Will change-of-guard in Moscow soften Russia’s stand on US radar base?

Dmitry Medvedev, centre, looks on, during an inauguration ceremony in Moscow's Kremlin on Wednesday, May 7, photo: CTK

The world media descended upon Moscow on Wednesday where Dmitry Medvedev was sworn in as Russia’s third president since the collapse of the Soviet Union. His predecessor, Vladimir Putin will become prime minister and is expected to retain a tight grip on the political scene. The change-of-guard comes at a time of heightened friction over Washington’s missile defense plans for Central Europe and has raised questions regarding Moscow’s future foreign policy. Daniela Lazarova spoke to Oldřich Bureš, an expert on Czech-Russian relations about the possible impact of these changes.

Vladimir Putin and Dmitry Medvedev, photo: CTK
“I think that only the future will tell because the big question, that no one knows the answer to, is how the future relationship between Mr. Putin and Mr. Medvedev will shape up. So in the short run, I wouldn’t expect any major changes to Russia’s foreign policy because basically it will be a continuation of the set course. In the long run however, it will be Mr. Medvedev who will be responsible for both security and foreign policy matters, at least according to the constitution, so it will be interesting to see whether he will be able to assert himself at least in this area.”

The change-of-guard comes at a time of heightened friction over Washington’s missile defense plans for Central Europe. It has caused friction between Prague and Moscow, how would you characterize relations at the present time and do you see any potential change there?

Dmitry Medvedev, centre, looks on, during an inauguration ceremony in Moscow's Kremlin on Wednesday, May 7, photo: CTK
“I saw minor changes in rhetoric when Mr. Putin was addressing the NATO summit in Bucharest where he simply avoided mentioning this thorny issue. That can be seen as a positive signal, an indication that Russia may be slightly more forthcoming and willing to compromise. On the other hand, the subsequent talks between Mr. Putin and Mr. Bush were quite open and it was clear that no consensus had been reached on missile defense. So I think that there will be no major changes when Mr. Putin is gone – at least in the short run. In the long run there is some hope – according to some analysts – that Mr. Medvedev will be a little more liberal on this.”

Would you say that Czech-Russian relations are at an all-time low over the radar?

“They are certainly frosty when it comes to security issues and especially the US missile defense plan has generated a lot of tension. Of course, one must ask oneself to what extent this may have been a message to Russian voters –in order to smooth the transition from Mr. Putin to Mr. Medvedev and to what extent it could be something that Russia will pursue as a long-term policy goal. But at the end of the day, I think that the Czech Republic simply needs to treat this either as a bilateral issue with the US or as a broader NATO issue and not to worry about Russia too much.”

President Dmitry Medvedev kisses an icon during a religious service in the Assumption Cathedral of Moscow's Kremlin on Wednesday, May 7, photo: CTK
Just a few days ago the former Soviet president Michail Gorbachov said that he feared a new Cold War over the US missile shield in Europe – do you feel that things are as bad as that?

“I was a little surprised, not by what Mr. Gorbachov had to say, but by the choice of rhetoric. What he said was basically in line with what all Russian politicians have been saying for some time – but given Mr. Gorbachov’s former position I was surprised that he was so strongly opposed to the missile defense plans.”

The strong rhetoric that we have heard from the Kremlin – is that mainly for the sake of the locals or do you think Moscow could get serious and exchange words for actions?

“My interpretation is that it was primarily intended for domestic consumption but ultimately I think that all that Russia needs or wants is a little more pampering from both the EU and NATO and, most importantly, from the US.”