With ongoing debates on Russian-made S-400 deliveries to Turkey, fate of continuing cooperation of Russia, Turkey and Iran in Syria and future of Ankara’s relations with the European Union and NATO, it is high time to make an honest review of Russian-Turkish relations, define weaknesses of bilateral cooperation and try to sketch a framework for a better future. Inspection of historical legacy and nature of current ties may be of big value for those who want to grasp contours of common future. Analysis of existing political constellations in both countries, study of actors who shape or strive to shape bilateral relations and investigation of today’s cases of regional cooperation between Turkey and Russia may further contribute to explaining trajectory of bilateral relations.
During the first years of the Russia–Turkey relations after the collapse of the Soviet Union were defined by views of leaderships that were formed during the Cold war era. In the aftermath of the Independence War, Kemalist regime viewed its ties with the Soviet Union as a political alternative for Ankara’s relations with the European countries. The balanced approach in cooperation with the Soviets was gradually complicated by Moscow’s insistence upon Ataturk to redesign Turkey’s political regime according to the socialist principles. Left-leaning members of the Kemalist establishment came to support this idea.
Relations with Moscow were further marred after 1945 with the USSR threatening to reconsider the Straits regime and change Turkey’s eastern borders. Later, Soviet officials in later did confirm that Stalin’s insistence was a primary reason for Turkey’s decision to ally itself with Western powers. The Soviet Union interpreted Turkish participation in the Marshall plan, membership in the NATO under the Eisenhower Doctrine were as a further step to get security guarantees in face of the Soviet threats. On the other hand, it also prompted Moscow to consider Turkey’s foreign policy as being to a large extent defined by the NATO strategic plans rather than national interests.
The crisis in Turkey’s relations with its traditional allies over the Cyprus issue in 1964 and later in 1974 showed the Soviets that Turkey was increasingly diverging from the western line. The Soviets saw this situation as an opportunity to relaunch contacts with Ankara. From the mid 1970-s, the relations between the USSR and Turkey started gaining their own logic and that was largely expressed in trade, gas, and technology exchange cooperation. Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and Moscow’s support for the Workers’ Party of Kurdistan, on the other hand, didn’t allow these improvements to gain larger potency.
Gradual transformation from competition to cooperation
It is against this background that bilateral relations were developing in the 1990s. Political elites in both countries were still thinking in terms of bipolar confrontation and felt a lot of distrust towards each other. On the other hand, both countries were experiencing profound difficulty in finding their places in a new world defined by instability around their borders and lack of acceptable set of rules of global political engagement.
Areas that Russian elites viewed as Russia’s traditional sphere of influence were witnessing increased involvement of Western and global players. Growing instability in the Caucasus, Central Asia, the Balkans did not allow both countries to reshape their perception of each other and find a common ground. Relations were further complicated by the fact that Russia perceived Turkey as a tool in the hands of Western powers to minimize Russian presence.
With regard to the Caucasus and Central Asia, Turkey had very good potential to become a driver of positive political and economic changes. With the fall of the Soviet Union and collapse of bipolar competition Turkey lost its strategic importance in the Western eyes and this fact made Turkish elites look for areas where Turkey could be again an important ally.
By the 1990s it was evident that the countries’ elites were gradually moving from confrontation and competition, concentrating on areas that were mutually benefiting. Two points should be stressed here: this decision was a result of political will and had non-partisan character meaning that this approach enjoyed legitimacy among broader groups of political elites. Secondly, problematic areas in bilateral relations were not resolved or given increased attention but rather mitigated and pushed from the agenda.
Since the later years of the Cold war, certain areas have been pushing both countries to more cooperation and trust. These areas became relevant in the Russia–Turkey relations as well. Trade agreements on gas were a primary area where both countries had a chance to prove themselves as reliable partners. For Turkey, it was important to get stable contracts on gas deliveries for its growing economy during 1990s. For Russia, it was important to have Turkey as a reliable transit partner for its gas supplies to the European markets.
Economic cooperation and increasing mutual interdependence stimulated contacts in other areas, including construction. Turkish companies became especially famous in Russia for their road building technologies, and Russian companies were welcomed in Turkey due to their know-hows in building of large infrastructure objects like factories, dams, channels, or nuclear plants. Further areas included production and manufacture facilities in Russia, especially in culturally affiliated republics like Tatarstan.
