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The Coming Bipolarity and Its Implications: Views from China and Russia

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Authors: Zhao Huasheng and Andrey Kortunov

The Chinese authorities have never accepted or used the concept of China-U.S. bipolarity. Neither the so-called co-governance (G2) nor the bipolar confrontation between China and the United States is consistent with China’s diplomatic philosophy and policy. The Russian official narrative has also rejected the idea that the world has been moving in the direction of a new bipolarity, insisting on a gradual transformation of the unipolar, U.S.-centered international system of early XXI century to a multipolar (or polycentric) world order.

In spite of this, there are more and more discussions on the bipolarization of China and the United States in academic circles both in China and in Russia. Especially after the COVID-19 outbreak, China-U.S. relations have deteriorated sharply, conflicts between China and the U.S. have intensified, and bipolarization has become a hot issue in academic and political discussions of international politics. More and more often, observers of contemporary international relations look at these relations through the optics of a seemingly irreconcilable confrontation between the West and the East (or between liberal democracies and illiberal autocracies, between Atlanticism and Eurasianism, between maritime and continental powers, and so on). This intellectual flavor of the month calls for an unbiased analysis of what bipolarity means for Beijing and Moscow and how it does or does not fit into the Chines and the Russian perceptions of the emerging world order.

Three Biporlarities

There are at least three forms of bipolarities: political bipolarity, structural bipolarity and value bipolarity. Political bipolarity is the bipolarity in political cognition. It has certain political attributes and shows a number of political implications in terms of international status and influence. For example, bipolar co-governance or bipolar confrontation belong to political bipolarity. Structural bipolarity is bipolarity in material cognition. It reflects the explicit superiority of two big countries over other international actors in terms of material resources that they have at their disposal. Fundamentally, material or structural bipolarity is the foundation for political bipolarity; the latter emerges based on the former. Finally, value bipolarity implies that in defining poles, one should keep in mind value differences between major actors. In particular, libel democracies by definition cannot be divided into different poles because of their value proximity to each other; the borderline between poles should, among other things, reflect a clash in value systems — e.g., between Western-type democracies and non-Western authoritarianism of various sorts.

This triple attribute of bipolarity is an important theoretical presupposition in the analysis of bipolarization and a logical starting point for understanding the cognitive and theoretical differences between China, Russia and the West on this issue. In China, there is a tradition to emphasize the material dimension of bipolarity (or multipolarity). For the Chinese, the international structure has a natural attribute initially. Whether it is unipolar, bipolar or multipolar, these structures merge as a pure reflection of existing asymmetries in international players’ material potentials. If any two actors have material resources far superior to all other actors, we can define the system as bipolar. The term has no inherent political connotation. It is neither naturally confrontational nor cooperative. Its political nature is to be given by decisions of the two “poles” in question. These “poles” can either follow the idea of equal cooperation or pursue a policy of competition and confrontation.

In Russia, they tend to emphasize the political dimension in defining the “poles” in world politics. This approach reflects Russia’s active foreign policy and power projection initiatives, while the country experiences a relative deficit of material resources. In Moscow, they often claim that the United States, China and Russia constitute the top league of global politics. The material weakness of Russia can be allegedly offset by its remarkable ability to focus on achieving specific foreign policy goals, on its capacity to mobilize needed resources, on its readiness to sustain a coherent long-term strategy in various regions, and so on. In this paradigm, Moscow can punch way above its weight, bringing an important dimension to the U.S.-China equation.

In the West, it is common to emphasize the value dimension of bipolarity. This Manichean approach to international relations implies that bipolarity becomes confrontational primarily due to the gap in values, which might exist between major players in the international system. If the descending and the ascending world leader do not have this gap (e.g., the United Kingdom and the United States in the late XIX – early XX centuries), the system is not truly bipolar. At best, we can argue that the system contains elements of bipolarity. However, if the value gap exists (the United States and the Soviet Union during the Cold War), the system turns bipolar in the full sense of the word.

New Type of Great Power Relations vs “Thucydides Trap”

Based on the theoretical premise that the political relationship between great powers is malleable, China proposes the concept of a new type of great power relationship, meaning an equal, mutually respective, cooperative and win-win relationship. It is opposite to the popular “Thucydides trap” theory, believing that the confrontational nature of bipolarity is natural, inevitable and unchangeable. In other words, China questions the assumption that bipolarity means and can only be a confrontation.

It is at this point that the Chinese and the Western perceptions diverge. If great powers are destined to be antagonistic, the new type of great powers theory raised by China will lose its meaning. On the other hand, if the new type of great powers theory is reasonable, then the “Thucydides trap” is just one of the possible outcomes, and not the only one. Although both in theory or in practice the antagonistic relationship of bipolarity is much easier to appear than a cooperative one, because cooperative relations need to have a common intention of both poles, an antagonistic one could be formed by one side’s intention and behavior.

