Vienna, January 23 – Since the disintegration of the Soviet Union in 1991, Russia has been following the injunction of 19th century Foreign Minister Aleksandr Gorchakov to “concentrate on itself,” but now his successor Sergey Lavrov says that Moscow is ready to move beyond that and to assert itself more in ways Gorchakov would undoubtedly approve.
In his speech to journalists a week ago reviewing Moscow’s diplomatic activities during the past year, Lavrov said that “the chief conclusion which we draw for ourselves on the basis of the results of 2008 is that Russia has essentially completed the period of ‘concentration’” (www.mid.ru/brp_4.nsf/0/2C3F828BAFD70B76C325754000478615).
The Russian foreign minister’s use of the term “concentration” and even more its appearance in quotes in the transcript of his remarks on the ministry’s official webpage highlight the importance of this word for Lavrov personally, for Russian foreign policy and hence for all those who deal with Russian foreign affairs.
The term is lifted from the remark of Prince Aleksandr Mikhailovich Gorchakov, who served as Aleksandr II’s foreign minister after the close of the Crimean War. In that capacity, he sought to undermine the provisions of the Treaty of Paris which ended that war and to build alliances with all countries that would help Russia against Great Britain and Austro-Hungary.
But Gorchakov is most often remembered for a single line in a circular message that the tsar sent to foreign capitals on September 2, 1856. In that message, Gorchakov’s observation that after its defeat in Crimea, “Russia is concentrating,” a diplomatically extraordinary and extraordinarily ambiguous remark.
Some in Europe at the time assumed that this meant that Russia was accepting its new status and that it was withdrawing from the high profile role it had played internationally and thus “isolating” itself. But in Russia, Gorchakov’s words were assumed to mean something very different (en.fondsk.ru/article.php?id=263).
For Russian statesmen then and even more for post-Soviet Russian commentators, Gorchakov’s words have been read as meaning that Russia, in the face of defeat, should carefully reexamine its own massive internal resources, define very carefully what it hopes to achieve in the world, and then reenter the diplomatic and geopolitical fray with new energy.
Several years ago, Lavrov gave a series of speeches and even hosted a conference on Gorchakov and the importance of Russian “concentrating” in the wake of 1991. At the time, his words were either ignored or taken as an example of nothing more than the Russian proclivity for calling attention to anniversaries of one kind or another.
But for Lavrov and the new generation of Russian diplomats, Gorchakov’s words are a reminder that however difficult a situation Russia may find itself in, it has the resources, if it deploys them carefully, to advance new ideas and find new allies in order to divide its opponents and thus rise again in the world.
In many ways, references to Gorchakov are a reaffirmation of Russia’s greatness or at least potential for greatness, but for Lavrov, they are quite obviously something more than that: They are a guide to action, as all of his other remarks make clear. Three of the ones contained in this speech are especially striking.
First of all, in discussion the global financial crisis, he specifically said as Gorchakov might have a century ago “there is no bad without good,” that is, there is no problem that if examined cleverly cannot be exploited by changing one’s own approach or by getting others to change theirs by redefining the situation.
Second, again like Gorchakov, Lavrov said that Russia will systematically seek to involve in the diplomatic game new participants, some of whom were not its opponents in the past and which can be counted on to give Moscow greater support precisely because of Russia’s enthusiasm of including them.
Thus, the current Russian foreign minister said, he welcomed “the reformation of the financial ‘seven’ into the financial ‘12’ which took place at the summit in Washington in November 2008,’” an expansion in the number of participants that meant not only that a greater share of the world’s economy was represented but that Moscow had new partners to work with.
And third, in a line of argument Gorchakov almost certainly would have employed were he in office today, Lavrov not only attacked the current Euro-Atlantic security architecture – code words for NATO – as “inadequate” but welcomed a recent German call to US President Barak Obama to revisit the idea of a new security space “from Vancouver to Vladivostok.”
Such an idea, Lavrov conceded is “an old one, but for various reasons, it was not realized immediately after the end of the ‘cold war.’” But if this idea is an old one, the sources of Lavrov’s and indeed of Moscow’s current thinking are older still, a fact that he underscored by repeating Gorchakov’s words more than 150 years after they were first uttered.