On May 7 Vladimir Putin for the fourth time took office as the President of the Russian Federation and almost in a month made his first foreign visit of this term. On June 5 he paid a working visit to Austria and on June 8-10 – state visit to China where he also took part in the work of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization Summit. After the formation of the government and defining priorities for its domestic development, Russia is likely to avoid further confrontation and widen the space for dialogue.
A friendly hand
Commonly, observers pay special attention to a leader’s very first foreign trip after the inauguration: it is considered that it maps out future foreign policy. Despite this tradition being in many ways symbolic, international practice usually backs it and Russia is not an exception here: whichever foreign policy Moscow carries out in the 21st century, each presidential term begins with a visit to Russia’s “near abroad” – one of the post-Soviet states with a specific place among Russia’s foreign policy priorities.
In 2000 Vladimir Putin paid his first visit to Uzbekistan, in 2004 – to Ukraine, which hosted Eurasian Economic Space (future Eurasian Economic Union) leaders’ summit (the event took place in the Crimea, which back then used to be a part of Ukraine). In 2008 President Medvedev paid his first visit to Kazakhstan. In 2012 on his way to Germany and France Vladimir Putin spent several hours in Belarus, which became the first foreign state that he visited.
This time Austria falls out from the previous context. Not only it is not a “near abroad”, not a Russian-speaking country, it is also a Western state, EU member, introducing anti-Russian sanctions. However, even this unusual choice has explanations and attention attracted by this unprecedented step is not key but still significant.
50th anniversary of Russian natural gas supplies to Austria and Western Europe was chosen as a formal reason for the visit. Energy cooperation remains a guarantee for mutual interest between Russia and Europe. And the fact that it began in Austria in the height of the Cold War and reconfirms its relevance in Austria as well (again, against the background of complicated relations) is quite symptomatic. But it is not the only reason. Austria has been always standing apart both in the European Union and in the West as a whole due to its neutral status: since 1955 this country has been maintaining military-political neutrality and avoiding taking this or that side in someone else’s conflicts. Besides, Vienna is one of the key centers of global governance: it hosts headquarters of many major international institutions: some UN agencies (IAEA, UNIDO, United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and others), OPEC and OSCE.
Apart from the role that Austria plays in the international arena, its current internal political situation is indicative. Following the results of the recent elections the government was formed by the coalition of the Austrian People’s Party and the Freedom Party of Austria – conservatives standing for Austria’s independent stance on key regional and international issues. At the same time Sebastian Kurz, one of the world’s youngest heads of government, impersonates a new generation of European politicians – modern dynamic pragmatists speaking for traditional values. Vladimir Putin has been trying to be this kind of politician during his career.
While the whole world is trying to reveal Putin’s successor, for Russian leader himself it is much more important to ensure the transfer of not just his power and influence (what, as he emphasized during the so-called “direct line” on June 7, would be determined exclusively by the will of the Russian people), but mainly of his vision of world order based on sovereignty, mutual respect and common sense. In this sense, Sebastian Kurz is an evident aspirant to Putin’s political continuity.
The fact that Kurz’s Austria did not swallow geopolitical baits and did not, unlike other European countries, deport Russian diplomats just in solidarity with blockbuster charges of London (which so far have not been provided with evidence) is one more reason to perceive Putin’s visit as Russia’s readiness and capability to carry on a dialogue even with those who do not agree with it. Apparently, the most important thing is that the first visit to the West after the inauguration is an outstretched hand of peace and friendship, which Putin suggests in order to reset mutual offences and jointly address the existing problems.
The visit to China which followed Austria, particularly within the framework of the highest possible state visit, demonstrates Russia’s solid balancing between the West and the East: its own line remains the same, the mechanisms of interaction with Russia can easily be found on the different poles of the modern political world map. Broadly replicated information about the probable meeting of Trump and Putin also in Vienna represents the development of the same logic.
Moreover, Russia not just knows how to develop relations with the West and the East – it is both the West and the East itself: simultaneously with the summit of the going through the obvious crisis “western” G7 in Canada, China hosted the summit of “eastern eight” SCO. And Russia is there the only country that has experience of work in both formats (and does not hide its preferences for the latter).
Do Everything for Russia
President Putin started his fourth presidential term with an unprecedented support, which he gained at the election: more than 56 million Russians voted for him, which is 76% of all voters. In his inauguration speech in the Kremlin on May 7 he talked about the necessity to improve the life of all Russians and his responsibility not only before those who voted for or against him, but also before ancestors and the thousand-year Russian history. It is the history, which, according to Putin, shows the capability of a country to return to life after the heaviest hardships like a phoenix and reach unprecedented heights. The message of this speech “Do everything for Russia” and of the whole electoral campaign was focused on domestic tasks: development breakthrough, strengthening of the economy and social sphere, growth in the living standards and citizens’ self-realization. It seemed that foreign policy issues took second place.
On the day of his inauguration Vladimir Putin signed his first Executive Order On National Goals and Strategic Objectives of the Russian Federation through to 2024. It defines the directions of the country’s policies for the forthcoming six years. On the day of his previous inauguration on May 7, 2012 Putin signed a series of eleven so called May Decrees that served as a major reference point for all politicians and officials for the following years. They touched upon a wide range of issues – from housing and public utilities to foreign policy.
“May decree of 2018” defines nine national development goals, twelve national projects (programs) and a separate plan of development and expanding backbone infrastructure. Among national goals are: raising life expectancy to 80 years, halving poverty level, introducing digital technologies and Russia’s entering the top-5 of world economies. National projects are being developed for demography, healthcare, education, ecology, science, digital economy, etc. The only externally-oriented project, “International cooperation and exports”, has a clear economic dimension which includes the growth of non-resource exports and finalizing the formation of the common market within the Eurasian Economic Union.
Two independent trends, which have emerged as a result of the first month of Putin’s fourth term, are obvious. They are not new from the point of view of his well-known and long-practiced approaches. However, they embrace the vision that Russia will be aspiring for in the upcoming years: concentration on the domestic development efficiency oriented towards a constructive result. A détente in the international arena, which could fix the status-quo and the refusal of raising the bids in the global confrontation, would contribute to its success.
Alexander Konkov, Rethinking Russia Director