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Russia: Foreign Policy Provokes Contradictory Feelings

  • Floriana Fossato

After NATO began air strikes against Yugoslavia in March, many observers noted the very angry Russian response and predicted a major and long-lasting chill in relations between Moscow and the West. But now that the bombing has ended, and particularly after a summit of the leaders of the G7 states and Russia over the weekend, the tone seems to have again shifted dramatically. Moscow correspondent Floriana Fossato analyzes the causes for the change in tone and also looks at domestic criticism of the country's foreign policy.

Moscow, 23 June 1999 (RFE/RL) -- Russian President Boris Yeltsin and Western leaders attending a summit in Cologne last weekend sought to warm relations following a Cold War-like chill caused by the NATO air campaign against Yugoslavia.

Yeltsin displayed his more pragmatic diplomatic skills at the gathering of leaders of the G-7 leading industrial nations plus Russia by choosing not to repeat previous derogatory statements he has made about NATO. Analysts in Moscow note Yeltsin's more conciliatory behavior came as he was seeking the help of the leading industrialized nations in restructuring Russia's huge foreign debt.

They also say that, for Yeltsin, the thaw in relations between Russia and the West may have been triggered by other, more personal, concerns.

The daily "Kommersant" wrote yesterday that "Boris Yeltsin obtained at the Cologne summit what he likes most -- universal attention and respect" by the leading industrialized nations. The article's headline reads: "Yeltsin Enjoyed Making Up After the Fight."

But several commentators say the summit and the abrupt change in tone toward the West revealed Yeltsin as the main factor preventing the development of a coherent Russian foreign policy.

One Moscow analysts sharing this opinion is Sergei Markov, director of the Institute of Political Studies. He spoke yesterday with RFE/RL:

"Despite the fact that it can display strong moves from time to time, Russia's foreign policy in general provokes contradictory feelings. First, there isn't one foreign policy as such. There are several centers of power, and each of them has its own policy. There is a foreign affairs ministry's policy, a policy of the presidential administration, that of the defense ministry, that of financial ministries, that of big corporations.... They all coordinate weakly and sometimes they even openly clash.... Another weakness of Russia's foreign policy is its lack of a strategic goal. Russian politicians have not decided which are the country's strategic interests and how to work to achieve them. Responsibility for this lies mainly with Boris Yeltsin. The third important failing, of which Yeltsin is also to be considered guilty, is that no decision-making mechanism is in place."

Some in the Russian media agree with Markov.

The head of the political desk at "Kommersant" publishing house, Veronika Kutzyllo, wrote in this week's "Kommersant Vlast" that Russia has "no center carrying out strategic planning, studying different scenarios for Russia and for the president in key situations." She added that Yeltsin's administration and "busy intriguing" cannot be considered as performing this role.

According to another commentary in "Kommersant-Daily," the lavish praise given Yeltsin by Western leaders during the Cologne summit will actually strengthen Yeltsin's inclination for what the paper called "risky moves."

Rushing troops to occupy the airport of Kosovo's capital, Pristina, ahead of the arrival of NATO peacekeepers was the latest and most daring example of what is considered Yeltsin's "risky" approach. Inside Russia, it was widely seen as a brilliant achievement. It is still uncertain whether Yeltsin ordered his generals to take the step, or whether once it took place he simply chose not to distance himself from it.

However, it seems clear to most observers in Moscow that -- even if the original idea did not come from the Kremlin -- Yeltsin exploited it to achieve a goal considered paramount in Russian foreign policy: Making it clear that Russia's role as a major player cannot be neglected on the world stage.

Another Russian political analyst, Dmitry Furman -- in a commentary published this week in "Obshaya Gazeta" -- expresses doubts about the widespread feeling in Russia that Moscow proved more far-sighted than NATO countries during the Yugoslav crisis.

He wrote that the end result of the developments in the Balkans are not favorable for Moscow. He says relations with Europe and the United States have been harmed. He says other CIS countries now look to NATO "as a force that may help them resolve their own Kosovo-type conflicts, or, at the very least, protect them from Russia." He adds that "perhaps there would not have been such warm [Russian] relations with China, which has a Kosovo of its own [in Tibet] and is understandably worried by the NATO operation." But, Furman writes, this is all that Russia has to show for what he terms its "hysterical response to the Kosovo crisis". He concludes by calling that a "somewhat dubious achievement".