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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Where to Focus If You Are Expecting Change

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Interest in next year's presidential election is gradually eclipsing all other current events in Russia. The main pursuit of analysts and commentators has become peering across this political Rubicon into the dense fog that enshrouds the opposite bank.

The supercharged intrigue in this instance is peculiar to the Russian political system. Decisions are made behind closed doors, shut off from virtually everybody. And the less reliable the information available, the more room there is for people's imaginations to run free. Yet nobody doubts that President Vladimir Putin will choose his successor from among his close colleagues. If this is true, then from what quarter can we expect any significant changes?

Since power is likely to remain in the hands of the same select group, it follows that no substantial changes should be expected after the 2008 election. So we are left with the question of what we mean when we say things will stay the same.

First, relations with the West will not change. There is general consensus that these have hit a post-Soviet low during Putin's second term. But a more objective appraisal shows that relations with the West have followed a consistent pattern over the past 15 years. Under both Putin and former President Boris Yeltsin, periods of thaws in relations and apparent rapprochement have been followed by cold snaps and even crises. These then gave way to improved relations and the cycle continued.

Actual cooperation has remained at about the same relatively low level throughout. It is just that in the 1990s there was a lot of fine talk about integration, despite the modest level of real progress. Now, when it is accepted practice to emphasize the differences and even ideological incompatibilities, interdependence between Russia and the West is actually increasing. Don't forget that both Yeltsin and Putin have pushed for Russian membership in the most prestigious Western clubs. At first, this meant the Council of Europe and the Group of Seven, but then it was followed by the World Trade Organization and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

A sense of latent or even outright geopolitical competition has always characterized relations with the West. Given the same opportunities that exist today, Yeltsin might have followed the same course Putin is following now. In fact, Yeltsin's decision to send Russian troops into Kosovo constituted the riskiest attempt in recent history to demonstrate Russia's independence from the West.

What has changed is not so much Russia's approach to the West, but prevailing global conditions, and economic conditions in particular. Both sides react to these in their own traditional way, and this is likely to continue after the 2008 presidential election. Russia, having regained its role as a great power, will continue to compete with the West for influence in international affairs. But the Kremlin is not in a position to risk escalating tensions, and the political elite understands that a full-scale confrontation with the West is not in its interests.

There's no doubt that Russia will attempt to strengthen its position in the Middle East. The region is critical to ensuring stability on world energy markets, and no country with an economy so reliant on oil and gas can afford to ignore that region. Russia also will continue its efforts to expand its presence in eastern and southern Asia, as relations here are extremely important for both global development and for the security and development of Russia's Far East. As for discussions with the European Union, the positions on both sides have been clearly defined, and while they coincide in part, there is still considerable disagreement. There is little likelihood that a common set of shared values can be established anytime soon.

Finally, nothing new should be expected in relations with former Soviet republics. As the disintegration of former bonds continues, these countries are likely to gravitate toward different centers of influence. Competition between the great regional powers is inevitable. Russia will take part, of course, but will face a more even playing field. Given current trends, Moscow will eventually accept that the former Soviet Union no longer exists as a single entity, or even a zone of common interests.

So leadership changes in the Kremlin are more likely to alter the style than the substance of foreign policy. A more effective, balanced foreign policy approach might result from a fall in world energy prices, which would result in a bit of a drop in the country's self-image. But basic positions will still be determined by a basic compromise between groupings among the elite.

This doesn't necessarily mean there will be no changes in foreign policy in the foreseeable future. The new administration will witness the final stages of the process that began with the collapse of the Soviet Union, the main feature of which has been the absence of an ideological basis for action. Early moves at democratic reform were impossible to develop into a complete ideology given the country's deep political and economic crisis. The entire period since perestroika has been characterized by attempts first to preserve, then to imitate and, finally, to restore Russia's former international influence. There has been some success here, but the foundation for this regained influence is still shaky.

Whether generated by a fall in energy prices or some other impetus, a real change in foreign policy can only arrive under one of two conditions: the appearance of a serious pro- or anti-Western doctrine, or the creation of a well developed strategy based on a long-term evaluation of Russia's place in the world. Neither of these exists at present.

With regard to doctrine, the demand for a new ideology can only spring from society itself. This doesn't mean some contrived doctrine imposed from above and as an ideological superstructure, but rather a true aspiration toward ideological self-identification that comes from the people itself. It is hard to imagine a return to the liberal outlook that held sway at the beginning of reforms, just as it is unlikely that any system of common values will arise to serve as a basis for real partnership with the West.

The opposite is actually more likely: The formation of a conservative ideology built upon rejection of Western precepts. In the process of creating a nation-state -- which is exactly what Russia is attempting to do -- traditionalism and a tendency toward nationalism are natural. At the same time, Russia's ethnic diversity and relatively high degree of openness are probably sufficient to limit this conservative trend.

The chief factor behind the development of an overall strategy is likely to be conditions on the international stage. The world of the 21st century, the outlines of which are forming quickly, is both dangerous and harder to control. Rivalries will increase in every sphere -- from economic and geopolitical competition to the battle for hearts and minds. By any significant criteria other than wealth in natural resources -- the quantity and quality of human capital, the level of development in infrastructure and high technology -- Russia lags behind its major partners and rivals on the international stage. The stakes are high, with success going to those countries able to make far-reaching, less opportunistic and, perhaps, unusual decisions. And the Russian intellectual class should prepare for it right now, paying no attention to the fuss over the "2008 problem" which, in fact, is not really a problem at all.

Fyodor Lukyanov is editor of Russia in Global Affairs.