Former republics buck Russia's influence

KIEV, Ukraine — When Russian forces wiped the floor with the Georgian army in the two countries’ war last year, then crossed into Georgia proper to occupy positions from which they have yet to retreat, numerous experts heralded a new era in Moscow’s relations with the former Soviet republics. 

Russia as a regional power, as the conventional wisdom went, was back — and in a big way. Moscow had sent an unequivocal message to its former satellites: It would broach no threat to its vital interests in what it considered its sphere of influence. Should officials in Bishkek or Baku try something particularly objectionable, the Kremlin — as the Georgia events so clearly demonstrated — would take extreme measures to force the wayward governments back in line. 

Untold inches of newsprint and buckets of ink have since been devoted to Russia’s seemingly neo-Soviet foreign policy under Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and President Dmitry Medvedev. And all this may be true: Medvedev has spoken of a region of “privileged interests” that encompasses the former Soviet states. 

But a strange thing has happened since the Georgian war — someone forgot to tell the ex-republics that The Bear Is Back. While attention has been focused on the Kremlin’s new aggressiveness, Bishkek, Tashkent, et. al., have all quietly gone their own way.  Kyrgyz President Kurmanbek Bakiev reversed what seemed to be a deal reached with Moscow to close down a U.S.-run military base, opting instead to extend the base’s lease. Turkmenistan is at odds with Russia over the price at which Ashgabat sells its gas to Gazprom, the Russian energy monopoly. Uzbekistan has objected vehemently to a planned Russian base near its border in Kyrgyzstan’s south, calling it a threat to its security. And Belarus — once considered almost a dangling appendage to the Russian body politic, reliably more anti-Western than the Kremlin itself — has in recent months eagerly sought improved relations with the United States and European Union at Moscow’s expense. 

According to Oksana Antonenko, program director for Russia and Eurasia at the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) in London, for the ex-Soviet states, especially in Central Asia, Russia’s foray into Georgia “was a sign that they should run away as far as possible.” 

“All have concerns to limit Russian influence. They saw a line that had never been crossed before and it made them very worried,” Antonenko said, adding however that the former satellites can “only run so far,” given their economic ties and geographical proximity with Russia. 

The situation is made more pronounced by the lack of a unified Russian foreign policy. Though Putin and Medvedev appear united on the main issue of projecting Russian power abroad, they seem nevertheless at odds as to how to achieve this, and at times slip into direct competition with one another. 

This divide became evident in Russia’s recent contradictory moves toward its Slavic neighbor Ukraine, which since its 2004 Orange Revolution has pursued an overtly pro-Western and pro-NATO foreign policy. 

On Aug. 11, in a highly unusual act for a leader of international stature, Medvedev posted an open letter to the Ukrainian leadership that he then followed up with a video address on the Kremlin internet homepage. 

Dressed nattily (or threateningly, depending on your point of view) all in black, Medvedev lashed out at the Ukrainian government, a gibe interpreted as directed primarily at President Viktor Yushchenko. Medvedev called out Ukraine's “anti-Russian” policies, including “incessant harassment” of the Kremlin’s Black Sea fleet based on the Crimean peninsula in Ukraine’s south, and plans to renovate the country’s domestic gas network without Moscow’s participation. 

Medvedev said that Russia would hold off on sending a new ambassador to Ukraine, and added his own pitch for Ukraine’s upcoming presidential elections. He said that he hoped the “new leadership of Ukraine” would be ready to work with Russia on “a fundamentally different level — that of strategic partnership.” Just weeks later, however, Putin and Yulia Tymoshenko, his Ukrainian counterpart, met on the sidelines of ceremonies in Poland marking the anniversary of the beginning of World War II. The two prime ministers agreed to reduce Ukrainian gas imports from Russia, which is a major point of conflict between the two countries. 

The agreement reduced the threat (thought it did not remove the possibility completely) of another gas war this winter between the two countries, as well as demonstrating Putin and Tymoshenko’s strong working relationship. 

Further complicating the picture though is the emergence of another foreign policy player in the person of Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill, who paid a 10-day visit in July to Ukraine, which boasts it own large Orthodox community. Kirill denied the trip was political in nature, and it may or may not have entered into an overarching plan to strengthen Russia’s power in Ukraine via religious channels, as local media speculated. But the Patriarch nevertheless spoke openly of the unity of the two nations — and was met with protesters at some locations. 

Ultimately, Russia’s fractured policy in its “near abroad,” and the ex-republics’ opportunity to pursue more independent strategies, may be a temporary phenomenon. There is great speculation, for example, that Putin will run again for president in 2012, allowing him to exert his previous dominance over all levers of government. “The window of opportunity may not last for very long,” said Antonenko of the International Institute for Strategic Studies.