The Near Abroad: Increasingly Far Away from Russia

8 february 2005

Yekaterina Kuznetsova is Director of the European Projects at the Center for Post-Industrial Society Studies. 

Resume: If the Russian authorities do not amend their policies, Moscow’s efforts to keep the former ‘sister republics’ under its influence may force those countries to turn to those who will offer them a more intelligible scenario for future development.


The emergence of 15 independent states on the territory of the former Soviet Union divided the previously single country along borders that were drawn by “nation builders” in the first few decades of the Soviet empire. The breakup process, which was accompanied by chaotic democratization, went forward as the realization of each people’s right to self-determination. Meanwhile, most of the newly formed states were not ethnically homogeneous. On the other hand, peoples who enjoyed certain autonomy in the Soviet years, but did not enjoy the status of a republic, also tried to exercise the right to self-determination.

The breakup of the Soviet Union (and, to some extent, another member of the former Eastern bloc, Yugoslavia) revealed differing points of views concerning the organization of the post-Soviet space between the Russian and Western politicians. The former grieved for their bygone country, and this nostalgia increased as separatist sentiments grew in Russia and its influence on the international arena decreased. The latter tended to support the centrifugal tendencies, interpreting them as manifestations of the democratization of post-socialist societies, which brought the West victory in the Cold War. But neither the Russian nor Western policymakers, unable to overcome their mental inertia, made any effort to turn the terra nullius (no man’s land) that had emerged between Russia and the West into a proving ground for testing new forms of allied relations. Russian leaders competed amongst themselves to devise new concepts of Russia’s “key role” in the post-Soviet space, while Western governments sought to outdo each other by recognizing the formal independence of the newly independent states, be it Estonia or Uzbekistan, Slovenia or Croatia.

The similarity of interests between Russian statists and the representatives of those movements that sought independence from the newly independent states caused Russia – partly deliberately and partly by coincidence – to give preference to a special rapprochement with “fragments” of the Soviet empire (former autonomies that had declared their disagreement with the principles concerning the division of the collapsed Soviet Union) rather than to the normalization of relations with its new neighbors. Some forces in Russia sought to preserve their levers of influence on the former Soviet republics by tacitly encouraging separatist policies within the autonomous regions. Later developments showed, however, that it was not the best strategy.

It must be mentioned, however, that Moscow played an important positive role during the early post-Soviet years. For all the contradictions in the Kremlin’s policy at the time, Russia made a decisive contribution to the cessation of local wars in Georgia, Azerbaijan, Moldova and Tajikistan, while Russian peacekeeping forces maintained stability in the conflict areas at the cost of their own lives. Nevertheless, Moscow failed to build on this success and suggest effective ways to solve regional problems. Moreover, Russia’s objective achievements, far from being duly appreciated, later began to evoke an increasingly suspicious attitude. For example, the authorities of the countries where Russian peacekeeping forces are now deployed no longer regard their presence as a stabilizing factor.

In a bid to distract their citizens’ attention from their political and ethnic problems, the authorities of the newly independent states persistently portrayed Russia as a hostile and aggressive country seeking to restore its past empire. Meanwhile, the rebellious territories, on the contrary, regarded Russia as a potential defender against the expansion of the new centers. Thus, two parallel processes were occurring simultaneously: leaders of the sovereign states denounced Moscow’s “expansionist” plans, while the rebellious “fragments” of the former empire consolidated their ties with Russia.

Such a situation could not remain stable. The contradictions were there to stay dormant until Russia defined its preferences, or until the post-Soviet states overcame their economic and political ailments. Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan gradually restored their export-oriented economies and consolidated their positions; the Baltic States assumed a policy of integrating into the European Union; Uzbekistan and Georgia became the focus of Washington’s attention; Moldova attracted the close attention of the European Union; and Ukraine became a bone of contention between several powers which sought to extend their influence there. Yet, despite all these changes, Russia did not hurry to revise its policy and objectives in the post-Soviet space.


