A Baltic View on Russia’s New Foreign Policy Concept

Baltic states such as Latvia have been very busy reading the tea leaves from Dmitry Medvedev’s presentation of the Russian Federation’s new foreign policy concept paper. I came across this interesting translation which illustrates some of the Baltic concerns over new and old priorities for Moscow in its near abroad:

The document says that Russia is “tended towards cooperation” with the Baltic States, but the issue of Russian speaking residents of Latvia “continues to be of fundamental importance.” This is nothing new, unless we compare this formulation to the strategy which Russia’s government approved in 2000. It stated that “respect for Russia’s interests, including the fundamental issue of the rights of Russian speaking residents” was “a mandatory prerequisite” for improving relations. This is a notable difference, particularly given developments over the last few years. The situation of Russian speaking residents in Latvia has not changed substantially since 2000, but the political relationship between Russia and Latvia has improved. A border treaty has been concluded, other agreements are being prepared, the tone of the discussion has changed, and so on. The conclusion here is that the “clause on the rights of Russian speakers” does not mean that in Moscow’s eyes, the current situation is an obstacle against the ongoing normalization of the relationship. Rather it is probably a signal for the Baltic States – if Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia were to take steps in other areas which are “unfriendly” for Russia, then the concern for the situation of Russian speaking people in our neighbouring country may suddenly increase once again.

This new foreign policy concept, compared to the previous one, is more extensive and specific in terms of defending the interests of fellow Russians (“sootechestvenniki”). Russia promises to defend the interests of fellow Russians and Russian citizens, facilitate the consolidation of their organizations, help the Russian Diaspora to preserve its ethno-linguistic identity and its links to the historical homeland. The conceptual document also speaks to the idea of the “Russian world” (“russkiy mir”). A favourable interpretation would be that this represents a desire to globalize Russian cultural and linguistic values, as well as a natural wish to fulfil the moral obligation of supporting fellow Russians. An unfavourable interpretation would create suspicion that Russia wants to increase its political influence on the Russian Diaspora.Effects on LatviaWhat does the concept of the “Russian world” mean in Latvia’s context? That depends on what kind of support there will be. If it is aimed at affecting the political identity of Russian speakers and is less than transparent, then the support promises nothing good at all. At the same time, however, Moscow has long since concluded with respect to the Baltic States that the Russian Diaspora is not a particularly successful tool for political influence. This has been indicated by things which senior Russian officials have said in public, as well as by the things that our neighbouring country has actually been doing. Moscow will certainly not be sad if the political loyalty of Russians vis-a-vis their cultural and ethnic homeland will increase, but it would be an exaggeration to claim that the goal of supporting fellow Russians is to establish a “fifth column” in Latvia. Even if there are politically influential pro- Muscovite forces in Latvia, then the “Moscow House” [a building in Riga used for cultural events] is probably not the place where they can be found. As far as transparency is concerned, here we should make use of Russia’s promise to support fellow Russians “on the basis of international and bilateral agreements.” The more cultural and linguistic support is offered by Russia to Russians on the basis of bilateral agreements and with the participation and support of the Latvian state, the less opportunity there will be for political parasitism at the expense of “defending Russian speakers.”Media IssuesAnother promise in the Russian foreign policy concept which deserves attention is the idea of strengthening the positions of the Russian mass media in the world. This is a natural desire, but in Latvia’s context this might strengthen the already dominant influence on one share of the public of Russia’s (not just Russian language) media outlets. Given the content and value orientation of these media, that would not promote societal consolidation or information about what is happening in Latvia. Under conditions of an open society, however, there is no chance to fight against this by banning or blocking anything. Russia’s plan of increasing its presence in the global information space should encourage the state to come up with an adequate response – stimulating the offer of high- quality Russian speaking media in Latvia.In thinking about the potential influence of the ambitious intentions of the “Russian world,” we must also remember that this is something that has fairly prosaic roots. First of all, the declarative phrases in the conceptual document about supporting fellow Russians represent less in the way of true foreign policy priorities than a reaction to public opinion. Most Russians consider support for fellow Russians to be an important priority, and few have positive thoughts about what their government has achieved in this regard. Second, work with fellow Russians is a “tasty morsel” in terms of the budget, and strengthening the process is the result of lobbying on the part of certain structures and NGOs which are related to foreign policy issues.European Union InvolvementFor Latvia as a European Union (EU) member state, the way in which Russia shapes its relations with the EU is of importance. The concept states that Russia is interested in the strengthening of the EU and that it commends harmonized positions on the part of the EU. At the same time, however, the document also proclaims bilateral relations with individual countries to be an “important resource to promote Russia’s national interests.” On this list we find Germany, France, Italy and Finland, but no country in Eastern Europe, including Latvia. Of course, France, Finland and the other cited countries are not and have no intention of becoming a lever of influence for Russia. The slightly haughty reference to a “resource” probably is based on the fact that Russia considers Western European countries, as opposed to Eastern European countries, to be predictable and pragmatic partners with which it is possible to reach agreement on important issues. Those who want to do so can be proud of the fact that the relationship with Latvia is not a “resource for promoting the national interests of Russia.” If we think about this rationally, then we see that it is not good if the level of trust between Russia and the EU’s new member states is so low that differences of opinion must continue to be resolved with the intervention of Western Europeans.No matter what the content of the conceptual document, Russia’s attitude towards Latvia will be based on President Medvedev’s attitude towards fundamental aspects of international policy and on the way in which he shapes his relationship with the West in general terms. Answers to these questions will be found elsewhere and not now. For the time being, there has been no evidence in support of the prediction of pessimists who have said that the new president will compensate for his domestic political weakness with a more aggressive foreign policy. The early signals suggest that Medvedev is aiming at international recognition for Russia and for himself personally in a peaceful way. At the same time, however, for optimists who have been hoping for fundamental, as opposed to stylistic changes, the only thing that remains is to continue to hope. All in all, Russia is trying to maintain free choice in foreign policy, and it is continuing to insist on its right to pursue its national interests both through cooperation and through confrontation. Time will show the direction in which Russia will move its foreign policy machinery and how this will be done. For the time being it remains to be remembered that the gas pedal is not the only one in that machine.