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March 18, 2000


Re-engaging Russia

John Lloyd


1.Introduction: values for export
2.What went wrong?:the perceived failure of perceived reform
3.Russian challenges, western interests: the case for re-engagement
4.Re-engaging Russia: a new approach to reform
5.Conclusion: can we export values?

“Re-engaging Russia is excellent on where Russia’s relationships with the west went wrong … thought-provoking, highly-enjoyable, creative and timely”
– Keith Vaz MP

Characteristically thoughtful and well-written, the pamphlet by this outstanding journalist and Russia-watcher recognises the failures both of post-Soviet Russia and of western policy towards that country. John Lloyd argues convincingly that the answer is not for the west to disengage from Russia but to engage differently”
Professor Archie Brown, St Antony’s College, Oxford.

To Russia with more understanding, John Lloyd, Financial Times

John Lloyd argues that the election of Vladimir Putin gives the West a chance to rebuild its relationship with Russia. Reproduced by kind permission of the FT.

The election of Vladimir Putin presents a chance for the west to redefine its relationship with Russia. The Country has a new president in place early in a new century; there is also a new European Commission, and there will soon be a new US president. Time, then, for a new kind of engagement with the country that matters more to Europeans than any other apart from the US.

The first near-decade of the relationship has not been the disaster it is now, at times, painted. Russia retains democratic institutions developed in this period; has a dwindling constituency of communism, or any other authoritarian system; and has a capitalist class that cannot be simply dispossessed – as in some rerun of the Bolshevik revolution. In these achievements, western aid and advice played a part, sometimes a large one.

But Russia’s democracy remains fragile: its capacity for brutality on its own territory is still being demonstrated in Chechnya. Its capitalist class has in most cases grown fat on corrupting the old economy, without creating a new one. Both the political class and much of the population no longer sees the west as an enemy, but equally does not regard it as a friend.

The main guiding principle of the last decade’s relationship with Russia was to support Boris Yeltsin, Russia’s former President, at all costs. This was not done without reason: he was the most pro-western leader Russia has ever had. But the policy was costly, and faded in effectiveness along with Mr Yeltsin’s health.

The new guiding principles must be clearer and less centred on individuals. Whether or not the economic policies recommended by the International Monetary Fund were right, they were routed through a small group of reformers. Those who opposed the reformers – including the two houses of the parliaments, conservative cabinet colleagues, the bureaucracy and the regional governments – were lumped together as either know-nothing communists or nationalists, both of whom had to be defeated.

This meant the policy came at a price. By lending its moral and political support to the beleaguered reformers, the west acquiesced in the gross undermining of the parliament. With only a small group set on economic reforms, their political survival became paramount. Aid from the international financial institutions was often released or retained, according to the presumed effect on their political positions. Much of the transatlantic dialogue between Bill Clinton and Boris Yeltsin consisted of the former persuading the latter to keep this or that reformer in his post, with the real or implied threat of aid being withheld.

This was bad for fledgling democracy and bad for the IMF and the World Bank, the judgements of which were subordinated to political considerations. It was an error the full effect of which is only now emerging. The IMF’s authority as an autonomous force in the global financial system was dealt a serious blow.
The old elite-to-elite dialogue must now give way to a new, broadened relationship. The other forces on the Russian political scene now have to be engaged. These include political parties who are sceptical towards reforms, and also businesses, intellectuals, professionals, students and non-Governmental organisations. Early naivety about the transformation of Russia – the belief that mere release from an authoritarian system would render the construction of civil society an almost automatic process – has proved wrong. Instead, the west and Russia must recognise that civil society needs time to develop. Forms of society – both civil and not so civil – already exist within Russia, and formerly existed in the Soviet Union. These need to be understood better by the west, so that they can be developed and strengthened.

Human rights will remain a contested issue between Russia and the west: it must be part of the broadened dialogue. The true nature of the terrorist and fundamentalist threat to Russia in the South Caucasus, and the knock-on effects of Russian disintegration, have to be understood. The west must continue to oppose the brutality of the Russian response in cases such as Chechnya on principle.

It must do so because a country that has joined a range of international institutions, including the Council of Europe, cannot continue membership while maintaining such policies.

Practitioners of realpolitik say, usually privately, that a choice has to made between pushing a human rights agenda and having a close relationship with Russia. This is not yet clear, the less so since there are forces within Russia- a small but not negligible minority – that oppose their own government on such grounds.

Finally, Russia has to be treated as a grown up state. It has interests and concerns – not all of which are reactionary of neo-imperialist. Its objections to the national missile defence system that the US may deploy were well set out on these pages by Sergey Rogov, director of the Russian-American institute. (FT, March 20)

Its fears that Nato will expand to the Baltic states soon should be treated seriously, especially after Kosovo. Europe and the US often differ on these issues; we should go beyond the stage of adopting a false unity in order to bludgeon Russia. Were the European Union to sometimes side publicly with Russia on large issues, it would assist its real integration into clubs of which it is now merely a formal member.

This is not an anti-American point; on the contrary, the US has borne the burden of the relationship because Europeans could or would not. It has been a mistake because others were not involved enough to make their own. But Russia is part of the European continent, and on all matters except strategic nuclear weapons, Europeans should play a greater part in its development. It is a new time, and we should live up to it.

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