The Valdai Speech of President Putin: Forming a New Russian Foreign Policy Identity

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Russian increasing strength and influence in contemporary international relations have obtained their solid conceptual foundation and clear framework. President Putin of Russia, who is considered to be the most important mediator in the Syrian chemical weapons crisis settlement, did clarify his own and his elite team foreign policy views in the September 19th speech of the Valdai International Discussion Club. (1)


Russian President in Valdai attempted to define essence and sphere of his country's foreign policy identity and tell the world Russian perceptions of the future of international relations.


Russia Asks Herself: Who we are?


In his long-expected speech on identity Putin deliberated on strategies and values that are underpinning Russia’s development, and how global processes will affect Russian national identity. He asked: “What kind of twenty-first-century world we want to see, and what Russia, our country, can contribute to this world together with its partners”? Today we need new strategies to preserve our identity in a rapidly changing world, President continued, a world that has become more open, transparent and interdependent.


Putin raised the question that is considered to be crucial by many well established experts of Russia and beyond: “who we are and who we want to be are increasingly becoming prominent questions in our society”. A respond to this question as many believe should point at future foreign policy directions of Russia. It is this response that should assist Russian elite to define national interests of the country and to form a foreign policy strategy for years to come. What is the essence of Russian identity? What are the key elements of the identity? Is the identity restrictive or inclusive to many peoples and countries of the ex-Russian Empire and the ex-Soviet Union space? (2)


Russian analysis of contemporary international relations is close to be a pessimistic one. Global competitions of today focus on economic/technological and ideological/informational phenomena as military/political problems and general conditions of societies are worsening. It means that quality of society; quality of citizens followed by economic growth; prosperity and geopolitical influence still determine future of their state. To its turn, the quality depends on identity and values very much. It is sphere of spiritual and cultural values which according to President Putin outstands as the most critical part of national identity

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Russia experienced twice the collapse of its state during the 20th century. The tragic experience of the state collapse shows that “a new national idea does not simply appear, nor does it develop according to market rules”. Events of the 1990s and of the 2000s did not discover such agreed new values and identity sphere by society. Neither Western-oriented liberals nor rightwing monarchy-oriented politicians and their followers or nor the so-called Neo-Slavophil did succeed in working out any popular ideology and identity.


President came to the conclusion that "We [Russians] need historical creativity, a synthesis of the best national practices and ideas, an understanding of our cultural, spiritual and political traditions from different points of view, and to understand that [national identity] is not a rigid thing that will last forever, but rather a living organism”.


However, a synthesis of practices and ideas has not yet come. What should Russia do today? Here, President points at three limits or borders of Russian identity: “Russia’s sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity are unconditional. These are red lines no one is allowed to cross”. That could be, to our mind, the first circle or the first level of new Russian identity.


The second level or feature of Russian identity has to do with centuries long history of the country. History of defeats and victories; history of successful colonization and noxious economic dependence that brought religions and spiritual values to society and state development has continued to make impact on the Russian Federation international behavior. Putin is convinced that “Without the values embedded in Christianity and other world religions, without the standards of morality that have taken shape over millennia, people will inevitably lose their human dignity. We consider it natural and right to defend these values. One must respect every minority’s right to be different, but the rights of the majority must not be put into question”. Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, Judaism and other religions are recognized as an integral part of Russia’s identity, its historical heritage and the present-day lives of its citizens. And if it is so, Russia as we think could pretend to be a protecting power in the globalised world, a power protecting different religious minorities and groups regardless of the country and area the minorities reside in. Obviously, that is a sound foreign policy ambition of Russia.


The third circle of the identity comprises notion of state-civilization. President Putin has followed one outstanding Russian philosopher and wise diplomat Konstantin Leontiyev who served in the Ottoman Empire. This remarkable diplomat and an Orientalist, an Eurasianist, to some extent, once described Russia as a state-civilization, as a “blossoming complexity” (we would say “blossomed diversity”). And Putin has repeated the Leontiyev thought that Russia deserves to become again a country where many ethnic groups and religions cooperate and live in mutual respect and mutual enrichment. Russian people, Russian language, Russian culture, Russian Orthodox Church and the country’s other traditional religions should constitute nucleus of such civilization. We should also note that Putin refused to repeat his previous estimates of the Russian empire as the "prison of nations". In other words, Russian President had put the Western understanding of so-called multiculturalism aside and has proposed a different model of state and society that seeks flexibly to accommodate the ethnic and religious specificity of particular territories, ensuring diversity in unity. This Russian model with rich experience of ethnic relations behind it is proposed to other countries as an option, as a model of development.


“We must restore the role of great Russian culture and literature”, Putin says. “They must serve as the foundation for people’s personal identity, the source of their uniqueness and their basis for understanding the national idea. Here, a great deal depends on the teaching community, the community of teachers, the educational community overall, in the broad sense of the word, binds the nation together”. Russian culture – not as an ethnic but as a multi-ethnic phenomenon - is taken as very important pillar of the same state-civilization. On the foreign policy level, that means a specific attention of Russian diplomacy to advancement and bringing of Russian language, literature, science and spirituality to foreign countries. The Russian soft power policy has already started with countries of so-called Near-Abroad or CIS with the Baltic States. It promises to be a vivid component of tomorrow’s Russian foreign relations.