In Russia, they seem to share the Chinese view that there can be no determinism in the nature of relations between the two most powerful nations in the world. Indeed, even during the Cold War, there were periods of relaxation of tensions and limited détente between Moscow and Washington. Still, the predominant view is that the West (or, to be more exact, the United States) will not abandon its claims to global hegemony in the foreseeable future. Therefore, it will not accept a “cooperative” bipolarity or multipolarity, not to mention a truly democratic and inclusive polycentric world. The overall perception in Moscow is that unless there a fundamental change in the American foreign policy establishment, any U.S. leader will try to get back to the U.S.-led unipolar world, which is likely to result in an adversarial model of bipolarity. This bipolarity should not be “the West against the Rest.” It might take the form of “the U.S. against the Rest.”

As for the West, many political thinkers there assume that though there might be some ceasefires and truces in the U.S.-China confrontation, as well as in U.S.-Russian adversarial relations, at the end of the day, one can reconcile the global system only on the basis of common values. This assumption means that one side is destined to win and the other is doomed to lose. Needless to say, Western-type liberal democracy should ultimately prevail over its illiberal alternatives.

The Western logic of the “Thucydides trap” is that a strong country is bound to seek hegemony and is fight against alternative sets of values. In other words, it equates a strong country with hegemony and value universalism. In this regard, it also forms a division with China’s logic. According to China’s thinking, the relationship between a strong country and power politics is not necessarily corresponding. A strong country does not necessarily adopt unilateralism and move towards hegemony.

Moreover, a weak country does not naturally abide by just and reasonable thoughts and policies. Strength is also relative. Most countries in the world have a dual identity. They are weaker in the face of the stronger, but stronger in the face of the weaker. They can be strong in some fields but weak in others. They might be powerful in their material capabilities but powerless in their commitment to using them. Under different circumstances, nations have the status of transformation between “strong country” and “weak country,” and have the question of policy choice when facing the stronger or weaker country.

Here does not negate the basic role of structure to policy options, nor the basic principle of existence determines consciousness, and also understand the strong historical and realistic arguments of the theory of structural determinism. However, different from structural determinism, what we see in “existence” is not only the structure but also the historical civilization background, political system and culture, the changes of times and international conditions, the development and influence of technological means and other factors. More than that, the influence of existence on consciousness is not an absolutely one-way direction.

China’s Choice

With national strength as the index, China’s status in world structure is not for China to choose. It is formed naturally and it’s not the result of a country’s choice. A state may desire for some kind of international structure, but it is only a subjective will, but not necessarily the objective reality.

Suppose that bipolarity has been already formed in material terms and China is one of it, what concept and policy will China choose? According to China’s thoughts, the most reasonable and possible choice is continuing to follow multilateralism. That is to say, China does not take the bipolarity as the center of international politics and does not regard the bipolarity as a super structure above the world, even if China’s national strength is higher than that of the other countries. China will assume greater international responsibilities, but it will still be willing to live with other countries as political equals.

This does not contradict China’s position as one of the two strongest poles, because multilateralism is a political attitude which is optional. The concept of multilateralism is closely related to multipolarization, so it is often treated as a similar or even the same concept, but in fact, they are different. Whether in Chinese, English or Russian, they are all nouns with different meanings. In nature, multilateralism is not only a method, but also a political thought and attitude with value orientation. Multilateralism is based on the principle of political equality, while multipolarization is mainly a policy based on relations of big powers. Multilateralism takes into account the interests of all countries related and is based on the balance of interests of all related countries, while multipolarization attaches importance to power and takes power as the main element. Multilateralism does not deny multipolarity and it can also contain multipolarity, but multipolarization does not necessarily contain multilateralism. It could be both compatible or contradictory with multilateralism.

Now as China’s status as a great power has been firmly established, and China is not only one of the many poles, but also possible one of the two strongest, China’s relations with the world have shifted to how it views relations with other countries rather than worrying about its own status. In this context, multilateralism, which focuses on relations with other countries, is more suited to China’s diplomatic needs. Multilateralism is not linked to a specific international structure and transcends the constraints of it. Therefore, it is not in contradiction with China’s status as one of the supposed bipolarity.

Russia’s Choice

Russian-Chinese cooperation is gaining more ground, growing in all areas from the economic to political and security domains. The Chinese-Russian axis creates opportunities and temptations for neighboring and more distant states, resulting in the rapid institutional development of such entities as the SCO or BRICS. Though in Moscow they still refer to the notion of a multipolar or polycentric world, it seems that in reality, there is an increasing readiness to accept the new bipolar reality with the United States and China as the centers of gravity for this new polarization of global politics.

One might ask the question: is there anything fundamentally wrong about a bipolar world for Russia? Was it not the Soviet-U.S. bipolarity that served as the foundation of global peace and stability for some forty years after the Second World War? Isn’t it fair to say that a bipolar world – with all its imperfections and limitations notwithstanding – is still much better than the potential alternative of a gradual erosion of global governance and the arrival of anarchy and chaos in international relations? So why can’t Moscow simply accept this new polarity as a plausible and realistic option that can define the hierarchy and structure of the international system in the XXI century?

