This week Russian President Vladimir Putin has a busy diplomatic schedule. After attending the D-Day ceremonies on June 6, the first Russian president so honored, Putin flew to Mexico, in the first-ever visit to that country by a Russian head of state. He will then proceed to Sea Island in Georgia for the G8 summit that opens on June 8, where one can expect some hard bargaining over US President George W. Bush’s plans for Iraq. Putin had originally planned to visit Mexico in October 2002. But the trip was cancelled at the last minute because of the Dubrovka theater siege. The main item on the negotiating table is going to be Russia’s efforts to penetrate the Mexican market. Mexico has still not recognized Russia as a “market economy,” as has the European Union and the US. This makes it easier for Mexico to hit Russian steel imports with anti-dumping suits, and is another obstacle to Russia’s entry to the World Trade Organization (WTO) (Kommersant, June 7).
The trip also illustrates Putin’s pattern of energetic and multi-faceted diplomacy. He is trying to maximize Russia’s “soft power” by reaching out to leaders around the world — not just the leading states but also sundry other players such as North Korea, the Association of South-East Asian Nations, and the Organization of Islamic Conferences. There is plenty else for Putin and Vicente Fox to discuss, since Mexico and Russia have several features in common. The two countries have roughly the same population and roughly the same living standard. Both countries are heavily dependent on oil exports, and each recently made the transition to democracy after 70 years of one-party rule. Each country also faces the challenge of ethnic diversity, although the low-key native peasant rebellion in the southern state of Chiapas can hardly be compared to the bloodletting in Chechnya.
On the diplomatic front, both Mexico and Russia are wary of US unilateralism. Mexico held a seat on the United Nations Security Council in 2002-03, and Fox’s refusal to support a resolution authorizing military action against Iraq was a serious blow to Bush. The US president’s relations with Fox had already soured after ambitious plans to ease the status of Mexican immigrants were dropped after the events of September 11, 2001. However, Bush revived the plan in January of this year, looking to win Latino voters in the upcoming presidential election. In anticipation of Putin’s visit, Fox told Interfax on June 6, “Mexico and Russia see eye to eye on certain fundamental items of the international agenda” and “find it necessary to strengthen the multilateral system in international relations”.
On the oil front, neither country is a member of Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC), and both want to see stability in oil prices — as does OPEC itself. The fear is that the current high price of oil is unsustainable and will cause world recession. However, neither Mexico nor Russia has the capacity to radically increase oil supplies sufficient to counter the current price spike. More generally, both leaders can sympathize with each other over the challenges of leading a country in the throes of transition. Mexico is further advanced than Russia on both the economic and political fronts. But it is hard to imagine what good advice Fox can offer Putin. Mexico boldly plunged into international liberalization, signing off on the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). But after a few years of headlong growth, Mexico found that investment had dried up as manufacturers switched to low-wage factories in China. The post-NAFTA boom has produced increased inequality and growing social tension.
Fox came to power in a stunning electoral victory in 2000 after the ruling PRI party decided to allow a free and fair contest. But once Fox, head of the opposition PAN party, took office he found it hard to dismantle the entrenched elites of the PRI, who still controlled Mexico’s state bureaucracy, Parliament and many state governments. Fox also finds himself outflanked by rising populist protests on the left. The Mexican constitution bars him from reelection, and he faces an uphill struggle to achieve any positive results in the remaining three years of his term. Travel usually broadens the mind. But Putin is unlikely to come away from his meetings with Fox with any confidence that democratization and trade liberalization are easy solutions to the problems facing countries like Mexico and Russia.