10 June 1999 - 12 June 1999

The Prospect for Russia as an International Partner

Chair: Ambassador Dr Andreas Meyer-Landrut

(Joint conference with the Southern Center for International Studies, Atlanta)

Ditchley resumed its established collaboration with the Southern Center by tackling, as it has at regular intervals during the ’nineties, the issues surrounding Russia’s post-Soviet evolution.  We sought to focus upon how that evolution was likely to affect Russia’s behaviour in external relations;  but we realised from the outset that, especially in the wake of the August 1998 financial crisis, the springs of attitude and of action must lie in the domestic field.

In the near term events turned upon the position and limitations of President Yeltsin, and upon the influence of the close entourage which sustained him.  Public opinion, we were told, was now widely hostile to him but accepted that he had to be lived with to the end of his term – even the peremptory dismissal of Prime Minister Primakov (a dismissal made in spite of, or even because of, achievements perceived as creditable) had generated unhealthily little outcry.  The Yeltsin presidency brooked no rivals, and the power of the successor Prime Minister Stepashin would be severely constrained.  There was a sense of the Russian political system treading water until the Presidential election due (unless conclusive infirmity removed Yeltsin earlier) in July 2000.

Would those elections and the prior ones for a new Duma be held on schedule? – we heard differing speculations.  Given the limited importance of and low public esteem for the Duma, there might be little incentive to interfere with the due timing for that.  There might however, suggested some participants, be temptations for the Yeltsin court (anti-Communist rather than democrat, though these were probably no longer key characterisations) to seek ways of blurring or evading the Presidential deadline – for example by making play with a new confederation with Belarus – especially if they felt doubt about the prospects for a successor likely to protect their own positions.  The entire transition, we recognised, would be a severe test of Russian politics;  but for all the unripeness of the system our on-balance view – and certainly our hope, for the matter was crucial for political order whoever might win – was that conventional expectation would prove powerful enough to maintain the proper date.  We speculated only briefly about likely outcomes – perhaps a coalition around either Lushkov or Primakov? – and reminded ourselves that in today’s Russia campaigns and elections centred more on personalities than on policies;  it was unclear what the substantive issues might prove to be.

We had some debate about whether Russia needed, or would get, further constitutional reform, for example over the basis of Duma elections or President/Duma relations and powers.  Some thought that present structures were in themselves good enough – “the problem is the driver, not the car” – and though others felt more long-term misgiving, no-one perceived a clear current consensus in Russia on both need and pattern for change.

Might there be greater fragmentation of the Russian Federation?  Most of us thought not.  The fate of Yugoslavia was recognised by many in Russia as a stark warning;  and though Moscow’s writ was often ineffective in the regions, this mostly reflected weakness at the centre and general erosion of governability right across the Federation rather than a deliberate attempt by Governors to augment their own power.

We heard much gloomy comment about the problems of governability, of poor civic responsibility, of sketchy accountability, of lack of confidence in government and authority at all levels.  Popular discontent did not point to a return to Communism;  and indeed the instruments that might support a return to centralised authoritarianism, whether through manipulated elections or otherwise, scarcely existed any longer.  There was moreover no evident figure with an idea – or an unblemished reputation – around whom such a régime might focus.  But – so many participants believed – the absence of trust, and of detached commitment anywhere to a sense of true public good, provided a polity in many ways demoralised, even humiliated.  The journey Russia was engaged upon, even if not violently revolutionary in form, was (in the analogy proffered by one comment) more that of France 1789 than of Russia 1917;  and outsiders interacting with Russia should be prepared for volatility, discontinuity and little sure calculability.  Some kind of muddling-through might be the likeliest scenario, but far from the only one.

Political crisis was interwoven with economic crisis.  The latter had been highlighted by the financial drama of August 1998, but the origins lay deeper and further back.  Many continuing features of Russian economic life (even if the massive use of barter meant that formal statistics might in some degree mislead) were ill-suited to healthy free-market operation – rigid bureaucratic habits;  an enduring burden of “middlemen”;  little entrepreneurial tradition;  poor incentives to investment and enterprise;  tax systems bearing so heavily on business profits as to prompt concealment and evasion;  a sense that almost anything could be done through the right bribe.  The attempt at rapid imposition of Western market methods had largely failed, amid a widespread Russian sense of outsider highhandedness and even perhaps of wrecking intent.  In Russian circumstances the concept of free market and of working democracy seemed as often in tension as in partnership.

