Russia: Unrest as a Foreign Policy Tool

17 MINS READApr 28, 2010 | 12:08 GMT
A picture showing supporters of the Kyrgyz interim government hold a rally in Bishkek on May 14, 2010 against the actions the pro-Bakiyev movement in the south of the country.

Supporters of the Kyrgyz interim government hold a rally in Bishkek on May 14, 2010 against the actions the pro-Bakiyev movement in the south of the country.


Since the April 7 revolution in Kyrgyzstan, it has become clear that Russia was involved in stirring up the social unrest in the country. Kyrgyzstan showed that Russia is capable of creating "color revolution"-style uprisings in countries where it wants to increase its influence. This ability is creating concerns for many countries, from Central Asia to Central Europe and China.

After the revolution in Kyrgyzstan in April, Russia said such a scenario could repeat in other former Soviet states — in effect threatening that Moscow could overthrow their governments as it did Kyrgyzstan's.

Russia's Approach

Since Russia began pushing back against Western influence in the former Soviet Union (FSU), it has come to realize that it cannot simply re-establish an empire like the Soviet Union. Each FSU state has its own internal strengths and weaknesses, and each interacts differently with both Russia and the West. Thus, there can be no blanket response. This has forced Russia to tailor its efforts based on the specific circumstances and characteristics of each country where Moscow seeks to reassert itself. Two tactics have proven to be the most effective.

The first is using energy to exert pressure. Whether a country's energy supplies originate in Russia, transit Russia or are imported by Russia, Russia is the major energy hub for the region. Moscow has cut off energy supplies to countries like Lithuania, cut supplies that transit Ukraine to bring pressure from the Europeans to bear on Kiev and cut energy supplies that transit Russia from the Central Asian states. This gradually led to a pro-Russian government taking power in Ukraine and a more pragmatic government taking office in Lithuania, and has kept Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan beholden to the Kremlin.

The other tactic is military intervention. In some cases, Russia simply has based its military in the states, like Moldova and Armenia. In other cases, Russia has gone to war; the August 2008 Russo-Georgian war ended with Russia technically occupying a third of Georgia's territory. But on April 7, Russia displayed another weapon in its arsenal that it had not used effectively since the Soviet era. On that day, after months of simmering unrest among the populace over poor economic conditions, a rapid outbreak of riots across Kyrgyzstan led to the government's ouster. It has become clear since then that the momentum and organization behind the revolution came from Moscow. This was Russia using social unrest and popular revolution, in the style of the pro-Western color revolutions that swept the FSU in the 1990s and 2000s, to re-establish its hold over a former Soviet state. It was not the first time Russia has used this tactic; infiltration of foreign opposition or social groups to overthrow or pressure governments was seen throughout the Cold War.

There are several former Soviet states where Russia does not hold substantial energy links, where the pro-Russian sentiment is not strong enough to ensure the election of Moscow-friendly governments, or where military intervention would not be feasible or desirable. Fomenting revolutions is a tactic suitable for use in these countries. Of course, not all of these countries would have a social uprising with the magnitude or precision of Kyrgyzstan's, but Russia has specific kinds of leverage in these countries that it could use to undermine their governments to varying degrees. STRATFOR is examining the groups and tactics Russia would use to socially destabilize each of these countries.


Uzbekistan has the most to be concerned about after the events in neighboring Kyrgyzstan. Uzbekistan is geographically twisted into Kyrgyzstan, which means any social instability could easily bleed over the border. But Tashkent is also concerned with the tactics used by Russia in its neighborhood because its relationship with Moscow has not been too friendly in recent years. Uzbekistan has an independent streak, and it has been pushing to retake its place as regional hegemon.

Uzbekistan's peculiar geography — something arranged by the Soviets in order to prevent Uzbekistan from becoming a regional hegemon in the first place — makes the country incredibly difficult to control. The only way Tashkent has kept order in the country is through totalitarian rule. This has generated a massive culture of discontent among the general populace — fertile ground for a color revolution. But Uzbek President Islam Karimov has been able to control this discontent by clamping down on any hints of social uprisings. In a 2005 uprising in Andijan, the country's security services killed hundreds of protesters demonstrating against poor economic conditions.

