Aggressive Foreign Policy as an Instrument for the Legitimization of Putin's Regime: Georgia's Case

By Vladimir Shlapentokh
Cornell International Affairs Review
2009, Vol. 2 No. 2 | pg. 2/2 |

Russia's Greedy Elite: A Chance to Stop the Deterioration

In using the imperial ideology and aggressive foreign policy, the Kremlin is concerned not only about public support. The loyalty of the elite is of special importance to the Kremlin. The absolute majority of the elite is politically passive and do not participate in the decision making process in the Kremlin. At best they can play the role of advisers. However, the Kremlin is deeply concerned about the loyalty of "the passive elite," because its members help to maintain the regime, control the army and the FSB, and run public propaganda. The elite includes most of the state apparatchiks at high levels, the FSB and military commanders, the members of the parliament, and leading media figures—a group that includes no more than 1,000 to 1,500 people.

Most members of the elite clearly enjoy the patriotic ecstasy along with ordinary people. They are happy with the Kremlin's antidemocratic actions, since only the authoritarian regime is able to guarantee their privileges and preserve their illegal fortunes. At the same time, many members of the elite are rather critical of the rude confrontation with the West. We can speculate, following the view of the famous Moscow journalists Yulia Kalinina and Andrei Riabov, that the elite, given their close material ties to the West (a Russian journalist referred to them contemptuously as the "offshore elite"26) are sizzling with repressed anger against the Kremlin's policy.

These people, as Kalinina writes, not without irony, are afraid to be cut off from their "honestly acquired villas in Spain, mountain ski resorts in France, yachts in the Mediterranean, and London boutiques."27 These people already, in various ways, feel the consequences of the West's animosity toward Moscow's policy. A pro-governmental journalist described in Izvestiia how unfriendly London became toward Russian travelers after the war.28

The ability of the critical members of the elite, who hide their views from the public and perhaps even from friends, to encourage the Kremlin to change its harsh anti-Western position without endangering their positions is very limited. Only under propitious circumstances can they persuade the Kremlin, using the personal interests of Putin and his circle as an argument, to move politics in a different direction.

We can only guess what was going on behind the Kremlin walls in the last weeks of September and what persuaded Putin and his partner in power to relent, somewhat, in their aggressive tone against Europe. They continued, however, as Medvedev's speech in Evian (October 8) showed, to lambast the United States as the major villain, accountable for all evils in the world, economic and political.29 Both leaders started inviting foreign media experts for various meetings, during which they tried to soften their position and presented Russia as a pure victim of the crazy Georgian president.30 The Kremlin showed its delight as it hosted foreign dignitaries, including the Spanish and German prime ministers. With special fervor, the Kremlin tried to foment, as Brezhnev did in the 1970s, the discord between the United States and Europe, and demonstrated good relations with Sarkozy.

The Kremlin does not miss an opportunity to declare that a new Cold War is impossible, which contrasts with what they said a few weeks before. Downgrading the shrill anti-Western tone in their propaganda, the Kremlin has not, however, retreated from its position of confrontation with the world, which is important for perpetuating its deeply antidemocratic regime. The big injection of anti-Americanism during the war will affect the minds of Russians for a long time.

The Drop in Oil prices and Changes in Moscow

In view of the crucial role of high oil prices in Putin's domestic and international policy, as discussed above, the sudden fall in prices, along with the economic and financial crisis, had an enormous impact on the Kremlin. The shift from complacency in the aftermath of the war with Georgia to apprehension occurred in October. The Kremlin felt the tremors of danger only when it discovered the negative impact of the war on its economy. The catastrophic decline in the value of its stock market and the flight of capital started before Russia began to feel the influence of the growing world financial crisis, which multiplied the troubles in the financial markets.

By mid October, the value of Russian stocks fell by 70 percent in comparison with early May.31 However, it was the fall of oil prices and other raw materials that delivered the most painful blow to the regime. Indeed, oil prices fell from $145 to $34 per barrel at the end of December. Meanwhile, raw materials made up 80 percent of the export revenues and one third of the budget.32 The fall in the value of the ruble against the dollar was also very painful for millions of Russians who kept their savings in national currency. The Kremlin toned down somewhat its aggressive propaganda against the West and even against Georgia. For instance, Moscow resumed its issuing of entry visas to Georgian citizens.33 Even during the gas war with Ukraine, during which Russia tried to show its strength, Moscow behaved relatively calmly. However, only a few observers believe that the fall of oil prices could radically change Putin's aggressive foreign policy so important for him for ideological reasons.

Conclusion

The West should be prepared to deal with an authoritarian regime that is ready to do anything to protect itself against its internal enemies. The Kremlin will continue to need foreign enemies. It will also remain prone to show the Russian public its success in confronting its neighbors and the United States. As a liberal journalist suggested, Russia became "an unpredictable state," which "can defy its own international obligations."34 The world can only hope that, with the lessons from the war against Georgia, the Kremlin will be more cautious when it looks for a new opportunity to show its imperial ambitions.


