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Monday, 13 April 2009

Interesting Spheres

Photo: Lyalya Kuznetsova
Russia’s relations with ex-Soviet states are a mire of opposing and common interests and contradictory feelings. In case the war in Georgia last summer and this winter’s gas crisis had begun to fade into the distant past, riots in Moldova last week yet again brought such relations to centre stage. A small, poor country nestled between Romania and the Ukraine, Moldova retains close ties to Russia, who has troops participating in peacekeeping operations in Moldova’s separatist region of Transdniestria and guarding weaponry left over from the Soviet period. Its authorities, as in many countries of the former Soviet Union, have a hot-cold relationship with Moscow; torn between a rapprochement with Russia or with the West. In varying degrees, these countries have on one hand the tempting promise of NATO or EU membership and the benefits that greater cooperation with the West will bring, but which might, in return force them to face a few home truths on the democracy front, endangering the very survival of their political elites. One the other, there is the legitimising embrace of Moscow, with whom their common past is a source of contradictory feelings, but is common all the same and who, as the stronger, wealthier partner in the relationship can offer the support, without criticism, that many of these regimes require.

The article below was published last Friday in Nezavisimaia Gazeta.
Quick note: CIS = Commonwealth of Independent States, a looser regional organisation formed on the back of the Soviet Union and of which Moldova is a member. Georgia declared its withdrewal from the organisation following last year's war. Ukraine, despite being one of the three founding countries (the others being Russia and Belarus) has never actually ratified the organisation's Charter (Turkmenistan is currently in the same legal situation). The other members are all the former Soviet Republics apart from the three Baltic states.

The CIS is not Russia’s sphere of influence.
Stanislav Minin, Nezavisimaia Gazeta

Last Thursday, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, gave interviews with “Voice of Russia”, “RIA News Agency” and “Russia Today”. Speaking about the fresh start with relations with the US, he said; “It goes without saying that one of the subjects that is being discussed is that of the post-Soviet space. This is an issue that requires that we conduct our activities transparently in this region; that we have no hidden agendas and, whilst defending our interests, we must take into account the legal interests of everyone else involved, in particular the states of the region.”

"It is unacceptable to present [CIS countries] with the ultimatum “either you’re with us or against us,” added Lavrov, “to do so would be to start off a struggle for spheres of influence, which is what no-one wants and which people sometimes try to attribute to Russia’s foreign policy. Spheres of influence are not our policy; our policy is that of relations based on equal rights and mutual benefits with whoever is prepared to engage in this with us.”

The language used by diplomats is very guarded and formal - the real ideas are essentially camouflaged behind the words. The language of the state press however, is somewhat more open. In reality, the discourse used by the Russian state press divides the world into the “spheres of influence” that minister Lavrov claims to be so unacceptable. The political elites of CIS countries are divided into “pro-Russian” and “anti-Russian”, otherwise known as “pro-Western”. Such language reeks of foreign policy games and does not leave any place for economic pragmatism nor for those very same “mutually-beneficial relationships”, which Lavrov himself claims to want.

Today, “The Independent” published a piece on the recent protests in Moldova. The correspondent suggests that the events in Moldova are playing into the hands of Russia. Russia is interested in having Moldova distance itself from the EU and the West and in return for it doing so it is offering the Chisinau authorities an “advantageous” solution to their problems in Transdniestria. Needless to say, such proposals are based on guesswork – the correspondent’s own interpretation and speculation on matters; a third-party evaluation of the situation. But he grasps the nature of Russia’s “mutually beneficial relations” with countries of the CIS perfectly; such relations are merely an exchange of services between political elites. We’ll give you your Transdniestria – and you get tough with the West. We’ll give you money – and you close that American military base [Note: In February this year the President of Kyrgyzstan demanded the closure of the American military base on its territory].

Relations based on equal rights and mutual benefits with “whoever is prepared to engage with us” are a marvellous thing. The only thing is – how can we know who is “prepared to engage with us” and who isn’t? Let’s say that state X (any state taken at random) wants to have strong trade and economic links with Russia. At the same time the said state very much wants to gain EU membership, or join NATO. Is such a state prepared for “mutually beneficial relations” with Russia? In my opinion, there should be no reason why wanting both of these things should be contradictory. However, the Russian ruling elite tends to think otherwise.

Does the US play its political games in the CIS? Does it defend its interests in the region? Yes. But the language that the US uses whilst doing so differs from ours. It differs only slightly, it would seem, but it’s the tiny differences that make it. The American elites divide political programmes in the post-Soviet space into “democratic” and “undemocratic”. Russia divides them into “pro-Russian” and “anti-Russian”. There’s no difference, you might say - “undemocratic” is as good as “anti-American”. However the essence of the difference is in the word itself, in the form, as opposed to the content. By saying “antidemocratic” instead of “anti-American”, you are appealing to the rules of the game in the world today, which, whether you like it or not, have become based on democracy. You are appealing against the violation of these rules. By saying “anti-Russian”, you automatically narrow the group of sympathisers. It is a label, intended for the internal consumer. Charges of “undemocratic” behaviour are intended for foreign consumers and are a far more profitable strategy.

There’s nothing meaningless or shameful in Russia’s struggle for influence and interests in the post-Soviet space. But, it would be much better if in this battle our interests were preponderantly economic, rather than political or historical. And it would be much better if, whilst defending these interests, we used a language that was globally acceptable, rather than inward-looking.

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