Some analysts in Russia have gone even further and maintain that this new global split has been historically predetermined and unavoidable, being based on “objective” realities. It is often argued that the Atlantic and the Eurasian civilizations have opposed each other from the days immemorial, that “land” powers have always and will always be different from “maritime” powers, that the “global continent” (Eurasia) is the eternal counterweight to the “global island” (America). And that it makes little sense to challenge the laws of history and geography. The logical conclusion is that we should take the emerging bipolarity as a natural and, in a way, even desirable state of affairs. The only realistic goal should be to maintain this bipolarity within a mutually acceptable framework in order to avoid an uncontrolled confrontation with unacceptably high risks and costs involved.

In our view, such a conclusion is at the very least premature. It is hard to deny that a trend towards a new bipolarity has already manifested itself not only in geopolitics, but also in the global strategic balance and the global economy. But whether this trend can be considered positive and whether it should be regarded as inevitable — these are points that can be disputed. Let me briefly outline a couple of arguments against these assumptions.

In the history of intellectual thought, any rigid determinism — be it religious, ethnic, economic or geographical — has always failed to explain and to predict social change and international developments. The period of the Cold War can hardly be described as an era of peace and stability — it included numerous regional wars and crises and an unprecedented arms race. Furthermore, in a number of cases, the world was very close to global nuclear conflict.

It is even more important to underscore the following. The modern world is very different from what it was in the second half of the XX century. Fifty years ago, the world was divided into two systems — the Western (capitalist) and the Eastern (communist) with irreconcilable (antagonistic) contradictions between them. In other words, the bipolar system was based on a solid ideological foundation. This foundation is gone and it is hard to imagine that it will reemerge in the foreseeable future. Nationalism, even in its extreme forms, and religious fundamentalism are unlikely to replace the fundamental ideological divide of the previous century.

Moreover, all of the main international players today have to confront essentially the same set of threats and challenges to their security, which are very different from the traditional threats and challenges of the XX century and earlier periods. Today, state leaders have to deal with international terrorism and political extremism, with transnational crime and illicit drug trafficking, with uncontrolled migration and climate change, with the instabilities of the global financial system and increased risks of technological disasters. Some of these challenges existed during the Cold War, but only in an “embryonic” form, being overshadowed by the all-embracing East-West confrontation.

One of the specific features of this new set of challenges is that most of them are not generated by other (rival) great powers. In fact, these threats have nothing to do with state actors of the international system, except for a small number of irresponsible, radical regimes (rogue states). The new generation of threats and challenges come from subversive non-state actors. They may represent the negative side effects of technological and economic progress, or the growing shortage of natural resources, or the obsolescence of many key international institutions and norms of international public law. This is a fundamental difference between the period of the Cold War and today’s world. Additionally, this is why a new bipolar system, even if it can be established, is unlikely to provide any long-term security or stability.

One should keep in mind another important difference between the contemporary international situation and that of the Cold War. During the Cold War, the Soviet bloc was economically almost completely separated from the West, as the two poles of the world did not depend on each other for their development. Today, in the era of globalization, the level of interdependence between the East and the West, between the “global continent” and the “global island” is unprecedentedly high. Therefore, any political bipolarity, which would have an inevitable impact on the economic, financial, cultural, and humanitarian dimensions of international relations, is likely to have much higher costs for everyone than the Cold War ever had. Not to mention the massive relocation of material and human resources from addressing numerous global problems looming on the horizon.

In sum, the trend towards a new bipolarity is troublesome and dangerous. Even in its modified and “modernized” form, a bipolar arrangement is not likely to successfully handle the critical international questions of this century. If the world is split once again, this will likely have long-term negative repercussions for the whole system despite some tactical gains that can be anticipated by the leaders of the new “poles.” It is in our common interest to avoid this option and move towards a more inclusive, democratic and truly global international system. Since “no one puts new wine into old wineskins. If he does, the new wine will burst the skins and it will be spilled, and the skins will be destroyed.”

U.S. Choice

Looking at the current global geopolitical landscape, we have to conclude that, although the triangle is still a popular and useful analytical pattern and one of the possible future scenarios for U.S.-China-Russia relations, no U.S.-China-Russia triangle today resembles that of the Cold War. Instead, for a couple of years, we observed the U.S. policy of “dual containment” with Washington applying more and more pressure on both Beijing and Moscow. This pressure has become an important factor cementing the Chinese-Russian strategic partnership.

This situation is a clear strategic setback for Washington. Since at least the early 20th century, one of the most important goals of the U.S. foreign policy has always been to prevent any consolidated anti-American center of power in Eurasia. U.S. policymakers have perceived a divided Eurasian landmass as an indispensable prerequisite for the global U.S. strategic hegemony. Former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger understood the critical importance of keeping Eurasia divided better than anyone else did. He was more efficient than any U.S. leader before him in exploiting the growing rifts between Beijing and Moscow back in the early 1970s.