Author

Professor Vladimir Shlapentokh, Professor of Sociology, Michigan State University


Endnotes

  1. Matt Siegel, “Saakashvili denies ex-diplomat’s claims,” Associated Press, November 28, 2008.
  2. See the report of Human Rights Watch in The New York Times, January 24, 2009.
  3. Georgii Bovt, “Ofshornaia aristokratiia vse profukaiet?” Izvestiia, August 21, 2008.
  4. Fedor Luk’ianov, “Seven theses prompted by the Russia-Georgia conflict,” RFE/RL, August 26, 2008.
  5. See, for instance, the interview of Leonid Radzikhovskii with Ekho Moskvy on August 22, 2008.
  6. No Author, “Ne ochen’ “kholodnaia voina,” Rossiiskie Vesti, August 20, 2008.
  7. See Vladimir Putin’s interview in Lenta.ru, August 30, 2008.
  8. Maksim Bashkeev, “Prezidentskii otvet,” Tribuna, August 28, 2008.
  9. Anna Kaledina and Sergei Leskov, “Ot chego Rossiia mozhet izolirovat’ Zapad?” Izvestiia, August 26, 2008.
  10. Liliia Shevtsova, “Konets epokhi: Logika osazhdennoi kreposti,” Vedomosti, September 24, 2008.
  11. Vladislav Surkov, “Suverenitet – eto politicheskii sinonim konkurentosposobnosti,” Moskovskie Novosti, March 10, 2006.
  12. See the interview of Kungarkin, the editor of the pro-Kremlin Komsomol’skaia Pravda, with Ekho Moskvy, August 20, 2008.
  13. Iosif Stalin, Voprosy Leninizma, Moscow: Gospolitizdat, 1952, pp. 603-650.
  14. Yurii Andropov, Izbrannyie rechi i stat’i, Moscow: Politizdat, 1983, pp. 209-218.
  15. Vladimir Milov and Boris Nemtsov, “Putin i ‘Gazprom’,” Novaia Gazeta, August 31, 2008.
  16. Sergei Leskov, “Mozhet, my i vsiu Rossiiu sumeem vyvesti v sploshnoi “Zenit”?” Izvestiia, May 16, 2008.
  17. Natal’ia Malakhova, “Bilan v “zenite,” Novaia Gazeta, May 29, 2008.
  18. Artur Gasparian, “Russia, Hello!” Moskovskii Komsomolets, May 30, 2008.
  19. Stanislav Tarasov, “Natsional’nyi interes. Velikaia ‘vosmerka’,” Rossiiskie Vesti, July 19, 2006.
  20. See Putin’s speech at the Munich Conference on Security at http://www.securityconference.de/konferenzen/rede.php?sprache=en&id=179, accessed September 30, 2008.
  21. No author, “Moskva - Washingtonu: ne uchite nas s kem druzhit’ i s kem spat’,” Izvestiia, July 30, 2008.
  22. Dmitry Medvedev, “Zaiavlenie i otvety na voprosy zhurnalistov na press-konferentsii po itogam rossiisko-ispanskikh peregovorov, October 1, 2008 (available at http://kremlin.ru/appears/2008/10/01/2140_type63377type63380_207123.shtml, accessed October 3, 2008).
  23. Yuliia Kalinina, “Gruzinskaia mama protiv rossiiskogo papy,” Moskovskii Komsomolets, September 4, 2008.
  24. Alexander Lifshits, “Yesterday,” Izvestiia, August 6, 2008.
  25. See, for instance, Hugo Chavez’s speeches in Diario Vea, July 3, 2008, and in Diario Las Últimas Noticias, August 29, 2008.
  26. Georgii Bovt, “Ofshornaia aristokratiia” vse profukaiet?” Izvestiia, August 21, 2008.
  27. Yuliia Kalinina, “Chem otvetit Zapad,” Moskovskii Komsomolets, August 29, 2008; Andrei Riabov, “Pobeda ne prikhodit odna,” Novaia Gazeta, September 14, 2008.
  28. Mikhail Ozerov, “‘Medvedia’ – na golodnyi paek,” Izvestiia, September 16, 2008.
  29. Dmitry Medvedev, “Vystuplenie na konferentsii po mirovoi politike,” October 8, 2008 (available at http://www.kremlin.ru/appears/2008/10/08/1619_type63374type63377type82634_207422.shtml, accessed October 10, 2008).
  30. See Dmitry Medvedev’s press-conference speech, “Sovmestnaia press-konferentsiia s Federal’nym kantslerom Germanii Angeloi Merkel’ po itogam rossiisko-germanskikh mezhgosudarstvennykh konsul’tatsii,” October 2, 2008 (available at http:// www.kremlin.ru/appears/2008/10/02/2156_type63377type63380_207176.shtml, accessed October 10, 2008).
  31. Segei Kulikov, “Glubina padeniia. Pochemu birzhi v Rossii upali v dva-tri raza sil’nee, chem v drugikh stranakh,” Nezavisimaia Gazata, October 10, 2008; No author, “Rossiiskie aktsii padaiut vsled za vsem mirom,” IFX.RU, December 12, 2008, available at http://www.ifx.ru/txt.asp?rbr=1494&id=1031322, accessed December 10, 2008.
  32. Federal’naia Sluzhba Gosudarstvennoi Statistiki, Rossiiskii Statisticheskii Ezhegodnik, 2007, Moscow: Rosstat, 2007, p. 756; Dmitrii Polonskii, “Minekonomiki nedootsenilo obval,” Den’gi, December 15, 2008.
  33. Ol’ga Allenova, “Rossiia vozobnovliaet postavki viz v Gruziiu,” Kommersant. Daily, January 20, 2009.
  34. Dmitry Oreshkin’s interview with Moskovskii Komsomolets, September 2, 2008.

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