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Russia: President Dmitry Medvedev will make his first foreign visits to Kazakhstan and China

22.05.2008 10:04 msk

Moskovsky Komsomolets

Analytics Russia

Dmitry Medvedev begins his first foreign tour in the presidential capacity. Kazakhstan and China were chosen for the first visit. That some thinking went into their selection is clear, but exactly how significant is the choice?

Elected the president in April 2000, Vladimir Putin made his first visits to Belarus, Great Britain, and Ukraine even before the inauguration. Putin made it plain then that the choice of these countries was deliberate. Belarus had to be pampered because of its "special relations" with Moscow. Visits to Kiev and Sevastopol were logical too because Ukraine was viewed as Russia's important strategic partner. As for London, Putin went there on PM Tony Blair's invitation. It was a period when political scientists counted on "new strategic relations". They recalled Mikhail Gorbachev's famous trip to the United Kingdom and his meeting with Margaret Thatcher. They said Putin was "poleaxing" a new "window to Europe"...

It is fair to say that the Russian diplomacy failed in all these vectors. As for relations with London, they are particularly dour at this point.

Unlike his predecessor, Medvedev is going east.

"The route is charted in such a manner as to highlight importance of the Asian component of the new president's foreign policy," Oksana Antonenko, an expert with the International Institute of Strategic Studies (London), said. "Moreover, Medvedev will be visiting the least problematic countries, the ones that may be termed as Russia's strategic partners. It stands to reason to expect advancement of the Russian-Chinese relations in Medvedev's days. On the other hand, relations between Moscow and Beijing are not as smooth and cloudless as one might decide at first sight. There are problems like Russian gas export, immigration from China (actual and imagined), the necessity to shift the trade balance in the direction of hi-tech industries..."

Neither is the Central Asian region free of problems from the Kremlin's standpoint. The pipeline built from Turkmenistan to China these days may bring down Turkmen gas deliveries to Russia, a nuance that disturbs Gazprom greatly. It was Chinese competitors that compelled Gazprom to offer the Turkmens more for their gas than it had expected to offer. Beijing in the meantime is energetically advancing bilateral relations with its partners in the region, frequently outperforming Moscow in terms of scope and efficiency of investments in Central Asian economies. China is a member of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. What with its ever growing might and clout with Central Asia, experts wonder how much longer it will continue seeking compromises with Russia within the framework of this structure. Some specialists believe that Beijing is ready to push the Shanghai Cooperation Organization down the list of its priorities and make an emphasis on bilateral contacts with Central Asian countries. This strategy will certainly strengthen China's positions in the region where positions of Russia have been steadily weakening.

Regardless of China, however, the influence Moscow exerts with the region may weaken in any case. Some Central Asian regimes amended their constitutions for what essentially comes down to life presidency of their rulers. Devolution in Russia without amendment of the constitution may be taken as an indirect menace to their legitimacy.

As for Kazakhstan as such, the new president of Russia will find advancement of relations with it much easier than it is bound to be with other Central Asian countries.

Kazakhstan and Russia have a great deal of joint economic projects running. Kazakhstan is Central Asia's unquestionable leader in terms of economic development and economic reforms. Also importantly, Kazakh diplomacy succeeded in making its foreign policy a truly multiple-vector policy. Astana maintains close contacts with Russia, China, Europe, United States, and Asian countries. Kazakhstan is one of the largest investors in lots of CIS countries. It is a member of the CIS Collective Security Treaty Organization, its representative chairs the Shanghai Cooperation Organization at this point. At the same time, the Kazakh-NATO interaction remains fairly energetic. In 2010, Kazakhstan will become the first CIS country to chair the OSCE. In a word, there are things in foreign policy (from the standpoint of strategy and cadre) Kazakhstan could teach Russia.

As for Medvedev, he is making his first visit to Asia but it is in the West that he is bound to encounter his worst problems and headaches as the Russian president. It is compromises with the West that will be particularly taxing and conflicts of interests particularly vicious. From the tactical angle, strengthening of relations with Asia will entitle Moscow to some points for the dialogue with the West. Without detracting from its importance, however, the Asian vector is not going to be predominant in the Russian foreign policy for years to come yet.

"Like his predecessor Putin, Medvedev is out to promote a multiple-vector policy," Political Techniques Center Assistant General Director Aleksei Makarkin said. "His first foreign trips should be regarded in connection with what visits will follow. The visit to Kazakhstan signifies attention to the countries of the Commonwealth where Astana is Moscow's best partner. I do not expect any surprises from the visit to Astana. Moreover, Kazakhstan itself is promoting a multiple-vector policy."

"Had Dmitry Medvedev chosen Belarus for the first visit, it would have given him bad publicity in the Western media," Makarkin continued. "Besides, the relations between Russia and Belarus are not what I'd call cordial. Neither are Russia's relations with Ukraine are, for that matter. Hence the choice of Kazakhstan, a predictable and stable partner that it is... As for China, it was chosen as one of the centers of international politics. It should be remembered, however, that Medvedev will probably visit Germany after that, Russia's closest partner in Europe. Besides, there will be the G8 summit including meetings with the US president and British PM. Viewed together, all of that makes foreign policy of Russia a multiple-vector policy."

Moskovsky Komsomolets, No 108, May 22, 2008, p. 5. © Translated by Ferghana.Ru