The anguish in the Kremlin corridors as the hyper-presidential system of power is being reformatted into an experimental two-headed form is hard to overestimate. Just a few days before the inauguration of a new and still very un-presidential leader and the demotion of the still very sovereign “boss” to the traditionally unstable albeit newly-strengthened position of prime-minister, the question of “who-is-who” remains sealed within the presidential administration (Argumenty i Fakty, 30 April; Moscow echo, May 2). What instead comes to the surface in the game of political “musical-chairs” is foreign policy. The ambiguous signals that Moscow has been transmitting to Europe might provide some indication about the changes in the making.
An interesting development last week was the fruitless meeting between Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and his European counterparts at the Russia-EU Council session in Luxembourg, which was supposed to prepare the ground for the Russia-EU summit in Khanty-Mansiisk in June. In order to open relations with incoming President Dmitry Medvedev on a positive note, the EU Commission needs a mandate for negotiations on a new partnership and cooperation agreement. This mandate requires a consensus of the member states, which has proved difficult to reach. This time it was not Poland but Lithuania that blocked agreement, presenting no fewer than four specific demands, each of which looked far more serious than the painstakingly resolved issue of Polish meat exports (Vremya novostei, April 30).
Two of these demands concern legal disputes. The proposition regarding more cooperation in investigating high-profile cases makes some practical sense (particularly if the January 1991 bloody confrontation in Vilnius is excluded); the insistence on compensation for the victims of Stalin’s repressions quite certainly does not. Emotionally charged as this issue is, it has triggered only marginal debates among Russian liberals, while the firmly negative official position can hardly be shaken, so even Latvia and Estonia have not backed Lithuania in raising it (Ezhednevny zhurnal, April 30; Moscow echo, April 29). The confidence of Moscow’s rejection of this claim shows the growing belief that the EU needs the new agreement far more than Russia and that Brussels will put every possible pressure on Lithuania to fall into line.
The main source of this confidence is certainly the energy relations with Europe, in which Lithuania also advances a demand for guarantees of oil deliveries through the Druzhba pipeline to the Mazheiki refinery. Russia’s shrinking oil exports and growing domestic demand make it indisposed to any mid-term commitments. The continuing dominance of sellers on the world oil market puts Moscow in a position to channel its exports via the terminals of its choice, including Primorsk and Novorossiisk, so the old Soviet Druzhba line may well be beyond rescue. More generally, Moscow is growing increasingly convinced that the European gas dependency on Russia is irreducible and that a common EU energy strategy centered on diversification is just a fantasy (Vedomosti, April 29). The massive transfer of wealth from Europe to Russia has become so great that it is now money, even more than gas, that ties the two together, as the fast-growing Russian imports have become a key driver for the sluggish European economies. Even the crushing football victory that Zenith St. Petersburg (which proudly displays Gazprom’s logo on its merchandise) achieved over Bayern Munich last week has been interpreted as a sign of Russia’s ascendance over the “old continent” (Moskovsky komsomolets, May 2).
There is one issue, however, that tests the EU’s deeply internalized commitment to engage Russia, and Lithuania has put its finger on it. Russia’s vacillating conflict with Georgia has again reached a dangerous peak with both sides accusing each other of provocations and irresponsibility, while brandishing military instruments. Jingoist commentary prevails in the Russian mainstream media, but even sober experts argue that Russia’s policy toward Abkhazia and South Ossetia is pushing Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili to desperate measures as time runs against him (Kommersant, April 28). Lithuania has put forward a demand for Russia to restore its position toward the break-away republics to the status quo before the NATO Bucharest summit. Quite a few European states might applaud such de-escalation but none is going to second the demand, as Russia has been careful to lay a sound legal foundation for its every step even without pointing to the awkward Kosovo precedent (www.gazeta.ru, April 24).
If Moscow keeps the crisis under control, Saakashvili is certain to lose, because Lithuania would not be able to stand alone for long and NATO, as Moscow knows full well, is not coming to the rescue. The “if” in this case, however, looms large, not only because there are too many maverick trigger-happy actors with parochial agendas in the Caucasus, but mostly because nobody knows who is going to exercise control in Moscow. Until now, every meaningful foreign policy communication has been with Putin–but it has also been with the office of the president. Next week Medvedev will be answering this phone, but his counterparts will have no knowledge about his power to make decisions.
A power-sharing scheme based entirely on personal relations is certain to be tested and twisted as both the access to and the denial of real power will change Medvedev’s personality (Kommersant-Vlast, April 28). In the daily rounds of arm-wrestling, he might find support in the quarter that Putin considers to be his fan club. Europe has received Putin’s prime attention, but all the generously cultivated networks cannot change the fact that European leaders want to see a real change of leadership in Russia. Not that they have grown tired of Putin’s methods of handling “partners,” but rotation at the top, even if not democratic at all, could break the “tsarist” obsession with self-aggrandizement in Russia’s policy. Medvedev has scheduled his first visits to Kazakhstan and China, but he should not postpone Europe for too long.