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Victory Day ceremony sheds light on foreign policy trend

06/03/2010

THE ISCIP ANALYST

(Russian Federation)

An Analytical Review

Volume XVI, Number 13, 27 May 2010

 

Russian Federation

Foreign Relations by Alexey Dynkin

Victory Day ceremony sheds light on foreign policy trend

This year's 65th celebration of Victory Day—the high-profile ceremony commemorating the Soviet Union's victory over Nazi Germany on May 9, 1945—was marked by a number of notable differences from past events. While the primary purpose of this annual celebration is domestic—revived in post-Soviet Russia in 1995 after a five-year hiatus following the collapse of the Soviet union –to promote national unity (perhaps even to help forge national identity), Russia's Victory Day also has an important international component, which typically includes the invitation of foreign dignitaries and a public display of military might. Thus, the differences between this year's celebration and those of past years serve to underscore recent changes and new developments in the trajectory of Russia's relations with past and current allies and adversaries in the former Soviet region, the former Warsaw Pact, and the West.

 

For the first time in history, soldiers from four NATO member countries—the United States, United Kingdom, France and Poland—participated in the parade in Moscow alongside Russian soldiers and veterans. They were joined by soldiers from all members of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), with the exception (for which no known explanation was given) of Uzbekistan. (1) In addition to the foreign troops, the list of visiting foreign dignitaries included a sprinkling of some surprising personalities. Poland, for instance, was represented by acting president, Bronislaw Komorowski, but also in attendance was General Wojciech Jaruzelski, the former Polish leader responsible for the 1981 imposition of martial law and the subsequent crackdown on the Solidarity labor movement. Not surprisingly, Georgian president Mikhail Saakashvili was not invited to attend. Nonetheless, Georgia was “represented” by two members of the opposition (and erstwhile Saakashvili supporters), former Prime Minister Zurab Noghaideli, and former parliamentary Chairwoman Nino Burjanadze, both of whom allegedly met privately with Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, in addition to attending the official ceremony. (2) Also attending were the heads of state of Estonia and Latvia –two Baltic countries, which have difficult relations with Russia over the presence of large Russian-speaking minorities and other issues. These unusual guests were joined by the more usual attendees, including Chinese President Hu Jintao, leaders of the Russian-recognized “independent” republics of South Ossetia and Abkhazia; and most of the members of the Commonwealth of Independent States.

 

Following the victory ceremony, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev took the opportunity to appeal for international unity and cooperation, in addition to patriotism: “The main lesson [to be learned from the war] is that we must work together with other countries, with other members of the international community, to try to eliminate such threats.” (3) In the same press interview, Medvedev criticized the repression that took place under Stalin, as well as some of Stalin's decisions, emphasized a distinction between the Stalin regime and the Soviet people and army, and hinted at some acknowledgement that the post-war order imposed by the Soviet Union had major flaws. At the same time, he castigated certain unnamed individuals for what he called attempts to falsify history and portray the Soviet army as an aggressor, specifically calling out his Estonian and Latvian guests for such tendencies, while praising the Germans for their candor in facing Germany's past. Medvedev ended the interview on an optimistic note that in the future, “outdated” security structures including both NATO and the more recent Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) will be replaced by a new, more “multi-polar” international security structure that would prevent conflicts such as the August 2008 war with Georgia. (4) Though this interview was given to Izvestia, a Russian news agency, many of Medvedev's points appeared to coincide with the intended international message of Moscow's May 9 celebrations this year. 

 

