RUSSIA’S FUTURE LIES EAST, NOT WEST

Geopolitical notes from India

M D Nalapat

Friday, July 09, 2010 – Any scanner of matrimonial advertisements in South Asia knows the importance given to skin colour in the region. Many — if not most — of the ads would specify “fair” as a desirable quality. Although some of the most beautiful women in the world are dusky (the Indian actress Rekha is an example), conventional minds see loveliness only in a fair complexion. Russia is a country where too skin colour is given great importance. At airport immigration counters, those inside visibly deal differently with those of a darker skin colour, who are often questioned before being allowed to enter the country, whereas those who have Scandinavian complexions are usually waved through with a smile. Clearly, some in Russia are not yet aware of the immense strides that have been made by Asia and its peoples, and still look at the world through 19th century eyes, when Europe ruled the world.

Small wonder that Russia after the 1992 collapse of the Soviet Union looked yearningly at Europe, wanting only to be considered a full member of the European family. Those strategists in Moscow that regard integration with Europe the natural option for Russia forget that there is no way that France and Germany (the duo that together form the centre of gravity inside the EU) would never accept the entry of Russia into the club. For to do so would mean the sacrifice of their privileged position. In the 1990s, Boris Yeltsin obeyed one command after another from the US and the EU, destroying much of his country’s scientific establishment in the hope that Moscow would be given a leading position in the Atlantic alliance. Instead, the demands on Russia kept on increasing, so much so that by 2003,then President Vladimir Put in had had enough. He began looking eastwards towards China for an anchor, and launched moves to revive the old intimacy with India.

Russians are neither European nor Asian. They form a unique peoples, linked to both continents and posessing the chemistry of both Europe as well as Asia. The country is truly the land bridge between Asia and Europe, and has a culture – and indeed a history – distinct from that of the first EU members. However, these days, those who had ruled the roost during the Yeltsin period are making a comeback under President Dmitry Medvedev, who has distanced himself from the Russia First policies of his predeccessor Put in (now Prime Minister). France and even more so Germany has a strong hold on the group of advisors around Medvedev, who are prone to claiming that “the boundary of East Europe ends in Vladivostok”. Or, in other words, that the whole of Asian Russia is in fact a part of Europe. They have neglected the fact that eastern Russia is located next to two of the three biggest economies of the world – Japan and China, and is also neighbour to South Korea, besides being geographically much closer than the EU to South Asia and Southeast Asia, both dynamic regions.

Rather than seek to leverage this geographical gift, the Europhiles around President Medvedev are expending 95% of their attention towards the US and the EU, with the President himself being a frequent traveller to both locations. Any glance at the Russian President’s foreign travel schedule would give a view into his global priorities, which are the same as those under Yeltsin: to focus on the US and EU to save Russia, and ignore the rest of the world. Medvedev’s team believes that only these two powers can give Russia the money and technology it needs to thrive. Recently, he sought US assistance to set up “a new Silicon Valley” in Russia. Of course, promises were many, but few are likely to be kept. Why would the US build up a competitor to itself, when its policy since 1993 has been to seek to destroy the independent scientific capability of Russia? A lot of that expertise was lost during the Yeltsin period, which was also a period of great economic hardship for the people, as well as social tensions caused by the expropriation of huge chunks of once state-owned property by mafias. All the more surprising that many of those who advised Yeltsin to carry out his ruinous policies are now the favourites of Medvedev. The common link seems to be a desire to ensure a return to the 1993-2003 policy of depending on the US and the EU rathers than seeking strategic independence. Although his popularity with the Russian people is much more than that of President Medvedev, the fact that the US and the EU prefer the former has meant that the “international media” has usually been critical of Putin, incontrast to the nice things they say about Medvedev. For this and other factors, Putin seems to have stepped aside as Medvedev and his advisors (who are very different from the group around Putin) place all their hopes on getting technology and investment from Washington and Brussels. Meanwhile, the emerging superpower – China – is watching quietly from the east. Over the past decade, Beijing has become the most important economic partner of Moscow, and especially in the Russian east, there is a steady flow of Chinese migration into the border towns and even far inland. China needs natural resources, and Russia has them. To the south there is India, which under Putin has once again become a close partner, even in the joint development of sensitive technologies. For Delhi, at a time when President Barack Obama has withdrawn from the Bush promise of greater space and hi-tech cooperation, Russia remains a reliable partner, although should Prime Minister Putin get further marginalized, Moscow may go back to the Yeltsin policy of downgrading relations with India.

What the foreign policy group around Medvedev (who each spend a lot of time travelling in the US and the EU, but hardly go elsewhere) have failed to realize is that 2010 is not 1910 or even 1990. Investors across Asia have been cheated by fund managers in New York, London and Frankfurt, the Arabs themselves losing more than $1.3 trillion. They are looking for alternative locations to invest the surpluses they earn, and should the Asian countries come together to form financia instituitions, these may be far more attractive than the groups in the US and EU that were only interested in the annual bonuses of their top executives. In substantial part because of the painstaking effort put in by Vladimir Putin, Russia today has substantial goodwill throughout Asia, Africa and South America, at a time when countries there are coming out of the shadow of their past masters.

Pakistan’s leaders have not made the mistake of Medvedev in neglecting the East. These lines are being written in Beijing, where President Zardari has been visiting. Because of decades of favourable official media coverage about the “all weather friendship”, the Chinese people have a lot of regard for their Pakistani counterparts. Gestures such as the prompt provision of assistance to earthquake victims in China have deepened this closeness, which is why Zardari is getting a warm welcome in Beijing, without having to face any of the questions that would greet him in the US. Or indeed at home! From India’s point of view, the greatest interest would be to see if China follows through on reports that it will set up two more nuclear reactors at Chasma. Now that the Chinese leaders have said that they are following a “paralell” track towards India and Pakistan, South Block would expect the Chinese side to make a gesture to India as substantive as the setting up of two nuclear reactors in Pakistan. Even more than the power that these units will generate, what would be valuable is the expertise that the new facilities would impart to nuclear scientists and technical staff in Pakistan, who are already the most advanced of any Muslim-majority country.

Should Vladimir Putin retain some influence, then the Chinese leadership can be assured that Moscow would stand with Beijing even if Washington seeks to chastise it over the nuclear deal with Pakistan. Should President Zardari succeed in getting a public commitment from his Chinese hosts about the supply of two new nuclear reactors, it would indicate that Beijing has decided that relations with Pakistan are far more important than seeking better ties with India. At present, Chinese companies have effectively been barred from the telecom, power and infrastructure sectors in India, a $60 billion market. Like Pakistan, India too is going in for nuclear power plants, and thus far (despite the strong pro-French lobby in the Government of India), all new contracts have gone to Russia. Indeed, a glance at economic statistics would show that Russia needs to look south and east, if it is to raise its growth rate substantially. The same advice could be given to other countries as well, especially India and Pakistan, who have much to gain from friendship and who have lost much through enmity. Perhaps some day, a Pakistan President will be received in Delhi with the same warmth that is being shown to President Zardari and his charming daughters in Beijing. It needs to be remembered that Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto brought his lovely daughter Benazir to Simla in 1972 to meet Indira Gandhi. Will Aseefa or Bakhtawar follow in the footsteps of their mother and join politics? Certainly their poise has charmed China!

—The writer is Vice-Chair, Manipal Advanced Research Group, UNESCO Peace Chair & Professor of Geopolitics, Manipal University, Haryana State, India.

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