Can President-elect Joe Biden repeat Kissinger’s success and resurrect the U.S.-China-Russia triangle with the U.S. at the top of it? Of course, almost 50 years have passed since the famous trip of Kissinger to Beijing in July of 1971. The world today is definitely very different from the world of the 20th century. The former bedrock theology of geopolitics may look old-fashioned and even antiquated. Still, let us consider the options that the U.S. leadership has in trying to keep Eurasia divided.

The first option would be to read Kissinger literally. That is to support the weaker U.S. adversary against the stronger one. Today, it would mean that Washington should try to bring Moscow to the American side in its predestined confrontation with Beijing. After all, Russia is a communist country no more, and Russian leaders should be concerned about the growing asymmetry of power between their country and China. To play the weaker adversary against the stronger one was a stated goal of the Trump administration, which it failed to achieve. U.S.-Russian relations did not improve under Trump. On the contrary, they fell to historic lows.

It is highly unlikely that Biden can be more successful in pursuing this goal than his predecessor was. The U.S. simply has nothing to offer to President Putin to make him reconsider his current close friendship with President Xi Jinping — be it in economic, political or strategic domains. Even if Biden were considering a new reset with the Kremlin, he would hardly be in a position to go for such a reset: The anti-Russian consensus in Washington is too strong and shows no signs of crumbling. It seems that the U.S.-Russian relationship will be locked in a confrontational mode for many years to come.

The second option for Biden in trying to resurrect the U.S.-China-Russia triangle would be to play on the opposite side of the stage, seeking an acceptable accommodation with the stronger Beijing and putting the squeeze on the weaker Moscow. Turning Kissinger’s geopolitical scheme on its head is certain to find a host of supporters and advocates in Washington. For them, Russia makes a far more convenient opponent than China. America would have to pay an exorbitant price for a full-fledged confrontation with China: a drop in their bilateral trade, which is very important for the U.S., severance of established global technological chains, a rapid increase in military spending, etc. The U.S.-Russia confrontation will cost much less, given that there is very little economic and technological mutual dependence between the two states, and Moscow is far less prepared to engage in costly military competition with Washington.

However, is it realistic for Biden to count on a sweet deal with China? Such a bargain requires the White House to be willing to reconsider its fundamental ideas about the place the U.S. holds in the system of international relations. The U.S. will have to abandon its claim to global American hegemony similar to that of the times of Kissinger. Certainly, neither Biden nor his entourage is ready to do that. If a revolution in the U.S.’ self-perception and its perception of the world ever starts, this is not likely to happen earlier than 2024 and, until that time, Washington-Beijing relations will remain complicated and tense.

Even more importantly, just as Trump repeatedly saw throughout the four years of his presidency that it was impossible to tear Russia away from China, Biden will steadily see that China cannot be torn away from Russia. Beijing needs Moscow regardless of the current state of affairs and the prospects for China-U.S. relations. China’s leadership will be happy to act as an arbiter or “balancer” between Russia and America, but it will not actively support the U.S. in its desire to corner Russia. In other words, if a U.S.-China-Russia triangle could ever emerge, it would be a triangle with Beijing, not Washington, on the top of it.

Thus, the Biden administration will not accomplish a lot if it attempts to resurrect the U.S.-China-Russia triangle. Under the current circumstances, a version of a “dual containment” equation appears to be the most likely approach of this new U.S. administration towards Beijing and Moscow, with China being treated more as a peer competitor and Russia as a global rouge state. To cut the costs of dual containment, Biden will try to mobilize U.S. Western allies in Europe and in East Asia. It will also try to keep Eurasia divided by forging stronger ties to China’s adversaries in Asia — above all, to India. By doing so, Biden will inevitably push the world closer to a new geopolitical bipolarity instead of a modernized version of the U.S.-China-Russia triangle.

Multilateralism – A Path for Future China-Russia Cooperation

Over the past years, promoting multipolarization has been an important target for China-Russia international cooperation. Now the situation has changed. China is becoming one of the supposed new bipolarity, the status of China and Russia in the international structure will no longer be the same. It can be felt that Russia’s concern about it may be in an unequal position in Sino-Russian relations is increasing. In addition, it used to be said that China and Russia were a coalition of two weaker states in response to pressure from the sole superpower, the U.S. Now that China itself is becoming a “superpower,” what concepts will serve as the path for future China-Russia’s international cooperation?

