Global Policy Forum

Moscow Shows Who's Boss With WTO U-Turn

By Fyodor Lukyanov

June 17, 2009


Moscow's decision to halt negotiations on joining the World Trade Organization and to focus instead on a joint bid through a customs union with Kazakhstan and Belarus appears to be politically motivated. It is a step toward establishing an independent identity on the world arena. Such a policy is conceptually based on several propositions.

First, Russia believes that a multipolar world would strengthen regionalization. In practice, it consists of an assemblage of economic centers with a zone of influence around each. The two most prominent examples are the European Union and China, pulling Eastern Europe and Southeast Asia into their orbits. However, regional groupings have also begun forming in South America and the Persian Gulf. In this context, if Russia plans to be one of those "poles" of influence, it will have to transform itself into a center of integration.

Second, Russia's hopes of entering into Western political and economic systems as a player holding equal status never panned out. For most of his presidency, up until mid-2006, Vladimir Putin strove to gain full status for Russia in the club of developed and influential states. As it quickly became evident, he had his own particular understanding of the conditions and forms by which that process should proceed that practically nobody in the West shared, but the goal remained unchanged.

The pinnacle of Moscow's efforts to join the WTO came midway through 2006 when Russia chaired the Group of Eight. That was when Moscow showed the greatest interest in preparing a new agreement with the EU as quickly as possible.

Neither happened. The United States once again delayed a decision regarding Russian membership in the WTO, and disagreements over Polish meat and the tragic events of fall 2006 (the murder of Novaya Gazeta journalist Anna Politkovskaya and the poisoning death in London of former FSB officer Alexander Litvinenko) changed the whole atmosphere of Russia's relations with the West. But even without those problems, there was little chance of Putin's plans bearing out. With oil prices on the rise, Russia's understanding of what constituted "equality" also grew -- a trend the West considered unfounded.

Third, the center of the world's attention is gradually shifting from the Euro-Atlantic zone toward India and the Pacific region. This is because of both the economic growth of the Asian powers and the numerous regional conflicts there that have the potential to spill over into the wider international community. A great deal depends on resolving those problems, and if Russia could take a leading role in achieving progress there it would go a long way toward strengthening Moscow's position in the world.

Moscow's desire to contribute to the European system of security was met with a lack of understanding. However, its role in the security of Central Asia elicits no such doubts, and its creation of rapid reaction forces as part of the Collective Security Treaty Organization, or CSTO, this week is an important step in that direction. The situation in the region is such that the CSTO is important less as a counterbalance to NATO than as a viable guarantor of security. This is all the more true considering that any negative turn of events in Southern and Central Asia are likely to affect Russia as well, making it necessary for Moscow to formulate an effective response.

What obstacles has Russia encountered in its efforts to promote a multipolar world? Its greatest challenge has been establishing positive relations with its closest partners, those located in Russia's potential circle of influence. Moscow's long years of casting about, trying to determine exactly what it wanted served to disorient its neighbors. Russia's problem is less that it frightens its much weaker neighbors than that it is unclear about its intentions and inconsistent in its actions. As a result, those countries that see the potential to join other international alliances will make every effort to avoid fully committing to Moscow, even if they would enjoy certain benefits by doing so.

Regarding the plan to create a customs union between Russia, Kazakhstan and Belarus, the weak link is obviously Belarus. Since last year, the EU has been cajoling Minsk with the suggestion that the "European option" is still open -- even for a regime that had recently been labeled as "the last dictatorship in Europe." Belarussian President Alexander Lukashenko is famous for his ability to wiggle his way out of any entangling obligations imposed by outside forces. That is why, at the decisive moment, Lukashenko will either once again start reneging on his obligations, placing Russia in an extremely awkward position, or he will use his old trick of demanding new concessions, blackmailing his partners with the possibility of ruining the whole project.

Lukashenko's boycott of the CSTO summit on Sunday over a trivial conflict with Moscow is a typical example of that type of approach. But the problem runs deeper. Belarus' security interests have little in common with the tasks set before the CSTO. Why should Minsk participate in an organization that might end up shouldering a real military burden in Central Asia? The moment the CSTO ceased functioning as a symbol of loyalty to Russia and began to set concrete goals, it became clear how little the organization met the real interests of its member states.

Although the Central Asian states have an interest in remaining under Russia's "umbrella," there are no prospects for developing an integrated system of security for the region. The disagreements between Central Asian states and the diversity of their approaches to Russia guarantee, if nothing else, inconsistency in the region. For example, Uzbekistan has the most powerful military in Central Asia, making it capable of contributing its part to the security of the region. However, Tashkent tends to prefer political maneuvering and has reordered its priorities more than once in the past.

China is also an important factor. The interests of Beijing and Moscow mostly overlap on the global level, but at a regional level the two are increasingly becoming competitors. Meanwhile, Russia is counting on increasing its global standing by consolidating its regional influence.

In principle, if Russia follows an independent policy in Central Asia, it does not necessarily mean such a tack would be anti-Western. China's policy is a good example of this -- at least the policy it follows now and is likely to pursue in the foreseeable future. In contrast to China, however, Russia's foreign policy priorities are usually tied to its internal model of development. And here, the Asian states seem to make far more rapid progress than on the diplomatic front.



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