Will Putin take back Russia?
In India, the case of Sitaram Kesri is noteworthy. This senior Congress functionary used to fall at the feet of Prime Minister Narasimha Rao each time the two met. At every such meeting, Kesri would fawn over and flatter Rao, who was so delighted by the politician from Bihar that he made him Congress President when the party lost the general elections in 1996,in large part because of a split in the party caused by followers of Sonia Gandhi, who wanted the party to revert back to the control of the Nehru family, and consequently disliked Rao. It did not take even a week before Kesri forced Rao to resign as Leader of the Congress Parliamentary Party, sending him into a retirement that lasted to Rao’s lonely close in 2004, eight years later. During his final days of life, only ward boys and doctors used to visit a man who had been the Prime Minister of India for five years, and who initiated the partial economic reforms that converted the country into an economic powerhouse (and which have since been rolled back, once Sonia Gandhi took over effective control of the government in 2004 and returned to the state-heavy model favoured by the Nehru family.
Russia saw a similar transition five years ago, when President Put in nominated the quiet Dmitry Medvedev as his successor after two terms in office in 2008. Going back the record of history, President Medvedev ought to have used the powers of his office to finish off Putin, the way Kesri did to Rao. However, perhaps because of his milder nature, or - more probably - because Putin is still much more powerful than his nominal boss, Medvedev has not been able to ensure the exit of Vladimir Putin from the levers of power in Russia. Indeed, the chances are that Putin will run for the office of President of the Russian Federation early next year. Polls show that he would score an easy victory over any opponent, including President Medvedev. The reason is that Put in taps into the Russian spirit the way Mahatma Gandhi unlocked the psyche of millions of the people in the Subcontinent in the 1930s, or Mao Zedong fired up the enthusiasm of the Chinese people in the 1950s. The Russians are a race apart from both Asia and Europe, and are a unique people with a distinct civilization.
President Medvedev is known to be powerfully influenced by experts from Europe, especially Germany. There has long been a fascination within Russia for Germany, perhaps because the Empress Catherine was German in origin, and because those of German descent played such a eye role in the Russian court before the country changed its system of governance in 1917. It is no secret that Dmitry Medvedev favours the Boris Yeltsin policy of obedience to the wishes of the EU, in contrast to Put in, who seeks a policy closer to the assertive, independent role that Moscow had during the period when the Soviet Union was still extant. Indeed, the Europeans as well as the US would like to ensure the retirement of Vladimir Putin from Russian politics, and the complete takeover of governance by the Euro-centric group advising Medvedev. They are hoping that the 2012 elections will witness the end of Putin and the full return of the Yeltsin policies of the 1990s that did so much to reverse the balance between Russia and the EU. However, given the strong nationalist sentiment that is flowing in Russia, it seems more likely that it will be Medvedev who will have to surrender power. The question is whether he will do so willingly, or only after he gets defeated by Putin in 2012. The Europeans are advising him to use the levers of power more ruthlessly, so as to remove from office key followers of Prime Minister Putin, thereby weakening his rival.
There is no doubt that several segments of Russian society are pro-European, and are comfortable with the Yeltsin-Medvedev policy of tailoring Russia’s strategic responses to fit the prescriptions of the major EU chancelleries, principally Germany. However, the difference between the period of the first post-democracy Russian President ( Boris Yeltsin) and the third (Dmitry Medvedev) is that the earlier period proved that the two major powers in Europe - France and Germany - would not be willing to accommodate Russia within the matrix of Europe, except as a dependent power. Should Russia enter Europe in a manner commensurate with its size and potential that would be the end of Franco-German dominance of the EU. Thereafter, Moscow would emerge as a challenger to Berlin and Paris, which is why Yeltsin failed to ensure acceptable terms for the integration of Russia into Europe, despite the many concessions he has made. In the case of Medvedev as well, it was his intervention that led to the NATO bombing of the Kadhafi forces in that country, and their replacement by a Sarkozy-nominated “National Transitional Council”. Although key nationalist elements in the Russian Foreign Office wanted to use the veto to block UN Security Council Resolution 1973 ( which was used by NATO as legal cover for its intervention), it was President Medvedev who ordered that Russia abstain, thereby ensuring that the resolution got passed.
Since 2008,President Medvedev has been open about his desire that Moscow coordinate its actions with the path favoured by the EU. However, the EU lobby in Moscow has got a setback with the growing economic crisis in Europe. The Franco-German policy of placing almost all of West Europe’s eggs in the East and South European basket has led to a situation where the financial health of both France and Germany is under severe strain. Indeed, it looks inevitable that Greece will go into default, followed by Italy. The indebtedness of both is too huge to be dealt with by the palliative measures being taken by the ECB in order to prevent a default. Unless China and the Arab states can be persuaded to put their own futures at risk by giving huge loans to the Eurozone (debts which will never get repaid), there seems little option but a default of Greece, followed by other countries. Just as the 2008 financial crash severely weakened the geopolitical strength of the US, the Eurozone crisis is depleting the diplomatic power of the EU, whose leaders are expected to beg economies in Asia and elsewhere for more funds to rescue them, when the IMF has its meeting in Washington soon. Indeed, Christine Lagarde was chosen to succeed Dominique Strauss-Kahn as IMF Managing Director precisely because she can be relied upon to place the interests of the EU first, second and third in any decision she takes. Should President Medvedev win the 2012 elections, we can expect to see a full return of the policies of the 1990s,that dovetailed Russia into the geopolitical framework crafted for the country by the US and the EU. In contrast, Putin would follow a line, of aligning Russia with rising powers such as China, India, South Africa and Brazil rather than relying only on Europe.
A marriage of Russian technology and Indian ingenuity - for instance - can create products that can compete with any other, even in high-tech markets. Since Dmitry Medvdev came to office in 2008, it has been much more difficult to get such collaborations going, because of the powerful influence of the US and the EU over the Russian President. However, should Vladimir Putin take charge once again, it is likely that the Russian footprint will once again extend across the globe, most likely in partnership with strong regional players. An early sign of who is having the upper hand will come in the UN General Assembly, when the resolution calling for the declaration of Palestine as a state is brought forward. Medvedev can be expected to oppose this, while Putin is likely to give it backing, aware that such support would create immense goodwill for Moscow in the Arab world. Will Russia sit on the sidelines (as it did in the case of the invasion of Libya) or support the effort to declare Palestine as an independent state? Given the backdrop of the weakening of the US and the EU, caused by the criminal activities of the financial elite in both locations (an elite that even today is pampered rather than jailed), it seems likely that the Putin vision will prevail over that of Yeltsin-Medvedev in 2012. Should that happen, Russia is once again likely to emerge as a key global player.
—The writer is Vice-Chair, Manipal Advanced Research Group, UNESCO Peace Chair & Professor of Geopolitics, Manipal University, Haryana State, India.