The lack of clear goals caused several obvious setbacks for the Russian leadership.
First, Russia’s leaders failed to reach binding agreements with the West on the inadmissibility of the post-Soviet countries’ integration into Atlantic organizations. This failure has resulted in the recent entry of the Baltic States into NATO and the EU, and in Ukraine’s (and, to some extent, Georgia’s) increasingly obvious desire to follow suit.

Second, there were no comprehensive agreements on military and political cooperation between the Russian Federation and the former Soviet republics. This permitted the U.S. to consolidate its positions in the post-Soviet states in Central Asia, as well as to consider prospects for increasing its influence in Transcaucasia.
Third, Russia failed almost everywhere to convert its levers of economic pressure on the post-Soviet countries into concrete agreements. Such a move could have protected Russia’s economic and political interests in various regions, or at least have given Russian businesses control over some local companies.
The Kremlin’s support for pro-Russian separatist movements in the newly independent states worsened the general climate in the post-Soviet space, undermined Russia’s positions and, to some extent, “delegitimized” its policy.

It must be admitted, however, that the Russian Federation, like no other country, was, and still is, subject to the double-standard policies of the Western powers. Thus, it is difficult to blame Russia’s leadership when they attempt to apply similar principles. On the other hand, such an approach may have much graver consequences for Russia than it would for the United States or the European Union.

With regard to those post-Soviet states which are torn by separatist conflicts, Russia has in the last decade been conducting a policy of ‘managed instability.’ In Moldova and Georgia, for example, Russia is supporting Transdniestria, South Ossetia and Abkhazia in their fight for independence; Moscow has established relations with their governments, and is granting Russian citizenship to people living in those territories. All of these factors have destabilized the situation in Moldova and Georgia. This artificially created instability was “managed” by Russia’s military and peacekeeping forces.

Russia changes its position whenever these countries attempt to restore their state sovereignty, while assuring its colleagues from the Near Abroad that it respects the territorial integrity of their states. Attempts by Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili, for example, to build a ‘power vertical’ similar to the one being built by President Vladimir Putin in Russia have not laid a foundation for a mutual understanding between Russia and Georgia but, on the contrary, have produced a rather hostile reaction from the Kremlin. And even after Tbilisi extended its authority to the previously autonomous republic of Adzharia, thus demonstrating its determination while forcing Russia to painfully abandon its ally, Moscow’s policy in Abkhazia and South Ossetia has not undergone any changes, nor has it become more intelligible.
So, what is Russia’s position toward the ravaged post-Soviet states? What goals has it set to itself? How does its leadership view the future of ‘managed instability’?


Maintaining ‘managed instability’ is a permissible strategy in a situation when making a political choice seems untimely or excessively difficult. But since any instability runs counter to long-term state interests, such a policy can only be temporary.

In my view, Russian politicians have failed to take into consideration this fact. Relying on their lengthy and rather successful experience with the ‘managed instability’ strategy, they have forgotten that instability is much easier to initiate than overcome. Today, Russia is having much difficulty trying to keep control over the formerly ‘managed instability.’

In Georgia, for example, changes in the political situation there have caused things to develop according to a scenario that Moscow obviously had not taken into consideration. After leaders of a new type came to power in Tbilisi, the Kremlin encountered attempts by Georgian politicians to involve outside actors, above all the U.S., in their efforts to settle long-standing conflicts in Abkhazia and South Ossetia. The possibility of American involvement in the affairs of the post-Soviet countries sparked alarm in Russia’s official circles. Nevertheless, this wake-up call did not prompt the Kremlin to assume any new approaches that could be aimed at solving these problems; actually, its actions only preserved the problem.

Even more alarming is the fact that in some cases Russia does not demonstrate a lack of interest in promoting stabilization, but rather an inability to independently ensure it. Moscow’s failure to settle the Transdniestrian conflict (its plan was rejected at the last moment by Moldova) clearly showed the limits of Russia’s political capabilities. It cannot be denied that the failure of the Russian initiative was not due to the presence of some controversial points in the documents (even many Western diplomats pointed to the advantages of the ‘Kozak plan’), but because the draft agreement had not been coordinated with European structures, namely the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe and the European Union. Moldova was the first and, apparently, not the last country where the ‘dog in the manger’ policy failed.

