Russia’s Neighbors

As optimists salute democracy's march in the Middle East, so too do they point towards the former republics of the Soviet Union, where a spate of "democratic" revolutions has toppled three Russian-backed governments. Georgia, Ukraine, and now Kyrgyzstan have all undergone sweeping regime changes. But Russian analysts, like Vladimir Radyuhin, are cautious in their appraisals of such populist movements. Radyuhin alleges that the Bush administration supported each of the uprisings in order to extend US influence in the region. Yet instead of building stable democracies, the rebellions have sharpened ethnic and secessionist tensions, further destabilizing the region. According to Radyuhin, the former Soviet Republics have more to lose outside the Russian sphere of influence than they do within. – YaleGlobal

Russia's Neighbors

Vladimir Radyuhin
Thursday, April 7, 2005

THE CONTINUING march of "velvet revolutions" in the former Soviet Union has confronted Moscow with the need to review its policies towards the newly independent states. Until now Russia has strenuously worked to consolidate the amorphous Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) formed after the disintegration of the Soviet Union 14 years ago. It has carefully avoided engaging Opposition forces in the newly independent states, which could destabilise nascent regimes as they struggle to take root and shape national and ethnic identities.

"Russia has never engaged in backroom activities in the former Soviet space, we don't even work with the Opposition behind the back of the incumbent leadership of this or that country," Russia's President, Vladimir Putin, said as recently as two months ago.

This policy was morally unassailable and pragmatically impeccable. It helped the new regimes consolidate their hold on power and created an atmosphere of trust that was critical to adjusting to new post-Soviet realities and promoting cooperative inter-state relationships.

However, the situation changed when the United States stepped on Russian turf. Washington's fundamentalist obsession with indiscriminately foisting Western democratic values on former Soviet countries has thrown the region into turmoil. The US-sponsored "rose revolution" in Georgia in 2003 installed a populist regime that messed up the country's uneasy relations with Russia, aggravated the economic crisis and whipped up tension in relations with Georgia's breakaway territories.

The pro-Western "orange revolution" in Ukraine destabilised the second most powerful ex-Soviet state by inciting separatist feelings in Russian-speaking provinces of Ukraine and jeopardising economic ties with Russia, which is Ukraine's critical economic partner and main supplier of energy.

The U.S-orchestrated coup in Kyrgyzstan on March 24 posed a direct threat to Russia's "soft underbelly" – volatile Central Asia. The overthrow of President Askar Akayev, the region's most enlightened and liberal leader who ruled Kyrgyzstan for the past 15 years, has upset a precarious balance of ethnic and clan-based forces in Kyrgyzstan. The revolt has set on edge the big Uzbek minority in the south, which fears that the new nationalist Kyrgyz leadership may re-ignite ethnic tension in the hugely overpopulated and impoverished Fergana Valley where hundreds died in anti-Uzbek pogroms in 1990.

The US meddling has raised a nightmarish scenario of Kyrgyzstan splitting into two states divided by the high Tian Shan mountains if its northern and southern clans fail to agree on power-sharing. This would turn southern Kyrgyzstan with its big Uzbek, Tajik and Uighur minorities into a focal point of regional rivalries involving China, which shares a 1,100-km border with Kyrgyzstan, as well as Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. The region is yet to learn to live with the arbitrary borders drawn when the Soviet republics were set up in the 1920s in what was Tsarist Russia's Turkestan province. Joseph Stalin, for example, assigned the Uzbek cities of Osh and Jalalabad to Kyrgyzstan, and handed over the Tajik cities of Bukhara and Samarkand to Uzbekistan. It was in Osh and Jalalabad that last month's revolt began.

Any turmoil in Kyrgyzstan will benefit Islamism. In recent years southern Kyrgyzstan, where most people survive on $4 a month, has emerged as a hotbed of Islamic militancy and a "Silk Road" for drug trafficking from Afghanistan to Russia and Europe. It was in southern Kyrgyzstan that Osama bin Laden's close associate, Juma Namangani, an ethnic Uzbeki, mounted armed attacks twice – in 1999 and 2000 – in an effort to set up base for building a Central Asian Khalifat.

Ironically, destabilisation in Kyrgyzstan, where both Russia and the US have air force bases, may hit American interests as well. Washington has duly denied any involvement in the Kyrgyz upheaval but facts on the ground make the denial sound hollow. As tension in Kyrgyzstan reached a boiling point in the wake of the disputed parliamentary elections last month, the US Embassy in Bishkek supplied two electricity generators to a US-operated printing press after the Kyrgyz authorities cut power supply to prevent Opposition papers from carrying inciting material.

