The West and Russia are continuing their worn-out Cold War dance routine
Plus ça change
As antagonists United States President George W Bush and his Russian
counterpart Vladimir Putin both begin ceding power to others, one
would expect new political horizons to open up. Bush already looks
more like a footnote than a leader, with the US focussing on McCain vs
Clinton/Obama, leaving the failed president a classic lame duck. Putin
is introducing his successor Dmitri Medvedev to the subtleties of
power politics, with Western analysts slavering over hints in his
biography of liberalism and even a rejection of Putin's clear
anti-imperialist foreign politics. But this appearance of change
belies the reality.
As the recent anniversary of the US debacle in Iraq underlined, the US
is in its sixth year of a brutal and illegal occupation and will
remain there for years to come, no matter who is president, and in its
seventh year in an even worse nightmare in Afghanistan, which no
president can afford to abandon despite the obvious failure there.
Things are a bit different in Russia. No electoral chaos and public
linen washing. And despite the wishful thinking of pundits, its
foreign policy appears to be continuing the independent, self-assured
path that Putin gave it: no to US missile bases in Eastern Europe, no
to a war against Iran, no to Kosovo.
There are nuances though; notably, a flurry of talks in Moscow between
US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Secretary of Defense Robert
Gates and their Russian counterparts prior to the 2-4 April NATO
meeting in Romania. They rushed to Moscow to negotiate a "strategic
framework" on policy issues such as trade, counter-terrorism and
nuclear proliferation. This looks suspiciously like window-dressing,
as there has been no movement on the key disagreements over US missile
bases and the fate of Kosovo. Defence Minister Anatoly Serdyukov made
it very clear: "In principle our positions have not changed."
Interestingly, the Americans discretely limited their talks with
opposition figures, bypassing the likes of Gary Kasparov and even
Human Rights Watch activist Tatyana Lokshina, whom Rice met with last
year, and who said, "I can't say why she didn't meet us this time, but
frankly it's very disappointing. It sends a signal to the Russian
government." Very much so.
As for NATO, according to US Under-Secretary of State for Political
Affairs Nicholas Burns, it is suffering an "existential crisis", which
Jean-Paul Sartre might find amusing. Bush has pushed seven
ex-Socialist bloc states into NATO during his tenure and is eager to
make this a metric dozen with Albania, Croatia and Macedonia. It also
has "roadmaps" for Ukraine and Georgia to get them on a quick entry
ramp into this peculiar alliance. But Europe is having trouble
digesting all these new dishes -- Greece doesn't want Macedonia for
purely Greek reasons, Germany doesn't want Ukraine and Georgia for
very good Russian reasons. It's not at all clear that anyone besides
Bush really wants basket-case Albania among the big boys. Many argue
that the alliance has actually become weaker with all the new members,
as individual states -- with the notable exception of the US --
quietly reduce their own defence spending. Gates warned recently that
NATO was becoming a two-tiered alliance, with some brave stalwarts and
a lot of cowards.
Meanwhile, German Chancellor Angela Merkel's Social Democratic foreign
minister, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, is publicly calling for the EU to
take on its traditional role of mediator between America and Russia.
French President Nicolas Sarkozy now shows his concern for Russian
"sensibilities", and his Socialist foreign minister, Bernard Kouchner,
insists that Moscow must now "have the place that belongs to it." Even
Russophobe Merkel realises the folly of inducting Ukraine and Georgia
into NATO. As if to draw a line in the sand, the Russian Duma just
voted unanimously (440-0) for the recognition of Georgian provinces
Abhazia and South Ossetia as independent states.
As for hopes that Medvedev will abandon Putin's legacy, a careful
reading of his record shows that he is actually taking the Putin
revolution to its logical conclusion, with his intent on streamlining
the government, promoting rule by law, supporting business through
infrastructure development and market-friendly policies, emphasising
the need to nurture NGOs to replace Soviet-style state provision of
Complementing the words of Steinmeier, he has proposed that the EU
look to its own experience in the early post-WWII period of
reconstruction, when the European Coal and Steel Community laid the
vital ground work for the EU itself, bringing enemy states together.
He has offered an "asset swap" that will guarantee energy security for
the entire continent as "the best form of partnership". Russian
investment in refinery and distribution in Europe in exchange for
European investment in oil and gas extraction in Russia would create a
"virtuous cycle", engendering economic efficiency and security
throughout the continent. Medvedev's message is clear, and
irrefutable: security is enhanced when countries share risk, not when
they build walls and rattle missiles.
This is day to the night of US "might makes right" that unfortunately
seems to infect anyone who gets near the White House these days. So
while the superpower dance of death continues, there is that other
Cold War partner -- détente -- waiting in the wings, if only the US
can remove its neo-con blinkers. Europe is already waiting for its
tune to change. And we can only hope such a détente will be followed
by a perestroika -- this time in the US.
Perhaps all this is best encapsulated in the respective attitudes of
the US and Russia towards the Organisation of Islamic Conference (OIC)
expressed during its recent meeting in Senegal. For the first time,
the US sent a PR envoy, Sada Cumber, a smooth Pakistani-born
businessman from Texas, to promote understanding with Muslim
countries. Rice explained: "the notion that the US is at war with
Islam is simply propagated by violent extremists who seek to divide
Muslim communities against themselves." Cumber admitted that he hadn't
made much headway in Dakar.
In contrast, Russia actually wants to join the OIC -- its Muslim
population is larger than that of several Asian and African Muslim
states -- "to enhance cooperation with Islamic nations", according to
Russian Ambassador at Large Veniamin Popov. Russia continues to work
within international bodies and observe international laws, while the
US continues to bully and schnooze the world to follow one of its many
Eric Walberg writes for Al-Ahram Weekly. You can reach him at
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