This failure highlighted a basically new trend for Russia: it had lost its monopoly on peacemaking activities in the post-Soviet space. Chisinau, which wants to abandon Russia’s patronage, does not question individual points in Moscow’s settlement plan, but rather the attempt to establish a Moldovan federation where Transdniestria would retain extensive powers. The Moldovan government does not want to restore the state’s integrity at “any cost,” i.e. the cost set by Moscow. Instead, it is looking for Western, primarily European, states to be involved in the settlement process. The West, however, is not in any hurry to heed the calls of Moldova’s leaders to exert direct pressure on Russia. However, who can guarantee that the situation will not change at a later date?

 If the present policy toward the former Soviet republics persists, Russia’s foreign policy in the post-Soviet space may be made subordinate to the interests of two other global actors – the European Union and the U.S., which are now building up their political and military presence in this region. Moscow realizes this possibility, and the recent intensification of its policy in the former Soviet Union reveals its desire to give a ‘symmetrical’ answer to the European and U.S. challenge.

Since the breakup of the Soviet Union, Russia has sought to prevent the significant growth of the influence of third states (or their alliances) on the post-Soviet space. This explains Moscow’s reservedly negative attitude to various geopolitical events, such as NATO expansion or the emergence of American military bases in Central Asia, and even to the intermediary efforts of international organizations (the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, and the European Union) in conflict areas of the former Soviet Union. But for more than a decade Moscow has been unable to advance any diplomatic moves that could counter these ongoing processes. During the last three years alone, at the height of the global war against terrorism, Russia has voluntarily yielded to the United States – its main ally in the antiterrorism coalition – leading positions in Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan where the Americans have deployed their military bases.

 These bases inspired hope in the Central Asian states not only for greater independence in their foreign policy but also for reduced economic dependence on Russia; the political dividends that cooperation with the U.S. brings are obvious. Furthermore, the regimes established in the post-Soviet states of Central Asia can hardly be described as democratic. U.S. support has untied the hands of the authoritarian-oriented political leaders of those countries, permitting them to justify the repression of political opponents and a discontented public by the need to combat terrorism.

Lately, however, Bishkek and, most notably, Tashkent have been showing signs of disillusionment: when Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan joined the antiterrorism coalition, their governments obviously hoped for more than what they received. The cooperation with the U.S. has proven incapable of solving all the regional problems, since that cooperation has not involved much economic aid. Expectations that the establishment of foreign military bases in the newly independent states in Central Asia would come with American investments have not materialized. In 2002-2003, the United States provided U.S. $420 million in aid to Uzbekistan – in military supplies and free services in the military education sphere. The lease of the Gancy air base in Kyrgyzstan by the U.S. annually brings $45-50 million to that country’s national budget. This money is not insignificant but it may dry up if the U.S. ceases to view the war against terrorism as its priority. Furthermore, it cannot serve as a basis for long-term economic cooperation between the United States and the Central Asian countries (which is indirectly proven by the fact that foreign direct investments in Uzbekistan’s economy in 2003 stood at a mere U.S. $70 million).

Meanwhile, even in the early 1990s when Russia was passing a painful period of economic reforms, it continued to provide financial support to the former Soviet republics. The provision of technical credits and the rescheduling of old debts was a common practice at that time. Perhaps the new sovereign states took this for granted, but in reality this was simply a goodwill gesture on the part of Russia. Incidentally, Russia has never received those debts: after long and difficult negotiations, they were formalized as state debts – only to be recognized as repaid under various pretexts. For example, in the case of Kazakhstan the debt write-offs were considered to be compensation for ecological damage from spacecraft launches at the Baikonur launch site; in the case of Ukraine it was payment for the basing of Russia’s Black Sea fleet in Sevastopol. One more country, Uzbekistan, has never acknowledged that it owes Russia any money at all.

Russia’s role in the economies of the former Soviet republics is incommensurable with that of the U.S. America accounts for a mere three percent of the Central Asian countries’ trade, while Russia’s share in the aggregate foreign trade of Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan now exceeds 46 percent. Furthermore, Russia buys approximately 80 percent of Central Asian oil and gas, thus accounting for nearly two-thirds of their export revenues.

