Most analysts have already predicted that the summit of the Group of Eight (G-8) most industrialized nations that will convene in St. Petersburg on July 15-17 will likely be long on pomp and short on content. But this does not mean that the high-profile meeting will be completely devoid of any significance. In fact, the gathering in the spectacular “Northern Palmyra” can be perceived as a moment of truth in Russia-West relations: Moscow, which the Western powers have long regarded as a junior partner, is about to present itself as a separate center of power in its own right. Faced with a Russia that seeks to position itself not as a supplicant of the West but as a core element of a different, Moscow-centered, system, the United States and the European Union will have to adjust their Russia policy.
When the Tsar Peter the Great founded his imperial city on the Baltic shores at the beginning of the 18th century, he supposedly meant it to become Russia’s “window on Europe,” as the poet Alexander Pushkin famously put it. Arguably, St. Petersburg indeed proved to be its founder’s most successful Europeanizing project. Thus, it is rather symbolic that the current St. Petersburg gathering of world leaders serves as a backdrop to the perennial debate on Russia’s true international identity and its relations with the West.
Some Russian and international observers have already noted one striking paradox: a country whose relations with the West seriously soured over the past few years is now playing host to the elite global club and even aspires to define its political agenda. This state of things, Kremlin pundits say, reflects Russia’s enhanced international stature as an “energy superpower.” But it also appears to reflect the confusion regarding Russia’s identity that has persisted during the last decade both in the Western capitals and in Moscow itself.
As one analyst recently remarked, Russia was invited into the G-8 “due to a conceptual misunderstanding.” When in the mid-1990s, Russian President Boris Yeltsin went out of his way to make his country a member of the group of leading economies, it was assumed — in Washington and Brussels as well as in Moscow — that, ultimately, Russia would be integrated into Western institutions and play by the rules set out by its “senior partners.” Thus, membership in the G-8 was seen as an incentive meant to facilitate the process of Russia’s transformation and “institutional Westernization.”
But Russia, given its tangled history, political traditions, and popular mentality, simply could not morph quickly and easily into a regular “Western” polity based on the rule of law, liberal principles, and participatory democracy. These basic “Western” values were largely alien to most Russians. The tortuous history of Russia’s “transition” during the 1990s demonstrated the difficulty of fitting the enormous Eurasian country into Euro-Atlantic structures. The unfortunate experience of Russia’s post-communist transformation could not fail to affect the Western perceptions of the country that for centuries was regarded as Europe’s constituent “Other.” But it also significantly diminished the Russians’ longing for all kinds of integration with the Western world and deepened their quest for national identity. Furthermore, the recent massive windfall of energy revenues has given a great boost to the Russian elites’ self-confidence and strengthened their sense of a Russian identity distinct from the West.
There are several attempts at conceptualizing this newly found Russian international identity. First is the famous notion of “sovereign democracy” advanced by the Kremlin strategists and championed by Russian President Vladimir Putin in all of his recent public speeches. Clearly, of the two words, the most important is “sovereignty,” not “democracy.” From the Kremlin’s perspective, there are but a very few countries on this planet that are fully sovereign and independent — independent from the United States, that is. Hence, Moscow’s strategic objective, Putin and his top aides reiterate, is to secure Russia’s independence from any outside interference. For the Putinists, to preserve Russia’s current socio-political system is tantamount to maintaining the country’s “internal sovereignty.”
For their part, Russia’s more liberal-minded thinkers suggest that, under certain circumstances, today’s state capitalist and authoritarian Russia might evolve into what they call the “new West,” which is not identical with the “old West” or “political Europe,” basically limited to the expanding EU and its strategic neighborhood. The logic of capitalist development and Russia’s openness to the outer world, the argument goes, will ultimately steer the country along the path of Taiwan, South Korea, Singapore, Turkey, and others that constitute the “new West.”
But remarkably, both the conservative and liberal concepts of Russia’s international identity suggest that for Russia, the notion of integration is currently associated not with the concrete regional groupings — European, Euro-Atlantic, or whatever — but rather with attaining competitiveness in the international arena. The bottom line is that the Kremlin’s foreign policy course makes Russia, in the words of one recent commentary, “a major outside player that is neither an eternal foe nor an automatic friend.” Moscow’s G-8 partners appeared to take notice: one commentary advises the Western countries to treat Russia “with neither illusion nor enmity.”
(Kommersant, Vedomosti, Vremya novostei, Washington Times, July 13; International Herald Tribune, July 12; Polit.ru, July 6; Kommersant, May 25)