A few weeks ago, I wrote that Russia’s foreign policy wasn’t an issue during the Dec. 4 Duma election campaign; however, I predicted that it may become such in the run-up to the March 4 presidential election. No, I didn’t expect Russian voters to suddenly fall in love with the complicated issue of European missile defense. Yet, it wasn’t beyond imagination to see politicians invoking the specter of the foreign enemy at Russia’s door to score “domestic” points.
The trend was initiated by Russia’s leading presidential candidate, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin. On Dec. 15, during his televised “town-hall” meeting, Putin accused U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in inciting the protest actions that erupted in the wake of announcing the Duma election results. Putin hasn’t repeated this accusation since, but in the recently released election manifesto, he made it clear that he considered the United State unfriendly (“destructive”) force guilty of “democracy promotion” through the barrel of the gun.
In Russia, as everywhere else, the word of the boss is the law for subordinates. Following Putin’s suit, the Prosecutor General Yury Chaika made a claim that the December protest actions had been financed from the abroad. No specific evidence in support of the claim has been presented, though.
Obviously, the very idea of finding “foreign hand” at the origin of bad things appeared attractive to some Russian officials. The head of Roscosmos, the Russian space agency, Vladimir Popovkin, attempted to present the recent failure of the unmanned Phobos-Ground probe as a result of sabotage by foreign forces. Russian space officials later elaborated that powerful radar located at a U.S. installation in the Marshall Islands might have zapped the probe. Eventually, however, it was concluded that the crash was likely due to “a software mistake.”
It’s easy to dismiss the Phobos-Ground story as a funny joke. It’s more difficult to treat the same way the statement made by the chairman of the Duma Committee on Foreign Affairs, Alexei Pushkov, who suggested that the United States was keenly interested in destabilizing Russia and would make every effort to weaken its government. Characteristically, this was Pushkov’s first official statement in the capacity of the Duma new foreign policy tsar.
Andrei Isaev, a high-ranked United Russia party’s official, went even farther. On Dec. 30, while congratulating compatriots with approaching New Year, Isaev told them that in 2012, they will face “new battle for the freedom and independence of Russia against attempts by the United State of America to establish control over our country.” Isaev then assured his audience that United Russia was at the forefront of this battle.
It’s hard to believe that the image of American radars shooting down Russian space probes – or Mr. Isaev in military fatigue defending Russia’s freedom and independence – can win but a handful of “patriotic” votes switching from Zhirinovsky to Putin. Yet, exaggerating the foreign threat to Russia’s security may deflect the voter attention from such pressing domestic issues as a widening gap between rich and poor and pervasive corruption.
But the real danger is that the “us against them” spirit will outlast the election season and begin affecting policy decisions by the future Putin administration. To me, surrounded by “enemies” Russia looking for “stable development” doesn’t look like attractive combination.