Multilateralism certainly could play an important role in this, both as ideas and policies. Multilateralism opposes unipolarity but does not negate multipolarity. It still leaves the door open for Russia as a great power in a multipolar world. Multilateralism embodies the spirit of political equality. It stipulates China and Russia are equal partners both in international affairs and in bilateral relations. Multilateralism is consistent with Russia’s diplomatic ideology as well. Russia itself is a supporter of multilateralism and takes it as the banner of Russian diplomacy. Russia proposes that the future multipolarity should have a just and democratic character and that it should not be based solely on the balance of power, but on the interaction of national interests, patterns, cultures and traditions. This can be interpreted as a moral demand of Russia to international structure, and it is certainly true. Above all, despite all of the changes, China will still pursue the same goals in international affairs, such as anti-hegemony, anti-unilateralism, anti-neointerventionism, maintaining international strategic stability and establishing a more just and fair world order. Therefore, the goals of China and Russia in international politics will remain unchanged.

From our partner RIAC

Professor, Institute of International Studies, Fudan University, Shanghai, Expert of the China Forum

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Russia and Belarus: An increasingly difficult alliance

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Way back in 1991, while the crisis of the Soviet system was leading to the disintegration of that galaxy of nations which, under the acronym of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR), was the second world power in political, military and economic terms, Russia promoted and obtained the establishment of the “Commonwealth of Independent States” (CIS)in view of curbing the centrifugal force triggered by Ukraine’s declaration of independence of December 1, 1991.

On December 8, 1991, all the former Soviet Republics joined the CIS, with the exception of the independent Ukraine and the Baltic States, which had been absorbed into the USSR in September 1939 thanks to the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact and since then had always considered themselves militarily ‘occupied’ by the Soviets.

Currently, after the defection of Georgia and other statelets in the Caucasus, the Commonwealth of Independent States has eight other members in addition to Russia: Armenia, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Moldova, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Belarus.

A glance at the map shows that Russia has placed itself physically at the centre of a region in which the CIS Member States play a fundamental role, not only as a free trade area covering a single market of over 180 million people, but also as an important collective security area that has ensured to Russia – which psychologically has never recovered from the Nazi aggression of 1941 – a ‘buffer zone’ around its territory, which is very important from a military viewpoint(all the more so after the “betrayal” of Ukraine, which, by siding militarily with NATO in 2014, helped fuel the Kremlin’s paranoia about border security).

It is in this political and “psycho-political” context that the “special relationship” between Russia and Belarus was born and developed – a relationship that for some time has been showing increasingly visible cracks.

Belarus is a Presidential Republic ruled since 1994 by “President-dictator” Alexander Lukashenko.

 Elected and re-elected again and again over the last 25 years after elections looked on with suspicion by all Western diplomacies, Lukashenko has been tolerated with more or less obvious annoyance by the Kremlin, which is interested in maintaining a privileged and advantageous relationship at economic and military levels, even in the face of the harshness with which the Belarusian President has been trying for years to keep the political opposition in his country under strict control with his iron fist and with instruments that appear excessive even to the certainly non-liberal Kremlin representatives.

The straw that threatens to break the camel’s back and try Vladimir Putin’s patience vis-à-vis his Belarusian colleague was his umpteenth re-election in August 2020 to the Presidency of the Republic with vote percentages that in the eyes of the entire West, but also of Russia, appeared to be the result of shameless electoral fraud.

Last year’s August elections put the Kremlin in a very awkward and uncomfortable position.

 On the one hand, continuing to support Lukashenko’s discredited government diminishes the Russian government’s democratic credibility not only in the eyes of Europe and the United States, but also in those of the more moderate allies in the CIS and, at the same time, risks alienating the respect and support of the pro-Russian citizens of the Belarusian Republic who are calling for more democracy in their country without undermining the friendly ties with Russia.

On the other hand, there is concern in the Kremlin’s upper echelons that too openly supporting the reasons for the people’s uprising against Lukashenko and the demand for more democracy in Belarus could turn the neighbouring Republic into a symbol for those who are calling for a similar expansion of democratic rules in Russia.

The cunning Lukashenko who, before the August 2020 elections had shown signs of impatience with Vladimir Putin’s policies – according to reliable sources, they hate each other – going as far as to order the arrest (a few weeks before the vote) of 33 Russian “mercenaries” accused of being part of a Kremlin plot to sabotage his re-election, after having been put in difficulty by internal unrest and the international reaction to his authoritarian methods of government, backtracked vis-à-vis Russia.

Initially Belarus granted Russia exclusive rights on the use of Russian ports for Belarusian oil exports – a request that Lukashenko had resisted for years. Later he agreed to the stationing of military contingents of the Russian National Guard on his territory. Finally, on January 10, the Belarusian President publicly called for “the removal of any obstacles…to greater integration between Russia and Belarus”.

In spite of the increasingly worried moves of the Belarusian autocrat, faced with the choice between supporting the Belarusian regime and trying to get rid of the troublesome neighbour with a coup –Russia is considering a third option which could safeguard the stability of a country like Belarus, which Russia deems essential not only from an economic, but above all from a military viewpoint, as basic foundation of the ‘strategic depth’ ensured by Belarus on the Russian borders in its important role of ‘buffer state’ safeguarding the security of Russia’s Western borders.

