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Russia: Analysis From Washington -- The Politics Of Diplomacy

  • Paul Goble

Washington, 11 May 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Russian President Vladimir Putin's decision to appoint former Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin as ambassador to Ukraine appears to open the door to more such political appointments.

That possibility was explicitly raised by the Russian media on 10 May. Citing "an informed source," the Interfax news agency said Chernomyrdin's appointment reflects a Kremlin interest in making use of former officials who have broad political and economic experience and who have "not lost their political weight and personal connections."

Such reports in turn seem certain to spark speculation about who might be the next such nominee. Among the most obvious candidates is former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, who recently visited Washington and who has assumed a new and much higher profile in Moscow since the departure of former Russian President Boris Yeltsin.

In one sense, Putin's appointment of Chernomyrdin effectively brings Russia into line with the pattern in many Western countries where leaders often name as ambassadors to especially important countries their personal friends, major campaign contributors, or senior politicians at the end of their careers, leaving other positions for professional diplomats.

Instead of viewing this as a slight, most of the countries to whom such ambassadors are dispatched tend to view it as a special sign of interest and respect. Thus, for example, the Japanese have been pleased that the American ambassador there had earlier served as senior U.S. senator.

Often these political ambassadors, precisely because they have a direct line to the chief of state at home, are able to accomplish more than professional but less well-connected diplomats. And because they are so perceived, they may in fact be able to do so. Chernomyrdin's ties to Putin and even more to the powerful Russian gas monopoly Gazprom may allow him to accomplish more than any emissary from the Russian Foreign Ministry could.

But in another sense, Putin's action may represent a step toward the restoration of the Soviet-era pattern in the assignment of ambassadors. From the death of Stalin to the end of the Soviet Union, Moscow regularly named Communist Party officials to head its missions to satellite countries, dispatched some defeated political opponents into diplomatic exile in smaller states abroad, and generally sent professional diplomats to most other states.

From the establishment of the Soviet bloc after World War II until the collapse of the Warsaw Pact, the Soviet government generally sent Communist Party functionaries, sometimes with brief training at the Diplomatic Academy in Moscow and sometimes without, to serve as its pro-consuls in Eastern European capitals. And these ambassadors more often reported to the CPSU Central Committee than to the Soviet Foreign Ministry.

Moscow also used ambassadors as a form of political exile for those who had lost out in power struggles in the Soviet capital. Former Prime Minister Vyacheslav Molotov was perhaps the most famous: He was ultimately dispatched to Outer Mongolia. But others also were sent into a similar kind of exile often in a succession of increasingly dim positions.

Elsewhere, the Soviet government generally used professional diplomats, except when as in Afghanistan, Moscow had a broader political agenda that required the assignment not of a diplomat but of a Communist Party official.

The immediate reaction to Chernomyrdin's appointment suggests that many Russian politicians and commentators are drawing from both the Western and the Soviet model. Thus, some have intimated that Chernomyrdin will do especially well precisely because of his ties to the leader in the Kremlin, a kind of analysis familiar to students of Western diplomatic appointments.

But others in their remarks have drawn implicitly on the earlier Soviet pattern, speculating that this may be a form of political exile or an effort to promote a special Russian zone of influence in what many in Moscow continue to call "the near abroad," the countries of the Commonwealth of Independent States.

Because Chernomyrdin is the first of this kind of Russian ambassador under Putin, it is impossible to say which of these models of the politics of diplomacy is the more appropriate or even whether Putin is seeking to create a new and entirely different one from either of the two.

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