Why then is it so difficult for Russia to turn its economic strength into geopolitical might? In response to America’s political “carrot” Russia could well use an economic “stick.” After all, was it not the United State that set the trend of responding to political disagreements with economic measures (the reader may recall sanctions against Cuba, Libya and Iraq, not to mention the threats to ban the import of French goods to the U.S. after Paris denounced the American invasion in Iraq)? If Russia stops giving in to the authoritarian leaders of neighboring countries, while refusing to silently tolerate their unfriendly actions, it will still continue to be the locomotive of these economies. In any case, Russia will remain the main market for their noncompetitive goods and the main channel for the export of their hydrocarbons. A policy of concessions does enormous damage to Russia’s standing as a regional power. This country, which possesses exclusive levers of economic pressure on all its neighbors, is, nevertheless, gradually losing its say in addressing regional problems.

Moscow’s unconditional support of dubious regimes, remission of debts, and disregard for repeated violations of human rights in general and the rights of ethnic Russians in particular (for example, in Turkmenistan) only serves to undermine Russia’s positions. Furthermore, Moscow’s policy instills confidence in the leaders of neighboring states that Russia can be manipulated and its interests ignored. The belief that the anti-democratic post-Soviet regimes simply cannot do without Russia has turned out to be an illusion. The complete isolation of Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko, for example, by Western countries has not made him dependent on Moscow, nor has it forced him to be more considerate of Russia’s economic interests.


Presently, Russia still remains a key player in the post-Soviet space. The majority of countries recognize its special interests in this region, as they recognize Russia’s priority in settling crisis situations there. However, these countries no longer include those that have been the target of Russia’s policy. Georgia’s new leadership, for example, views Russia as the main obstacle to solving the problems in Abkhazia and South Ossetia, while in Abkhazia even ordinary people criticize the Kremlin’s attempts to interfere in the election campaign in that unrecognized republic. In Moldova, its leader, who sympathized with Russia at the beginning of his presidency, now accuses Russian peacemakers of impeding in the peace process. However, the Russian authorities do not take the trouble of amending their policies, while Moscow’s efforts to keep the former “sister republics” under its influence may force those countries to turn to those who will offer them a more intelligible scenario for future development.

At the present time, such a turn can still be prevented. To this end, Moscow must radically revise its doctrine concerning relations with the Commonwealth of Independent States. It would be logical to begin this revision with the Caucasus, since it is there that Russia’s domestic and foreign policies are closely intertwined, therefore, mistakes in one of them inevitably affects the other.

Russian-Georgian relations will remain the core element of Russia’s foreign policy in Transcaucasia for a long time. Georgia is expected to become a testing ground for Russia’s new political approach to the post-Soviet space – if it is ever worked out. Since Mikhail Saakashvili came to power, Moscow has stepped up its contacts with Georgia, but will they evolve into a consistent strategy? Will they produce the desired effect? Can Russia treat its partners as equal participants in any future dialog? Will it be able to rise above its special interests in addressing regional problems? Finally, is Moscow still capable to find unorthodox give-and-take solutions?
Today, the answers to these questions are not obvious. The aggressive position of “renovated” Georgia seems to be more forward-looking than Russia’s aging defensive strategy. Tbilisi has already announced its priorities and, unlike Moscow, actively uses any international forums to win public support for its efforts to solve the problem of the breakaway autonomous republics. Its plan for the settlement of the conflicts, made public by President Saakashvili at the September 2004 session of the UN General Assembly, came as one more victory for Tbilisi in the information war with Russia for Abkhazia and South Ossetia. The plan actually proposes that Abkhazia and South Ossetia follow in the footsteps of Georgia which changed its political elite in free (although not quite democratic) elections. It suggests first building confidence between the population of the rebellious republics and the rest of Georgia through direct contacts between nongovernmental organizations. At the second stage, all interested parties would ensure local security, that is, demilitarize and decriminalize their areas and reveal all “gray” zones along the Russian-Georgian border. The political settlement, to be achieved at the third stage of the settlement plan, would give the rebellious republics broad autonomy and restore Georgia’s territorial integrity.