The identity circles are completed by Putin’s support to a multi-polar world and international relations with a few centers of force and influence. Diversity in international relations could be named as the fourth level of Russian identity. According to President Putin, “Russia agrees with those who believe that key decisions should be worked out on a collective basis, rather than at the discretion of and in the interests of certain countries or groups of countries. Russia believes that international law, not the right of the strong, must apply. And we believe that every country, every nation is not exceptional, but unique, original and benefits from equal rights, including the right to independently choose their own development path”. Here, we see a reflection of Russia movement to a more close and a more intensive cooperation with the BRICS countries and those striving to have as independent foreign policy as they can.


The Eurasian Union


As we can see, the ideas Putin has pronounced in the Valdai Club relate to international relations rather than to domestic policies of the Russian Federation. Putin project of New Identity is not an indoor debate addressed to ordinary citizens of the country. No, President has invited many countries to think and to join Russian civilization and international agenda. Diversity has a direct relation to a mega-project entitled “The Eurasian Union”.


According to the idea of multi-polar world discussed extensively in the Russian Foreign Policy Concept of 2013, it is expected different poles of global influence with dynamic changes to be formed in near future. As Putin says, “The 21st century promises to become the century of major changes, the era of the formation of major geopolitical zones, as well as financial and economic, cultural, civilisational, and military and political areas. That is why integrating with our neighbors is our absolute priority”.


The Eurasian Economic Union proposed by Prime Minister Putin in 2012 is expected to play such an integrative role. Refusing to repeat the way of the Soviet Union, Putin and his team insist to make the Union as “a project for maintaining the identity of nations in the historical Eurasian space in a new century and in a new world. Eurasian integration is a chance for the entire post-Soviet space to become an independent centre for global development, rather than remaining on the outskirts of Europe and Asia”. Again, we see a very strong foreign policy ambition of Russia to form a new center of gravity for CIS and other countries.


This Union if it would emerge today, however, could face a few serious challenges. The Union has to unite post-Soviet economies oriented at high-tech modernity not at a mechanic signing of cooperation agreements. The question is: are the member countries of the future Union forget the option of oil and gas-oriented economy? A military challenge also waits the day of the birth of the Union. Member states will have to elect or reject the NATO, Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) or Shanghai Organization affiliation. Their decision is not anticipated to be very easy and swift. Psychologically speaking, some countries have deep suspicion of Moscow imperialistic intentions. They think of old-Soviet Empire to emerge in new edition. They have thoughts of a risky dependence on Russia within this new formation.


Outgoing President Saakashvili of Georgia has expressed serious doubts in relation to the Eurasian project. He voiced a slashing criticism over the Union while making a presentation at the 68th session of the United Nations General Assembly. The Eurasian Union, according to Saakashvili, “is lead by old KGB structures and it is shaped to revive an old Empire. Of course, joining the Eurasian Union is therefore very easy. There are no social, economic, or political criteria to be met: becoming a colony, in fact, requires no effort at all. Passivity and mediocrity are the only requirements”. Saakashvili sees the Union as an attempt of Putin to build a new Russian Empire in the post-USSR space. Georgian President is assured that the Russian project is doomed to fail: “Rejected at its margins, rejected at its center, the imperialistic path will come to a dead end, the Eurasian Union will fail and Russia will – after all – become a nation state with borders instead of margins”. (3)


In contrast to the Saakashvili's criticism, President Putin has declared: “I want to stress that Eurasian integration will also be built on the principle of diversity. This is a union where everyone maintains their identity, their distinctive character and their political independence. Together with our partners, we will gradually implement this project, step by step. We expect that it will become our common input into maintaining diversity and stable global development”.


Commenting the President Saakashvili words of “old KGB structures”, we would like to say that it is a simplification. KGB has been transformed long ago into different structures in Putin's Russia. More influential than KGB structures rule the economy and some political movements of modern Russia. These are huge economy giants like Gazprom, Lukoil, Russian Al’uminiy and others. They are inter-connected with influential international companies and banks. It is their interests which would be touched in the future Eurasian Union. And it is these companies’ economic proficiency as well as political management of Kremlin Administration that could prevent the Union to become fragile.


Putting analysis of the Union perspectives aside, we would like to attract the Bilgesam readers attention to one interesting phenomenon connected with the Eurasian Union. It is about a union without joint land borders. Here are two examples. First, Armenia locked in circumstances of the Nagorny Karabakh conflict. It has no land border with Russia and, nevertheless, has declared to join the Customs Union. (4) The second example is Serbia in the Balkans. Serbia and Montenegro have already have free-trade zone with the Customs Union. Some Serbian parties and politicians while speaking in this September Russian-Serbian friendship Congress did support an idea to join the Customs Union and even the CSTO. They stand for an economic integration first and then for a military integration with Moscow. (5) So, Serbia has also no land borders with Belarus Russia or Kazakhstan and has considered projects of integration with the Russia-backed unions. Thus, we face a unique phenomenon when the states having no joint land boundaries try to conclude accords of long-term economic integration. The time only will show to what extent these ideas can be materialized.


