Foreign Policy After Poll

The presidential elections in Russia have drawn little attention to foreign policy questions here. This is entirely understandable: As long as Western goods can be bought at prices that are comparable to domestic products and the country has not been led into a bloody war, Russian citizens, as a rule, will be little concerned with foreign affairs. And from my point of view, this is a sign that society is becoming normalized. At the same time, Russia can no longer separate its domestic from its foreign policies.

In the past few years, specific regional economic interests and the policies of large Russian exporters have strengthened the ties between foreign and domestic policy. Large companies and banks have slowly learned to protect their interests abroad by lobbying the government.

But to understand how Russian foreign policy might change as a result of the forthcoming elections, it is necessary to look at how foreign policy decisions were made in the past. It would appear that, by definition, foreign policy should have been formulated by the Foreign Ministry. But in practice it was conducted for the most part by the Central Committee of the Soviet Communist Party. After the fall of the Soviet Union, there was a period when everyone was involved in the country's internal affairs, and the Foreign Ministry obtained an unprecedented level of independence. But it did not use this newly gained independence in a very decisive or effective way, particularly under the weak former foreign minister, Andrei Kozyrev.

In practice, however, Russia did everything it could be expected to do in the international arena during the 1990s to break with its totalitarian past. But its actions lacked any kind of perspective on the future. Consequently, Russia failed not only to be materially compensated for the losses that resulted from the break-up of the Soviet Union, but to obtain legal guarantees that its international interests would be observed. The result was that Russia ended up with two years of endless discussions of the hopeless question of NATO enlargement.

But that was not the only product of the weakness of the Foreign Ministry. Having taken the ministry's defects into account, especially after October 1993, the Defense Ministry was involved in settling conflicts in the Commonwealth of Independent States. And the Foreign Ministry's lack of professionalism and shortsightedness was to a certain degree compensated for by the Intelligence Services, which publicly assumed such responsibilities during this time.

This period of discord and weakness in foreign policy, however, began to change toward 1995. The general line of foreign affairs began to be determined by the president himself, which is, incidentally, in line with the Russian Constitution. With the nomination of Yevgeny Primakov as foreign minister there were, at last, signs of professionalism in foreign policy decision-making.

Given these developments, how would the election of Communist Party leader Gennady Zyuganov affect foreign policy? The party's program is neither anti-United States nor anti-NATO but one that puts emphasis on domestic interests. And such a program does not differ much from the present administration's.

With the arrival of the new foreign minister, Russia's foreign policy activities have been more directed at the integration of the CIS. Although the agreements with Belarus were linked with the pre-election campaign, President Boris Yeltsin was able to kill three birds with one stone: He outdid the communists; he showed that there was a civilized alternative to the State Duma decision to denounce the Belavezhskaya Pushcha accords; and at the same time he calmed other CIS countries and the West.

While not letting up in its opposition to NATO expansion, Russia began to truly collaborate with the North Atlantic Treaty Organization in Bosnia. And however little this joint operation accomplished in establishing peace in the former Yugoslavia, it had a positive role for further understanding between Russia and NATO. Even in Eastern Europe, where Russia has made many mistakes, there are noticeable steps forward. Russia also showed a certain determination, despite the objections of the United States, to carry out agreements with Iran and India. Russia has also been able to successfully export weapons in what is a very competitive market. Yeltsin's visit to China demonstrated Russia's presence as an Asian power and thus the possibility of new options for the balance of power in the world.

It is clear that these active and diverse policies will be continued after the elections. The present foreign policy direction differs little from the Communist program. Moreover, in Russia today and within the current government, the ideology of a great power has begun to take hold in foreign policy. And the wide support that this position enjoys among the country's elite and in society in general makes this ideology, however paradoxical it may seem, democratic in a certain sense. The main question, however, will be what methods will be used to carry out this policy and realize this ideology. This is where the growing interdependence of foreign and domestic policies comes in. Financial and industrial groups are playing a greater role in moving the CIS toward integration. This is how the programs of Yeltsin and Zyuganov differ most. The Communist Party economic program would inevitably mean a break between foreign policy and the economic interests of financial and industrial sectors and an assertion of the primacy of politics and ideology.

Such a change would certainly provoke a chain reaction with Russia's "former partners" in East Europe, who continue to fear their past chief, and with the West. Moreover, Russia's goal of once again becoming a powerful and feared country is entirely within reach.

Irina Kobrinskaya is a senior associate at the Moscow Carnegie Center and the USA/Canada Institute. She contributed this comment to The Moscow Times.