Of course, one may feel skeptical about the efficacy of this plan, but not because it was resolved without Moscow’s participation. Over the last decade, Russia has not put forward a single settlement plan and has usually played the habitual role of judge (which it may well want to continue playing).


It is absolutely unclear how and when Russia will enter the play, so it should at least try to model possible scenarios for its future actions.
The first scenario is aggressive. Russia’s ambiguous position on the rebellious autonomies in Georgia and Moldova suggests that Moscow may be considering a possibility of their joining the Russian Federation. The Russian leaders have repeatedly said that the entry of Abkhazia and South Ossetia (let alone Transdniestria which does not have borders with Russia) to the Russian Federation is impossible. In reality, however, Russia has been purposefully consolidating its ties with the rebellious republics. The majority of people there have been given Russian citizenship and now they enjoy all the rights of Russian citizens, including the right to social security. It remains unclear how this was done, as it was against the requirements of either the previous or the present law on Russian citizenship. Obviously this move had political implications and attested to Russia’s involvement rather than neutrality.

Factors prompting Moscow not to adhere to the principle of territorial integrity of neighboring countries include heavy investments in the rebellious republics made by Russian financial and industrial groups and individual influential businessmen. If these territories are brought back under the jurisdiction of their states, property that was acquired in contravention of local laws may be confiscated or nationalized. That is why, for as long as the Russian leadership is interested in keeping this property safe, one can hardly expect that it will agree not to prevent the restoration of the integrity of the sovereign states.

Legal grounds required for the breakaway autonomies’ entry to the Russian Federation can be an appeal of their peoples, approved in a referendum, to the people and the government of Russia with a request to admit them to the Russian Federation. So far, Russia has been restraining such impulses, although broad sections of the population in those territories (mostly Russian citizens) would like to see such an outcome.

If things develop this way, however, Russia’s relations with Georgia may become strained, and the situation in the whole of Transcaucasia would be destabilized. One cannot rule out that it may cause the domino effect in the Caucasus. Armenia, Russia’s closest ally, may declare Nagorno-Karabakh, occupied by it, its own territory. In this case, the entire region is likely to get involved in a large-scale war.

Another scenario would provide for Russia’s determination to take a direct part in the political processes in the rebellious republics in order to cause the local leaders to enter into negotiations with Tbilisi or Chisinau on terms advantageous to Moscow. These terms would inevitably imply the inviolability of Russian property, the immunity of Russian investments, guaranteed protection of Russian citizens, a regime of economic preferences for Russian investors, etc.

In this case it would be helpful to agree on a ‘principle of direct dialog’ implying that the autonomies’ problems would be solved exclusively in Moscow and Tbilisi or Chisinau and that preliminary consultations with representatives of the republics would be held behind closed doors in Moscow. If Moscow and the regional centers establish direct communication, then there would be no need for intermediaries from among third states and international organizations. Such localization of conflicts would bring tangible benefits to the parties involved. Russia would acquire a privileged status of guarantor of stability (since only Russian peacemakers can guarantee the rights of Russian citizens on the territories of Georgia and Moldova), and the republics would have a real chance to restore their territorial integrity.

Basically, this scenario presupposes an active trading in concessions and willingness to yield in minor issues for the sake of overall gains. Although Moscow does have political advantages over Tbilisi and Chisinau, it will have to recognize the formal equality of the partners and take a tough stand with respect to its quasi-vassals in Tskhinvali, Tiraspol or Sukhumi. Therefore it must be ready to make unexpected and unorthodox moves.

For example, why not declare Ossetia indivisible, proclaim the unity of the Ossetian people and merge both North and South Ossetias into a special territorial and administrative entity, like Andorra which is governed by vicars who represent the bishop of Seo de Urgel, Spain, and the president of France? This scheme could be followed up by declaring Ossetia a free economic zone and granting preferential treatment to Russian and Georgian investors. A unified Ossetia, with its parts formally belonging to different states, would serve as a bridge between Russia and Georgia. This option cannot be applied in Abkhazia and, especially, in Transdniestria which does not have a common border with Russia. Yet, like in the case with Ossetia, the key to the conflict’s settlement can be found only if the Russian leadership shows an inventive approach and discards old stereotypes or, at least, displays its desire to break political deadlocks.

