Would a Democratic Change in Russia Transform its Foreign Policy?

15. 3. 2017

“If Russia was fully democratic, what would its foreign policy look like? Would it be greatly different from what it is now? Would it be much more in tune with American foreign policy? Would it share the values that the European Union espouses in dealing with other countries? Or would there still be important differences between Russia, on the one hand, and the West, on the other?”

The question recently asked by American analyst Mark Katz is critical, particularly so because as it looks now the relations between Putin’s Russia and the West have reached a dead end. Obama’s reset with Moscow is over, and in the near future we can expect mostly trouble. Viewed from Washington, Russia has become more annoying, but less important. The shale gas revolution made Americans uninterested in Russia’s energy resources and impatient for Kremlin’s brand of symbolic politics. At the same time Kremlin finds it easier to figure out how to make political use of playing the anti-Western card than to see the advantages of tying itself to the fate of the West.

Viewed from Europe however, Russia does not look as strategically unimportant as it is seen from the US. Europeans know that Moscow still matters but they observe the latest developments in Russia with growing moral disgust. Putin’s regime reminds them of a 19th century autocracy teleported in the world of today more and more. Russian regime is not simply non-democratic: its authoritarianism looks particularly dull and old-fashioned. And while Europeans know that they have many common interests with Russia, they are losing confidence in Russia ever becoming a genuine part of Europe. The polls indicate that a great majority of Germans, French and Scandinavians over the last year have changed their perception of Russia from favorable to negative. So, looking at the dynamics of the political perceptions of Russia in the West, and the politics of the Russian government, it is unlikely that the relations between them will improve while Putin is still in office.

So, we have reached a point, where it is easier to imagine a democratic change in Russia, rather than a working relationship within the current status-quo. The explosion of civic energy after the December Parliamentary elections in 2011 made many hope that today the democratic change in Russia is not such an improbable option, as was feared some time ago. The West has indeed lost hope that Putin can be an ally in preserving liberal international order, but many hope that the emergence of a democratic Russia will mark a radical change in Moscow’s foreign policy. So, many analysts will advise their governments to press the pause button in their relations with Russia and simply wait for democratic Russia to emerge.

But how different would the foreign policy of democratic Russia be? Can we assume that democratic Russia will be a natural ally of the West in preserving the liberal international order? Will the change of the political regime suffice to change Russia’s view of the world order, shaped by its geography and history? It is a question that is simply impossible to answer. We do not know how the democratic change will take place and which will be its driving forces. We do not know whether it will take place and if so, when. We can only speculate who the political leaders will be. But one thing we can know for sure: a democratic change will make the public opinion a critical factor in Russia’s foreign policy. And it is then that policy analysts will have to stop relying on the Great Russian novels to offer them an insight into what is happening, and will have to turn to the opinion polls instead.

We of course cannot foresee what Russian citizens will think about Russia’s role in the world at the time when the democratic change comes (and if it comes), but what we know is what are the foreign policy views of the opposition-minded Russian citizens today. The Transatlantic Trends Survey conducted in 2012 gives us an opportunity to look at the mindset of future post-Putin Russian public.

The survey indicates that when it comes to foreign policy the majority of Russians (71 per cent) tend to approve the work of the government. Russian public opinion desires Russia’s strong leadership in the world and it is unenthusiastic about the US’s or the EU’s global leadership. It is also skeptical about the value-driven foreign policy and the responsibility to protect. In addition, the majority of Russians tend to support Russia’s policy considering the Syria crisis.

These results should not surprise anybody. For years, Russians’ view of the world has been shaped by Putin’s propaganda machine and it is a common trend in most countries that people tend to trust their governments on matters of foreign policy. What is interesting is what the foreign policy preferences of those who have lost their trust in the system and who hope for political change are. Do they support a different foreign policy agenda? Do they share the values and the priorities of the West?

Digging in the Transatlantic Trends Survey data makes it possible to answer these questions. Almost half of the surveyed Russians express doubt about the fairness of the last elections and the way the institutions work. So, we can define them as “Disaffected Russia.” Almost a third of the Russians are critical to the performance of the President Putin, so we can define them as “Anti-Putin Russia.” So, the question is what would be Russia’s foreign policy if it was shaped by the preferences and the opinions of these two groups that represent the soft and the hard opposition of Putin’s regime.

The eye-opening result of the analysis is that when it comes to foreign policy, “disaffected Russia” and “anti-Putin Russia” not only subscribe to Kremlin’s current agenda, but are even less likely to support the Western priorities. The opposition- minded Russians do not like how Russia is ruled today, but they are in agreement with her foreign policy. We all know that Russian opposition is a strange mixture of pro-western liberals and anti-Western nationalists but normally when we imagine democratic Russia, we tend to forget about the second group. And we are wrong.

Not unlike powers like Turkey, democratic Russia will be nationalistic Russia when it comes to foreign policy. In the wake of the Cold war, the democratization of Central and Eastern Europe resulted in radical re-orientation of these countries to the West. This is unlikely to happen if Russia goes democratic. The analysis of the foreign policy opinions of the opposition-minded Russian citizens makes us believe that democratic Russia will insist on its role as independent regional power with special interests in the post-Soviet space and it is unlikely that she will share the EU’s post-modern view of the world. The survey also indicates that Russian public opinion in its majority does not see China as a military threat, so it is unrealistic to expect that if it is up to the opposition minded Russians, they will support a coalition between Russia and the West aimed at containing China.

It would be a mistake of course to make far-reaching conclusions based on a single opinion poll. Foreign policy is very rarely shaped by the preferences of the people and on top of that these preferences have the tendencies to change quickly. But reading Russian opinion polls today is a healthy antidote to the naive expectations that a democratic change in Russia is an answer to all questions in the bilateral relations.

Praying for democratic Russia should not be confused with a foreign policy strategy for dealing with Russia.

Ivan Krastev

Ivan Krastev is a Bulgarian political scientist. He is president of the Center for Liberal Strategies in Sofia, Permanent Fellow at the Institute for Human Sciences in Vienna and a member of the European Council on Foreign Relations.

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