It is important to note that since 2000s cooperation in these areas didn’t lead to increasing influence or effectiveness of lobbying among economic groups. Many experts point to the considerable control of formal politics over the business in both countries: with exemption big economic projects like Akkuyu NPP or TurkStream gas pipeline, economic and business ties don’t define political agenda between Turkey and Russia, commercial activity heavily dependent on political decisions and rapport. Although, this is less relevant for Turkish case since in Turkish export to Russia dominate goods and products produced by a large number of smaller local producers.
Predominance of political leadership in channelling of the bilateral relations is another dimension. Heads of state in Turkey and Russia are viewed as key actors who define bilateral relations. This also suggests that relations lack deeper institutionalization despite rich scope of agreements signed in the last 15 years: Moscow and Ankara are struggling to bring bilateral relations onto more stable and rigid foundation, which makes relations susceptible to situational politics. The establishment of the High-Level Cooperation Council in 2010, i.e. 20 years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, shows how slow the progress in this direction really is.
The lack of stable institutional base is coupled with the lack of unity in ideological views on a series of issues dealing with global and regional agendas. Turkey’s foreign policy is defined by personal interests of the country’s leadership, who has been trying to consolidate power within close circle of people loyal to Erdogan. Foreign policy decision-making process in both countries is very personalized: even though bilateral relations are not driven by common values and norms, as in the Turkey–NATO relations in their best years, both Moscow and Ankara may pursue personal political gains.
Nevertheless, it is important to underline that principle shift towards more cooperation may have deeper roots than solely the will of political leadership: rapprochement between Turkey and Russia started in 1997–1998, i.e. before Putin and Erdogan came to power. This observation is further confirmed by the fact that during these years both Ankara and Moscow decided to give up on using Chechen and Kurdish issues to pressure each other in other political questions.
Eurasianism and other groups of influence in Russia–Turkey ties
One of the ideological premises that many observers attribute to bilateral cooperation is the idea of Eurasianism. The concept is widely used in discussions on current state and the future of bilateral relations. The analysis of how elites understand Eurasianism in both countries reveals that there are both commonalities and differences. Russian and Turkish elites tend to view Eurasianism as a suitable ideological semantic tool to express their common desire to put their relations on ideational base. Further commonality includes the idea that Eurasian powers are destined to unite in order to challenge the West or at least to resist the pressure from the Western liberal democracies.
At the same time, there are considerable differences in what the elites understand under Eurasianism. In Russian case, Eurasianism was an ideological tool to protect Russian traditional sphere of influence by bringing local societies together under Russia’s guidance. For Turkish elites, primarily among left-leaning anti-imperialist politicians, Eurasianism is a way to challenge Turkey’s overly serious dependence from the West and to seek support from non-Western powers in resolving existing problems. Eurasianism is also popular among some of pan-Turanists and pan-Turkists, who channel their attention to the geographical regions covered by Eurasian ideology.
It can be said that Eurasianism is supported by small part of political elites in Turkey: after the 1990s, Turkey realized that it has a very limited scope of influence in the core of Eurasia, Central Asia and Russia, meaning that Turkey can be a part of Eurasia, but not its leading power.
Another aspect that defines bilateral relations is the attitudes to power and ability to influence regional politics is also. Both Turkey and Russia can be considered as rising powers who want to redefine rules of game of global and regional politics, established after the Cold war largely without much involvement and contribution of the latter two. These rising power demand recognition as rightful players in global politics. With consolidation of political regimes in Turkey and Russia, elites in both countries are becoming increasingly allergic to Western pressure and criticism and, therefore, tend to counter-balance these challenges by improving their own international stance and by developing closer ties with other rising powers.
Still, it is important to emphasize several crucial points. Eurasianists include very different political groups with different understanding of this ideology itself. In Turkey, the label Eurasianist may unite anti-Western and pro-Russian groups. However, this does not imply that being anti-Western automatically refers to being pro-Russian. On the other hand, the group is attractive for left-leaning activists, even though there are aspects of right ideology of pan-Turanism and pan-Turkism in it.
Another important point is a scope of real influence of the Eurasianists. For decades, the group around Perinçek has managed to consolidate around its political platform many influential former military officers and wage successful media campaigns, their influence and, most importantly, access to the decision-making process remains, however, very limited. The fact that this group failed to prevent escalation between Turkey and Russian right after the jet crisis in November 2015 despite all its mediation efforts and alleged contacts with Russian side may indicate their limited influence on politics in Turkey. The influence of this political group may depend on current reforms of the Armed Forces where Turkish government is trying to establish new rules of the game making it harder for the officers to exert their political influence.