However, even the risk of setting the region on fire has not stopped American freedom warriors. They hope the Kyrgyz upheaval will provoke a domino effect across Central Asia. "This is a process that's just beginning," the US Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice, said commenting on the coup in Kyrgyzstan. "We know where we want to go."

Kazakhstan is the next obvious target for a US-sponsored "velvet revolution." It is a close ally of Russia in the region, just as Kyrgyzstan. Its President, Nursultan Nazarbayev, in power since 1989, has built the second most liberal regime in Central Asia after Kyrgyzstan. Kazakhstan has a strong enough Opposition to challenge Mr. Nazarbayev in presidential elections due in 2006. While Kyrgyzstan is valuable to Washington because of its strategic location next to China, Kazakhstan has common borders with both China and Russia and is rich in energy resources.

Outside Central Asia, the likely candidates for revolutions are Azerbaijan, which will hold a parliamentary poll in November, Belarus, where President Alexander Lukashenko will try to prolong his 10-year rule next year, and Armenia, which faces parliamentary and presidential elections in 2007.

Faced with the new challenge to its security, Russia acted according to an old maxim: if you cannot stop a process, you should try to lead it. Learning from Ukraine, where it threw in its lot with the ruling regime and lost, in Kyrgyzstan Moscow for the first time gave audience to Opposition leaders well ahead of the riots that brought down the Akayev regime, while maintaining close ties with Mr. Akayev and giving him shelter in Russia after his overthrow. Mr. Putin swiftly accepted the change of guard in Kyrgyzstan, took the initiative in mediating to ensure smooth transition of power, and offered economic aid to Kyrgyzstan. The new Kyrgyz leaders in turn vowed to maintain close strategic ties with Russia.

A similar tactic is likely to be used by the Kremlin in other former Soviet states. Last week Moscow hosted a group of Kazakhstan's Opposition leaders led by the former Parliament Speaker, Zharmakhan Tuyakbai, who has been chosen as the Opposition's single candidate for President in next year's poll.

To counter US influence Russia will have to do much more than engage Opposition leaders – it will have to drastically upgrade its informal presence in the former Soviet states. Russia's Ambassador to Bishkek bitterly complained last week that Moscow's ideological and political resources in Kyrgyzstan were limited to 12 diplomats, whereas the US was represented by scores of non-government organisations and foundations, such as the Freedom House, the National Democratic Institute, the Soros Foundation, and many more.

In a sign of a sweeping review of its priorities in the former Soviet Union, Mr. Putin for the first time, last month, publicly admitted that the CIS failed to provide a mechanism for integration among former Soviet states. "The CIS was created for civilised divorce," he said.

While insisting that CIS was still a useful forum for addressing some political and humanitarian issues Mr. Putin made it clear that Russia would concentrate on building new core structures within the CIS. "For credible integration other alliances are being set up, such as the Single Economic Space and the Eurasian Economic Union."

Russia will henceforth be less inclined to give economic privileges to ex-Soviet states just to keep them in the CIS, and will formulate its policy depending on whether they are willing to build closer economic and political ties with Russia.

"All CIS countries economically depend on Russia, but it draws little political dividends from this," the head of the Upper House Foreign Relations Committee, Mikhail Margelov, said last week commenting on Russia's policy of supplying oil and gas to CIS members at prices far lower than the European level. He explained that Russia viewed the former Soviet states as a "security belt."

Last week, Moscow displayed its changed policy by raising the price of natural gas supplied to Moldova, whose President, Vladimir Voronin, recently took a demonstratively anti-Russian and pro-Western stand. The Russian Parliament also called for slapping import tariffs on Moldovan wine and fruit, which would make them uncompetitive in Russia, the main market for Moldovan exports.

Russia's natural gas monopoly, Gazprom, also served notice to Ukraine that it will have to buy Russian gas at much higher European prices if it continued to insist on raising transit tariffs for Russian gas exports to Europe. Ukraine's new pro-Western leadership earlier said it would not pursue any integration projects with Russia that would stand in the way of Kiev's plans to join the European Union and NATO.

Russia's new pragmatic policy towards its neighbours overturns the popular Western claim that Russia is against democratic changes in the post-Soviet states. All Russia wants is to ensure a friendly security environment on its borders. This creates a scope for cooperation between Russia and the West in promoting stability and security in the former Soviet Union, but it may also lead to more bitter confrontation if the West continues to promote anti-Russian forces in its immediate neighbourhood.

Copyright © 2005 The Hindu