Geopolitical Vision of the Russian Opposition
Author: David Batashvili, International Relations Analyst
The Russian political opposition group around Alexey Navalny has recently condensed its political platform into a single document. The text is titled “The Program of Alexey Navalny,” consists of eight chapters and their short summaries, and was developed by Navalny with participation of an “expert council” that includes economists, lawyers and a well-known writer Boris Akunin.
This article concerns the parts of Navalny’s program where its authors present their vision of Russia as an international player.
It is true that whether Navalny or his team will ever get the opportunity to implement their concepts is unclear. Presently their chances do not appear to be very rosy – Navalny has recently been barred from participating in the Russian presidential election on 18 March, his supporters having to content themselves with an election boycott and planned protest rallies. It is also true that even if the opposition did gain power in the future, their real actions on the international stage may be quite different from the vision they are now presenting.
My answer to the first of these concerns is that whatever we may think about the team gathered around Navalny and their political chances, the fact remains that at the moment they are the only significant political group in Russia that is seeking to be an actual alternative to the regime. This makes their views on what kind of foreign policy is desirable for Russia interesting. To the second concern I answer that whenever the Russian opposition members’ words or actions regarding foreign affairs deviate from their present stance, we, the observers, should take careful note, but this does not mean that we should not pay attention to what this present stance of theirs is. To the contrary, it offers us a point of reference to which we can compare possible future evolutions of Navalny’s political group’s geopolitical attitudes.
Salvation of the great power through economic recovery
A key concern for opposition members is the impending national weakening of Russia as a result of economic stagnation, mismanagement, and lack of meaningful development. Their declared purpose is to prevent this expected backsliding and keep Russia among the major powers.
They make this point clearly enough in their program, saying that “the status of a great power will be lost irrevocably if Russia does not prove its economic viability.” In another part of the program its authors reiterate this idea, arguing that “only economic viability can guarantee for the country the status of a great and independent power in the modern world.”
Economic rehabilitation and growth is, in the eyes of Navalny’s team, a means of not only improving the lot of Russian citizens, but also strengthening Russia’s position among the world’s nations, which they believe is being compromised as a result of developmental stagnation under Putin. And they do intend to strengthen this position: “Russia must be the leading country of Europe and Asia. The country must be broadening its influence through economic might and cultural expansion, including the support for the Russian language all over the world.”
Economic recovery through détente with the West
To achieve the desired economic viability the opposition proposes a number of measures within Russia, but one of the principle prerequisites it lists as required for achieving this purpose is a relief from the confrontation with the West. As the program’s authors deftly put it, “Russia must recover for itself an image of an amicable country and put this amicability in the service of economic development.”
As specific parts of such “amicability” the program names reduction of tensions in relations with the European Union, the United States, and Ukraine, as well as return to fulfilling Russia’s commitments in accordance with international treaties. The program promises to stop aggression against Ukraine, achieving “the lifting of sanctions that prevent our entrepreneurs from trading with the rest of the world and from taking cheap loans in the world’s financial markets.”
It is questionable how meaningful each of these pronouncements is given Navalny’s stated refusal to end Russia’s illegal occupation of Crimea if he comes to power. After all, this occupation certainly violates international treaties signed by Russia, U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson recently clarified that "Crimea-related sanctions will remain in place until Russia returns full control of the peninsula to Ukraine," and it can be posited with certainty that without deoccupation of Crimea full normalization between Russia and Ukraine is flatly impossible.
Another measure to achieve détente listed in Navalny’s program is to “stop supporting dictatorial and unviable regimes all over the world.” It is specified in the text that “political support of Bashar Assad’s regime and other similar regimes is not a priority of the Russian foreign policy.”
Once this desired détente is achieved, Navalny’s team intends to engage in other foreign political moves aimed at strengthening Russia’s economy. These moves include using “Russia’s unique geographic position” for economic integration with both Europe and East Asia, and “full support for the expansion of our high tech exporters to the foreign markets.”