The third option is included in two documents leaked by the Kremlin at the end of last year and published by the Russian investigative website The Insider.

The first document is entitled “Strategy of Operational Intervention in the Belarusian Republic” and was drafted in September 2020, when Lukashenko’s democratic reputation was at the lowest ebb, after the evident electoral fraud and the harsh repression of people’s protests.

The drafters of the document speak of the need to change the Belarusian Constitution also through “the penetration of all opposition parties and organisations” to the regime “with a view to encouraging the creation of new political forces promoting the reform of institutions”, as well as through a propaganda work with the use of modern communication channels such as Telegram and Youtube.

The aim of this operation would be twofold: to turn the Belarusian Presidential Republic into a Parliamentary one and increase consensus towards the Russian ally.

The second document drafted by Kremlin strategists and skilfully leaked to The Insider talks about the foundation of a new political party in Belarus called “The People’s Right”, which would promote changes to the Constitution along Parliamentary lines, as well as social and economic reforms that would win citizens’ support.

The creation of this new Party has not yet been publicly announced, but its programme suggests that the Kremlin hopes to divert popular support in the neighbouring Republic towards a Parliamentary and democratic transition of the country, which – as a side effect – could reduce protests over electoral fraud in the last elections.

The new Party’s plans envisage that, even if – at least in an initial phase – Lukashenko remains in power to enable him to save face with a dignified departure from the scene, he will be deprived of almost all his current executive powers, as his future functions will be reduced to the typical representative functions of a ‘normal’ President in a Parliamentary Republic.

Furthermore, the programme of the new pro-Russian Party includes plans for extensive privatisation of the Belarusian public sector, as well as the ‘dismantling of censorship’ and ‘respect for the freedom and dignity of the individual’.

The first feedback to the publication of these two documents, with which the Kremlin wants to demonstrate not only an obvious interest in the stability of Belarus, but also an unexpected (at least for us in the West) attention to democratic rules and respect for human rights, have aroused very positive reactions in the Russian business world, which is obviously very interested in penetrating more deeply into a country that has a well-developed industrial sector, exports a significant quantity of goods to Europe as well as to Russia, has two excellent large oil refineries and is at the forefront in the field of information technology and IT services.

In short, it is a potentially good geopolitical achievement for Vladimir Putin and his government: limiting and frustrating the ambitions of an autocrat who does not want to give up the reins of power and, at the same time, gain credit – towards Europe and the new U.S. Administration – as promoter of Western-style democratic and economic reforms.

 All this while safeguarding the role of Belarus as a “buffer zone” against a NATO that, although weakened, remains a strategic opponent in the eyes of the Kremlin.

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How Crimea Strengthened Russia’s Eurasian Identity

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While the west imagined Crimea was just a territorial dispute that had got out of hand and its annexation a move forced on Putin to salvage something from the ruins of his Ukrainian policy, the Chinese saw it as the moment Russia flipped from being a Eurocentric power to a Eurasian one. The bridge that connected mainland Russia to Crimea which cost $3,69 bln and stretched for 19km symbolized the fact that this was not just a buffer zone but sacred territory and there was no going back as its unity with Russia was eternal. A massive new mega church the resurrection to honour Crimea’s return to the motherland. Leading Siloviki from the power ministries such as defence minister Sergei Shoygu was pictured in a mosaic to show that the days of Russian were over and that the security services were once again watching over Russia and ensuring that the enemies encircling it were kept at bay .The temporal and the sacral under Putin were once again in harmony after decades of being at odds with one another.

The idea that Russia through Eurasia was coming back to itself was a perennial topic of influential nationalists .The infatuation with the west was over and Russians were once again appreciating that being different did not mean inferior. For example Dmitry Rogozhin the head of Russia’s space agency commented that “in space one must not run after beautiful goods with wonderful labels under the music of Bowie, but one must lean first and foremost on well functioning systems.” The excellence of Russia’s high performance sectors should energize the low expectation culture that bedevilled many Eurasian projects . So for example regarding the Blagoveshchensk-Heihe bridge which was built to accommodate  300,000 vehicles and had a load capacity of 4 million tonnes prime minister Mikhail Misushtin on its commemoration wanted to know “what it was like working with Chinese partners” on the project. Like the Chinese Russians should not tolerate excuses for shoddy work and should not look at the Crimea annexation as an exception but a rule. Not as a one off event with a short lived effect that disappeared once the euphoria ended but something to be harnessed permanently so it could be applied on an industrial scale across multiple sectors.

