The sovereign can no longer say, "You shall think as I do on pain of death;" but he says, "You are free to think differently from me, and to retain your life, your property, and all that you possess; but if such be your determination, you are henceforth an alien among your people."

(Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, 1835)

Monday, 19 April 2010

Medvedev's speech in the U.S. highlights his personal qualities and practical approach to policy

President Medvedev's speech at Brookings last week demonstrated that the Russian leader has three significant characteristics: candour, humour and foresight. All of which appear to have laid a strong foundation for the effective working relationship that he has developed with Barack Obama. But between the quips about texting the U.S. president, and honesty over being shocked by the economic crisis, Medvedev's comments at Brookings highlighted the practicality and vision that informs his political thinking. This was evident in the straight answers that he gave with regards to the Russian economy, Terrorism and Iran.

With regards to the Russian economy, Medvedev's remarks showed that the economic crisis has focused his attention on the urgent need for diversification. He went as far as to say that it "was outrageous [. . .] how our economy depends on raw materials." But, perhaps more importantly, he discussed in some detail the need to address the current woeful state of bi-lateral trade with the United States, which amounts to only 5 percent of that which is currently being traded between Washington and the Netherlands. It was the emphasis that Medvedev placed on this issue, as opposed to security concerns such as missile defense, that was important. Reading daily news reports will lead many to believe that missile defense and NATO expansion are the defining issues for the bi-lateral relationship. Well, while these issues certainly raise tensions, Medvedev appeared to convey that the best way to solidify a 're-set' in the U.S.-Russian relationship is for both sides to make a greater effort to boost trade. Encouraging? Yes. Why? Because a greater concentration on economics, as opposed to strategic defence, may help take some tension out of the relationship.

Medvedev's comments on terrorism, brought about by the recent bombings in Moscow, were restrained and measured. He steered away from the 'over-the-top' language that Vladimir Putin has used in the past and instead focused on how it can be difficult to push back against public pressure (when Russian citizens are calling for revenge). This is reflective of the way in which the Kremlin dealt with the recent attack. They have been criticised for diproportionate responses in the past, but perhaps a greater emphasis is now being placed on law enforcement as the first line of defence - as opposed to the military. The problem, however, is that 'law enforcement' has been responsible for many of the arbitrary sweep operations and kidnappings that take place in the North Caucasus on a daily basis. So while there may be a change in the presidential rhetoric, this is unlikely to have any impact on the situation on the ground in Ingushetia and Dagestan.

It may be Medvedev's comments on Iran that please Americans most. While he did not accept the premise of the question that his government is "on the same page when it comes to sanctions", he did make it very clear that Russia is becoming increasingly frustrated with Iran's inability to prove its innocence. This may be a sign that they will back sanctions if Iran doesn't make any concilliatory moves before that time comes.

So what does all this mean? Well, it could all change, but at the moment it seems that the relationship is on a trajectory that will continue to produce concrete results. An improvement in economic relations could be on the horizon and the U.S. should do its utmost to makes this happen. Furthermore, the election of Yanukovych in Ukraine appears to have taken the sting out of NATO expansion - something that may have been welcomed in Washington for this very reason.

One question that the Brookings speech raises is just how much this cordial relationship is down to the personalities of the U.S. and Russian Presidents? Another interesting point to consider is how different things would be right now if the 2008 war in Georgia had taken place twelve months later?

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