[lg policy] Russia the Bully: Moscow should have no problem finding friends in its own backyard -- but instead it ’s just getting lonelier. Here’s why.

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at GMAIL.COM
Tue Sep 1 19:23:48 UTC 2009

Russia the Bully

Moscow should have no problem finding friends in its own backyard --
but instead it’s just getting lonelier. Here’s why.


As Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin might be tempted to remind
his Ukrainian counterpart Yulia Tymoshenko when they meet this week,
her country is a bit of a mess these days. Her ostensible boss, the
once-adored President Viktor Yushchenko -- yes, the same guy who
emerged from the Orange Revolution as a national hero a few years back
-- has become the political equivalent of radioactive waste. With the
national election just four months away, his popularity ratings are in
the low single digits. Corruption is rife, the economy sagging.

Now, just imagine that you're the man who once called the collapse of
the Soviet Union "the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th
century." To Putin and his friends at the pinnacle of the Russian
political elite this must seem like a golden opportunity -- the
perfect moment to administer the coup de grâce to a shaky rival.
Perhaps that's why Putin's ostensible boss, Russian President Dmitry
Medvedev, recently fired off a torrent of invective at the Ukrainian
government that stunned onlookers in Kiev and around the former Soviet
Union. The list of grievances in the Russian president's letter was
long: The Ukrainians are canoodling with the Europeans behind Russia's
back. They're restricting Russian language instruction in the public
schools and "distorting" the historical record in Ukrainian textbooks.
They're blocking access to the base of Russia's Black Sea Fleet on the
Ukrainian territory of Crimea. They've kicked out innocent Russian
diplomats on the scandalous pretext of spying. And, just for good
measure, he also accused them of supplying weapons to the Georgians in
last year's war.

On one level it seems to be working. Candidate Viktor Yanukovych, the
man usually described as the "pro-Russian" candidate in the 2004
presidential locations, is now way ahead of both Yushchenko and
Tymoshenko in the polls. (The most recent surveys put him with 22
percent of the vote, while Tymoshenko comes second with 11 percent.)
When the Moscow-based Orthodox Patriarch Kirill I came for a visit at
the end of July, he was mobbed by adoring believers around the country
-- and also made a point of allowing Yanukovych to bask in his
reflected glory. Meanwhile, Ukrainian approval of NATO remains weak. A
majority of Ukrainians consistently express greater distrust of the
United States than of Russia.

So why isn't this a Russian success story? Because, at the same time,
the idea of Ukrainian independence is going strong. The same polls
that show all those encouraging sentiments about Russia also underline
the point that Ukrainians -- even those who live in regions ethnically
and geographically close to Russia -- are less inclined than ever give
up their own state or their own policies. For example, one recent
survey showed that 70.2 percent of Ukrainians had a favorable view of
Russians -- but that only one in 10 of them wanted closer relations
with Moscow. A mere 13.7 percent supported the idea of formulating
joint foreign policy with the Russians, and only 9.3 percent liked the
idea of a common currency. As a result, say some analysts, if Moscow's
preferred candidate Yanukovych wins the presidential election in
January 2010, his actual policies may turn out to be considerably less
pro-Russian than the cliché would have it -- since, once in office,
he'll be the defender of Ukrainian sovereignty.

 More... "Yanukovych isn't quite the toady that his opponents make him
out to be," notes Alexander Motyl, a Ukraine expert at Rutgers
University. "I'd bet that he, like every Ukrainian president and PM
since 1991, would adopt a moderately pro-Ukrainian and
semi-pro-Russian position." If the object of the Kremlin's policies is
to drive Ukraine back into the arms of Mother Russia, so far it's not

Ever since the Soviet Union broke up at the end of 1991, Russia has
been trying hard to reassert its influence over the other ex-Soviet
republics -- countries the Russians often refer to in the aggregate as
"the near abroad." Over the years this effort has become an
increasingly frustrating one for Moscow, which is deeply concerned
about the rising power (both real and imagined) of regional rivals
like the United States, Western Europe, and China. Yet so far, despite
its myriad advantages, the Kremlin has surprisingly little to show for
its pains. Somehow the Russians still have trouble getting traction in
their own backyard.