In the meantime, the attitude of the rebellious republics’ leaders to such a scenario is of secondary importance. Regular visits to Russia by the heads of the autonomies and their meetings with the highest officials in Moscow underscore the special nature of their relations with the Russian leaders. So the inability to convince them of the need to correct the political course and start negotiating with Tbilisi and Chisinau will be the most persuasive argument against the present policy of the ‘managed instability.’

Finally, it should not be ruled out that Russia may decide to consolidate its influence in the post-Soviet space by appealing to international organizations or acting through regional integration associations. Such an approach may become the basis for the third scenario.

In this case Russia should take a special position and distance itself from both parties involved in the conflict. In a situation like this, searching for parties that could mediate between the negotiating partners along with the Russian Federation and be guarantors of compliance with agreements, would not be something culpable (after all, no one in this country has censured Russia’s co-sponsorship, together with the U.S. and the European Union, of the Middle East peace process). This approach would bring about a basically new alignment of forces that would be most favorable for moving the process to the diplomatic sphere.

Together with the U.S. or the European Union Russia could act as an active peacemaker. It would not have to decide against its own presence in disputable regions then and it could avoid pressure from local anti-Russian politicians seeking to push it out from the region. The reputation that Russia would thus earn in the eyes of the other co-sponsors of the settlement process would probably be an even more significant gain than all benefits of peace in the immediate proximity to its borders.
It should be noted that the independent (outside the CIS) development of the Baltic States, which has led them into the European Union, proves that Europe uses its influence in the Near Abroad, which is common to it and to Russia, much better. Moscow realizes that the entry of a unified Moldova to the EU is much more likely than the entry of Transdniestria to Russia. Why, then, does Russia seek to preserve the obviously hopeless status quo? There is no answer to this question yet, so there is no need to overestimate the chances that the third scenario can be implemented.


The number of possible combinations and strategies that Russia can employ or build in the post-Soviet space is in no way limited to the aforesaid three scenarios. That is why it is no use guessing what line of conduct the Russian authorities will choose. Of more importance today is that Russia’s policy toward the post-Soviet space has a number of obvious flaws which must be removed without regard to whether the strategic direction of this policy is changed or not.

In relations with the post-Soviet countries the Russian leaders have a strong tradition of orienting themselves to local state officials of “Category A,” i.e. people who at the given moment occupy the highest posts. In all fairness, such an approach is not typical of only states with an authoritarian model of government, to which Russia belongs, but also of countries whose adherence to democracy is beyond doubt, such as France, for example. In the latter case, however, this approach does not presuppose providing a ‘friendly candidate’ with an additional ‘administrative resource,’ sending (quite openly) legions of political consultants to a foreign country, or rendering other dubious services. The ‘revolution of roses’ in Georgia (as well as the elections in Abkhazia and ‘orange revolution’ in Ukraine) revealed the truth that is unpleasant to Russian politicians: the unwillingness to establish ties with the second and third echelons of the so-called national elites results in a loss of control over developments. If the present political course persists, the “strip of estrangement” along the Russian borders will only expand.

Helping post-Soviet states to restore their integrity would bring Russia more dividends than the hopeless and costly support for the unrecognized autonomies. Ensuring Russia’s economic interests, providing guarantees for the property of Russian companies, preserving dual citizenship for the population of those territories, and letting Russia protect the interests of its citizens seems to be a fair price for Moscow’s assistance. For the time being, Russia keeps levers of influence in the post-Soviet space, although it has been increasingly difficult for it to restrain the political activity of other actors. If Russia is interested in weakening other countries’ influence in regions adjacent to its borders, it can also make it a condition for its support for the central authorities of the former Soviet republics.

New paradigms and new strategies are expected of Russia. If Moscow fails to offer them to its neighbors, then they will be proposed by others. Politics, like Nature, abhors a vacuum – and, above all, a vacuum in one’s mind.

Last updated 8 february 2005, 15:04

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