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Saying goodbye to USAID – and with it, the nineties

Fyodor Lukyanov's column

Published time: October 12, 2012 19:25

­When Russia announced that USAID, which has worked in country since 1992, will shut down its activities pin the immediate future, it was not an isolated move – but part of a new framework of how the country wants to position itself in international affairs.

It's just another step in the line launched last spring by adapting new legislation requiring all NGO’s receiving foreign money to register as foreign agents.

The next victim will be the famous Nunn-Lugar program, adapted after the dissolution of the Soviet Union to help Russia and its near neighbors liquidate Soviet-era nuclear weapons on Washington's tab. Moscow recently indicated that it is not interested in continuing this program, while in principle the Kremlin has the option to discuss a renegotiation of the agreement on equal terms.

The most obvious example of the new approach was the reaction of Dmitry Peskov, President Putin's press secretary, on critical statements and recommendations made by the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe. “We don’t believe that those expressions and calls are appropriate, and of course will not listen to them”, he said. To “of course” not listen sounds unusual. Before, Russia used to criticize nearly every document produced by PACE dedicated to Russian affairs, but Moscow never said so bluntly that it will simply disregard the Council of Europe.

What is happening? Is Russia drifting towards authoritarian closedness and isolationism?

Of course, the domestic situation matters. Putin views the twenty-first century international environment as highly chaotic and extremely dangerous – and this danger only escalates as the transparency of state processes increases. Foreign turbulence resonates with internal developments, and in any case they increase each other. So Putin sees his task as the guarantor of stability in Russia, by protecting the country from external influences – which he mostly sees as destructive. It is not a coincidence that he repeatedly emphasizes the role of soft power – positive (when it comes to Russia) and negative (when it refers to other countries). The notion of “illegal soft power,” introduced by Putin in one of his pre-election articles, is his contribution to the theory of international relations.

But there is another aspect of the Russian review of its foreign relations: a final farewell to the 1990s, when most of these approaches were laid. Different agreements signed at that time have one thing in common: Russia was seen as an object for patronage, supervision and monitoring. It wasn’t strange then – Russian statehood had just begun to recover after the end of the Soviet Union. Moscow needed massive assistance, and sometimes even guidance, in the new international environment. It is easy now to criticize early Russia's diplomats and politicians, but one must remember the circumstances in which they had to work, and what limited leverage they had. There is just no fair way to assess what Russian leaders achieved twenty years ago, if we use today’s perspective.

But paying tribute to that period doesn’t mean that all that was agreed upon at that time should remain forever. Russia now is a sovereign country, wealthier and more stable economically than many of those who financed assistance programs here in the 1990s. Russia has many problems in terms of social development, but they are not due to a lack of money or knowledge. Russia is not a developing country. Why on earth should the US Agency for International Development spend the American taxpayer’s money in Russia, which enjoys one of the biggest sovereign wealth funds in the world? What is the reason for the US to keep paying for the dismantling of Russian nuclear weapons?  Is it an indirect form of control? Indeed. But then it is hardly a surprise that Moscow wants to renegotiate.

The Council of Europe's framework is the opposite case, but with similar motivations. Russia is one of its biggest donors, and now doesn’t want to be criticized while handing over its own money. One can argue that the CoE is designed to serve as an independent watchdog, but the Russian mood today is to overcome any forms of foreign meddling.

The 1990s are far away, and Russia is in a hurry to get rid of that period's messy legacy. What will replace the ideas of early Russian democracy remains to be seen – but the framework is obsolete anyway.

The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.

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