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Medvedev and Putin on red lines in the Caucasus

Dmitry Medvedev and Vladimir Putin at the Victory Day parade in Moscow, May 2009. Photo:

Dmitry Medvedev, born in 1965 in Leningrad (now St. Petersburg), was elected President in March 2008.  He won over 70 percent of the vote and succeeded the powerful and popular Vladimir Putin, who had been president since 2000. Putin then became Prime Minister in the new Russian government.

The election campaign was criticized as grossly skewed in favour of the Putin-backed Medvedev. The OSCE boycotted the elections altogether, citing the "limitations and restrictions" imposed by Russia on the organization's electoral observers.  Many felt that Medvedev would be no more than a place-holder, continuing Putin's political course. Some hoped that the young president, coming from a legal background and not the secret services, would steer Russia toward a more liberal policy. In his inauguration speech, Medvedev stressed the importance of respecting human rights and freedoms. However, he was to continue Russia's assertive policy with regard to the South Caucasus in general and Georgia in particular.

After the military intervention in Georgia in August 2008, President Medvedev endorsed the independence of the breakaway republics of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. He underlined that "the recognition of South Ossetia's and Abkhazia's independence was the only possible solution. This decision will not be reviewed."[7] He saw the war in August 2008 as a major turning point: "Almost immediately after these events it occurred to me that for Russia, August 8, 2008, was almost like September 11, 2001, in the United States. There were many useful lessons from 9/11 in the United States. I would like the world to draw its own lessons from what happened. The world changed."[8]

Soon thereafter, he presented his "Five Principles of Russia's Foreign Policy" in an interview given to three Russian TV channels:

  1. Supremacy of international law;
  2. Multipolarity. In Medvedev's words, Russia cannot accept a "world order in which one country decides everything, even if it's a country as powerful as the United States." Unipolarity, he added, leads to instability and increases the potential for conflict;
  3. Engagement. Russia does not desire confrontation and is not planning to "isolate itself" from the international community;
  4. The protection of Russian citizens "wherever they are." Medvedev emphasized that Russia would also protect the interests of its business community abroad;
  5. Finally, "Russia, just like other countries in the world, has regions of its privileged interests."  These regions are not limited to countries bordering Russia. 

A more detailed summary of the interview is available on the website of Rossiiskaya Gazeta (in Russian). A summary in English can be found here (BBC, 1 September 2008).

Vladimir Putin. Photo: Russian government

Vladimir Putin, Russia's former President (2000-2008) and current Prime Minister, shares these views. He spoke at length about the Caucasus and Georgia in an address to the members of the Valdai Discussion Club in September 2008:

"Concerning the sovereignty of former Soviet republics: Russia was the initiator of the USSR's disintegration. If not for the Russian position, the USSR would still have existed. We made this decision a long time ago. We had no desire to infringe on the sovereignty of former Soviet republics; we actually support this sovereignty. But let's look at the realities on the ground.

First, I have spoken about this many times: we have to find common rules of behaviour in the international arena. One cannot make the nation's right to self-determination the cornerstone principle in Kosovo's case and at the same time choose the principle of territorial integrity in Georgia's case. Let us negotiate the rules we will live by.

We spoke about this many times and warned about it, too. We asked not to create a precedent in Kosovo. But no, they got their way. No one would listen, everyone forgot about international law, forgot about UN resolutions, forgot about everything.

They did as they wanted, did as they saw fit based on their geopolitical interests. I mean our Western partners and primarily, of course, our American partners, while the Europeans just followed. OK, so they did it.

But I am drawing your attention to this fact: we did not recognize the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia after Kosovo…. As I recently said in public, we 'swallowed' it, in fact. Everything that I did back then was sign the order to develop economic relations with these territories. And, by the way, this was in the spirit of the requirements set out by the United Nations, which insisted on not isolating these territories economically. And that was it. In principle, we were ready for further dialogue.

But no, they had to use armed forces here [in South Ossetia] as well. They like so much to shoot and bomb, so they thought they would have success here too. Anyway, if there is no success anywhere else

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