Moscow’s decision to halt negotiations on joining the World
Trade Organization and to focus instead on a joint bid through a
customs union with Kazakhstan and Belarus appears to be politically
motivated. It is a step toward establishing an independent identity
on the world arena. Such a policy is conceptually based on several
First, Russia believes that a multipolar world would strengthen
regionalization. In practice, it consists of an assemblage of
economic centers with a zone of influence around each. The two most
prominent examples are the European Union and China, pulling
Eastern Europe and Southeast Asia into their orbits. However,
regional groupings have also begun forming in South America and the
Persian Gulf. In this context, if Russia plans to be one of those
«poles» of influence, it will have to transform itself into a
center of integration.
Second, Russia’s hopes of entering into Western political and
economic systems as a player holding equal status never panned out.
For most of his presidency, up until mid-2006, Vladimir Putin
strove to gain full status for Russia in the club of developed and
influential states. As it quickly became evident, he had his own
particular understanding of the conditions and forms by which that
process should proceed that practically nobody in the West shared,
but the goal remained unchanged.
The pinnacle of Moscow’s efforts to join the WTO came midway
through 2006 when Russia chaired the Group of Eight. That was when
Moscow showed the greatest interest in preparing a new agreement
with the EU as quickly as possible.
Neither happened. The United States once again delayed a
decision regarding Russian membership in the WTO, and disagreements
over Polish meat and the tragic events of fall 2006 (the murder of
Novaya Gazeta journalist Anna Politkovskaya and the poisoning death
in London of former FSB officer Alexander Litvinenko) changed the
whole atmosphere of Russia’s relations with the West. But even
without those problems, there was little chance of Putin’s plans
bearing out. With oil prices on the rise, Russia’s understanding of
what constituted «equality» also grew — a trend the West
Third, the center of the world’s attention is gradually shifting
from the Euro-Atlantic zone toward India and the Pacific region.
This is because of both the economic growth of the Asian powers and
the numerous regional conflicts there that have the potential to
spill over into the wider international community. A great deal
depends on resolving those problems, and if Russia could take a
leading role in achieving progress there it would go a long way
toward strengthening Moscow’s position in the world.
Moscow’s desire to contribute to the European system of security
was met with a lack of understanding. However, its role in the
security of Central Asia elicits no such doubts, and its creation
of rapid reaction forces as part of the Collective Security Treaty
Organization, or CSTO, this week is an important step in that
direction. The situation in the region is such that the CSTO is
important less as a counterbalance to NATO than as a viable
guarantor of security. This is all the more true considering that
any negative turn of events in Southern and Central Asia are likely
to affect Russia as well, making it necessary for Moscow to
formulate an effective response.
What obstacles has Russia encountered in its efforts to promote
a multipolar world? Its greatest challenge has been establishing
positive relations with its closest partners, those located in
Russia’s potential circle of influence. Moscow’s long years of
casting about, trying to determine exactly what it wanted served to
disorient its neighbors. Russia’s problem is less that it frightens
its much weaker neighbors than that it is unclear about its
intentions and inconsistent in its actions. As a result, those
countries that see the potential to join other international
alliances will make every effort to avoid fully committing to
Moscow, even if they would enjoy certain benefits by doing so.
Regarding the plan to create a customs union between Russia,
Kazakhstan and Belarus, the weak link is obviously Belarus. Since
last year, the EU has been cajoling Minsk with the suggestion that
the «European option» is still open — even for a regime that had
recently been labeled as «the last dictatorship in Europe.»
Belarussian President Alexander Lukashenko is famous for his
ability to wiggle his way out of any entangling obligations imposed
by outside forces. That is why, at the decisive moment, Lukashenko
will either once again start reneging on his obligations, placing
Russia in an extremely awkward position, or he will use his old
trick of demanding new concessions, blackmailing his partners with
the possibility of ruining the whole project.
Lukashenko’s boycott of the CSTO summit on Sunday over a trivial
conflict with Moscow is a typical example of that type of approach.
But the problem runs deeper. Belarus’ security interests have
little in common with the tasks set before the CSTO. Why should
Minsk participate in an organization that might end up shouldering
a real military burden in Central Asia? The moment the CSTO ceased
functioning as a symbol of loyalty to Russia and began to set
concrete goals, it became clear how little the organization met the
real interests of its member states.
Although the Central Asian states have an interest in remaining
under Russia’s «umbrella,» there are no prospects for developing an
integrated system of security for the region. The disagreements
between Central Asian states and the diversity of their approaches
to Russia guarantee, if nothing else, inconsistency in the region.
For example, Uzbekistan has the most powerful military in Central
Asia, making it capable of contributing its part to the security of
the region. However, Tashkent tends to prefer political maneuvering
and has reordered its priorities more than once in the past.
China is also an important factor. The interests of Beijing and
Moscow mostly overlap on the global level, but at a regional level
the two are increasingly becoming competitors. Meanwhile, Russia is
counting on increasing its global standing by consolidating its
In principle, if Russia follows an independent policy in Central
Asia, it does not necessarily mean such a tack would be
anti-Western. China’s policy is a good example of this — at least
the policy it follows now and is likely to pursue in the
foreseeable future. In contrast to China, however, Russia’s foreign
policy priorities are usually tied to its internal model of
development. And here, the Asian states seem to make far more rapid
progress than on the diplomatic front.