Imperial Overload

9 november 2004

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. Research Professor, Faculty of World Economy and International Affairs, National Research University Higher School of Economics, Moscow.

Resume: The Kremlin has earmarked enormous resources to ensure Viktor Yanukovich’s victory in Ukraine’s presidential election, in order to prove that Russia still has influence in the post-Soviet republic, and not because it would actually benefit from that win.

The Kremlin has earmarked enormous resources to ensure Viktor Yanukovich’s victory in Ukraine’s presidential election, in order to prove that Russia still has influence in the post-Soviet republic, and not because it would actually benefit from that win.
No matter what the outcome of the presidential election in Ukraine is, its nationals have every reason to be proud. There is probably no other country on the planet that could boast that the head of another great power was taking part in its election campaign, while that great power was ready to offer Ukrainian nationals wider rights than those enjoyed by Russians themselves.

So what is it about a Viktor Yanukovich victory that is so remarkable for Moscow and what makes a possible Yushchenko win so terrible for Russia?

I will venture to assume that for Russia there is no fundamental difference between the two candidates. The unprecedented campaign Moscow has waged urging Ukrainians to vote for Yanukovich is not so much about Ukraine itself as about the Kremlin’s vanity and that of the entire Russian State.

The unpleasant feeling of seeing its sphere of influence — which any great power is supposed to have — shrinking has long vexed Moscow. Having officially abandoned its claims as a global player, Russia found out that it had no monopoly on the post-Soviet republics whatsoever, despite an abundance of instruments of influence.

Speaking at the Foreign Ministry this summer Putin openly spoke of this, urging diplomats to step up their efforts to remedy the situation.

In an attempt to increase its influence in various parts of the former Soviet Union, Moscow has resisted the West, as was the case in Moldova last year, or experienced an unwillingness on the part of its neighbor’s authorities to find a common language with Russia, regardless of whether their regimes are pro-Western, like that of Mikhail Saakashvili in Georgia, or a pro-Soviet one, as that of Aleksandr Lukashenko in Belarus.

The success achieved in relations with Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Kazakhstan sweetens the pill only partially. Rapprochement with Central Asia can scarcely be called a breakthrough, while the increasingly-strong Kazakh economy is playing its own game that has not yet come into conflict with Russia’s objectives.

Moscow first voiced concern over Russia’s declining influence over the former Soviet republics this summer, when the smoldering conflict in Georgia’s secessionist South Ossetia province was about to reignite. Russian politicians reasoned that there was nowhere for Russia to retreat and the time had come for a decisive campaign against strategic rivals, i.e. the U.S.

Fortunately, the conflict never evolved into an open war as the aforementioned “strategic rival” dampened the ardor of the Georgian leader who reluctantly gave up his intention of regaining control over South Ossetia as he had successfully done in Ajaria.

The next spot on the map was Abkhazia. Russia’s attempts to strengthen its influence there resulted in such a mess inside the self-styled republic that it is now impossible to get out of it. Meanwhile, Belarus’s batka, as Aleksandr Lukashenko is dubbed by the Russian media, has effectively ignored Moscow’s calls not to hold a referendum on the extension of his presidential term.

All those developments have made the battle for Ukraine as important for Russia as Borodino or Stalingrad. Moreover, Ukraine really does mean a lot to Russia, both economically and politically, and besides, there are the close national and cultural ties between the two countries.

Moscow’s involvement in the Ukrainian campaign — again, regardless of the outcome — has proved Russia’s lack of influence, even on its closest partners. In order to achieve the desired result Russia was forced to bring in its key, sole and unique political resource — the president of the Russian Federation.

It is hardly worth recalling Russia’s open support of Ukraine’s Prime Minister Yanukovich, repeatedly declared over the past year. At the height of the war waged by international terrorism against Russia — of which Putin spoke less than two months ago — the head of the state spent nearly three days abroad so as to address a foreign nation and to take part in festivities there.

On the eve of the voting, when civil servants were enjoying a day-off, the Russian leader instructed his parliament to immediately launch consultations on the introduction of dual citizenship for Russians and Ukrainians.

At the same time it was reported that Ukrainian nationals would be allowed to stay in Russia for three months without registration — something, which Russians arriving in another Russian town could only dream of, because by law they have just three days to get registered with the local authorities.

In other words, the Russian State has thrown all its power behind Viktor Yanukovich. Since the stakes are so high, a question arises: what comes next? What will Russia get after her favorite wins the poll?

Perhaps the statement shedding most light on the future of Russo-Ukrainian relations was made on Sunday by the speaker of the Supreme Rada, who honestly admitted that after the election the dual citizenship issue — one of the key trump cards of the Ukrainian prime minister — “would be remembered less and less, until it is completely dropped from the agenda, as it is a very complicated matter”.

Those words, most likely, mean that the promises made by Yanukovich during his campaign would be regarded not as assumed obligations to the voters but merely as part of his campaigning.

This is by no means a sensation. Even in the most democratic countries president-elects fail to honor all the promises they make during their election campaigns. The voters’ right is to punish their leader for his lies at the next election. But what will Russia do if the promises given to it by Ukraine are regarded by the winner merely as a part of his campaign?

It seems that it is not the powerful Russia that paves the way to power for a candidate whose victory is of more benefit for Moscow but certain political forces in Ukraine that use Russia to achieve their own goals.

Lately much has been said of the problem of overexertion of imperial might in the U.S., which has included almost the entire world in its sphere of interest. Even such a powerful state as the U.S. is not strong enough to bear global responsibility.

In Russia the problem of imperial overexertion is acute, too. If, in order to achieve its goals, the state has to mobilize so many political resources, it means the ’empire’ really is on the verge of burning out. And next time, even the entire vertical of Russian power may not suffice.


Last updated 9 november 2004, 18:05

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