August 11, 2009

Russia’s President Medvedev Celebrates Putin’s Decade in the Traditional Russian Style

I would not believe this if I have not read Russia's president Medvedev's letter to Ukraine's President Yushchenko (also see New York Times, Zerkalo Nedeli (ukr)). So it's only two days since Putin has officially celebrated his decade in power. I am sure that Putin received bunch of phone calls from all over the world, including Belarus, Kazakhstan, China, North Korea, Venezuela and other places from the sub-democratic climate zone. And only president Medvedev made a very unique gift to Vladimir Putin. The Russians often say that the best gift is a personally hand-made one. In this case Medvedev's letter to Yushchenko is one of a kind. This letter is so good that it's really scary to read it and think about it. But after reading Zakaria's Post-American World and witnessing a reset-button stage of American-Russian relations the context of the letter is not so surprising after all. We all asked for it. And we got it. The official Kremlin's foreign policy has been served. And Ukraine will be the next democratic state after Georgia to test drive it. It will be a bumpy ride because Ukraine will have the presidential elections less than in five months.

So let's summarize the letter. First, Russia can't forgive Ukraine's political support of Georgia during the Russian-Georgian war conflict. Second, President Medvedev accuses Ukraine's military industry for selling tanks, guns and missiles to Georgia that used Ukraine-made weapons to kill innocent Russian citizens who accidentally found themselves in the middle of the war conflict in South Ossetia's town of Tskhinvali. Medvedev writes that "those in Kiev who supplied the Georgian army with weapons and, by the way, do not intend to stop doing so, fully share with Tbilisi the responsibility for the committed crimes". Second, Russia's president does not want to see Ukraine in NATO. He writes that "ignoring the views of Ukrainian citizens as well as Russia's well-known position, the political leadership of Ukraine stubbornly continues to pursue accession to NATO". Medvedev is also very cranky about Russia's Black Sea fleet situation. Officially, the Russian fleet must leave Ukraine's Black Sea seaports by 2017. Both president Yushchenko and prime-minister Tymoshenko made it clear in their many statements that they will not renew a seaport lease with Russia. Third, Medvedev does not avoid the energy issue. He writes that "Kiev has consistently sought to sever existing economic ties with Russia, primarily in the field of energy. These actions threaten the ability of our countries to reliably use what is, in fact, a unified gas transmission system that ensures the energy security of Russia, Ukraine and many European nations". Then, Russia's president briefly mentions a discrepancy between Ukraine and Russia in their views on the unification of the Eastern Orthodox Christian Church under the umbrella of the Russian Church, reestablishment of Ukrainian's UPA-OUN warriors as WWII freedom-fighters, and finally the 1930-1933 Soviet terror-famine as an act of genocide against the Ukrainians. Finally, Medvedev makes a statement that a social capital built between Russia and Ukraine is their competitive advantage in the globalized world and cooperation between Russia and Ukraine will lead to the mutually beneficial prosperity. Oh, really?

Well, there is nothing in this letter that could really surprise me. All points have already become a cliché of the Russian-Ukrainian relations. What is interesting about this letter is that it just cries out loud about Russia's difficult economic situation. The recession hit Russia hard. The falling oil and gas prices lowered the prospects for the fast economic recovery. Moreover, constant tensions between Russia's GAZPROM and Ukraine's NAFTOGAZ just increase the transactions costs and thus decrease Russia's oil and gas revenues. What is the next big industry in Russia after the hydro-carbon one? It is the military industry. Ukraine is actually one of Russia's main rivals in the weapons business. Moreover, both Russia and Ukraine have nearly the same cluster of customers worldwide. Thus, Medvedev simply wants to lower Ukraine's competitiveness by tarnishing its reputation and calling for international regulations to reduce Ukraine's sales of weapons abroad. Finally, the whole story about the Black Sea Fleet has a very simple cost-benefit analysis explanation. It is hell expensive to replicate Sebastopol's (i.e. Ukraine's seaport) infrastructure on the Russian side of the Black Sea. And Russia is not financially ready for such a massive investment project, especially, in the light of the ongoing recession. So I guess that one of my readers is actually right when she says that both Putin and Medvedev simply care about their own pockets which are filled by the revenues from the state-owned companies such as GAZPROM or NPOMASH. In this case, Medvedev's foreign policy could be much better understood through the lenses of the political economy rather than foreign affairs.

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