He should rise to the uncertainties

Any leader will face the unexpected and the unplanned, no matter how carefully his course has been set out, by himself or anyone else. New challenges - from outside and in - are inevitable and will sometimes require precedents to be established. But how a new leader uses these opportunities to change, or to adjust the direction of his policies, is one of the main ways in which he can establish his reputation.

External factors present many dangerous uncertainties for Russia, from the erosion of international law and institutions to the effects of global warming. Yet several key features of international politics may endure, some of them not to everybody's liking.

Despite recent jitters, the world economy is likely to continue to grow. Energy will remain a vital element of world policy, as competition intensifies for access to energy resources and control of delivery. International law and institutions will continue to be tested. The ability to manage international processes is liable to become more difficult, and new international conflicts will arise. The US will retain a relative hegemony, while, in absolute terms, new world leaders will grow.

Russia, meanwhile, seems to have made up its mind about foreign policy. It wants to be an independent world player with its own rules and interests, to ensure co-operation with foreign partners that are beneficial to Russia, but firmly oppose anything that does not suit it.

Such unconditional independence is, however, not yet foreign policy, but just one of its prerequisites. Having "risen from our knees" - an expression Russian politicians are fond of - we need to know where to go, and who to go there with.

This, too, creates an uncertainty that will demand choices or decisions. To begin with, it is time to relaunch the long-stalled process of nuclear arms control. The Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty will expire in 2009, and new action is required from both Russia and America.

Second, we must look at the consequences of Russia's unilateral withdrawal from the treaty on medium- and short-range missiles. There would be no harm in trying to give new impetus to talks on the Treaty on Conventional Forces in Europe, which Russia suspended in 2007, and this is something the West should be as interested in as ourselves.

Third, there is room for new Russian initiatives, possibly bringing China, India and other countries into the discussions on arms control.

In relations with the US, the agenda will be limited until a new American President takes office. But perhaps we should take advantage of this moment of uncertainty - and the financial and foreign policy difficulties facing the US - to sound out possibilities for a broader dialogue.

New departures may arise in relations with our close neighbours, particularly Ukraine, Georgia and the Baltic states. Russian leaders must accept that initiating a dialogue is a sign of strength, not weakness. Having demonstrated its strength, Russia needs to turn the page.

The decision by certain European states to support independence in Kosovo and not elsewhere has dealt a blow to the principles of international law. Nonetheless, Russia will have to take a stand on other "unrecognised" states; sitting on the fence while crises continue to fester is not a policy to be pursued indefinitely. It will be interesting to see if Russia's leaders can come up with new proposals for Abkhazia, South Ossetia and Transdnestr in a way that will lead to co-operation with other interested countries.

Some European institutions have invoked Russian ire. They will continue to be critical of Russia's domestic policies. Should we ignore them if we consider ourselves part of European civilisation?

So my main points about what is facing the new President involve three elements:

One: the hope that our leaders are not programmed by some kind of decision-making "matrix".

Two: the knowledge that the future is uncertain.

And three: the logic that this uncertainty represents chances for new political leaders.

Andrei Melville is professor of political science at the Moscow State Institute for International Relations

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