In spite of the unprecedented participation of NATO troops in the Victory Day parade and the uncharacteristically conciliatory tone struck by the Russian president, many prominent international figures were notably absent from the Red Square ceremony of May 9, 2010. Of the leaders of the major Western countries, only Germany's Chancellor Angela Merkel attended the ceremony. Both French President Nicholas Sarkozy and Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi had planned to attend, but canceled the visit citing the need to address the ongoing European financial crisis, while US President Barack Obama and British Prime Minister Gordon Brown declined invitations from the onset. (5) By some accounts, Obama had requested to have vice president Joe Biden represent the United States at the ceremony, but the request was denied in connection with Putin's displeasure at Biden's closeness to Georgia's Saakashvili. (6) Likewise absent were two pro-Russian leaders in the former Soviet region, Ukraine's President Victor Yanukovich and Belarus' President Aleksandr Lukashenka. Overall, observers have pointed out that the number of foreign heads of state attending the 65th anniversary of Victory Day was less than half of what it was during the 60th anniversary in 2005, during Putin's presidency. (7) While these foreign leaders well may have legitimate explanations for their absences (Lukashenka and Yanukovich, for instance, oversaw similar ceremonies in their home countries, where May 9 is a significant date as well), these explanations all boil down to the simple fact that, five years later, most of the heads of state who had attended the 60th Victory Day anniversary had more pressing issues to attend to.

 

All these observations lead to several conclusions. First, both the participation of NATO troops in the celebration ceremonies and the remarks made by Medvedev suggest that the Kremlin intends to continue its recent trend of presenting a more friendly stance towards the West, while at the same time affirming its historic role as victor in World War II and demonstrating its continuing great-power status. Second, the participation of both a Polish military contingent and the acting Polish president confirms the theory that the crash of President Lech Kaczynski's airplane en route to the memorial of the Katyn massacre has resulted in at least a short-term Russo-Polish rapprochement, which, if it takes on a more permanent nature, has the potential to change Russia's overall position in Europe significantly.  Third, the combination of the presence of Georgian opposition leaders and the possible rejection of the American vice president due to his association with Saakashvili is an indication of the apparent determination in Moscow to undermine the current Georgian president. The message to Tbilisi appears to be that Russia well may seek peace with Georgians, but not with the one currently in power. Finally, and somewhat surprisingly perhaps, it appears that, judging from the absences from the ceremonies, less international attention is paid to Russia today than it was five years ago. This, in spite of Russian efforts to engage in a more pro-Western policy and what appears to be a string of recent foreign policy “successes,” including the election of Yanukovich in Ukraine, de facto acceptance (or, at least, acquiescence) of Russia's actions in Georgia in August 2008, the installation of a more pro-Russian government in Kyrgyzstan, rapprochement with Poland; and the signing of the new START agreement with the United States. Using the Victory Day celebration as a barometer, it would appear that relations between Russia and most of the West may have declined in importance, while relations between Russia and some of the other post-Soviet states have regained significance. Nonetheless, if the participation of soldiers from Western countries continues as a May 9 tradition, this year's anniversary may well be considered the start of a new phase in relations between Russia and the rest of the world. 

 

Source Notes:

(1) “Moscow: A parade celebrating 65th anniversary of victory over Nazism took place on Red Square,” States News Service, 09 May 10 via Lexis-Nexis.

(2) “Moscow Grooming a Political Team in Tbilisi,” by Vladimir Socor, The Eurasia Daily Monitor, Volume: 7 Issue: 91, 11 May 10 via http://www.jamestown.org/programs/edm/single/?tx_ttnews[tt_news]=36363&tx_ttnews[backPid]=27&cHash=2a57e89846 .

(3) “Russian president interviewed on World War II, Stalin, Cold War - Kremlin report,” BBC Monitoring Former Soviet Union, 10 May 10 via Lexis-Nexis.

(4) Ibid.

(5) “Welsh Guards march in historic Victory Day parade in Moscow; Battalion joins troops from US and France for first time since 1945,” by Clare Hutchinson, The Western Mail, 10 May 10 via Lexis-Nexis.

(6) “Propaganda Overwhelms Russian Society,” by Pavel Felgenhauer, Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 7 Issue: 93, 13 May 10 via http://www.jamestown.org/single/?no_cache=1&tx_ttnews[tt_news]=36373&tx_ttnews[backPid]=13&cHash=434a1e1943 .

(7) “Show of Unity Rings Hollow on Victory Day,” by Alexander Bratersky, The Moscow Times, 10 May 10 via http://www.themoscowtimes.com/news/article/show-of-unity-rings-hollow-on-victory-day/405645.html

(8) Ibid, Felgenhauer, “Propaganda Overwhelms Russian Society.”

 

By Alexey Dynkin (alexey.dynkin@gmail.com)

 

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