A troubled year across the former Soviet Union

23 december 2010

Fyodor Lukyanov is Editor-in-Chief of Russia in Global Affairs, Chairman of the Presidium of the Council on Foreign and Defense Policy, and Research Director of the Valdai International Discussion Club.

Resume: The outgoing year witnessed a number of shocks in post-Soviet countries.

The outgoing year witnessed a number of shocks in post-Soviet countries.

A highly charged election campaign in Ukraine was crowned with a convincing victory for Viktor Yanukovych, who back in 2004 lost out to Yushchenko during the “orange revolution.”

Kyrgyz President Kurmanbek Bakiyev lost power in a coup. The bloody clashes that erupted in the south of that Central Asian republic after his expulsion almost escalated into a large-scale crisis involving neighboring states, but a parliamentary election and the formation of a new government at the end of the year ensured that did not happen.

The pro-Russia party Harmony Center, which got 26% of the vote in September’s parliamentary election in Latvia, emerged as the second-largest political force in parliament.

The election in Moldova did not succeed in putting an end to an 18-month long political crisis.

Clashes in Tajikistan were reminiscent of the civil war that raged there 15 years ago.

The OSCE summit in the Kazakh capital of Astana, the first to be chaired by that Central Asian country, failed to yield any practical results but did furnish President Nursultan Nazarbayev with his moment of glory.

The parliamentary election in Azerbaijan in the South Caucasus passed off calmly and gave predictable results.

The presidential election in Belarus also ended predictably: Alexander Lukashenko won once again and ordered that the opposition, which has staged protests against the election results, be ruthlessly quashed.

That is the broad generalization of unfolding events, delve a little deeper and one can see highly dynamic political processes at play across the former Soviet Union.

Events in the former Soviet republics, especially the westernmost ones, are no longer the center of the world’s attention.

The agreement that Russia and Ukraine signed in Kharkov, extending the deployment of the Russian Black Sea Fleet until 2042, which would have been sure to provoke a media stir 18 months ago, only managed to hold the international public’s attention for a few days. The reason is that, fundamentally, nothing changed.

Europeans may be shocked by the post-election scandal in Belarus, but they are unlikely to resort to drastic measures against “Europe’s last dictator.”

Political confrontation in Moldova prompted more of a response from Moscow and other European capitals. Russia and the EU are each actively supporting their favored coalitions there, but the ultimate result will hardly vary whoever takes charge in Moldova.

The tensions permeating Russia’s relations with Europe intensified after the Georgian-Russian war over South Ossetia in 2008 but were assuaged by the economic crisis and Russia’s improved relations with both Poland and Latvia. The United States has reviewed its priorities and put post-Soviet countries on the back burner.

The outgoing year also saw a fine example of constructive cooperation between the perennial “freinemies,” Moscow and Washington, in the post-Soviet space. For the first time in decades, they coordinated their positions during the power struggle in Kyrgyzstan, where they each have military bases, and have been trying to avoid unnecessary confrontation since then.

Russia concentrated its efforts on working to strengthen its integrative alliances, and encountered a number of problems in the process. Member countries willingly demonstrated unity so long as their economic alliance Eurasec and security organization CSTO were loose clubs of “Russia’s friends” but their interest quickly cooled when it became apparent that they needed to make a practical financial, political and ideological contribution.

The Customs Union of Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan has been advancing very slowly, hindered by an acute struggle between Russia and Belarus, on paper the closest two partners in it.

Problems during the Kyrgyz events showed that the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) is not ready to confront crises. Uzbekistan, which logically should have been the first to step in and help stop the slaughter of ethnic Uzbeks, held their fire lest any such action set a precedent for Russian interference and even make it the next target.

Some minor progress was made at the Customs Union and CSTO summits, held in Moscow at the end of the year, but instability in Moscow-Minsk relations promises to yield yet more unpleasant surprises.

It is a paradox that “fraternal” Belarus has become Russia’s main opponent in the post-Soviet space. Their economic clashes over oil duties, gas prices and access to markets have grown into a full-scale political conflict.

Lukashenko made a show of supporting Kyrgyz President Bakiyev, who was overthrown with Moscow’s tacit approval, and even gave him the opportunity to address the international community from CIS headquarters in Minsk. In so doing, the Belarusian president showed that Belarus is a nation that backs law and order throughout the post-Soviet space, whereas Russia supports the “rebels.”

Moscow-Minsk relations later came close to escalating into a cold war, as political leaders exchanged personal insults. Tensions between the two countries eased by the end of the year, but there is no love lost between them and it is only a matter of time before the next conflict flares up.

Overall, Russia acted more prudently and less emotionally in 2010. Its decision to avoid military involvement in Kyrgyzstan is evidence that it has started adjusting its desires to what is actually possible. Its standing among the former Soviet republics has strengthened, even if partly due to the decreasing activity of the United States and the EU.

Meanwhile, new forces have been gathering weight across the region.

One of them, Turkey, announced the revival of its ambitions regarding virtually the whole of the former Ottoman Empire [which controlled vast areas around the eastern Mediterranean and was at the center of interaction between the East and West for six centuries].

Another new center of power, China, has kept aloof from politics, limiting its rapid growth to economic matters. But its very presence in the region and the huge financial resources it has at its disposal have changed the situation dramatically. It was no coincidence that the Belarusian president turned to China for support during his quarrel with Russia.

Central Asia will likely move to the forefront of international attention next year. The U.S. administration will have to implement a new strategy in Afghanistan, which will in turn determine regional policy.

Changes in Belarus are possible and will most likely be initiated by the authorities; this can be the only explanation for Lukashenko’s decision to play an all-or-nothing game.

In Ukraine, the opposition will become increasingly marginalized, while the pace of progress in the country’s relations with Russia will probably decrease, although conflicts are unlikely.

Moldova will remain in the grip of a chronic political crisis.

As for Russia, it will continue to strengthen regional organizations, in particular the CSTO, with its sights set on an Afghanistan after U.S. withdrawal. However, Customs Union development may slow while Russia focuses on accession to the World Trade Organization.

| RIA Novosti

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