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Former republics buck Russia's influence

Despite Russia's aggression toward Georgia, other former satellites go their own way.

Russia's President Dmitry Medvedev, right, and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin hold a working meeting in the official vacation residence of Bocharov Ruchei in the Black Sea resort of Sochi, Aug. 14, 2009. The two leaders can seem at odds on foreign policy. (Dmitry Astakhov/Kremlin/Ria Novosti/Reuters)

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.