To most external investors all this was a dark picture,  compounded by the lack of dependable commercial law in matters like contract observance and dispute resolution.  The resultant flight of external capital would be hard to reverse, especially amid widespread erosion of human capital, ageing capital stock and fading research and development effort.  But we knew that underlying potential remained enormous, and that as compared with the Communist era there was freedom for citizens, new openness and the beginnings of market operation.  Russia still mattered greatly, not only for economic opportunity but, inescapably, as still a permanent veto-wielding member of the Security Council and possessor of a massive nuclear armoury.  In its own interest the West could not prudently just stand aside.

Vigorous views were expressed that the West should mount – and soon, even before the elections – a renewed effort of economic outreach to aid Russia, for all the difficulties of bringing outside influence to bear fruitfully where internal structures were so defective.  On this view, the main need was to offer not money but cooperation, membership of international “clubs” (but would this work if Russia was incapable of observing relevant rules?) and professional help and advice reaching wherever possible below and beyond the Moscow government, with a technical rather than a political orientation.  We reviewed aid conditionality inconclusively.  The “Washington consensus”, we heard, was moribund, and new efforts were needed, on patient timescales, encouraging and cajoling rather than demanding, to help build healthier systems.  (“Yes, but how?” echoed continually in the background.)  We heard particular pleas that Western businesses should be enabled to operate more freely in Russia – to the systemic benefit, it was argued, of Russian business competence – and that Russia should be allowed a measure of protectionism;  even if this last was not deeply needed (since Russia’s basic economic problems did not lie in the trade area) its value as a political symbol might be considerable.  We were not sure where the prime leadership responsibility for action should rest;  the Group of Seven had the widest ambit, but the European Union – which had much the largest share of trade with Russia – might be better capable of agile response.  We heard that the impending Finnish Presidency of the EU envisaged initiating special collective review of the challenges.

 Amid all these massive domestic strains, how would Russia conduct itself in foreign policy?  Many of us doubted whether any clear answer was available – there might well be a succession of ill-connected ad hoc responses to issues as particular elements in the élites saw their influence ascendant or their interests engaged.  Russia seemed still some way short of settling into an agreed long-term view of itself, other than that it wanted global status more than global responsibility;  one participant recalled that it had been said of another post-imperial power, earlier in the century, “if we do not stop trying to behave like a great power we may eventually cease to be a great country”.  In practice, emerging patterns might range from a grumpily acquiescent cooperation with the West*, through a spoiling adversarialism moved by a desire to assert importance through boat-rocking (an irreverent voice whispered “de Gaulle”) to an anarchic near-collapse of national coherence.

At the level of general public opinion there was a powerful sense of resentment at perceived Western (and above all US) hegemonism, and little disposition to recognise in cool rationality that (as some participants maintained, and indeed as Yeltsin mostly seemed to accept in the substance of his dealings with President Clinton) in a difficult world the westward interface was in fact Russia’s most benign frontier, and a much more rewarding relationship than attempts, for example, to build a new nexus around near ex-Soviet neighbours.  In the Kosovo episode so far Russia had behaved, in the outcome, as cooperatively as could reasonably have been expected, with underlying realism prevailing over shrill rhetoric, and from the Western side the political experience had moreover hardly been such as to encourage ready repetition elsewhere.  But popular perceptions of the matter in Russia had deepened long-indoctrinated dislike of NATO, and several participants urged that the timing of second-phase enlargement of NATO must be highly sensitive to this.  The West should, on such a view, beware of the risks of driving Russia into anti-interventionist partnership with an obstructive China – possible tensions over (for example) Chinese population pressures on a near-empty Siberia might not suffice to preclude this.

As we turned to Russian security issues and policies we were warned that however high among priority concerns the West might rate (and think Russia ought to rate) problems like those of the environment and internal socio-political stresses, Russian policy-makers still thought primarily in terms of “hard” security, of classical military capabilities and external threats.  We noted that the Russian armed forces had undergone decline and devaluation to a degree that made their continued quiescence remarkable even when account was taken of the historical absence of any interventionist tradition.  Kosovo might have stung resentments vented in the Pristina “raid” and might prompt military demands for fresh modernisation;  but the national resources to achieve this were scarcely available.  On the nuclear side we were aware that Russia still had massive holdings, and doctrines that placed if anything even more reliance upon them than before.  We were not sure how dependably Russia would remain engaged in the arms-control strand of international policy and committed (for example in dealings with Iran) to the non-proliferation cause, even if it might itself be threatened by any failure of that.  US decisions on the future of anti-ballistic-missile defences would be likely to influence Moscow views.  We heard divergent opinions on the severity of risks that elements (especially “non-strategic” ones) of the Russian nuclear arsenal might escape control;  and one view argued that the West ought in prudence to be ready to invest much more heavily – perhaps even by outright purchase – in helping to manage that problem.

