Eastern Europe and Russia Western Europe

Europe & Russia: Soft Power, Please

Steffen Buenau: To effectively support the ongoing transformation within Russia, Europe should put to use its most effective “soft power” tool: a relaxation of visa regulations. Such an approach is not only effective with regard to domestic transformation but will also help restore credibility in an area where Russian co-operation is crucial, namely, Syria.

Russian President Vladimir Putin meets with EU Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso, and Council President Herman Van Rompuy (Photo:AFP)

Russia is back on the front pages. Within Russia, a popular protest initially prompted by a rigged election now pushes for wider change. The movement develops in leaps and bounds, its overall direction unpredictable, yet it does not seem as likely to die down as those in power must have hoped. Meanwhile, Russia’s stance on Syria is increasingly criticized on the international stage as one preventing an effective solution to that country’s bloody turmoil.

It is a truism of contemporary economic commentary that the scars inflicted on the German psyche by the chronic inflation of the Weimar Republic affect its policy makers even today.

Russians have had their own share of historic experiences, gained not just in the first half of the last century but during the last 20 years. In the constitutional crisis of 1993 around 200 people died in the capital of inherently centralist Russia. Moscow’s White House, then the seat of the parliament, was shelled and the country only narrowly escaped a full-out civil war.

Less than fifteen years ago, in the 1998 ruble crisis, Russia went bankrupt. Banks collapsed, inflation soared, millions lost their savings and hundreds of thousands took to the streets in the capital.

Now, the country is continuing its transformational change, from communism, via chaos and “managed democracy,” in a direction both new and uncertain. How quickly the country reforms depends on the young, progressive generations but also on those who lived through the 1990s and saw their savings evaporate and lost their jobs while their grandparents received pensions around the poverty level, if at all. Expect them to be skeptical of radical reform.

While the economic collapse has shaped the attitude of ordinary Russians towards radical reform, the events during Putin’s first presidency have shaped the perception of the West held by Russia’s foreign policy establishment. Putin’s initial foreign policy strategy was one of alliance with the United States and Europe, as evidenced by the fact he was first to express his sympathy following the 9/11 attacks, and by his acquiescence to the United States setting up bases in Central Asia, traditionally a Russian sphere of influence. Putin outlined this strategy himself in his speech to the German Bundestag in 2001.

Yet in Russia, the perception was that nothing followed from these unilateral concessions. In 2003, America invaded Iraq against Russia’s vocal opposition and without an explicit resolution by the Security Council where Russia holds a permanent seat.

Later, American organizations supported groups active in the Orange Revolution in the Ukraine, and subsequently pushed plans for an eastern expansion of NATO, including the Ukraine. This ostensible repudiation led to a distrust of Western rhetoric and a strong emphasis on national sovereignty, pointedly expressed in Putin’s speech to the Munich Security Conference in 2007.

From this point of view, the West’s finger-pointing at Russia (which repeatedly supported the Annan peace plan) for preventing a solution in Syria is seen as little more than a cover for the West’s dearth of a comprehensive policy for peace, other than using any opportunity to facilitate regime change.

Given the reluctance of older Russians to embrace radical reform and an unconsolidated opposition lacking a credible leader, platform and direction, Europe should refrain from making value judgments on internal Russian politics. This does not mean that established procedural and human rights violations should not be criticized. But all actors, including the current government, must be engaged.

Decisive steps towards a more liberal visa regime should be taken, and soon. At a time when the growing middle class has the means to travel abroad, and will drive the still-uncertain development of the country, this is an effective means of strengthening civil society dialogue. A broad, unhindered dialogue may also facilitate a move towards a regime more aligned with European values.

By refraining from commenting on internal developments, the West can emphasize that is does not seek to interfere in internal affairs, unless severe humanitarian reasons require it. Lifting visa requirements, instead of offering unsolicited advice, would also lend credibility to the idea that Western actions are geared towards ending violence in Syria rather than simply meddling with internal affairs, or drastically, regime change around the world. This is a responsible and credible way forward, especially in light of the growing number of countries in which military backing of a hand-picked “good opposition” has proven to be an unsustainable long-term strategy for peace.

Steffen Buenau studied International Relations in Dresden and Moscow. He currently works as an analyst with the Russia Renewable Energy Program of the International Finance Corporation (World Bank Group) based in Moscow.

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