Eurasian road

Russia had proved in Crimea that it had an edge in cyber technology in particular and could act unilaterally to defend its interests. But it was working at razor thin margins and stretching them to the limits so it could only be sustained for a short time. It was much more effective combined with a partner China that had spare capacity and an abundance of riches and did not have to work fast in case it used up all its resources too quickly. It only needed to employ a fraction of their strength and allow the Russians to spread the  burden with the Chinese. Where  they could concentrate on upgrading their labour and production capacity  without the pressure of bringing immediate results.  So whereas  the Blagoveshchensk- Heihe bridge was a “difficult object because the weather did not allow us to work in the snow, the access road was snowed over”  the barriers were ” quickly pushed them to one side”. And apart from Vant all the material was sourced from Russian factories. So “we ordered different products from Omsk, Tomsk – at various factories.”

 As new technology became available the costs and risks of operating in the region would fall to acceptable limits and allow it to “reach central Russian living standards.” Its mass introduction would have a dramatic effect so that Siberia and  companies like SIBUR would “have highly efficient and competitive production which would strengthen its position not only in the domestic market but in the world.” It could then pave the way for “thousands of high technology work places, transport and social infrastructure.” This would have a “multiplying effect” on the economy there. And in the case of joint projects such as the Amur gas processing plant the goal was “in the area of metal construction, building material, laboratory and tele mechanical equipment it would be 100% localized.” The problem was to keep as much production as possible within the region and not allow it to move across the border while engaging with the Chinese to the maximum extent. And that any gains in efficiency brought about by digitalization would not come at the expense of hollowing out of the local economy and turn it into a hub for low grade goods.

Regional Dynamo

The Chinese would not be allowed to capture the regional market but it would not done in a way that would discriminate against Chinese companies and deter them from trading. The Russian attitude was that it would be scrupulous in respecting Chinese economic interests and would not disrupt the level playing fields to gain an unfair advantage. They might look to tweak the relationship a bit but not undermine the general direction of travel. The Chinese would continue to enjoy a privileged status within the Russian far east just as minority autonomous regions enjoyed a privileged position within the Federation. This allowed them to champion the cause of engagement with China by presenting it as a Eurasian enclave which shared as much with China as it did with Russia. So the Governor of the Jewish autonomous province Rostislav Goldstein extolling the opening of the bridge between Nizhneleninsko and Tsunyan looked forward to the time where “in the territories around the bridge industrial parks should appear which could produce additional value. And then we need to learn to produce our own products.” He added that “there is an idea now unrealized that we could get permission to create a cross border territory where Russian companies could learn from Chinese comrades.”  So in the enterprise of Vostochny port for example “very attractive conditions of work were established.” And thus  “decent pay, social guarantees, comfortable and secure conditions for production” would develop “team building”. And the benefits would be shared by “colleagues and members of their family who had access to health resorts, nurseries and convalescence centres.”

The degree of political closeness did not heavily influence Chinese economic decision making. It did not mean that because a country had friendly relations with China business opportunities would automatically follow. For the Chinese geopolitical considerations were much less important than economic opportunities .They viewed Eurasia in pragmatic   rather than hard line ideological terms so that even if they shared the same authoritarian leanings the most important factor was economic competence. A country was judged by its economic fitness rather than its political compatibility. The departure from liberal norms was minimal and the extent of their ambitions was confined to working within the system and adapting it to its needs rather than replacing it with a new order based around Moscow and Beijing . The Chinese approach was subtle and multidimensional helping reinterpret the Russian state as a  conservative bulwark at its core  with distinct, complementary  regional particularities open to prevailing  global influences.

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Russia

How to strengthen the unity of the people of Russia?

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The significance of the recent changes to the Russian Constitution, and topical issues of interethnic relations were the centerpiece of an online international conference held at the Moscow headquarters of the Public Chamber of Russia.

Opening the conference, “We are the multinational people of the Russian Federation: unity in diversity,” the chairman of the Public Chamber’s Commission and member of the Presidential Council for Interethnic Relations, Vladimir Zorin, described the period when the Constitution was adopted as very difficult and characterized by an active development of new concepts and approaches pertaining to interethnic relations. The 1991 breakup of the Soviet Union, then one of the world’s two superpowers, brought about a flurry of serious problems, many of ethno-political nature, which rippled out into the outside world. These included a resurgence of national and cultural self-awareness of Russia’s many peoples, a religious revival, the exacerbation of old and the emergence of new ethno-political conflicts, and finally, the growth of ethnic and ethno-confessional separatism, which sometimes degenerated into open terrorism. All this threatened the very existence of the Russian Federation as a sovereign state. Russia was forced to make a swift transition from the Soviet to what was then perceived as a liberal-democratic model of “minimal state,” paying an enormous socio-economic and political price for that changeover, which ignored Russia’s traditional values and historical continuity and, at the end of the day, proved largely counterproductive. And all this time, sociologists and politicians alike have been searching for the optimal way of establishing Russia’s statehood and for an ideological doctrine that would be consistent with this country’s traditional values.