The overall sense of our conference was notably more sombre than at earlier Ditchley surveys of Russia.  For observers – however well-wishing – as for Russians themselves, awareness of the many-sided immensity of the task of national transformation was perhaps still deepening.  The next Presidency would face a vast agenda and a wide array of acutely hard choices which would at best severely test its legitimacy and credibility.  Russia perhaps knew in general terms what it had to do – what were the necessary components of a new polity, economics and society – but not how to do it, or in what order of priority;  on any view, the next few years would remain very difficult ones, with at best an uneasy public hanging on in hope that things would somehow eventually get better.  Had Russia bottomed out? asked one intervention.  We could not tell, and there were anyway too many dimensions to admit a neat answer.  But we did know that the outcome mattered to the world;  and that within the limits of the possible other countries ought to work for the best for Russia, not just hope for it.

* We continued to use this convenient shorthand, though reminding ourselves that both Russia and its interlocutors must recognise much differentiation within it.

This report reflects the Director’s personal impressions of the conference.  No participant is in any way committed to its content or expression.

Chairman: Ambassador Dr Andreas Meyer-Landrut
Formerly German Ambassador in Moscow


HE Ambassador Ruth Pearce 
Ambassador to the Russian Federation

HE Ambassador Anne Leahy
Ambassador to the Russian Federation
Mr Don McCutchan
International Policy Adviser, Gowling Strathy & Henderson, Toronto
Professor Sergei M Plekhanov
Coordinator, Post Communist Studies Program, York University
Mr George A Thomson
President, Thomson Gordon Group Inc

Mr Christopher Beauman
Senior Advisor

Mr René Nyberg

Deputy Director General, Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Finland

Professor Jacques Sapir
Professor of Economics, Ecole des Hautes Etudes, Paris

Professor Dr Hannes Adomeit
Senior Research Associate, Stiftung Wissenschaft und Politik
Dr Klaus Blech GCVO KCMG
Formerly German Ambassador in Moscow
Professor Dr Heinrich Vogel
Director, Federal Institute for Eastern and International Studies

Mr Kyoji Komachi
Managing Director, General Affairs Department, Japan International Cooperation Agency

Dr Chris Donnelly
 Special Adviser for Central and Eastern European Affairs to Secretary General

Mr Stanislaw Ciosek
Foreign Policy Adviser to the President

Ms Irina Laktionova
Head, Security Issues, Moscow Public Science Foundation
Dr Vyacheslav A Nikonov
President, Polity Foundation

Mr Dag Hartelius
Vice-President, European Security Programme, Institute for EastWest Studies

Mr Anthony R Brenton
Director, Global Issues, Foreign and Commonwealth Office
Sir Nigel Broomfield KCMG
Formerly Ambassador to the Federal Republic of Germany and Head of Eastern European and Soviet Department, FCO
Sir Brian Fall GCVO KCMG
Formerly Ambassador to the Russian Federation
Professor Peter Frank
Professor of Russian Politics, Department of Government, University of Essex

Mr Janet F Gunn
Head, Eastern Research Group, FCO
Ms Barbara Hay CMG MBE
Lately Ambassador to Uzbekistan and Tajikistan
General Sir Garry Johnson KCB OBE MC
Formerly Commander in Chief, Allied (NATO) Forces Northern Europe
Professor Richard Layard
London School of Economics and Political Science
Dr Anna Matveeva
Research Fellow, Russian and Eurasian Programme, Royal Institute of International Affairs
Ms Anna Pringle
Head, Eastern Department, FCO

Dr Graham T Allison
Director, Robert and Renée Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, John F Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University
Mr Andrew A Awad
Director, Russian Operations, Lockwood Greene International
Dr Christopher L Brown
Research Director, Southern Center for International Studies
Mr George E Burch
President and CEO, TRUCAT International Limited
Mrs Jeanne R Ferst
Board Member, SCIS
Mr Claus M Halle
The Halle Foundation;  formerly President, Coca-Cola International
Dr Daniel S Papp
Professor of International Services, Sam Nunn School of International Affairs, Georgia Institute of Technology
HE Ambassador Joseph A Presel
Ambassador to Uzbekistan;  formerly Ambassador-at-Large and Special Coordinator for Conflicts in the Former Soviet Union
Professor Thomas Remington
Department of Political Science, Emory University, Atlanta
Dr Eugene B Rumer
Member, Policy Planning Staff for Russia, Department of State
Dr Cedric L Suzman
Vice-President and Director of Programming, SCIS
Mrs Julia Johnson White
Vice-President and Legal Counsel, SCIS
Mr Peter C White
President, SCIS