Friday, January 21, 2011

Window on Eurasia: Moscow Has Fewer Levers in Post-Soviet Space than Many Assume, Analyst Says

Paul Goble

Staunton, January 21 – While Russia’s influence as a country on Belarus, Ukraine and Moldova is very large, Moscow as a government has far fewer levers to influence the situation in these countries than many assume, an imbalance that helps to explain the often internally inconsisten pattern of relations between the former imperial center and these new states.
In an analysis of the relations between Moscow and what he calls “Easternmost Europe,” Valery Bondarenko argues that “Russia and the Kremlin are hardly one and the same thing.” Instead, he suggests, Russia write large has great influence, but Moscow lacks many of the levers on the regimes there that others have (
Easternmost Europe, Bondarenko argues, is characterized by a number of special features. Its main distinguishing factor is the “very high degree of dependence” on the national leaders. A second is that “the stabilization of the eastern border of the European Union has somewhat limited [their] possibilities for geopolitical maneuver.”
A third characteristic is the “very high level of the influence of Russia” on this region, influence that has grown as a result of the stabilization of the European Union’s eastern border but that only in the past “year or two” has been more or less actively controlled by the powers that be in Moscow.
A fourth characteristic – the one that is seldom noted – is that while “the level of influence of Russia is very high” in this region, “the possibilities (e.g., financial) and non-economic means and abilities for promoting this influence are quite limited -- or more precisely not developed.”
“Today,” Bondarenko points out, “Russia in its near abroad is represented only by embassied (consulates) and, for example, in practice does not support any non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and does not have any structures, foundations, or programs like the European TACIS, TEMPUS, FARE, Euro-Regions and the like.”
Indeed, he continues, “in this regard, the US is also represented, defends and advances its interests with more developed means, techniques and methods” than does Moscow. As a result, “the geopolitics of the European Union and the US is more active and directed at the establishment of optimal institutional structures for promoting its influence.”
“By means of these structures direct or indirect support of specific individuals (the non-governmental press, independent journalists, NGOs and leaders of the opposition is provided,” an arrangement that promotes the influence of those who provide such help and something that “forms public opinion” in these countries.
As of now, “Russia does not have such structures,” Bondarenko notes, adding that “why this is so is another question.”And as a result, “today in the arsenal of the Kremlin is only ‘individual work’ with leaders – and Gazprom. And of course, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs” and occasionally other bureaucracies with cross-border interests.
This lack of levers was complicated until recently by the lack of an integral policy for Easternmost Europe in Moscow. Now with the Customs Union that is beginning to change, but without such a policy or doctrine, Moscow is “only reacting to certain events rather than attempting to control them.”
And for that reason as well, Bondarenko continues, “one can say that in the near abroad, there is a high level of influence of Russia but not of the Kremlin,” a pattern that is just the reverse of the situation in “the far abroad” where “the opinon of ht eKremlin is comparably large and that of Russia as a whole not so.”
In fact, he continues, “the Kremlin can really influence the geopolitical situation by means of Gazprom (the price for gas) and foreign trade policy as a whole.” That is something serious, but it is also “’a stick with two ends’” – and consequently, one “should not exaggerate the level of seriousness” it represents.
Related to this lack of a policy is the very different importance Moscow gives to its nearest neighbors compared to relations with the United States and Europe. The latter are far more important in the minds of Moscow officials, but because of this “the most complicated and conflict-ridden relations” Russia has today are “precisely with its nearest neighbors.”
Lacking a policy and lacking the network of institutions that both the EU and the US have, the Kremlin “in its geopolitical influence to a great degree is oriented” in the CIS as a whole “on the political support of particular individuals and not on the support of structures or principles.”
Such an approach, Bondarenko argues, is “passive, without prospects and unreliable,” if for no other reasons that leaders do pass from the scene. But “supporting a personality is much easier” that pursuing a broader policy. In Easternmost Europe, he says, Moscow thus finds itself compelled to deal almost exclusively with the country presidents.
And as a result, “Russia can help and does help [them] but in fact it cannot or almost cannot replace them even if that desire arises.” Instead, Moscow can “only offer support, but this is not one and the same thing.” In many respects, therefore, Russia’s ability to affect things or work with the opposition is “extremely limited,” however much some may assume otherwise.

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