It doesn't have to be this way. There's a persistent myth that the
republics of the former Soviet Union are inherently and fanatically
anti-Russian, always ready to choose the path that doesn't have Moscow
on it. Nothing could be farther from the truth. Polls consistently
show that people even in countries where tensions with Russia are high
- like Ukraine and Georgia - actually want more cooperation with
Russia, not less. Most surveys also show that non-Russian ex-Soviets
want to maintain linguistic, cultural and religious ties with Russia
wherever possible. Militaries across the region still share weaponry,
training, and doctrine with Russia. And, of course, there remains a
thick web of economic and trade ties between Russia and the
post-Soviet states -- especially when it comes to energy. A number of
countries (including Georgia) depend to a remarkable degree on
remittances transferred home from citizens working in Russia. (One
recent study by the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development,
for example, found that in some ex-Soviet states these flows exceed
bank deposits or foreign direct investment -- and most of that money
is coming from Russia.) Yet Moscow has somehow done a persistently
miserable job of transforming all of these potential advantages into
good relations with its neighbors -- as even Russian scholars have
sometimes seen fit to observe.

Moscow's tensions with the Baltic Republics, Georgia, and now,
increasingly, Ukraine have already become the stuff of headlines. But
it may be some of the stories that haven't been getting much publicity
that are the most instructive. Take, for example, Belarus, the country
of 10 million people sandwiched between Russia and Poland and run by
the redoubtable dictator Alyaksandr Lukashenka. Lukashenka has been
president since 1994, and for almost that entire time his country's
closeness to Russia has been unsurpassed by any other country in the
region; for years the two countries have seriously discussed the
possibility of outright legal and economic "union." Yet over the past
year Belarus has staged a remarkable reversal. Lukashenka
ostentatiously discarded a set of senior officials identified with his
years of human rights abuses and made dramatic overtures to the
European Union.

The reasons for the shift are straightforward. "After almost two
decades of formal independence Belarus is gradually becoming truly
independent," says Arkady Moshes of the Finnish Institute of
International Affairs. "It's drifting away from Russia." Energy is a
big part of the equation. Its supplies of oil and natural gas have
long been generously subsidized by Moscow, but Minsk hasn't failed to
notice that Russia has been working hard to strike deals with other
countries to build new transit pipelines that would bypass Belarus.
"Lukashenka sees that the days of cheap energy are over," notes
Moshes. And with that the prospect of closer economic and cultural
ties to Europe suddenly begins to look much more enticing. The fact
that Belarus is populated almost entirely by Russian-speakers, it
turns out, is not enough to outweigh the relative attractions of the

Of course, one more recent event has probably helped to concentrate
minds in the region as well -- Russia's small but victorious war with
Georgia one year ago. For the past year the Kremlin has been busily
lobbying members of the Commonwealth of Independent States, the club
of ex-Soviet republics with the closest ties to Russia, to recognize
the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, the two Russian-backed
mini-states inside Georgia. Yet so far takers have been notably absent
-- even among the authoritarian states of Central Asia, traditionally
among Moscow's most stalwart backers. (The one country in the world
aside from Russia that's been willing to extend recognition to the two
statelets? Nicaragua.)

The case of one of Russia's other closest allies within the ex-Soviet
club is equally instructive. Islam Karimov, the dictator of
Uzbekistan, gave Moscow a jolt recently by announcing that his country
wouldn't be taking part in exercises of the Collective Security Treaty
Organization, a security grouping that includes several Commonwealth
countries. Karimov has also pulled his country out of a recent
economic bloc, refused to participate in exercises of the Shanghai
Cooperation Organization, which brings together Russia, China, and the
Central Asian republics, and even allowed the U.S. military to use
Uzbek facilities to transport supplies into Afghanistan (this after
kicking the U.S. out of key bases in his country a few years back).
Russia also recently signed a deal with adjacent Kyrgyzstan that will
allow it to base forces in the strategically sensitive Ferghana Valley
-- but without consulting the perennially paranoid Uzbeks, a typically
ham-handed gesture Karimov is not likely to forgive any time soon.

Russia's ability to get in its own way remains a cause for much
head-scratching in the region. "When they tried to stop NATO
enlargement, whom did they discuss it with? The United States and
Germany," notes Kadri Liik, Director of the International Center for
Defense Studies in Tallinn, Estonia. "But in fact the biggest driving
force of NATO enlargement [was] the countries themselves. Russia tried
to discuss these countries over their heads, and it backfired."

Something comparable is now happening again with energy. Moscow's
apparent willingness to use energy supplies in its political disputes
with some of its neighbors is now driving the European Union to seek
greater diversification of supply and alternate pipeline routes.
"Russia uses coercion more than attraction," says Moshes, the
Helsinki-based analyst.

So is this just a symptom of poor policymaking -- or an expression of
a deeper problem? Some worry that this tendency is deeply rooted in
the present authoritarian government in Moscow -- one whose intense
nationalism demands the constant search for enemies, external and
internal, to legitimize its own actions. "That kind of regime cannot
by definition enjoy ‘normal' relations with its neighbors," notes
Motyl, the Rutgers professor. Whatever the reason, one can only hope
that Russia is able to find a way back to healthy relations with its
former satellites -- for its own sake, one might add, as much as


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