RUSSIA: The Bear Begins to Punch Again

Kester Kenn Klomegah

MOSCOW, Jan 9 2009 (IPS) - Through a difficult 18 years since the end of Soviet political dictatorship, Russia has steadily made its way back on to the global stage.

Through this period many see the first Russian leader Boris Yeltsin’s ten-year rule as a “lost decade” that made way for rapid progress under former president and now prime minister Vladimir Putin. This progress is expected to continue during President Dmitry Medevdev’s administration.

But Russia does face new challenges – the recession, through the election of Barack Obama as U.S. president, and the threat of expansion of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) in eastern Europe. And there is a gamut of problems emerging in neighbouring republics, especially with Georgia and Ukraine.

“Under Medvedev and Putin, Russia will attempt to become more assertive – certainly in its near abroad, and perhaps even globally,” Ted Galen Carpenter, expert on defence and foreign policy studies at the Cato Institute in Washington told IPS. “Russian anger at the United States and NATO has been building for years. Even during the Yeltsin era, Moscow was upset about the first round of NATO expansion and Western actions in the Balkans.”

Russian leaders became even more irritated over the second round of NATO expansion and the decision to support independence for Kosovo. The U.S.-led effort to bring Georgia and Ukraine into NATO was the last straw, Carpenter said. But tough Russian action in Georgia may have boosted its prestige, he said.

“What Moscow is interested in is reaffirming its role as a regional and global power, and this was an attempt to demonstrate the passivity of the west in the Caucasus as well as shaming the west and disproving the uniqueness of Kosovo,” Nathalie Tocci, senior fellow at the Istituto Affari Internazionali (IAI) in Rome told IPS. “All these objectives serve the end of reaffirming Russia’s power in the region and the international system.”

Deputy foreign affairs minister Alexander Yakovenko pointed out last week in the widely circulated Nezasimaya daily that in 2009 his country would increase the funding for world development programmes to boost its prestige. Russia has drawn up a plan for contributing to international development, with the priorities being fighting infectious diseases, doing away with energy poverty, and consolidating personnel potential in developing countries’ education system.

But Russian aid is still small in relation to the size of its economy. Russia will boost assistance to the world’s poorest nations from 220 million dollars in 2008 to 500 million dollars by 2011, says deputy finance minister Dmitry Pankin.

Pankin added: “The most interesting project has to do with upgrading basic schooling in Asia and Africa. The programme is carried out jointly with the World Bank, with over 50 million dollars due to be allocated for the purpose in the next three years.”

Russia, besides, continues to offer target aid to a number of countries. Such aid has been given recently to Tajikistan, Cuba, Nicaragua and Moldova.

The pro-western orientation of some of the political elites within the Commonwealth of Independent Sates (CIS), a group of ex-Soviet nations, irritates Russia but “Russia will take different steps to maintain ex-Soviet states under its control and slow down the process of integration of these countries into European and Euro-Atlantic structures,” Victor Chumak, director for political analysis and security programmes at the International Centre for Policy Studies in Kiev, Ukraine, told IPS.

But new trends may dim the growth of Russian influence, Carpenter said. “Despite the desire to play a more assertive role, Russia’s ability to do so is somewhat limited. When oil, natural gas, and other commodity prices were soaring, Moscow’s capabilities were enhanced. But with commodity prices plunging, the Kremlin’s position is significantly weaker than it was six months ago. Among other things, it will be hard to fund a serious military build-up under those circumstances.”

The global economic recession is particularly retarding Russia’s progress in attaining global authority.

Medvedev noted recently that the global crisis calls for a collective response, and regretted failure by western leaders to heed Russian warnings of the downturn at the last G8 summit in Japan (of the world’s eight biggest industrial powers, the U.S., Canada, Germany, France, Italy, Britain, Japan and Russia).

“Without the restoration of credibility we cannot hope to realise the existing possibilities for building constructive bilateral interaction on a long-time basis,” he said. But he added that the gold and hard currency reserves in Russian hands, the third largest in the world, will help Russia successfully ride out the storm.

Medvedev was also optimistic about the prospects of establishing a single economic area to include Russia, Kazakhstan and Belarus from Jan. 1, 2010. He said Russia would step ahead to become a regional financial centre despite the current crisis, which he said could only facilitate this process.

A vivid expression of recent Russian moves to gain international influence was Medvedev’s visits to India and earlier to four states of Latin America and the Caribbean Basin (Peru, Brazil, Venezuela and Cuba), and Putin’s visits last year to the Middle East, Asia and Africa.

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