Thirdly, it is important to understand why Perinçek group in Turkey is popular today and enjoys benevolence of the ruling party despite its criticism of the current Turkish foreign policy and domestic policies of the AKP. One way to answer this question is to consider assumption that AKP doesn’t attach to ties with Russia strategic importance, using it merely as an instrument, implying that today’s rapprochement is driven by current international conditions where Turkey is experiencing lack of dialogue with its Western partners and, thus, feels increasingly isolated. On the other hand, it is fair to say as well, that Erdogan may be allowing the Perinçek group as much freedom mainly to communicate to the Russians red lines of cooperation that Turkey may have in many areas of mutual interests like Kurdish issue in Syria.
It is important to mention the role that other groups are playing in formation of bilateral official dialogue, be it negative or positive. Business circles represent the most potent forces that can in theory exert a level of influence. A number of Turkish construction companies like Ant Yapi, Renaissance Construstion, Enka, Limak, Costa Group are working and successfully expand its presence in the Russian market: in 1972–2016 Turkish companies participated in 8755 projects around the world with total value of USD 325 billion among them 1939 projects worth $64.8 billion in the Russian Federation. Naturally, Turkish companies operating in Russia have gained experience in handling with local political establishment and bureaucracy, sometimes engaging in non-transparent business schemes. This laid a foundation for further ties and connections with politicians on federal level.
But still, even if Turkish companies have limited influence in Russia, they are unlikely to have a say in strategic decision-making process, especially on security related issues. This could be seen from their participation in construction of very profitable objects. Russian business circles, with exception of energy and automobile giants like Gazprom, Rosatom, Gaz, is very poorly represented in Turkey and has very limited experience in dealing with Turkish clients with their own cultural specifics.
Another group that can influence bilateral relations are ethnic minorities. Historically, Turkey hosted refugees and emigrants from Russian Empire, Soviet Union and later Russian Federation. Today, groups like Crimean Tatars, Circassians, North Caucasian diasporas influence public opinion on Russia in Turkey, though their activity is limited due do strict Turkish nationalism and firm grip of current ruling party on media and public demonstrations. These groups may find themselves in the center of new frictions between Russia and Turkey, especially considering the ongoing migration of foreign fighters from Syria back to Turkey and Western Ukraine. Religious groups like South Caucasian Salafist networks still can pose a danger to Russian national security from Turkey thought its presence in Georgia and western Ukraine. Existence of sympathizers to the groups’ cause among Turkish bureaucracy may further complicate Russian-Turkish rapprochement and attempts to strengthen anti-terrorism cooperation.
The role of the West and third countries in dynamics of bilateral relations
Russia and Turkey perceive bilateral cooperation over gas supplies and Akkuyu nuclear plant as almost an ideal platform to improve their negotiating positions vis-à-vis the European Union. For Turkey, better terms for gas deliveries from Russia and Russian assistance in building of the nuclear facilities have direct implications for the long-term economic development plans, as Turkish government is expecting a rise in energy demands. On the other hand, Russia gets stable revenues from its exports to Turkey, a good asset for its budget stability in times of Western sanctions and pressures on domestic economic plans. All of this indicates that economic cooperation contributes to advancement of their negotiating positions via-a-vis Europe and the US.
By the same token, Russia has been using Turkey’s support on multiple issues as a very effective asset in its own competition against the NATO. For Russian elites, Turkey’s independence from the Western alliance is very important. A number of Turkish experts emphasized the fact that Turkey didn’t join Western sanctions imposed on Russia in 2014.
While both leading actors want to gain more influence in the global politics, this transformation, however, will not come without problems for bilateral relations. Turkish elites seem to have accepted the fact that without considerable Western backing Turkey has very limited room for action in the Central Asia. This approach is further nuanced by claims that Turkey is aware that its relations with Russia are uneven, especially in military and diplomatic terms, therefore, when and where possible, Ankara would like to counteract Russian dominance through soft-balancing, expanding discussions of NATO–Turkey cooperation, for example, in Georgia or Azerbaijan. Russian military build-up in the Black Sea is also causing concerns in Turkey. This claim can be related to the ongoing efforts of the Turkish government to increase navy capacities in territorial waters.
Another interesting point in terms of influence of the third parties in the bilateral relations is the role of the Central Asian leaders in this process. These leaders are forced to mediate between the two because of their political reliance on Russia and cultural affinity to Turkey. There are, however, tendencies in Russian policies to minimize Turkic solidarity with Turkey among Russian Turkic communities.
