Wednesday, May 02, 2007

Small-Scale Diplomacy - Russia's Challenge

The anti-Estonian protests seem to be approaching the out-of-control phase. The heated mood in both of Russia's Houses of Parliament are simply not helping to calm tensions down. Russia's haste and badly planned and coordinated diplomatic actions along with the usual tendency to balloon small issues into giant ones have once again ensured a rather embarrassing dispute loss to a much-despised Estonia, a country with 1/100 of Russia's population.

Over the past few days, Russian youth movements, in particularly the "Nashi" folks have held angry protests outside the Estonian embassy in Moscow, which led to the evacuation of the families of Estonian diplomats who feared for their security on Monday and Tuesday. Whether the threats to the lives of Estonian diplomats were real or not is unclear, but the protesters outside the Estonian embassy were seemingly willing to spread their anger on anything and anyone that came out. The New York Times reported that a "group of protesters mobbed the Swedish ambassador's car and ripped off the flag as he tried to drive off after visiting his Estonian counterpart". This has now led Sweden to issue a harsh note of diplomatic protest, further dwindling Russia's chances for compassion in Europe. Even the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs has admitted that violations of the Vienna convention (guaranteeing protection for diplomats and their families) have taken place, indirectly admitting that Russia cannot guarantee full-fledged security of Estonian diplomats, Kommersant reports.

More striking are the the calls for tough economic sanctions against Estonia, ranging from a complete cut-off in diplomatic relations, to an oil-embargo. In a classic move, the RzHD (Monopoly owner of Russian railroad systems) has begun maintenance work on the railroad line responsible for oil supplies to Estonia, some of which get later re-exported to the EU, the New York Times reports. Russia does not seem to be aware that such actions will be easily exploited by Estonia and the Western publications to underscore the continuing argument of a resurgent Russia flexing its muscles to bully its smaller neighbors; this was the situation with Ukraine, Georgia, even Belarus. These very arguments will further enrage some Russian MPs who will find it hard to link Russia's obviously aggressive actions to it being judged harshly on the European arena.

Estonia's actions with regard to the Bronze soldier have significant ethical problems, however they are legal and are seen to be legal by Europe. Russia, and particularly those people involved in organizing the protests, should have admitted to themselves from the start that there is little that can be done to make Estonia move back the monument to its original place. It is useless to threaten an EU member with economic sanctions, without gaining some sort of and understanding or at least a clearly affirmed neutral position from other EU members; especially in advance of an EU-Russia summit to be held in two weeks.

Russia's best actions would have been to simply condemn Estonian authorities for their "blasphemous" (as many Russian politicians have used the term) actions on all levels, from Party heads, to President Putin, and to start aggressively stirring up the EU members to give warnings and judgments of Estonia's actions, possibly with the help of organizations linked to the memory of World War II and the Holocaust. Aggressive manifestations against diplomats, rioting in Estonia, the arrival of a delegation of Russian MPs to Estonia with the desire to call for the resignation of the Estonian government is ineffective and immature. Having learned how to negotiate and push its opinion in talks with the world's dominant powers, Russia has failed to incorporate the lessons from the past few years in dealing with the world's smaller players, especially those that border Russia.

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