• 2008-02-27

cartoon by Jevgenijs CHeKSTERS

It's all too obvious that the March 2 election of a new Russian president will not bring any changes whatsoever in the country's relations with the civilized world, particularly with the Baltics. The Kremlin's confrontational foreign policy, mapped out after the Orange Revolution at the end of 2004, will remain unaltered, and Estonia will continue to be the "whipping boy" for years to come. The election is, therefore, a non-event; only by a stretch can it be considered an election.

President Dmitry Medvedev is destined to play second fiddle in Vladimir Putin's military-KGB orchestra, while the conductor himself assumes the prime minister's spot. True, Medvedev may bring some minor modifications in the form of Russia's leadership, but certainly not in substance. But even here we can't be 100 percent certain. On Feb. 26 Medvedev (which means "bear" in Russian) demonstrated that, among other things (facial expressions, hand gestures, etc.), he has also inherited his boss's bark. Asked about whom he'd prefer working with among the three main U.S. presidential candidates, the 42-year-old deputy prime minister said someone who "doesn't have semi-senile views." This could be regarded as a stab at George W. Bush, but in all likelihood it was directed at the entire Bush administration, which was never lacking vociferous Kremlin critics.
In fact, one of the Washington's most poignant, and memorable, verbal tirades against Moscow occurred in the Baltics. As readers may recall, Vice President Dick Cheney, speaking at a Vilnius conference in May 2006, lashed out at the Kremlin with unprecedented virulence, accusing it of using energy sources as "tools of intimidation and blackmail." Cheney blasted Moscow for backtracking on democratic reforms made in the 1990's, curtailing civil rights and interfering in neighboring states.

Though the White House had selected the wrong messenger boy, the message was right. In essence, the Vilnius conference highlighted the schism that had appeared in U.S.-Russia relations and advertised it across the world. This week Estonia's president, Toomas Henrik Ilves, illustrated it again. "There is a mentality of being stabbed in the back that reminds me of the Weimar republic," he said by way of describing Russia's current political environment in an interview with The Moscow Times. "The Weimar mentality ... is so similar that I really hope that we do not go off in the wrong direction."
Ilves suggested something was seriously wrong with a foreign policy that aggravates the world's civilized, democratic nations, befriends despots and transforms tiny neighbors into enemies. "That's why I personally advocate a policy of benign neglect. Until things settle, there isn't really anything we can do. We are the current whipping boy," Ilves said.

At the same time it is also important to give Medvedev a chance. He is, after all, 13 years younger than his boss, and perhaps more importantly, was not educated in the KGB environment, which still has Putin yearning for a return to the U.S.S.R. Medvedev is intelligent and has shown that he can think for himself. Who knows, if Western leaders are savvy, they can learn how to play Medvedev off Putin and perhaps begin to instill a degree of liberalism and pluralism in Russia, however small. As the country's history has shown, any such change will only come from above, and Medvedev might just be the best shot we ever get.