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Volume VI, No 4 (March-April 1996)

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Russia-Cuba Relations: The Primacy of "Ideology"

Though many statements on foreign relations emanating from Russian politicians fail to correspond to reality, one category in particular must be noted. I have in mind the frequent declarations, by President Boris Yel'tsin, former Foreign Minister Andrei Kozyrev, and the current Foreign Minister Yevgeni Primakov, that Russian foreign policy, cleansed of ideology, has practical aims based primarily on economic considerations. This is presented as a fundamental departure from Soviet foreign policy.

In reality, however, Russia's international behavior has been and continues to be the prisoner of "ideology," that is, dependent on nonrational, nonpragmatic motivations. Moscow's foreign policy, then, does not represent the sum of national interests, i.e., a raison d 'etat [matching truly rational, profitable aims with the means at the state's disposal]. Rather, Russia's international performance consists mainly of dramatic gestures made from time to time by the ruling elite to maintain the reins of power. Thus, Russian foreign policy is the true heir to Soviet tradition, and this continuity is becoming increasingly apparent. What little pragmatism there was now melts before our eyes, while the "ideological" basis expands, taking on monstrous proportions characteristic of the most stagnant Soviet periods. This evaluation is confirmed appropriately by the recent signing of the quadripartite agreement between the Russian Federation, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Belarus', as well as the bilateral Russian-Belarusian agreements on "deepening" integration. While these agreements rest on dubious economic theory, presented with inconsistent explanations, the obvious, even cynical, "ideological" basis remains unchanged.

The economic foundations and goals of the newly founded "Union" are not simply unclear; in fact they are ignored by the authors of the new "project of the century," who prefer to settle for irresponsibly vague declarations about creating something "like" the European Union. Yet the motives driving Presidents Yel'tsin, Lukashenka, Nazarbayev, and Akayev to sign the quadripartite agreement in the Kremlin's Georgevski Hall are clear. Yel'tsin plans to use the new "Union" to trump his strongest rival in the upcoming presidential elections, the Communist Gennadi Zyuganov, who has been playing on the nostalgia for the now defunct USSR that is prevalent among certain segments of the Russian population. Having brought Belarus' to ruin, Lukashenka can count among his opponents virtually all of his country's governmental, social and political institutions. By strengthening his alliance with Yel'tsin, he counts on the Russian leader's support to remain in power. Akayev and Nazarbayev are equally driven by personal ambition.

Just like the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991, the current pre-election attempt to evoke its ghost reflects the emphasis on ideological imperatives and the persistently unpragmatic nature of Russian foreign policy. The destruction of the Union worked in the short run to the detriment of pragmatic, economic interests and to the benefit of the ambitions of a few power-hungry political leaders and their circles. The current attempt to restore it rests on the same set of motivations. But is the Union really being restored? Most likely it is a short-term pre-election maneuver which, if Yel'tsin wins, will be forgotten soon after June 16.

Today it is all too easy to find examples where common sense has fallen victim to an extremely ideologized foreign policy; as the elections approach the number of cases increases exponentially . It is sufficient to mention the dead end which the rhetoric concerning NATO expansion has reached. On the eve of the elections, President Yel'tsin wishes to seem "firm, independent, and principled." Yet, the voters, experiencing acute economic crisis and unlikely to take much notice of presidential resolve, are indifferent to NATO expansion. In this connection, the union of the four can be taken as a (pre-emptive) response to proposed NATO expansion. In this light, it appears as an entirely ideological and impractical, even "anti-practical," step.

Russian relations with Castro' s Cuba, though less dramatic than the examples cited above, more precisely expose the nature of Soviet and Russian foreign policy. This relationship, inherited from the Soviet period, motivated entirely by ideological considerations and totally devoid of common sense, has survived nevertheless the democratic, late Gorbachev-early Yel'tsin period to blossom fully over the last few months. Members of the Russian leadership, still unable to break free of Soviet dogma that Cuba constitutes the forward position of opposition to American "imperialism," gamble on the issue to promote their careers and boost their popularity ratings. In regard to the recent events involving Cuba, the barbaric downing of two civilian American aircraft by the Cuban Air Force and US legislation enhancing sanctions against Castro's regime, the Russian reaction has been entirely one-sided. Without a single word of reproach concerning the Castro regime' s criminal action, the full force of Russian condemnation was aimed at the Helms-Barton bill, characterizing it as "contrary to the norms of international law" and "encroaching on the legal interests of sovereign states." In this way, the Russian government abandoned any hesitation of earlier years and fully adopted the role of Cuba's advocate in its confrontation with the democratic world in general and the United States in particular.

