By Jonathan Steele (THE GUARDIAN, 14/07/08):
Suppose you were the president of Russia. At your first G8 summit you meet a seemingly friendly George Bush, and the American leader tells the media afterwards what a “sharp guy” you are. But, while this flattery is going on, Condoleezza Rice is in Prague signing a deal to install a US missile radar system in the Czech Republic. Of course, the Americans insist the new weaponry is not directed against Russia, but are you fooled?
If the missile system was really aimed at rogue third parties such as Iran or North Korea, then why not position it closer to those countries to allow more time to detect and react to a hostile launch? Rice then goes on to Bulgaria – a one-time Russian ally that has become a base for 2,500 American troops – and to Georgia, to discuss the Caucasian republic’s plans for joining Nato. Of course, these plans are not directed against Russia either.
No wonder Dmitry Medvedev, who became the Kremlin’s master little more than two months ago, describes himself as “deeply distressed”. To Russia’s new president, as well as to millions outside the country, the creeping expansion of the American military empire through central Europe to the Caucasus and central Asia is unnecessary and short-sighted. At the G8 summit Medvedev proposed a pan-European security system that would include Russia. Western leaders gave him short shrift, and will no doubt be equally dismissive when he goes into more detail, as he has promised to do in the autumn. They describe Russia as a strategic partner, but anything that brings Russia into the security tent is ruled out.
Suspicions of Russia are deep-rooted. It is fashionable to describe the latest moves as a response to unfriendly activities by Medvedev’s predecessor, Vladimir Putin, who gave Russia a new sense of independence and international confidence. But this is facile history. The move to enlarge Nato began under Boris Yeltsin, who was far more friendly to the west. Nor did the effort to expand what remains an essentially anti-Russian alliance pause when Putin aligned himself with Bush after 9/11. Moscow’s security chiefs were against the move, but Putin won no reward from Washington for facing them down. Russia has not always behaved well over the past decade and a half, but it is more provokee than provoker.
Now we have Medvedev insulted on his international debut, and pilloried in Britain and the US for allegedly backing down on sanctions against Mugabe (though the G8’s threat was a good deal vaguer than Downing Street claims). Much ink has been spent in analysing whether he will be a force for change or continuity, but the answer depends in part on how he is treated by the west. If you want a new Russia, don’t play the old tricks.
Medvedev has not had a stellar career. A law graduate who became a local government bureaucrat under Putin’s patronage, he was thrust unexpectedly into the limelight as head of the giant state-run gas company, Gazprom. But there are two key facts that mark him out from Putin.
Thirteen years younger than his mentor, he is Russia’s first truly post-Soviet president. Putin is a post-communist, indeed a latter-day anti-communist, to judge from the many negative statements he makes about the old system. But he still bears the scars of the Soviet collapse. A man who spent several years serving the KGB’s external arm in East Germany on the frontline of the cold war, he felt the humiliation of seeing his empire founder.
Few Russians think of their country’s shrinkage without some sense of being diminished. But age plays a crucial part. Only 26 and untravelled by the time the USSR disappeared, Russia’s new president is free of the cold war rivalry that animated men of Putin’s (and Bush’s and Gordon Brown’s) generation. He did not feel defeat, as the Russians say, “on his skin”.
A lawyer, he is unsullied by close contact with Russia’s security bosses – the so-called power men, or siloviki. His friends are the civiliki, a newly coined pun for the coterie of lawyers and civilian officials he has brought into the Kremlin to promote the legal reforms, including the independence of the judiciary, that he has made his priority.
So the irony of Medvedev’s bruising on his first appearance as a G8 club member is that he is more of a European moderniser than the two presidents who came before. According to a recent poll, the ancient split between slavophiles and westernisers still endures in Russia. Some 45% of Russians say their country is part of Europe, while 42% see it as a separate Eurasian civilisation. The survey did not go into age or income, but it is a safe bet that the better-off generation, which Medvedev represents, overwhelmingly feels European.
The second irony is that Medvedev holds the same neoliberal and meritocratic values as his G8 peers; he is no more of a socialist or even a social democrat. In a telling passage in his inaugural speech, he said he wanted more Russians “to swell the ranks of the middle class and gain access to good education and healthcare”. There was no suggestion that single mothers, the elderly, the poor and unskilled workers might also deserve decent services. No word either about stopping the decline of state schools and hospitals and their accelerating marketisation, as parents and patients have to pay for what used to be free while private institutions emerge to cream off the best staff. Everything is subordinated to the rightwing yuppie view that only the middle classes matter, since they (ie people like me) are the motor for growth and democracy.
In an interview that took place on the eve of the G8 summit, I saw only one flash of emotion from Medvedev. Asked about a poll showing that 57% of well-off young Russians wanted to emigrate, the president looked stunned. He doubted its validity, at least according to his conversations with friends, colleagues and young people starting their own businesses. Of course, it was a huge advance, he told us, that Russians could freely get passports to go abroad. This would not be stopped. The problem was with the receiving countries that made it hard for Russians to get visas. Life in Russia was better than ever but the state had to try to prevent a mass exodus, which was “why we are working on small business development and fighting corruption”.
How weird that western leaders punish the very man who wants to make Russia “one of us”.