Ivanov's Pursuit of Russian National Interests

June 2, 2004

Ivanov's Pursuit of Russian National Interests

Igor Ivanov played a key role in persuading three strongmen-Serbia's Milosevic, Georgia's Shevardnadze and Ajaria's Abashidze-to leave office and be replaced by democratic governments.

Igor Ivanov played a key role in persuading three strongmen-Serbia's Milosevic, Georgia's Shevardnadze and Ajaria's Abashidze-to leave office and be replaced by democratic governments.  Some have suggested that Ivanov has acted against Russian national interests by doing this.  This, however, is simply not true.  In each of these cases, Ivanov advanced Russia's interests.

Milosevic and Abashidze were both pro-Russian, but both had become increasingly unpopular.  Shevardnadze, of course, wasn't even pro-Russian, but he too had become unpopular.  In all three cases, strong democratic movements arose seeking to oust these unpopular leaders.  Moscow is surely better off in helping these democratic transformations along than in resisting them.

If Moscow had acted to help authoritarian leaders remain in power despite growing popular opposition to them, the result would have been increasing anti-Russian sentiment in these societies.  If these strongmen had fallen anyway despite Russian help, Moscow would probably have lost all influence in these countries.  But if Moscow's help allowed them to cling on, Russia could have found itself in the midst of a civil war.  Ivanov should be praised for helping Russia avoid both of these alternatives in all three situations.

And while all three of these cases have been portrayed as losses for Russia, what in fact has Russia actually lost?  Democratic Serbia has not abandoned its longstanding relationship with Russia in favor of America.  Belgrade's ties with Washington have improved, but Serbia has much closer relations with Russia than with the U.S.

Even more dramatically, the "Rose Revolution" in Georgia last fall resulted in the downfall of an authoritarian ruler who had bad relations with Moscow and the rise of a democratic leader who has gone out of his way to improve Russian-Georgian relations.  His role in persuading Abashidze to leave Ajaria - far from a loss for Russia - has provided further incentive to Saakashvili to value good relations with Moscow.  Ivanov's role in smoothing the democratic transitions in both of these cases helped bring about these positive outcomes for Russian foreign policy.

There is an unfortunate tendency in Russia to think that anything which is good for Washington must automatically be bad for Moscow.  In truth, however, international relations are not necessarily a zero-sum game.  Improved Serbian-American relations have not harmed Russian interests in Serbia.  And Russia is better off with a democratic Georgia with close ties to both Washington and Moscow than a civil war-wracked Georgia that Washington, as with Chechnya, would not help Moscow stabilize.

And what benefits Moscow in Serbia and Georgia would benefit it in other former Soviet republics too.  Surely Russia would be better off if stable democracies emerged in other former Soviet republics which sought good relations with both Moscow and Washington than with the current authoritarian regimes which are vulnerable both to succession crises in all of them and to Islamic fundamentalism in several Central Asian ones.  Ivanov's diplomacy, though, can only aid democratic transitions where there are strong democratic movements ready to take power from faltering dictators-a crucial ingredient that is not present in all that many former Soviet republics.

It's impossible to tell whether Ivanov and/or the new foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, will be able to facilitate democratic transitions anywhere else in the former Soviet Union.  But let there be no mistake:  if he can do this, this will serve Russia's true interests and not hurt them.


Mark N. Katz is a professor of government and politics at George Mason University.