Without a doubt, the October 1995 visit to Cuba of a large delegation of high-ranking Russian officials and businessmen headed by the Russian First Deputy Prime Minister Oleg Soskovets signaled the renewed intimacy in Russian-Cuban relations. On that occasion, Soskovets surprised many by proclaiming Cuba Russia' s new strategic partner. This rhetoric gained practical meaning when he released the first installment of a $350 million credit to Cuba.

Although Castro's lobbyists at the Kremlin had obtained an agreement for these credits in 1993, their release was blocked for two years by the heroic efforts of the Finance Ministry, which pointed out that Castro already owed Russia $20 billion and should not be granted a penny more. Cuba is Russia' s largest and most shameless debtor; since 1991 it has not serviced its debt. In the meantime, all debt negotiations have been torpedoed by Castro' s emissaries, who offer to recognize the debt under a dollar to transfer ruble ratio of 1:50. (1)

During the same trip Mr. Soskovets visited the infamous Soviet-Cuban construction site for the atomic energy station at Juragua and authorized the renewal of the project. Construction of the station was halted in 1992, by which time this tropical monster had swallowed up $1.2 billion, obviously from Soviet coffers. Completing the station requires another $800 million.

Back in June of 1995, the Russian Atomic Ministry announced the creation of an international consortium to continue construction. A representative of the Siemens concern, surprised to find his company among the consortium members, issued a denial. On the eve of the Soskovets visit, the Ministry of Atomic Energy renewed its claims concerning the existence of a consortium. After the Soskovets visit, Deputy Minister of Atomic Energy Yevgeni Reshetnikov, who had accompanied Soskovets to Cuba, explained that the consortium is "being created" and will be fully formed in the course of the next several months. Six months have passed since the visit, and the phantom consortium has not materialized; probably, it never will, leaving one to suppose that the whole affair was yet another "ideological" Russian gesture.

Soskovets also visited another monument to Soviet-Cuban friendship: the electronic intelligence installations at Lourdes. He gave his blessings to its continued existence despite the enormous sum to be paid as rent-$200 million annually. According to recently concluded agreements, shipments of Russian weaponry and spare parts will cover this expense.

Oil-for-sugar barter transactions are the only portion of Russian-Cuban relations that contains any rational meaning. Yet even this primitive trade bears all the characteristics of relations in which the "ideological" calculation prevails over any proclaimed intention. To this day normal contractual obligations have proven impossible to organize; extensions, broken promises, misunderstandings and mutual recriminations reign instead. Until recently Russia could not obtain the sugar that it was due to receive in the first half of 1994. Such irresponsibility and chaos begs the question: Why not seek alternative sources of sugar? The answer is not to be found in the sphere of rational economics.

Clearly Russian-Cuban relations have proven ineffective and costly for Russia, if evaluated from a pragmatic standpoint. So why has the close relationship been so durable? Two open secrets constitute the answer.

First, the political secret: Soskovets' formulation of a strategic partnership must be discarded as rhetorical trash, since even the most shortsighted Russian politician cannot regard the Castro regime as capable of lasting much longer, and even the wildest imagination cannot link the words "Castro" and "strategic." Yet by demonstratively supporting Castro, Russian politicians rattle the nerves of the US government and provoke President Clinton, for whom the Cuban issue poses an election year challenge. In this way Boris Yel'tsin hopes to provide his domestic constituency with the image of Russia' s President as a major international player. On the eve of the elections, this posture concerning Cuba takes on added significance, especially since Yel'tsin has little room for really meaningful maneuvers in international politics.

The second secret can be inferred by analogy with Cuban Spanish relations. Cooperation between those two countries developed rapidly over the last several years, largely because Castro apparently was able to provide material incentives for members of the Gonzalez administration and for influential business circles. The real estate and other property that they obtained cheaply had been seized illegally from its rightful owners, US and Cuban companies. The Russian leadership, no less corruptible than some persons in Madrid, no doubt is also receiving incentives for acting in Castro's interests.

What conclusions can be drawn from this? Russian support for Castro, though irrational from an economic perspective, will continue and intensify. To a large degree such support will consist of dramatic gestures and will be bolstered sometimes by credits.

A restructuring of Russian-Cuban relations would signal the transformation of Russian international behavior into a normal foreign policy, motivated by common sense. At present, it remains "ideological," driven partially by irrational-atavistic impulses and partially by naked greed and personal ambition. A fundamental transformation would entail the arrival of a new generation of Russian leaders less given to populist gestures and maneuvers and imbued by genuine principles.

1. Financial transactions among CMEA [Council for Mutual Economic Assistance] countries were conducted in transfer rubles.

Copyright ISCIP 1996
Unless otherwise indicated, all articles appearing in this journal have been commissioned especially for Perspective.

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