Baku, February 8 – Moscow’s influence in the former Soviet republics is declining rapidly, with ever more of their leaders turning away from Russia to the West because the Kremlin has failed to define what its goals in that region are and then to adopt and pursue a strategy capable of achieving them.
And that failure in “the near abroad” is especially striking, according to Belarusian analyst Yury Baranchik, given Russia’s success in “the far abroad” and the frequent assertions of Russian leaders about “the special role of the CIS countries” in Moscow’s foreign policy (http://www.warandpeace.ru/ru/exclusive/view/19668/).
In its relations with Europe and other regions further afield, he argues, Moscow acts on the basis of a careful appraisal of its “economic and political capacities” and then employs all of them in a concerted effort to advance Russian interests. But when it deals with the former Soviet republics, none of that is present.
As a result, over the last 17 years, he says, Russia has yielded one position after another in these countries, often behaving in ways that antagonize even those who want to be its friends and force them to conclude that they have no choice but to turn to the West which, he argues, is pursuing a more sophisticated and effective approach.
If Russia is to achieve more – and Baranchik clearly hopes that it will before it is too late – then it needs to develop a new action plan that does not assume that economic pressure alone will force cooperation or that the only people in these countries with whom Russia should deal are those who happen to be in office at any particular time.
Moscow’s assumption that economic pressure will secure cooperation “without a clear political strategy will not yield a positive result.” Instead, it will infuriate all those against whom it is directed and cause an increasing number of them to think about turning away from Russia and toward the West.
That is all the more likely, Baranchik says, because Russian officials have been unwilling or unable to develop and maintain relations not just with the presidents and other senior officials in these countries but also with opposition figures of all stripes who may come to power and thus should be cultivated.
As evidence of this failing, the Belarusian analyst cites with horror the remark of one Kremlin official to a Ukrainian who asked why Moscow had avoided “any contacts with the opposition. The Russian responded, ‘when you become the power, then we will have contacts with you.’”
“,This is the policy of the Kremlin: In Ukraine, we support President Kuchma. If Yushchenko becomes president, then we will support President Yushchenko.’” But as Baranchik notes, such a personalist and legitimist approach gives no help to Russia’s friends and imposes no restraints on those who oppose it.
That would be unfortunate enough, he continues, were no other power active in this region. But the United States is constantly broadening its sphere of influence by establishing such contacts, and consequently Moscow cannot afford to view the development of close ties to all groups in these countries as “too great a luxury.”
Some in Moscow, Baranchik continues, are beginning to understand that the Russian government needs to do more in “the near abroad” than just flex its economic muscle. But even now, he says, most in the Russian capital prefer to close their eyes to the problem and act as if it doesn’t exist.
One indication of that shift of opinion among some Russian officials was a statement this week by Vladimir Zakharov, who teaches at the Moscow State Institute for International Relations, at a conference on “The Countries of the Caucasus and the Middle East” (http://www.day.az/news/armenia/107135.html).
He said that Moscow lacks a carefully defined policy in the Southern Caucasus, that Azerbaijan and Georgia had already “separated themselves” from Russia, and that “with the loss of Armenia, Russia will never be able to return” to that region as a dominant player or even “have a place” in “the new regional geopolitical configuration.”
What makes Baranchik’s article worth noting then is the place from which he starts: He passionately wants Russia to succeed, not necessarily to absorb his own country of Belarus but clearly to be sufficiently powerful and effective to block what he sees as the unconstrained advance of American power and influence there.
And while his own rhetoric overstates both Russia’s failings and the West’s successes, Baranchik’s article provides a useful corrective to the widespread conviction that the Putin regime is going from strength to strength in its own neighborhood and will soon be in a position to exercise uncontested power throughout much of it.