Russia and Turkey: What Can They Do Together?


The Eurasian Union is announced to be a very inclusive project. Turkey after many years of negative experience seems to have refused to join the European Union in near future. Meanwhile, the country has a great potential of cooperation and joint effort with Russia. Due to Eurasian character of both countries and personal good, if not friendly, relationship of Prime Minister Erdogan and President Putin, Ankara and Moscow have maintained excellent cooperation in the sphere of economy and energy. This success must be supported by joint diplomatic-political decisions.


Among other things we should mention:


•joint Russian-Turkish cooperation in conflict resolution,

• solution to the Armenian economic issue (it can have, to our mind, the following elements: trade of Armenia on all geographic directions, opening railway communication via Abkhazia, the Eurasian Union with Turkey participation)

• solution to the conflict in Karabakh in the interest of all the sides involved,

• supporting ethnic and religious minorities rights in the Transcaucasia and Middle Eastern states, in particular, rights of Moslem minority in Georgia and Christian groups in Syria.


The problem of terrorism spilling over from one country to another is equally serious both for Turkey and Russia. President Putin warned ex-Soviet allies on September 23rd that Islamist militancy fuelling the war in Syria could reach their countries, some of which have Muslim majorities. Putin told leaders of the six-nation CSTO that militants fighting Assad could eventually expand attacks beyond Syria and the Middle East. "The militant groups (in Syria) did not come out of nowhere, and they will not vanish into thin air," Putin said. "The problem of terrorism spilling from one country to another is absolutely real and could directly affect the interests of any one of our countries," he said, citing the deadly attack on a shopping mall in Nairobi as an example. (6) Russian officials have expressed concern that Russian-born militants fighting in Syria could return to Russia's North Caucasus and join an insurgency that claims lives almost daily. It is obvious that Turkey and Russia could contribute to international and regional counter-terrorism cooperation in the interest of both peoples.


In addition, three major regional projects of the Middle East are expected to be advanced in foreseen future: the Kurdish State project, the Shiite Crescent project and the Armenian geopolitical project. All the three deserve among the others to be at the center of monitoring, analysis, estimation and a policy response from Russia and Turkey. Borders could easily change under the pressures of war and ethnic conflict as Robin Wright stresses in the New York Times. (7) However, these projects constitute a special research subject.


Notes


1. Meeting of the Valdai International Discussion Club. Vladimir Putin took part in the final plenary meeting of the Valdai International Discussion Club. The theme of the club’s anniversary session is Russia’s Diversity for the Modern World. September 19, 2013, 19:45. Novgorod Region/ President of Russia// URL: http://eng.kremlin.ru/transcripts/6007 (Date of reading: September 25, 2013). The Valdai International Discussion Club is a gathering of leading Russian and international experts in the history, politics, economics and international relations. The Club mission is to foster a global dialogue about Russia and to provide an independent, unbiased, scholarly analysis of political, economic and social processes in Russia and the world. See more details: http://valdaiclub.com

2. Results of recent study titled Contemporary Russian Identity: Measurements, Challenges, Answers and conducted in August 2013 by the VTsIOM national public opinion research center have showed the following picture. In Russia the dominant value of identity is patriotism rather than faith, territorial attachment or ethnicity. Russians are increasingly becoming individualistic and are getting rid of the Soviet notion of collectivism. Russians, especially young people, are also becoming more patriotic. See: Contemporary Russian Identity: Measurements, Challenges, Answers/ Valdai Discussion Club// http://valdaiclub.com/event/62162.html

3. Address by the President of Georgia at the 68th session of the United Nations General Assembly. 9/25/2013/ Speeches and Statements. The President of Georgia Mikheil Saakashvili// URL: http://www.president.gov.ge/en/PressOffice/News/SpeechesAndStatements/?8465 (Date of reading: September 27, 2013)

4. Zayavleniya dlya pressy po itogam rossiisko-armyanskikh peregovorov. 3 sentyabrya 2013 goda. Novo-Ogarevo/ President Rossii// URL: http://www.kremlin.ru/transcripts/19142 (Date of reading: September 29, 2013)

5. Serbskii politiki vyskazalys’ za vstupleniye strany v Tamozhennyi soyuz i ODKB/ RT na russkom// URL: http://russian.rt.com/article/15606 (Date of reading: September 19, 2013)

6. Vystupleniye na zasedaniyi Soveta kollektivnoy bezopasnosti ODKB v uzkom sostave. 23 setyabrya 2013 goda. Sochi/ President Rossii// URL: http://www.kremlin.ru/transcripts/19268 Date of reading: September 24, 2013)

7. Robin Wright. Imagining a Remapped Middle East/ The New York Times. September 28, 2013// URL: http://www.nytimes.com/2013/09/29/opinion/sunday/imagining-a-remapped-middle-east.html?pagewanted=2&_r=1&hp (Date of reading: September 29, 2013)

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