Uzbekistan is a clan-based country with many regional groups and networks of legitimate businessmen, mafioso, drug traffickers and regional political officials.

Another such event looked to be simmering again when more protests occurred in May 2009 in Andijan. There are suspicions that Moscow may have been testing the waters in Uzbekistan with the 2009 protests, but no concrete evidence of a Russian hand has emerged. Uzbekistan is also a clan-based country where many regional clans in both Uzbekistan proper and the Fergana Valley form networks of legitimate businessmen, mafia members, drug traffickers, regional political officials and some Islamists. Clan rivalry tends to break out frequently over business issues, and the majority of the clans in the country are staunchly against Karimov. But no organization or incentive has been set for these clans to rise up against the president — which could provide an opening for Moscow. There is another factor Russia could exploit should it choose to target Uzbekistan next.

In Kyrgyzstan, a successful revolution took place only after the Kyrgyz government had broken — something Russia also had a hand in — leaving the country more vulnerable to a social uprising. The government in Uzbekistan has been a consolidated force under Karimov since the fall of the Soviet Union. This has allowed Karimov to be able to deploy security forces decisively and crackdown on dissent easily. But there are concerns growing that once the aging president — the oldest leader in the FSU — moves out of power, a succession crisis will break out. Several figures are already jockeying for position to succeed Karimov, and Moscow could take advantage of a fractured government to break Tashkent's hold on the country as a whole. But should Russia not want to wait for an Uzbek succession crisis, Moscow will have to get its hands dirty by provoking another nasty Andijan uprising or purchasing the clans in the country.


Tajikistan is another country that shares a porous border with Kyrgyzstan. Tajikistan is not exactly a problem for Russia, which holds six bases in the country, but Dushanbe is not always the most pliant of the former Soviet states either, making it a possible target for Moscow. Unlike Kyrgyzstan, which has an identifiable opposition movement, Tajikistan has extremely marginalized or almost nonexistent opposition parties. There are, however, other forces which could challenge the current government's rule. Tajikistan is dominated by clan-based regionalism without much connection between the regions to create an overriding national identity. The country fought a brutal civil war from 1992-1997 in which groups from the central and eastern regions rose up against the president, whose followers hailed from the north and west. Currently, Tajikistan is not so much a cohesive unit as a state trying to keep its different areas from fighting each other. It would not take much effort on Russia's part — especially via the security services — to be able turn regional groups against Dushanbe. Additionally, mixed into this regionalism is a strong Islamic militant movement — a movement that is linked to the militancy in Afghanistan. The distinction between the regional clans and the Islamic militant groups is blurred, and both could rise against Dushanbe. But as easy as it would be to push either group into destabilizing the country, controlling those groups is just as hard — something that Russia knows from the days of Soviet rule over Tajikistan. Because of Tajikistan's inherent complexities and the difficulty of controlling either the regional clans or the Islamists, traditionally Russia has considered it better to simply influence Tajikistan via economic and security incentives than try to own it.


Kazakhstan is already subservient to Russia, and has recently grown even closer to its former Soviet master by joining a customs union that formally subjugates the Kazakh economy to Russia's. Kazakhstan also has no threatening opposition movements, because Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev has clamped down on opposition parties and groups within the country. Occasionally there are small protests in Kazakhstan, but nothing that could endanger stability. But Kazakhstan has reason to be worried about its stability in the future. Nazarbayev is one of the oldest leaders in the FSU, at 70 years old — an age nearly a decade past the region's life expectancy. It is not yet clear who will succeed Nazarbayev, who has led Kazakhstan since the fall of the Soviet Union. Out of the myriad potential replacements for the president, many of the front-runners are not as pro-Moscow as Nazarbayev. Observing Russia's ability to overthrow the government in Kyrgyzstan likely is a reminder to the less pro-Russian forces in Kazakhstan that such a tactic could be used in Astana someday. Kazakhstan is similar to Kyrgyzstan in that social and geographic divisions between the country's north and south could be used easily to disrupt stability. Russians make up more than a quarter of the population in Kazakhstan, mostly on the northern border. The center of the country is nearly empty, though this is where the capital is located. The population along Kazakhstan's southern border — especially in the southeast — is a mixture of Russians, Kyrgyz, Kazakhs, Uzbeks and Uighurs, making the area difficult to consolidate or control. It would take little effort to spin up any of these groups — especially Russian Kazakhs — to create unrest should Moscow deem it necessary.


