At his first news conference following his election victory,
President-elect Dmitry Medvedev touched upon only one foreign
relations topic. He said Moscow’s priority was the Commonwealth of
Independent States, and he promised that his first state visit
would be to one of the CIS countries.
That would have not have been such a noteworthy remark were it
not for the interesting events that are unfolding in the CIS
countries, altering the region’s political landscape once
The former republics of the Soviet Union for the most part have
completed the process of becoming independent states. These
countries have achieved full-fledged statehood and are not at risk
of losing that status in the foreseeable future.
The post-Soviet states are entering a new stage of development.
During the first phase, each tried to decide which ideological
stance would be most advantageous. That is now giving way to a more
pragmatic approach. In other words, these countries are
reconsidering the previous stereotype that Russia is the bogeyman
and that Europe is some kind of paradise.
In the 1990s these countries were focused on resolving problems
of basic survival and could not look far beyond their borders. Once
that was accomplished, the political elite, comprising nationalist
and nomenklatura elements, have turned their attention to finding a
place for their countries in the greater political picture.
The Orange Revolution in Ukraine in 2004 was a turning point in the
policies of all post-Soviet countries. Moscow’s aggressive stance
during that period turned out to be so counterproductive that it
decided to switch tactics.
From the spring of 2005, the Kremlin took the following
approach: Inasmuch as it was powerless to change the political
situation in the countries along its borders, there was no point in
trying to do so. But it would not lift a finger to help any state
that departed from the approved path. Further, those states would
automatically be given «least-preferred» status and would not be
able to count on economic or other indulgences from Moscow.
From that point on, the Kremlin distanced itself from the
passions simmering in neighboring states. Although this did not
protect Moscow from getting blamed for every misdeed — the result
of its dominating role in the region — it did enable it to save
resources and lower tensions.
Naturally, Russia’s mercantilist approach did not make it very
popular in the world community, especially among the former Soviet
states, which hope for a more benevolent and promising patron.
But Moscow’s new course has clearly highlighted the objective
limits to these opportunities — to both the CIS countries and
their would-be benefactors on both sides of the Atlantic. A host of
former Soviet republics has felt deeply dependent upon Russia. And
the politicians of the European Union, for example, have
demonstrated that their readiness and desire to actively
participate in transforming these newly independent states is
That realization forced each country to make a choice.
The first option available to each country is to continue
distancing itself from Russia and gradually move into the orbit of
a different global power, as Georgia is doing.
The second option is to try to follow a separate and independent
course — a viable option only for countries blessed with abundant
The third option is to strengthen relations with Moscow and to
use its help in solving domestic problems, as Moldova has done.
Ukraine serves as a unique example. During the last gas crisis,
the two leading players of the Orange Revolution tried to draw
Russia into the role of refereeing their mutual disagreement.
Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko and Prime Minister Yulia
Tymoshenko have butted heads over the role of Gazprom and
intermediaries in the natural gas trade, which have been
stigmatized for interfering in the affairs of Russia’s sovereign
Changes were also brought about by another external factor —
the West. Elections have become a national pastime in many
countries. Wherever there is the slightest degree of political
freedom, the opposition accuses the authorities of widespread
election fraud. But until now, it has been an unwritten rule that
the arbiters in such disputes are election observers from
international organization, such as the Organization of Security
and Cooperation in Europe. When OSCE observers express doubt
regarding an election’s fairness and validity, this mobilizes
opposition forces to organize an election campaign against the
ruling elite. In some cases, this results in a change of
leadership. If, however, the observers certify that an election
meets democratic standards, efforts to contest the results quickly
The recent presidential election in Armenia proved an exception
to this rule. International observers confirmed that the election
met European standards. But the opposition, led by former Armenian
President Levon Ter-Petrosyan, ignored their verdict and continued
to demand that his «stolen victory» be returned.
The OSCE’s reputation also suffered in Georgia, where the
observers’ mission made a quick initial conclusion that the vote
had been honest, then expressed some doubts, and finally confirmed
the original opinion. By the way, the final verdict released a few
days ago, which was more critical in tone than the one issued
immediately after the election, strengthened the impression that
conflicting motives were behind the group’s evaluation. The result
is that the Western standard no longer appears as unbiased as it
The primary question of post-Soviet regional politics in the
coming years will be how each of the CIS member countries defines
its relationship to Moscow.
If Russia is interested in expanding its influence, it will have
to make corrections to the course it has been following since 2005.
Countries that are willing to develop closer relations with Moscow
will be more responsive if the Kremlin offers attractive economic
and political incentives.
There are already signs that Moscow is making efforts toward
change. These include a willingness to sell arms at domestic prices
to members of the Collective Security Treaty Organization and a
clear change in Russia’s approach to Abkhazia and South Ossetia —
threatening to apply the Kosovo precedent on the one hand and
developing a settlement plan for the Transdnestr territorial
problem on the other.
But Russia’s policy should be based on well-defined principles
and should be designed not for short-term effect, but for creating
long-term, partnership relations with other countries. For that,
Russia might have to renounce some short-term gains, but
pragmatism, after all, does not always mean maximizing profits.