The most important Russian foreign policy events of the past week centered on the Davos Economic Forum, the meeting between Lavrov and Kerry and the visit of the Emir of Qatar to Moscow.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, left, and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov walk to their seats for a meeting about Syria, in Zurich, Switzerland, on Wednesday, Jan. 20, 2016. Photo: AP
This week the main attention of the Russia media was focused on the Davos Economic Forum, where the Russian delegation was surprisingly underrepresented. In its foreign policy, Moscow is increasingly demonstrating a greater willingness to develop the bilateral format of relations with all partners, rather than participating in multilateral political processes.
This focus on bilateral ties has been demonstrated by the recent meeting between the top two Russian and American diplomats – Sergey Lavrov and John Kerry – in Zurich, as well as the visit to Moscow of the Emir of Qatar, Tamim al-Thani.
Instead of going to Davos, Russians decided to work at home
During the business forum “Support of Russia,” Vladimir Putin joked: “Everyone is here, so I do not know who actually went to Davos.” And then he added: “OK then! Let us get busy working at home!”
The Russian delegation was surprisingly underrepresented at this year’s economic forum in Davos. Deputy Prime Minister Yuri Trutnev, whose tasks in the Russian government are mainly related to the development of Siberia and the Far East, headed the Russian delegation.
Russian Deputy Prime Minister Yuri Trutnev adjusts his headphone during a panel "The Outlook for Russia" at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, Friday, January 22, 2016. Photo: AP
Among the Russian representatives, the weightiest delegation was that composed of the bankers, which included German Gref (Sberbank), Andrey Kostin (VTB), Vladimir Dmitriev (Vnesheconombank). However, at the last moment, the governor of the Central Bank of Russia, Elvira Nabiullina, cancelled her planned visit. This was the case when it really was necessary to work at home.
Much was said at the forum about the need to normalize economic relations between Russia and Europe. In particular, an interesting statement was made by the chairman of the Munich Security Conference, Wolfgang Ischinger: “I know the position of the German business circles, and these are all in favor of lifting sanctions against Russia today, not a year from now. Germany wants to see Russia as a stable economic partner.” In general, such statements are not binding on politicians, but recently they have been sounded more often than ever before.
Finland’s Finance Minister, Alexander Stubb, noted that relations between Russia and the West have become much warmer than they were a year ago, and the head of French diplomacy, Laurent Fabius, stressed the need to work together to improve mutual relations. The desire to reduce tensions with Russia was also voiced at the forum by the Prime Minister of Georgia, Giorgi Kvirikashvili.
The one piece of good news from Davos was the latest results of international rankings of competitiveness, in which Russia made it into the Top 50. On the eve of the forum, Bloomberg had published its international innovation rating, in which Russia was listed in 12th place.
— Bloomberg Business (@business) January 19, 2016
The meeting of Lavrov and Kerry in Zurich
The talks between John Kerry and Sergey Lavrov in Zurich became the first meeting between this pair in 2016. The discussion agenda included Syria, Ukraine and the North Korean nuclear program. On the Ukrainian question, the parties have concurred that Minsk Agreements should not be rewritten, but instead, implemented.
The United States, according to Sergey Lavrov, has put forward several proposals for the coordination of activities in Syria. However, the question of which forces in the Syrian conflict should be recognized as terrorists, and which may be admitted to the negotiation table, remains unresolved.
— John Kerry (@JohnKerry) January 20, 2016
The American list of “opposition groups” is much wider than Russia’s, not the least because Washington still has not been able to determine with whom, and in what format, and on what criteria, they are willing to maintain contacts. The previous experience of American policy has shown that the U.S. has no real influence on Syrian opposition groups to start the peace process. The opponents of Bashar al-Assad have much closer ties with regional players such as Qatar and Saudi Arabia, and as a result, Washington finds it necessary to tolerate a series of strong extremist groups in order to preserve the loyalty of the Gulf States.
Does Qatar want to make amends?
The Emir of Qatar Tamim al-Thani paid a visit to Moscow. He discussed a number of important issues with Vladimir Putin, such as the price of the “blue fuel” and the situation in the Gaza Strip. However, the main topic of their conversation was Syria, and more specifically, the peace talks that had recently started between Bashar al-Assad and the opposition groups.
Emir Tamim noted the importance of these negotiations, the role of Russia in these talks, and added that Qatar itself “from the first day, supported a political settlement in Syria.” At first glance, this seems like a very strange statement, given the reports on Qatari television channel Al-Jazeera about dozens of women and children suffering from Russian bombings, and that Russia is not fighting against terrorists, but rather on behalf of the “bloody dictator,” who has no place at the negotiating table.
However, in Qatar, they have come to realize that their bets on the Islamic State of Iraq and the Greater Syria (ISIS) in Syria have now come to naught. Moreover, if in the beginning of airstrikes, the activities of the Russian Aerospace Forces ensured the preservation of Bashar al-Assad’s regime (at least in one part of Syrian territory), the current agreement reached between Moscow and Washington – calling for the restoration of the territorial integrity of Syria, and the lifting of sanctions against Iran – makes Assad’s victory not only inevitable, but something that will come relatively soon.
In this situation, Qatar – after having made its bets on ISIS and for this purpose was even willing to spoil its relations with the West – is now facing serious problems. Therefore, it is quite possible that the Emir now wants to integrate into the new system of security in the region, to find a place in it for Qatar, and perhaps in exchange for a reduction in funding for the Syrian militants, he is hoping to get some kind of bonuses from the Syrian peace process.
Signs of popular discontent in Moldova
A serious protest movement recently started in Moldova. The vast majority of the people, disappointed in the way the ruling coalition has been running the country, are demanding early elections. The ruling coalition has refused to meet this demand. Moreover, this is not just because, judging by the polls, it will lose power – but also because, in the case of early elections, Moldova could change its foreign policy orientation.
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Given the discontent of the population, and the activities of the forces that want to integrate Moldova with Romania and the EU, the Moldovans would most likely vote for representatives of the left forces – the Socialists of Igor Dodon and the Our Party of Renato Usaty – which are considered to be pro-Russian and want to develop political and economic ties with Moscow. This is why the European Union and the United States are against the idea of holding early elections.
The position of Moscow, where Igor Dodon and Renato Usaty recently visited, has not been voiced yet, because Moldova is a complicated case. True, an election victory by pro-Russian forces would be an ideal instrument for Russian propaganda. Russian officials and diplomats could start talking about people who have experienced all the “charms” of European integration, and decided to return their focus on an “old partner” – Moscow.
In addition, the victory of Dodon and Usaty could lead to an end of the blockade of Transnistria. However, what can be done with Moldova after that? The country is sandwiched between Romania and Ukraine. Reaction in Ukraine, in the event pro-Russian forces came to power in Chisinau, is easy to guess – a sharp aggravation in Moldovan-Ukrainian relations and an economic blockade of Moldova from the east are almost inevitable.
As for Romania, it is unlikely that the EU will close its eyes to a demonstrative return of Moldova into the Russian orbit, and through the deterioration in the socio-economic situation, would try to show the Moldovans the fallacy of their choice. As a result, Moscow would have to seek ways to support the pro-Russian government in Chisinau. The question remains – what is in this for Russia?