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Russia: Analysis From Washington--Money And Moscow's Foreign Policy

Washington, 4 June 1997 (RFE/RL) - Moscow's foreign policy increasingly reflects Russian immediate economic needs and limited political possibilities rather than a long-term geopolitical conception.

But at the same time, many of Moscow's latest moves on the diplomatic front suggest that the Russian government increasingly views economics not only as the reason for its conduct of foreign affairs but also as a lever to project influence over its neighbors.

On Tuesday, Russian President Boris Yeltsin celebrated his foreign policy accomplishments over the last month. "Look how many problems we resolved in May!" Yeltsin told his reformist first deputy premier Anatoly Chubais.

Yeltsin is entirely justified in pointing to the recent upsurge in Russian diplomatic activity even if these accords have not in every case had quite as dramatic an impact as the Russian president suggests.

Since April 24 when Moscow signed a border agreement with China, the Yeltsin government signed a peace accord with Chechnya on May 12, a union charter with Belarus on May 23, a charter with NATO on May 27, and a friendship treaty with Ukraine on May 31.

Beneath this bewildering diversity, there is one common element. All the agreements reflect Moscow's increasing focus on economic issues rather than on a grand political design.

In virtually every case, these agreements reduce the burdens on the Russian state budget. Or they increase the opportunities for new revenues either immediately or in the not so distant future. But in most cases, they do both.

This shift to economics as the basis for foreign policy action reflects both the difficulties Russia continues to face and the rise of reformers in the Russian government since Yeltsin returned from his illness.

On Tuesday, Russia's economic woes were very much on public view. Government officials told the Duma that the country's gross domestic product would likely fall by two percent in 1997, a figure that mocks the regime's earlier optimistic projections.

Even worse, these officials said, Russian agricultural production and investment are now expected to fall by as much as five percent during the same period.

And these figures come as international financial institutions pressure Moscow to improve tax collections and get its economic house in order if it is to receive additional loans.

In the face of these difficulties, Yeltsin has thrown his weight behind reformers like Chubais. Indeed, it is significant that the Russian president made his remarks about foreign policy to that domestic specialist rather than to someone at the foreign ministry.

But if Yeltsin's new focus on economics as the basis of Russian foreign policy has an obvious internal logic, it is anything but popular with much of the Russian foreign policy apparatus or with many Russian nationalists.

Russian foreign minister Yevgeny Primakov has insisted on many occasions that Moscow's geopolitical concerns must take precedence over economic calculations, even as he has loyally carried out Yeltsin's economically rooted directives.

Not surprisingly, nationalists in the Russian Duma and elsewhere have been anything but happy by what they see as unreasonable and unnecessary sacrifices of Russian state interests in order to ease burdens on the country or gain it new resources.

Both because economic calculations are so obviously behind Yeltsin's latest moves and because of statements of Yeltsin's opponents, many in Russia and the West now proclaim that as a result of this shift, Russia has become a country like any other.

But there is another side to Russia's current economic approach to foreign affairs, one indicating both that the geopoliticians may be wrong in thinking Yeltsin has abandoned their agenda and that observers may be incorrect in extrapolating Moscow's new stress.

In both the agreements reached so far and in several others being discussed -- including relations with Chechnya and the possibility of a settlement of the Nagorno Karabakh dispute -- there are indications that Yeltsin sees economic factors as a weapon as well as a resource.

Thus, while Moscow may now have to defer to the stronger West for economic reasons, it is quite prepared to use its economic muscle against Chechnya or the countries in what even Yeltsin calls the "near abroad."

Consequently, while the economists now appear to have gained at the expense of the geopoliticians in the formulation of Russian foreign policy for the world at large, the latter may still have the last word in Moscow's approach to some of its weaker neighbors.