Informal dimension of bilateral relations
Despite political elites’ vocal support for and visible official efforts to strengthen non-official bilateral ties, connections between private parties, NGOs, and academia exert limited influence on official relations between Russia and Turkey. Primary reason behind this lies in systemic position of civil society in decision-making process in each country. According to experts, scholars, who make research on bilateral relations, often lack necessary linguistic skills. There is still ideological bias in many academic circles, both in Russia and Turkey as well. For example, sometimes, scholars, who write on bilateral relations, do it in a form to confirm their personal, professional, political loyalty to institutions or movements, meaning that the scope and tone of analysis may eventually change according to the agenda. That is why many Turkish or Russian speaking scholar prefer engaging in history and culture studies rather than doing research on current political affairs. There are problems of insufficient funding and institutionalization between academia in Turkey and Russia as well.
Civil war in Syria
Nowadays, Russia seems to be rediscovering itself as a global power again. Russian elites are eagerly engaged in the Middle East, and state-supported energy and military companies increase their impact in the regional political landscape. On the other hand, Middle East became by the matter of choice an area of foreign policy activism of Turkish elites.The AKP government has been increasing gaining self-confidence in dealing with regional issues, possibly, hoping that cultural and geographical proximity to local population may be translated into real life political and economic gains for Turkey.
Syria was possibly the prime example of recent regional activism of Turkey, but civil war changed this approach with rising instability threatening Turkish security and coming of many new global and regional players in the conflict. The problem for the Russian-Turkish relations is that Syria turned out to be an area where Russian and Turkish interests clashed. But eventually increasing number of challenges transformed foreign policy dynamics in Turkey, and securitization of the process led to re-evalutation of priorities, where closer contacts with Russia became to be seen as one of the channels to enhance security situation on Turkish borders. Moscow positively reacted to Turkish concerns over the PKK/Kurdish issues, seeing them as a legitimate topic of discussions with Turkey.
As far as we can see today, Turkish elites are trying to adapt to new realities by getting used to Russian presence. Watching NATO allies increasingly abandon Ankara, Turkish elites are trying to become more active in broadening areas of cooperation with Russia and Iran. Judging by the lessons from the past, Turkey and Russia are able to find a common solution and acknowledge their corresponding legitimate interests and concerns. Turkey’s cooperation with Russia is a tactical phenomenon that was caused by Western partners’ inability to show solidarity on many occasions and to act against Russia.
Differences over political issues like the fate of Assad’s regime or scope of rights for Kurds may be pushed from the agenda in the mid-term, allowing bilateral cooperation on Syria to be focused on economic matters like reconstruction, trade, energy projects. These are the areas that are important for Russian plans to rebuild Syria and that Turkey can be interested in as well. Still, Turkey would like to keep supporting opposition, because, otherwise it would have to deal with Assad through Russian mediation therefore falling into more dependence on Moscow.
Even though one may witness rapid development of political ties between Turkey and Russia in recent years, relations are not immune to unforeseeable shocks. Heavy accent on political dialogue, political connections and consultations between the governments may be of great importance in general, but at times reveal that it is insufficient for development of full-fledged relations. Today’s cooperation between Moscow and Ankara in Syria serves as a good platform for both to test their political trust and to learn to listen to each other’s concerns, which so far have been largely ignored or pushed out of the agenda. Despite current existing moods in Europe and the United States on Turkey planning to leave the NATO, analysis of historical legacy and present situation in the world suggest that Turkey neither would prefer nor would afford to leave the Western security and political structures. On the other hand, Turkey’s rapprochement with the West would not be necessarily against interests of Russia. Interconnectedness of Turkey with Europe and USA may be of good utility for Russian global foreign policy. Current positive dialogue, however, should be used to include non-state non-official players and give them space to direct and shape bilateral relations. Their presence and contribution would be a best guarantee against political fluctuations which we will definitely witness in the future.
First published in our partner RIAC
Putin and Biden meeting – a chance for a better world
The whole world is looking forward to the meeting of the new US President Joe Biden with his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin. Although the Kremlin and the White House urge people not to expect too much from the June 16 summit, one still wants to believe that a personal meeting by the leaders of the two rival powers will lead to a thaw in bilateral relations and help defuse global tensions. At the same time, statements coming from the White House about negotiation plans sound rather vague. The bottom line is about “understanding Russia’s position and its aspirations.” The impression is that hundreds of Russologists working for the State Department, NSA, CIA and other agencies are unable to provide a definitive answer to this question, and the not very young 46th President of the United States has been forced to personally go for information. Moscow makes it clear that negotiations are a good thing, but the initiative comes from the United States, so the agenda will largely be agreed right on the spot.