Turkmenistan is attempting to balance the influence of three regional powers: Russia, Iran and China. The Turkmen government is not anti- or pro-Russian; it is pragmatic and knows that it needs to deal with Moscow. Russia, however, has been irritated over Turkmenistan's energy deals with China, Iran and the West. Turkmenistan is inherently paranoid, and for good reason. The country's small population is divided by a desert; half its people live along the border with regional power Uzbekistan, and the other half live along the border with Iran. Also, the country's population is bitterly divided by a clan system the government can barely control. This has made Turkmenistan uneasy anytime any country is destabilized by a major power, whether during the U.S. war in Iraq, Russia's war in Georgia or the revolution in Kyrgyzstan. Ashgabat knows that it is a country without a real core, and from this weakness comes a paranoia that it could be next. Russia holds influence over each of the clans in Turkmenistan; for example, the southern Mary clan has to use Russia for its drug trafficking, and Russia manages energy exports controlled by the Balkhan clan and provides weapons to the ruling Ahal clan. Moscow has been the key to peace among the clans in Turkmenistan in the past, such as when President Saparmurat Niyazov died in 2006. But Russia could easily use its influence instead to incite a clan war, which could steer the country in any number of directions.


Since the 2003 Rose Revolution, Georgia has been one of the most pro-Western countries in Russia's near abroad. Its pro-Western stance is a key problem for Russia, since Georgia is the gateway country for Russia to resurge into the Caucasus as a whole. Logically it follows that Georgia would be one of the next countries in which Moscow would want to consolidate its influence. Georgian political figures — particularly Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili — are notoriously anti-Russian. However, there is a growing opposition force which, while not pro-Russian, is willing to adopt a more pragmatic stance toward Moscow. Three key figures have emerged as possible leaders of the opposition movement: former Prime Minister Zurab Nogaideli, former Georgian Ambassador to the United Nations Irakli Alasania and former Georgian Parliament Speaker Nino Burjanadze. Nogaideli has visited Moscow several times in the past few months and even formed a partnership between his Movement for Fair Georgia party and Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin's United Russia. Burjanadze, one of the most popular and well-known politicians in Georgia, has also visited Moscow and held talks with Putin recently. Alasania has also argued for a more pragmatic stance toward Russia, and will be a key figure to watch as he runs for mayor of Tbilisi in the country's upcoming regional elections on May 30. Although these figures have gained prominence, they have not yet proven they can attract a broad movement or consolidate the other opposition parties effectively. Georgia's opposition remains greatly divided, with more than a dozen groups that do not agree on how to deal with Russia, among many other topics. Though unorganized, protests erupted across Georgia in 2009 and could arise again this year, especially with regional elections taking place in a month. There were rumors during the 2009 protests that Russia had funded the opposition's activities, unbeknownst to the opposition. It is notable that during the height of the uprising in Kyrgyzstan, opposition leaders referred to the protests in Kyrgyzstan as a model for the Georgian opposition to rise up against Saakashvili. Russia would be very interested in seeing the Georgian opposition coalesce and rise against Saakashvili. But this would be difficult for Moscow to orchestrate since there is no real pro-Russian movement in Georgia. The population there has not forgotten that Russia has already rolled tanks into Georgia, and any move that is seen as too strongly pro-Russian could serve to alienate those willing to talk to Russia even further.