The Constitution, adopted on December 12, 1993, contained a number of innovations that laid the foundations for a new society. In its original version, it made no mention of the country’s ethnic and state makeup, as well as of differentiation between the subjects of the Russian Federation along ethnic-state, administrative-territorial and ethno-territorial lines. Neither did it provide the right or the procedure for their exit from the federation. Thus, the people’s right to self-determination is clearly interpreted as self-determination within Russia.

The Constitution allows broader legal regulation of ethnic-related processes, and of ethnic and civil identification at the personal, regional and national levels. In keeping with Section 2 of Article 26 of the Constitution, people are free to determine and indicate their nationality, and no one can be forced to either determine of indicate his or her nationality.

“The amendments proposed in the course of the discussion of the results of the nationwide vote on July 1, 2020, enlarged on these approaches. As a result, in recent years, the ethno-cultural sovereignty of the Russian Federation has been restored, with the state focusing once again on issues of an ethno-political nature,” Zorin concluded.

The head of the General Secretariat of the Eurasian Peoples’ Assembly, Svetlana Smirnova, noted that on the basis of the proposed constitutional changes, work is already underway to enshrine them in the law.

“This conference was on the list of events that are part of our program and were approved by the Federal Agency for Ethnic Affairs. This year is the first time that our federal and national-territorial cultural autonomies and associations have had the opportunity to hold events with the Agency’s support. Our main goal is to further improve the mechanisms for strengthening the civic unity of the Russian nation, preserve and develop ethno-cultural and linguistic diversity, popularize the spiritual and moral values ​​of the peoples of Russia in accordance with the amendments to the Constitution,” Smirnova noted.

One of the most important constitutional amendments makes it incumbent on the Russian Federation to help compatriots living abroad exercise their rights to protect their interests and preserve their Russian and cultural identity. The state safeguards the cultural identity of all peoples and ethnic communities, guarantees the preservation of the country’s ethno-cultural and linguistic diversity. This is not just a declaration. According to the State Ethnic Policy Strategy of the Russian Federation, adopted in 2012, there are people of 193 nationalities now living in the Russian Federation and speaking 277 languages ​​and dialects. At the same time, 87 languages ​​are used in the system of education. By the time the amended version of the Strategy was adopted six years later, their number had already risen to 105. This requires additional efforts and financing needed to write new  textbooks and train school and university teachers, and the Russian state is ready to foot the bill.

“In our country, as one of the world’s most multi-ethnic and multilingual states, issues of ethnic policy are of particular relevance,” said Anna Kotova, State Secretary – Deputy Head of the Federal Agency for Ethnic Affairs.

Leokadia Drobizheva, who heads the Center for the Study of Interethnic Relations at the Russian Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Sociology, emphasized the all-importance for any country of the concept of “consent” that was added to the text of the State Ethnic Policy Strategy in 2012. Without this, it is impossible to implement either economic or cultural plans.

“This concept meant not just good relations between people, but also trust and the ability to coordinate their interests and settle disputes,” she explained.

According to the results of a sociological survey published by the All-Russian Center for the Study of Public Opinion (VTsIOM) and the Public Opinion Foundation (FOM), the indicator of trust in Russian society is constantly fluctuating, especially since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020. And still, apart from their desire to survive, our people also demonstrated a an acute sense of compatibility and a desire to help each other, especially in multiethnic places like Astrakhan region, Bashkortostan, Tatarstan, Yakutia and Karelia. The respondents named family, work and material wellbeing as their main values. They also mentioned equality of all people before the law, justice, equal opportunities for education and work, as well as the right for paid vacations among the goals that need to be achieved to maintain unity. Thus, the concept of “consent,” introduced into the Strategy, is provided with the most important social functions for a person, which also pertains to interethnic relations in Russia.

“Currently, only 4 percent of our citizens have experienced prejudice based on their ethnicity and race. However, the actual percentage of such attitudes is higher and varies depending on the situation in the region, with 78-80 percent of those polled saying that they do not experience any negativity.  On the other hand, we know that such problems arise regularly and need to be taken into account in order to ensure effective prevention of extremism. First of all, we are talking about the observance of a citizen’s constitutional rights. One’s nationality should not impede employment or career growth, and this is something about 40 percent of respondents are concerned about. The situation in Bashkiria, Yakutia and Tatarstan deserves special attention and here we have no reason for complacence,” Drobizheva noted.

In turn, the concept of “consent” is directly related to Russian identity. Even though Russian citizens are primarily concerned about their material wellbeing, it is equally important that they feel themselves as being one people. According to data released by VTsIOM, before the pandemic struck, 90 percent of those surveyed identified themselves as Russian citizens. This is a very high percentage, of course. However, Russian citizens differ in their perception of national identity. While some of them associate themselves primarily with a single state, the majority associate themselves with the legal field they live in. At the same time, when it comes to history and culture, just under 50 percent of respondents said that besides unifying tendencies there are also separatist tendencies there, depending on the region.  

“This area deserves close and delicate attention,” Leokadia Drobizheva concluded.

From our partner International Affairs

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