At the same time, there are a number of key topics that the leaders of the two countries simply can’t ignore. Of course, there will be questions about human rights that Biden wants to ask Putin so badly, but the Russian leader too may want to ask about certain “inconvenient” things. First of all, about the United States participation in conflicts in the Middle East, where the “liberation movements,” indirectly supported by Washington continue to attack Russian and Syrian government forces. In fact, the parts of Syria and Iraq controlled by the Americans and their allies have become areas where there is no effective conflict against terrorists. The militants from that area are killing people in Germany and France, and spreading the ideas of extremism and radical Islam throughout Europe.
The United States has every right to defend its interests in the oil-producing regions, but such methods are hardly acceptable. The Kremlin apparently has obtained enough evidence of the “dirty methods” of warfare practiced by the United States in the Middle East. The spare parts for the numerous drones shot down over the Khmeimim airbase alone prove beyond any doubt the American involvement in organizing aerial attacks on the Russian military. However, a dialogue between Russia and the United States could quickly extinguish the flames of war in Syria and, more importantly, help ensure Europe’s security against terrorist attacks. So, Putin has a very important trump card up his sleeve, which he can’t fail to play. The only question is how Biden will react to this win-win move by Moscow.
As to the question about human rights, it may prove rather unpleasant for Biden. During preparations for the summit, the Swiss government pointedly indicated (apparently at the suggestion of the White House) that the vaccine race continues. Geneva is ready to accredit, without PCR tests, journalists who have been vaccinated with Western vaccines, but not with Sputnik, which has already proven its effectiveness. Needless to say, the Russian negotiators also used their own country’s vaccine. However, such a move, designed to show once again who is the “boss” in the upcoming meeting, only reflects a complete disregard for the European`s right to vaccination, and this is only the beginning. And the demonstrative support and financing of the Russian opposition – hardly gives Biden any reason for accusing Russia of human rights violations.
Even the case of the Belarusian oppositionist Protasevich, who was taken from the plane which grounded in Minsk due to a terrorist threat immediately brings to mind the “arrest“ of the plane of Bolivian leader Morales, or the US-approved extrajudicial detention of Russian sociologist Shugalei in Libya. In addition, the long history of the Guantanamo detention center hardly gives US officials any moral grounds to lecture anyone about human rights.
If, during the Geneva summit the United States and Russia can heal the festering wound of the Middle East conflict, this would be a giant step forward in the war on terror. The question is whether Biden will try to turn the dialogue with Putin into a series of accusations to increase his approval rating back home. A similar incident has already taken place and made the 46th President of the United States to look not so good. That being said, we can hope that in Geneva Joe Biden will lean back on his many years of experience and good knowledge of Russia, and emotions will not prevent him from achieving a breakthrough in relations with Moscow and mending bilateral ties, thus easing tensions in Europe and allaying peoples fear of a new global conflict.
Russia, Europe Discuss Prospects for Cooperation at SPIEF’21
Despite the deep-seated disagreements between Russia and the European Union, Kremlin is indiscriminately courting European business leaders. Ahead of the 24th St. Petersburg International Economic Forum [SPIEF’21] on June 2-5, President Vladimir Putin, in an official message, emphasized Moscow would forge a closer economic cooperation with its foreign partners and ready to share experience in various areas and further called for building constructive partnerships between members of the global community and expand business ties to effectively tackle the current critical global challenges and achieve sustainable development.
“We are ready to share our experience in areas such as healthcare and digitalization, and to work with partners to build better telecommunications, energy, and transport infrastructure. We also recognize the importance of addressing key issues facing the environment and climate,” according to the president’s message released on the official website.
Later at the plenary session held under the theme A Collective Reckoning of the New Global Economic Reality, Putin said, particularly about energy connectivity between Russia and Europe – “that Gazprom is ready to fill Nord Stream 2 with gas. This route will create direct links between the Russian and German systems and will ensure energy security and reliable gas supplies for the Europeans, like Nord Stream 1” and, in addition, emphasized readiness to implement similar high-tech projects with European and other partners in the future, despite all sorts of artificial barriers in the current political environment.
That, however, during the business discussion exclusively devoted to Russia-Europe, leaders of European business noted that strategies are needed for the improvement of relations between Russia and the European Union, and the necessity to develop a consolidated response to global challenges.
“In 2020, Russia faced four challenges. First, the pandemic, second, the collapse of oil prices, third, the devaluation of the Russian local currency the rouble, and the fourth, which is an ongoing challenge, the geopolitical context that does not make things easier. At the same time, Russia demonstrated good economic indicators. The global challenges are so disruptive that we need to come up with a joint approach and cooperate in fighting the pandemic,” according to objective views of Johan Vanderplaetse, Chairman of the Association of European Businesses (AEB) and President for Russia and the CIS, Schneider Electric.
