A quiet cold war

Print edition : February 11, 2005

At the Russian Black Sea resort of Sochi, President Vladimir Putin (third from right) with (from left) Presidents Robert Kocharyan (Armenia), Islam Karimov (Uzbekistan), Alexander Lukashenko (Belarus), Imomali Rahmonov (Tajikistan), Leonid Kuchma (Ukraine), Vladimir Voronin (Moldova) and Askar Akayev (Kyrgyzstan). A file picture. - REUTERS

The pro-West "revolutions" in countries of the Commonwealth of Independent States add to Russia's worries about the increasing influence of NATO and the European Union in the region.

GEORGIA'S bloodless "Rose revolution" in 2003 did not evoke much interest outside the region. Most commentators felt that it was going to be an exception rather then the norm in the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), the 12 members of which were once part of the Soviet Union. Today, however, after the "Orange revolution" in Ukraine, this no longer seems to be the case. Analysts feel that with Ukraine, the second largest constituent of the CIS, going pro-West and electing a government that favours the country's integration into the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation and the European Union, the alliance could well be on the verge of a new phase in its history.

Where does this leave Vladimir Putin's Russia, the largest member of the CIS? Many analysts feel that the Kremlin lost face with the defeat of former Ukrainian Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovich, who was openly backed by Putin. Moscow reportedly spent vast sums of money on Yanukovich's behalf and even extended the services of campaign strategists. Putin made two pre-election trips to Kiev to campaign for Yanukovich on the national television, offered generous concessions worth hundreds of millions of dollars on energy trade and liberalised the travel regulations for Ukrainians visiting Moscow.

Putin's concern about the outcome of the Ukrainian election was not without reason. Both countries have socio-cultural and political ties stretching centuries back and their destinies have remained intertwined. The Russian daily Moskovskiy Komsomolets commented: "Ukraine cannot live without Russian fuel or the Russian consumer market. Russia will have to continue supplying its neighbour with gas and oil. Production sharing with Ukrainian enterprises is very important for hundreds and thousands of Russian production units. Family connections, kinship and age-old cultural ties cannot be abolished even in 10 years. However, Viktor Yushchenko's victory means that the biggest republic in the former USSR [Union of Soviet Socialist Republics] after the Russian Federation has chosen a strategic orientation towards the West. It no longer wanted to be part of `Greater Russia'."

More disturbing to the Kremlin were reports that the "Orange revolution" might be "exported" to other CIS countries. Sergei Alexandrovich Markov, Director of the Political Studies Institute, told the daily Trud that efforts were under way to engineer several "Rose" and "Orange" revolutions throughout the CIS. He said: " I think the "Orange revolution" in Moldova is about 80 per cent ready; in Kyrgyzstan it is 40 per cent ready, and in Kazakhstan it is 30 per cent ready... I believe the Opposition in Belarus is very ready to take such action, but the `revolution' is being countered by some powerful political forces - primarily by President [Alexander] Lukashenko himself."

Markov is not the only one to express such views. Vitaly Tretyakov, a political analyst reportedly close to the Kremlin, told the Eurasian Daily Monitor that within two years a "Kiev scenario" could topple regimes in the former Soviet republics of Belarus and Moldova and in Central Asia. Grigory Yavlinsky, leader of Russia's liberal Yabloko Party, predicted that Ukraine's "domino effect" could spread to Russia as well. Above all, there was Viktor Yushchenko's desire to lead the nation in a pro-Western direction and make it a member of NATO and the E.U.

The Kremlin initially greeted the results of the election with a stony silence. Later, Putin accused the West of meddling in the Ukrainian election. He said: "We cannot develop any activity behind the backs of incumbent authorities, it's our natural limitation. There are pros and cons in such a policy, but nobody can bring accusations against us that we act behind the back of the government; the government should explain itself and its policy to the people." He added: "Indeed, we don't engage in any backstage politics in the post-Soviet space; to a certain extent, it limits the instruments we can use for protecting our interests in the post-Soviet space - unlike our other partners who actively use them."

Analysts feel that Russia's fears are justified since it stands to lose much, especially with regard to the carefully crafted Common Economic Space agreement among itself, Ukraine, Belarus and Kazakhstan. On the other hand, Western, especially United States, interference in Ukraine is a well-known fact. The popular view among analysts on the issue was spelt out by Markov: "I'm convinced of something else - our main mistake lay in being too passive towards Ukraine over a long period of time. The Americans started work on `Project Yushchenko' about five years ago. Over that period, Russia invested orders of magnitude less in its Ukrainian project than the United States, the European Union, or even Turkey. In my view, at the outset Russia's ruling elite ignored the need to work with its allies in Ukraine." Analysts feel that the tension between Russia and the West has the potential to trigger of yet another East-West war.

MEANWHILE, the "Orange revolution" appears all set to be "exported" to other CIS countries. In Belarus, for instance, the youth group Zubr organised popular protests during elections held in October. Although the protests were put down then by the security forces, the Ukrainian experience is bound to encourage Zubr and other popular groups. President Alexander Lukashenko is well aware of this "export" of revolution. He said: "The latest events in neighbouring countries have shown the importance of a strong and authoritative power as a factor for preserving stability. Once the authorities begin to display hesitancy, passivity and weakness, destructive forces immediately make use of this. Young people led by them, the crowd, and endless rallying paralyse the state and lead to anarchy and a grave crisis for the entire society." However, analysts are divided on whether Belarus is the next destination for a peaceful revolution. Some feel that Lukashenko is too much of a strongman to let an uprising happen.

President Askar Akayev of Kyrghistan is another leader who has aired his fears on the "export" of revolution. His anxiety is understandable as he faces re-election in October with the Opposition in a rather aggressive mood. He recently informed his military top brass that "upheavals in Ukraine and Georgia are a call to arms" for all the governments of the former Soviet republics.

In Kazakhstan, President Nursultan Nazarbayev is in trouble with the Opposition accusing him of rigging the September 2004 elections. The Opposition got a major boost when the leader of the country's Parliament suddenly switched sides. With the results of the polls disputed, the Ukraine example could become the norm in Kazakhstan.

An interesting situation is developing in Uzbekistan. The credibility of the December 2004 elections to its bicameral Parliament was challenged when the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OCSE) indicated that the balloting was "insufficiently democratic". President Islam Karimov has reason to be anxious on this front despite his regime's close ties with the U.S. in the context of the "war on terror".

Analysts feel that the trend is eventually bound to impact Russia too, especially as the country under Putin is seeing an erosion of democracy and greater centralisation and state control in both administration and the economy. The "Orange revolution" is likely to encourage liberal tendencies and political parties in Russian society. However, it may not occur in the near future.

On the other hand, it does throw off gear Russia's plans to increase its influence in the CIS region. This has succeeded in destabilising Putin's Common Economic Space agreement. Analysts feel that the growth of Western influence in the CIS, especially the stretching of NATO's sphere of strength into the region, will add to Russia's insecurity.

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