Drawing by Niyaz Karim. Click to enlarge the image.
The passing of the Magnitsky bill by the U.S. Congress, which imposes sanctions on Russian officials who, in the opinion of American law-makers, were complicit in the death of Hermitage Capital Management lawyer Alexei Magnitsky, is only the tip of the iceberg. It was the final act in a series of unfriendly western political moves towards Moscow.
On two of the most sensitive issues – the deployment of a European missile defence system and European visas for Russians – the Kremlin suffered a crushing defeat.
These conflicts were particularly noticeable against the background of positive relations developing between Russia and Asia. The 2012 Apec summit in Vladivostok and the Customs Union and the Eurasian Union projects were unqualified successes, not least on the diplomatic front.
The economic initiatives to transform Russia into a transit state between Asia and Europe and the oil and gas projects orientated on the East have also gained the support of Moscow’s partners in Asia.
In Europe, the situation has been different. On the one hand, 2012 saw the launch of long-term economic projects linking Russia and the Old World. These included the laying of the Nord Stream gas pipeline on the bed of the Baltic Sea and the start of construction of the South Stream gas pipeline under the Black Sea. These will link north and south Europe to Russian gas fields.
At the political level, however, the dialogue between Moscow and Europe has been marked by increased tension, with little hope for improvement.
New areas of conflict emerged – biased monitoring of polls by European international organisations and foot-dragging over visa-free travel to the European Union for Russians.
Moscow has criticised the West for human rights violations this year, including the brutal suppression of mass action against austerity measures. Police in Europe and the U.S. dispersed protesters and detained dozens of people.
Another issue to which Moscow paid close attention was the rights of children who are sometimes unreasonably taken away from their families by social workers. The last incident of this kind occurred this month in Finland, where four children, including a baby, were taken away from their Russian mother without a court ruling, solely on the basis of anonymous denunciations.
There have also been many cases where adopted Russian children have died in American families, while their murderers, in Moscow’s opinion, have not always been duly punished for their crimes. When Russia criticised the West’s human rights abuses, it aroused the anger of many politicians.
The issue of family values has also caused a rift between Russia and the West. In Europe and the U.S., gay relationships have increasingly been approved by government legislation. The concepts of “mother” and “father” have been replaced in official documents with the impersonal terms “parent 1” and “parent 2”, following the Scandinavian example.
Russia categorically objects to this. St Petersburg passed a law banning “homosexual propaganda” that led to Milan refusing a twinning arrangement with the city. Nevertheless, the Russian authorities are convinced that public opinion is fully behind them on the grounds that the legalisation of same-sex marriages runs counter to traditional Christian and family values.
The St Petersburg law was seen as a violation of human rights by European activists. They linked the issue of same-sex marriages with granting visa-free travel for Russians to the EU. The EU’s political documents stipulate that visa-free status is only granted to countries with a clean human rights record. Moscow, however, has refused to budge on the issue, which further complicated the Russian-European dialogue at the intellectual level.
Russia’s new foreign policy concept does not envisage any revolutionary change of outlook, which will remain traditional and fairly conservative. Russia will stick to its interpretation of the principles of international law and the primacy of UN Security Council decisions on international affairs. It will also react to events in accordance with the specific situation and seek to build a new dialogue with countries that had a regime change during the Arab spring.
At the same time, I predict that next year will see more tension in Russia’s relations with its partners in Europe and the US. Why?
First, the conflict in Syria on which Russia and the West fail to agree. The conflict is drawing more states into its orbit, ceasing to be local and becoming geopolitical. Second, at least two meetings held last year at such key forums as the NATO-Russia Council and the Russia-EU Council have lost much of their effectiveness. The West is giving Russia a polite hearing but not considering Russia’s interests when taking decisions. There are no signs that this will change.
Russia is ready for dialogue with the West, as reflected in its foreign policy concept, but it won’t change its approach to internal and foreign policy. The Kremlin is particularly worried about the reluctance of its European and American partners to recognize Moscow’s national security concerns. So a further deterioration in relations between them is inevitable. Virtually all areas of co-operation will be directly or indirectly curtailed or put on hold.
Even so, there is no question yet of a new cold war between Russia and the West. The two sides still have much to gain from the joint initiatives in combating terrorism and drug trafficking and the joint economic projects. That will keep Russia and the West on civil terms for a while.
Russia’s expert community has devoted much more time this year to discussing the prospects in Asia than those in Europe. The West’s pointed refusal to recognise Moscow’s concerns and Russia’s pointedly unfriendly actions have created an atmosphere of mutual mistrust. This has spread to all areas of co-operation, from military to humanitarian issues.
But “a bad peace is better than a good quarrel”. I would stick my neck out and say that, in 2013, the most one can expect is a “bad peace”.
Yevgeny Shestakov is editor of the international politics desk at Rossiyskaya Gazeta.
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