Taking his turn during the discussions, Maksim Reshetnikov, Minister of Economic Development of the Russian Federation explained that the ultimate goal is to combat greenhouse gas emissions. In this context, technological neutrality, mutual recognition, and implementation of projects aimed to reduce carbon dioxide emissions are crucial. Building these mechanisms is a subject for strong international discussion, and there are high hopes for the climate conference in Glasgow this November.
Development of 5G networks can become a new touch point for Russia and Europe. But, no country, and no government can cope with all the tasks on their own. For example, 5G requires joint efforts, so European Union and Russia must work together to deploy this technology. Now both need to work together on 5G technologies in Russia and in Europe, suggested Arun Bansal, Executive Vice-president, Head of Market Area Europe and Latin America, Ericsson.
“Russia has amazing technological capabilities, and there are great companies. If we compare them with Western companies, if we join forces [connecting to 5G], we will all benefit from this,” added Johan Vanderplaetse, Chairman, Association of European Businesses.
During the discussions, the participants acknowledged that existing problems, especially the need to achieve international agreements. “We are now probably at the most difficult point in the development of our relations since the end of the Cold War. I think both sides value our relationship. Why are we at this negative point in our development? Of course, there are territorial and geopolitical issues, issues of human rights violations. I believe that all these problems contributed to the suspension of our political dialogue, which is now affected by uncertainty. In this atmosphere it is difficult to go back to the normalization of these relations,” according to Markus Ederer, Ambassador of the European Union to the Russian Federation.
Vladimir Chizhov, Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary, Permanent Representative of the Russian Federation to the European Union (EU) explained that most of the effective formats available for the members of the European Union and the Russian Federation for interaction are currently on hold. On the other hand, Russia has not closed a single door neither has it imposed restrictions for Europe. All suspensions were initiated by the European Union.
Some believe that there should be solutions, suggested expanding the list of green projects and finding a compromise between government and business. “We categorized nuclear energy as a green project, and this was a crucial decision. We believe that, based on the criterion of greenhouse gas emissions, based on the principles of technological neutrality, nuclear power should be seen as clean energy. And secondly, we have developed a number of transitional projects that may not meet some highest standards, but for many industries in our country this is a big step forward,” says Maksim Reshetnikov, Minister of Economic Development of the Russian Federation.
For Markus Ederer, Ambassador of the European Union to the Russian Federation, it is necessary to use the opportunity to strengthen relationship in the context of green transformation and creation of green economy, as it will be a new field for cooperation that is of high interest for representatives of European business community. The more policy becomes oriented towards the development of a green economy, the more seriously moving towards stabilizing relations between Russia and Europe.
Regional experiments that allow to introduce a system of emission quotas in the regions. “We are working on a soft regulatory framework that will allow us to implement climate projects, take into account the carbon footprint of products that will make our entire system more transparent, while at the same time we are launching a system of more stringent regulation based on regional experiments. Many countries have followed this path. We are currently in the final stage of the Sakhalin experiment, which will enable individual regions, at their will and in agreement with the business, to declare the goal of carbon neutrality and introduce a system of emission quotas with the trading system, and so on,” stressed Maksim Reshetnikov, Minister of Economic Development of the Russian Federation.
“We need to focus on reducing carbon emissions and strengthening other areas. The Sakhalin project is also a great example of enhancing our cooperation, including in the future. These are efforts that we should focus on, excluding the political context. We must work on issues of compliance with the obligations of WTO member countries. The obligations of all WTO members must correspond,” concluded Markus Ederer, Ambassador of the European Union to the Russian Federation.
The St. Petersburg International Economic Forum, popularly referred to as SPIEF, brings together international business leaders, government officials and representatives of expert and media communities to discuss various topics and jointly search for effective solutions to the most pressing challenges in Russian and global economies. The SPIEF is held annually, and since 2006 it has been held under the patronage and with the participation of the President of the Russian Federation.
To Stay or Not to Stay? Seven Concerns Russia Has about the OSCE
Today we live through a new cycle of intense confrontation between Russia and the West. This confrontation is exemplified by Russia increasingly voicing its disappointment in and frustration with many multilateral international institutions—from the United Nations to the Council of Europe and to the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons.
Though few would question the importance of multilateralism as such, its existing practice raises concerns and meets growing resentment. It has become a fashion in Moscow to make a case for a new isolationism and Russia’s disengagement from many international agreements, regimes and institutions.
