasons, I didn’t say that, but somehow Medvedev’s speech reminded me Clinton’s. “I feel your pain.” Because like Clinton, Medvedev knows that like everywhere, the majority of Russian voters are women. And women don’t give a damn for political parties and political reforms.
    Russian economy is Eurocentric, which makes improvements in political relations easier, especially now, that the Kremlin seemingly decided not to complicate them without reason. The lack of economic relations is what makes “reset” with the US so fragile. If things go in the direction we seem to observe now, then Russian foreign policy priorities will be as follows: Europe, China, CIS, and then the US. The bigger loser will be the American business, and the inevitable discussion on who lost Russia will follow in DC.
    I agree with you on Medvedev: he’s a sincere and nice guy with a clear liberal streak in him — which is expected from someone who grew up in academic family and attended the liberal St. Petersburg University. That said, he isn’t as vulnerable as he may seem from here. After all, he’s been at the top for quite some time, and one doesn’t become Chairman of Gazprom for nothing (that is, without any ability to watch your back). I’d then argue that Medvedev needs Putin not for pure “protection.” The thing is that Russia is governed by a consensus of political elites. Medvedev represents one camp, and the “other” side needs someone there to keep balance. And who can play this balancing role better than Putin?

  6. Leo says:

    Participating in NATO’s missile defence effort is laudable, no matter the results (if any). Smiling and doing his thing a-la-Medvedev (or a-la Vas’ka the cat) is definitely better for Russia than slamming doors a-la-Putin. Some conventional wisdom at play – can’t beat’em, join’em. Don’t waste energy fighting something that will die under its own weight.
    There is yet another bit of significance to Medvedev’s performance in Lisbon. His predecessor and mentor at some point vowed to catch up with Portugal’s GDP. So Medvedev was there to observe and absorb:)
    On Poland, and let me get cynical, there is a reason for Russia’s push for rapproachment. While bilateral ties with large European economies have been bearing fruit, any improvement in the political sphere is impossible without the involvement of Brussels. Warsaw may not have a lot of clout with Berlin or Rome, but it does with Brussels (and Washington for that matter). So, dealing with “preferrable” EU countries bi-laterally while bypassing the EU itself has hit its limit for Russia. On Poland’s side, the program weapons-for-cannonfodder that Dubya established to coalitionize his efforts in Irag and Afganistan are expected to be winding down soon. The “beast from the east” may not be much of a bogeyman for Obama as it was with Dubya. Inside the EU, Kaczynski brothers’ “square root of population size” equilibristics in 2006 certainly was not helpful. Isn’t it time for Poland to succumb to that stubborn science called geography?
    Mistreatment of Russian POWs captured in Poland in late 1910s is not on the same level with deliberate execution, at Katyn, of Polish officers captured by the Soviet Army on Polish soil. I am not saying that one is more acceptable than the other, but this is an apples-to-oranges comparison.
    All the best,

  7. Eugene Ivanov says:

    Sure, I agree 100%. There is no bettr way to advance “friendship” as through necessity. It’s not only politics, but also (if not primarily) economic considerations that push Poland and Russia together. Great! Way to go!
    With all the noise surrounding START, the passage of the 123 Agreement through Congress went unnoticed. But the significance of the latter is much bigger, IMHO, that of the former, because it creates a basis for a REAL serious economic cooperation between the US and RF. Especially, when we’re talking about exporting uranium, not vodka.
    In the meantime, it doesn’t hurt that Medvedev smiles, does it?

  8. Eugene Ivanov says:

    I share you frustration with politicains on both sides, but what do you want? That after decades of Cold War and years of the same without only naming it this way, with entrenched hawks and defense lobbyist in both countries, with mutually suspicious populalations etc., the two countries would sudden work together on the most contentious issues?
    I’m not a great fan of START, but I applaud Obama for chosing this subject as the shortest and easiest trust-building step. But even this doesn’t work without resistance!
    Lead by example! Do you remember when our country did it last time? I don’t.

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