Baltic perspectives on the EU challenges 2018: the Russian presidential elections

On 20 March 2018, the Latvian Institute of International Affairs, in cooperation with the Friedrich Ebert Stiftung, organised a closed lunch discussion “Baltic perspectives on EU challenges 2018: the Russian presidential elections”. The discussion gathered a group of 22 experts form governmental, non-governmental and academic institutions, in order to discuss the outcomes of the Russian presidential election of 18 March 2018. The key questions during the discussion revolved around the future of the EU-Russian relations in economic, political and military terms.

According to the participants, the background of the elections is described by a number of fundamental systemic factors. Firstly, as Russia is behaving more as an adversary of Europe, whereas China is becoming a European power. Secondly, the situation is made even more complex, as the US is exercising restraint towards Europe, meanwhile insisting on remaining the only superpower globally. Eventually, the EU is experiencing major difficulties in speaking “with one mouth”. This also means that the European continent is facing two fundamental challenges: one, where the accepted system of interdependence is clashing with EU Global Strategy and its emphasis on resilience; and a more global one, where the paradigm of multipolarity is once again clashing with multilateralism. The current situation in the European continent is increasingly uncomfortable for both all players. 

The participants of the lunch discussion argued that the re-election of President Vladimir Putin, who received 76.7% of the votes (according to official accounts), did not come as a surprise. The biggest loser or the election was the Communist party and its leader Gennady Zyganov, who, by promoting Pavel Grudinin, “fought against himself” and only received 11.8% of the votes. Interestingly, Kenia Sobchak, who received only 1.6% of the votes, was quoted as one of the biggest winners of the election, taking into account that she is now a well-known federal political figure.

Looking beyond the end of his term, President Putin is unlikely to fully leave the Russian political scene in 2024. The participants argued that the term “вождь” (from Russian – leader) is the most appropriate to describe Putin’s place in Russian policy making post-2024, akin to the current Chinese system. However, it is clear that Russia will have a new president. This also implies that new political leaders are expected to emerge in the following years. The participants argued that the opposition will only be able to gain more influence over Russian policy-making if it manages to move away from the “denial-of-the-system strategy”, instead focusing on an “improvement-of-the-system strategy”, bringing about change from the inside.

The Russian economy is likely to undergo more painful reforms (for instance, raising to upstream oil production tax, and taxing the alcohol and tobacco sales). Both the economic policy and foreign policy are likely to be guided by necessity, not choice. This is why the Eurasian policy vector will become increasingly important for Russia. Strengthening partnerships between Russia and its Eurasian partners will also mean that Russia is likely to break away from being “sandwiched” between Asia and Europe. The understanding that Russia is too big to work within structures, such as the EU, and too small to exist on its own, is becoming increasingly clear.

Resultantly, Europe is becoming less and less important on Russia’s agenda. Bilateral relationships with Germany and China are going to remain central, both in economic, political and diplomatic terms. Interestingly, the fact that the German investment in Russia has increased despite the sanctions-countermeasures regime seems to serve as a proof of the coming restructuring of the EU-Russia relationship.

However, the restructured relationship is unlikely to be based on a detente, but rather on continued deterrence efforts. This is linked to the fact that the great powers – the US, Russia and China – are showing little interest in changing the trajectories they are currently pursuing.

The task of international diplomacy is therefore to ensure that the security and safety of each of these players does not come at the expense of the security of others. This can be done by taking small steps on the short run, namely:

  • By creating “islands of cooperation”, which would enable confidence building among the players (for instance, by establishing bilateral channels);
  • By enabling a structural dialogue to strengthen trust through institutions (for instance, though the OSCE).

The participants also discussed the medium-term goals, focusing particularly on the question of the shared neighbourhood. Russia’s foreign and security policy in the region is a signal that it is unwilling to accept the independent foreign policy of the post-Soviet states. In the meanwhile, taking into account the internal dynamics of the EU, the legitimacy of its normative clout in this region and globally is also under question. Therefore, the position of the Eastern partners must be moulded in order to ensure their security and development independently from becoming a member of the EU or the Eurasian Economic Union. Such a situation would also make their membership of NATO superfluous.

Eventually, the long-term future European security order has to focus on finding ways to cooperate with one another. Only in this manner can the current conflict between the Russia and Ukraine be solved.

Published 27 March 2018