The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) is no exception. In Russia, an increasing number of statements can be heard about OSCE allegedly failing to meet Russia’s expectations, interests and proposals. Sometimes such statements lead to conclusions that the OSCE is hopeless, that its time is over and that Moscow should leave this dysfunctional and highly biased Organization as soon as possible.
One could brush off these statements and conclusions as incompetent, politically loaded and destructive. Still, since they have received broad circulation at least in the Russian expert community, it would be more appropriate to dig deeper into this matter and to reconstruct the logic of the criticism. The goal of this brief article is to summarize the most popular Russian arguments against the OSCE and to offer counter-arguments in favor of continuous Russian engagement with this important international institution.
OSCE has a geographical bias
Critics argue that after the end of the Cold War, the OSCE has focused its attention on States and territories to the East of Vienna (mostly in the post-Soviet and post-Yugoslav countries), while the rest of the vast Euro-Atlantic space has never appeared on its radar screen. The logical conclusion is that the OSCE is a one-way street—a mechanism to transfer Western values and practices to the East of the European continent. This geographical bias looks particularly inappropriate today when many Western countries themselves experience increasingly serious problems with political populism, extremism, and separatism, the argument goes.
This assertion is partially true. Indeed, over the past two decades, the OSCE has conducted many operations and implemented many projects in the former Yugoslavia and, to a lesser extent, in the former Soviet Union. However, these activities are generally on the decline now, with the exception of the OSCE Special Monitoring Mission to Ukraine and some limited activities in Central Asia. More importantly, an attempt to block the Western influence in the post-Soviet space by leaving the OSCE does not make any sense. The West will continue to promote its political institutions and democratic standards in the East in any case. The only question is whether it will do it mostly through the OSCE, where Russia has a say, or whether it will use mostly EU mechanisms and/or bilateral agreements between major Western powers and their partners in the East. Leaving the OSCE would simply deprive Moscow of any kind of influence with regard to the East-West interaction in the Greater Europe in the future.
OSCE has a thematic bias
Another line of criticism maintains that the Organization has focused almost exclusively on the human rights agenda, to the detriment of other, equally important parts of its initial mandate, such as security, economic cooperation or environmental protection. Politicians and scholars in Russia often claim that the OSCE has turned into a body which sees its main mission in criticizing all possible deviations from the flawed Western interpretation of human rights and in advancing the obsolete concept of the “liberal universalism”.
This view is not entirely right. The OSCE never limited its activities to human rights protection. For instance, it remains one of very few mechanisms to discuss European security in general, and confidence-building measures in Europe in particular. One should not forget that in 2014, the OSCE turned out to be the only international organization capable of playing a role in deescalating the crisis in Ukraine. However, even if the OSCE decided at some point to terminate all of its human rights and democracy-related activities, this decision would not make Russia’s position any easier. These activities would simply move to another place—for example, to the Council of Europe, which arguably has more rigid human rights standards than the OSCE.
OSCE has failed to implement the Charter of Paris
Numerous opponents of the Organization never miss an opportunity to underscore that the 1990 Charter of Paris has remained on paper only, and the OSCE has never become the cornerstone of the Euro-Atlantic area as leaders had hoped for some thirty years ago. Today our common continent is more divided than it has been at the end of the 20th century, and the prospect of returning to the concept of a “Europe whole and free” at this juncture does not look too encouraging.
It is hard to deny that OSCE participating States have failed to implement the Charter of Paris in full, and that the OSCE has failed to receive the central position in the Euro-Atlantic security system. There is an endless and fruitless discussion about who is responsible for this historic failure—Moscow or Western capitals. Still, it is clear that one cannot blame an organization for the failures of its members to provide it with more authority, power and guidance.
Any organization is as strong and efficient as its members want it to be. Maybe, the time has come for another OSCE summit meeting with the idea of setting new goals and priorities for the Organization in a situation very different from what it was back in 1990. If the Charter of Paris looks too romantic and naïve today, let us get back to a less antiquated 2010 Astana Declaration and figure out whether we can use it as a foundation for building a new Europe in 2021.
OSCE is not innovative enough
Critics also argue that the OSCE is too slow to respond to new challenges to the European security and to new opportunities for cooperation in Europe. In particular, critics say that the OSCE has not yet played a significant role in such areas as confronting international terrorism, dealing with illegal trans-border migration, managing climate change, or fighting COVID-19. The OSCE has also never seriously attempted to export its model to other regions of the world—like the Middle East and North Africa—and its modest efforts to get involved in Afghanistan were not successful either, critics say.