Azerbaijan is another country attempting to balance its relationship with Russia against other regional powers like Turkey, Iran and the West. Its ability to continue such a balancing act is mainly due to its energy wealth, which gives it cash and leverage within those relationships. Currently, Azerbaijan maintains a fairly amenable relationship with Russia, though should it strengthen its ties to the other powers, Moscow could target the country. Azerbaijan saw a possible attempt at a color revolution-style uprising in 2005, leading many to question whether the West had the country on the same list as Georgia, Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan. In mid-2005, a myriad of youth movements reportedly inspired by the Orange and Rose revolutions declared themselves in opposition to the Azerbaijani government. What began as protesters taking to the streets with banners and flags escalated into riots. The police quickly clamped down on the movement before it could organize further. Russia has the ability to organize such a movement in Azerbaijan, as it has relationships with opposition parties and youth movements in the country. According to STRATFOR sources in Baku, Russia also has influence within the minority populations in Azerbaijan, especially the Dagestani groups in the northern part of the country that are linked to militant movements in the Russian Caucasus but have been since purchased by pro-Russian forces in the region. Sources have indicated that Russia has threatened to use those populations against Baku in the past.

The Baltic States

The Baltic states — Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania — are a major piece in Russia's resurgence plans. Located on the vulnerable North European Plain, and a stone's throw from Russia's second largest city of St. Petersburg, the Baltics are a prime property for Russia to control. The Baltics' inherent problem is that they are so small and weak that they only have two paths to follow: hope someone protects them, or accept Russian authority. On the surface, it looks as if the Baltics have protection, since they belong to the European Union and NATO. But Russia has its hands in some fairly strong social movements in these states. Past events have shown that Estonia and Latvia, where ethnic Russians make up roughly 25 and 30 percent of the population, respectively, are easy targets for Moscow. Estonia and Latvia both have pro-Russian parties in their political systems due to the large Russian minority populations. Moscow's influence is less strong in Lithuania, since Russians only make up 9 percent of the population there. Russia knows that the Baltics, like Georgia, will never have pro-Russian governments. Instead, Russia is interested in pressuring the Baltic governments into a so-called "Finlandization," or neutrality. This does not mean the Baltics would leave their Western clubs; rather, they would implicitly give Russia veto power over any political or security decision.

Central Europe

The Central European states have seen Russian interference in their social dynamics in the past and are nervous again after the Kyrgyz uprising. Russian meddling has been a fact of life for these countries for centuries, even if they were never formally part of Russia. Russia can mobilize social movements in Central Europe in two ways: through "charm offensives" and through non-governmental organizations (NGOs). Russia can use charm offensives to divide and confuse the Central Europeans. This tactic serves to undermine anti-Russian elements and paint them as a "phobic" segment of society. Russia can isolate the anti-Russian sentiments in these countries via media and investment and by acting as a friendly neighbor. For example, in the wake of the Polish president's death, Russia stepped in as a friendly neighbor symbolically supporting the Polish people — especially the deceased government members' families — in their time of grief. Russia has shown its ability to direct funds to NGOs, academia and human rights groups — particularly those fighting for minority rights or against certain military programs — to influence civil society in Europe. This was a tactic used during the Cold War. Any NGO that questions either the value of the region's commitment to a U.S. military alliance (such as groups opposing the U.S. ballistic missile defense plan) or the merits of EU membership (groups citing a lack of transparency on some issues or with an anti-capitalist message) can serve Moscow's interest of loosening the bonds between Central Europe and the rest of the West.


China has many reasons to be alarmed about Russia's actions in Kyrgyzstan, with which it shares a rugged border. China has placed a large bet on Central Asia as the only secure source for resources without building the sort of naval expertise that would allow it to protect its sea lanes. China has been slowly increasing its influence in Central Asia, creating energy links to Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. China has also increased its ties in the region, including Kyrgyzstan, through rail infrastructure. Russia's demonstration that it can throw a quick and tidy revolution puts China's development and economic security strategies at risk. Furthermore, the tactics Russia used in Kyrgyzstan are troubling for Beijing because of China's own problem controlling the myriad groups in the country — including the Uighurs, Tibetans and separatists in Hong Kong or Shanghai (who are not too fond of the leadership in Beijing). China is always unnerved when a popular uprising overturns a government anywhere in the world. Russia has a long history with the Uighur populations in China, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan. In the 1990s, Russia helped fund and organize the Uighurs in order to keep China's focus on its own problems at a time when Russia was weak and vulnerable. This is something it could do again. China fears greater Russian influence over these communities, especially if it could translate into greater Russian influence inside China. Russia is not looking to overturn the Chinese government; rather, Moscow could use social pressure to influence Beijing and keep its focus away from former Soviet turf.

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