Dealing with Russia’s neighbors
Navalny’s program pledges to “cease the support for the separatist movements, rebel groups and opposition parties all over the world.” It says nothing of specific cases of such support, however, with the exception of the promise to stop aggression against Ukraine. And yet, even in the Ukrainian case the Russian opposition’s stance is less than satisfactory.
It is clear that under “aggression against Ukraine” the Russian opposition means only the occupation of parts of the Donbass region. The occupation of Crimea is somehow not considered an element of this aggression. Besides Navalny’s statements referred to above, the program itself says that the Russian position regarding Crimea “will be defined by the recognition of the rights of the peoples of Crimea to decide their fate themselves,” which in translation from the formalistic language actually means that the Russian opposition has no more intention to de-occupy Crimea than Putin’s regime does.
Another significant statement in the Russian opposition’s program is its intention to pursue “economic integration in the post-Soviet space.” For some reason, the framework of such integration is designated there as “EvraZES” [ЕвраЗЭС], which is a Russian abbreviation for the Eurasian Economic Community – a Russian-led regional organization in 2000-2014 that was replaced on 1 January 2015 by its next evolutionary form called the Eurasian Economic Union.
It is notable that for the final goal of economic integration with the European Union, Navalny’s team sets a free trade zone not between the EU and Russia, but between the EU and “EvraZES”. The implication of such a stance is that Russia must first consolidate around itself an economic integration sphere that includes its post-Soviet neighbors, and then cooperate with the EU - not as a separate nation but as a leader of a regional zone of influence.
That Russia’s neighbors might want to proceed with their European integration directly, without intermediaries in Moscow, does not appear to occur to Navalny and his team.
Besides the attempt to combine rejection of support for separatism and aggression against Ukraine with keeping Crimea under the Russian control, there is another contradiction in Navalny’s program regarding Russia’s neighbors. While pushing for integration with the post-Soviet countries, even wishing to unite them into some kind of economic union, Navalny intends to “introduce visa regime with the countries of Central Asia and South Caucasus” (with Armenia and Azerbaijan, to be more precise - Russia introduced visa regime with Georgia back in 2000), stressing that “labor migrants must arrive through working visas, not uncontrollably as at present.”
Perhaps Navalny somehow deems it possible to combine deeper integration with countries like Kazakhstan or Armenia and new visa barriers with them, but in any case this nuance does betray contradictory impulses in his thinking about Russia’s neighbors.
* * * *
The primary foreign policy goal of the Russian opposition is to improve Russia’s global standing. While Putin’s government seeks to accomplish this through a combination of aggressive covert and military actions with opportunistic diplomacy, the opposition’s present concept envisions achieving the same end by increasing Russia’s relative economic standing in the world.
And yet, the legacy of the old ways lingers in Navalny’s program, causing inconsistencies. The document promises a Russia that strictly follows international rules while continuing its illegal occupation of Crimea. It declares a desire to engage in economic integration with Europe, but indicates the intention of doing so after consolidating Russia’s neighbors into its own economic sphere.
The program betrays a somewhat lazy thinking regarding relations with Russia’s neighbors. The expectation, entertained by the program’s authors, that they will be able to fully normalize relations with Ukraine without returning Crimea, is unrealistic. In addition, the document does not say anything about how Russia would disentangle itself from the mess it has created in countries like Georgia and Moldova, besides a single vague statement about ending the support for separatists “all over the world.” To be sure, it might be politically unwise for the Russian opposition members to expand on these matters at the moment, but the problem is that their ambiguity might be genuine.
Russian foreign policy has a very long tradition of disregarding the interests, intentions and political identities of its neighbors. This trend has been consistent under different Russian regimes. Unless the Russian opposition consciously employs a fresher view, it will probably continue this unpleasant habit, if it ever comes to power. Its potential failure to grasp how seriously Russia’s neighbors take their sovereignty could cause a new cycle of tension and conflict.
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