Of course, any organization has its institutional inertia and the OSCE is no exception. Still, nobody forbids it from including new topics in its overall portfolio. For Russia, it would be easier to advance an innovative agenda through the OSCE than through the NATO-Russia Council or through the remnants of the former EU–Russia cooperation mechanisms. Starting with relatively modest, technical aspects of these huge and extremely complicated problems, and investing relatively small amounts of additional funds, Moscow is not likely to find too many institutional obstacles within the OSCE. At the lower end of OSCE activities, there is often no need to reach consensus among all participating States if there is a desire to launch new initiatives. For example, one could start with putting together a representative “coalition of the willing” on this topic.
OSCE costs Russia too much money
One of the favorite arguments of OSCE critics in Russia is that Moscow spends too much money on the Organization, especially given the more than modest political returns on its investments. In addition, Russian proposals are often rejected in Vienna, and various bodies of the OSCE, in particular its Parliamentary Assembly, often harshly criticize the Kremlin. Furthermore, Russia is also clearly underrepresented within the OSCE staff at most levels, critics say.
This argument does not look very convincing. The OSCE has always been a comparatively low-budget institution. Russia pays about $ 80 million per year as its contribution to the regular budget of the United Nations (not to mention another $ 300 million on UN peacekeeping), and close to $40 million per year to the Council of Europe. The Russian contribution to the OSCE budget has never exceeded $ 10 million per year and the Organization’s field operations have always been relatively inexpensive for Moscow. The OSCE is a good investment opportunity for the Kremlin if Russia still cares about preserving a serious multilateral dialogue with its Western neighbors.
OSCE has no clear status
One of the fundamental problems of the OSCE in the eyes of its dedicated opponents in Russia is its ambiguous legal status. The OSCE has no Charter that has been ratified by national legislatures and is therefore not a full-fledged intergovernmental institution, they argue. Some of the OSCE agencies have acquired too much autonomy or, as you might conclude looking from Moscow, they have been de-facto hijacked by the West, like the Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR).
This seems to be a partially valid argument. The OSCE needs a Charter or a legally-binding Founding Act that would certify its mandate, structure and mode of operation. Ideally, this new document, prepared in accordance with Chapter VIII of the UN Charter, should turn the OSCE into a rightful international organization with enhanced institutional capacities and more generous funding from member States. It should also clarify the division of labor between the Secretary General and the OSCE Chairperson-in-Office, as well as specify the degree of autonomy of OSCE bodies, including ODIHR.
However, pushing for institutional reforms within the OSCE can only be done as participating State of the Organization, not as an outsider. The sad story about the United States initiating its withdrawal from WHO and then getting back in should serve as a lesson for policymakers not only in Washington, but also in Moscow.
If Russia leaves, OSCE will collapse
Somehow, many Russian critics of the OSCE tend to believe that once Moscow leaves the Organization, it will completely lose its practical meaning and will soon collapse. When this collapse happens, Russia could start building its own multilateral institution, engaging members of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU) and other likeminded countries. After all, Russia has a lot of experience launching new international institutions (see for example BRICS, SCO, EAEU and others).
This assumption does not look realistic. Even the most authoritarian regimes in the post-Soviet space value participating in the OSCE because for them the OSCE is one of very few opportunities to remain part of the Euro-Atlantic community of nations. For instance, all Central Asian States are OSCE participating States, though they are not members of the Council of Europe. It is highly unlikely that Russia’s departure will trigger a chain reaction and lead to an institutional collapse of the OSCE. However, if Russia leaves the OSCE, this departure will definitely change the balance of power within the Organization and the “Western agenda” could in turn become more explicit and more articulate.
Having left the OSCE, Moscow will have no instruments for promoting institutional reforms or for balancing diverging national priorities within the Organization. At the same time, even if the OSCE became fully marginal in Europe, NATO and the European Union will undoubtedly fill the emerging vacuum, which is hardly in Russia’s interests.
For many historical, cultural, institutional and even psychological reasons, Moscow has never been particularly strong in foreign policy multilateralism. The time has come for Russia to muster its ability to work efficiently within complex, and sometimes controversial multilateral frameworks. A more active and more flexible Russian position within the OSCE might be an appropriate way to test new patterns of behavior that Moscow could later apply to other international regimes and institutions, including those that have more power and authority than the OSCE.
The OSCE does not have a magic wand to fix numerous problems between Russia and the West, but it can offer a platform to discuss these problems in a rational and mutually respectful way. Moscow does not have such platforms in plenty today and this is another reason to preserve and to upgrade what it still has at its disposal.
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