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Jan 27, 2006 | 20:24 GMT

6 mins read

The Russian Reversal: Part 2

Ukraine, the Caucasus and Central Asia have been subject to Russia's attempts to reassert control over its periphery. Paralleling these foreign policy maneuvers are Russian President Vladimir Putin's domestic policy changes meant to centralize power within Russia. Moscow's external and internal moves are part of Putin's plan to reverse international influence in the former Soviet Union.
Central Asia
Russia's moves to regain influence in its near abroad have reached former Soviet Union (FSU) countries in Central Asia. After a flirtation with the West, Uzbekistan has recently come back into the Russian fold — a shift clearly indicated when, after providing the United States with a base of operations for the Afghan theater, Uzbek President Islam Karimov evicted the U.S. military. The resource-rich nation has negotiated a contract with Russia asking for protection from the West and suppression of opposition forces in exchange for Russian natural gas monopoly Gazprom's developing Uzbek gas deposits. The final contracts sold natural gas exploration and development rights for $1.5 billion and stopped just short of providing Gazprom a monopoly over a large share of all the natural gas in Central Asia. Also, on Jan. 25, Uzbekistan joined the Eurasian Economic Community and was thus incorporated into another Russian-led, post-Soviet organization. Partnering with Uzbekistan will sufficiently protect Russia's southern flank, sandwich the China-friendly Kazakhstan and allow Russia to project regional influence. Other countries in Central Asia can be expected to remain in Russia's camp, to various degrees. The unpredictable Saparmurat Niyazov (better known as Turkmenbashi) will keep Turkmenistan supplying natural gas through Gazprom's network as long as he feels it is advantageous. The pro-Russian Tajik President Emomali Rakhmonov is expected to remain in power for the foreseeable future. Although Kazakhstan is cooperating with China, especially in the realm of energy, its Russian minority keeps it from straying too far from its northern neighbor. Kazakhstan will lean politically toward Russia and economically toward China, but it is unlikely to become a flashpoint of conflict in the near future. Kyrgyzstan recently experienced its own "color revolution" — in this case, "Tulip." The leadership there moved the country away from subservience to Russia; though Uzbekistan evicted the U.S. military, Kyrgyzstan continues assuring the United States that it is a partner in the Afghanistan campaign and will continue to host Americans, albeit with a substantial price hike. However, the Kyrgyz government is adamant about not turning away from Russia completely. As Russia secures its presence on its Central Asian and Transcaucasian flank, it can devote more attention to the growing problems in Ukraine. The Russian political will to retain a degree of control in the rebellious nation supersedes any discomfort caused by disgruntled Europeans. Belarus remains a solid partner and buffer to the north, but further up are the Baltics, which have almost entirely left the Russian sphere of influence. Gazprom and the Russian oil companies occasionally try to reassert Russia's presence in the Baltic energy sector, but Moscow cannot count on any of the three states to serve as protection from the Western ways to which they have subscribed. If Ukraine remains on its Westward course, Russia will lose the last meaningful vestige of protection from European encroachment, but Moscow has shown willingness to sacrifice a lot to maintain its strategic depth. Russia's Internal Concerns Within Russia's borders, forces are moving to consolidate the Kremlin's rule. The ongoing scandal involving four British diplomats bolsters Russia's plans to reduce foreign influence and prevent a "color revolution" on its own soil — particularly its policies regarding nongovernmental organizations (NGOs). Since his re-election in 2004, Russian President Vladimir Putin's government has accused international NGOs of everything from nonpayment of taxes to open subversion of Russian power structures. In May 2005, Nikolai Patrushev, head of the FSB, said that U.S. and other organizations are planning uprisings that would lead to a "color revolution" in Russia. Recently, a case was re-opened against the British Council — an NGO that teaches English in St. Petersburg and Moscow — for nonpayment of taxes. Also recently, four British diplomats were not only charged with spying but also were accused of supporting Russian NGOs for the purposes of deposing the current regime. In the allegations against the British diplomats, it is unclear whether it was the reported spying that financed Russian NGOs such as the Moscow Helsinki Group and The Eurasia Foundation, though officials from those organizations did have contact with the embassy employees. Both organizations admittedly receive grants from the British and other Western sources. Putin signed a controversial bill Jan. 10 requiring all NGOs to re-register and adhere to stricter financial and structural rules in doing so. He waited until Jan. 17 — after German Chancellor Angela Merkel's visit to Moscow — to announce the bill's passage into law, as he knew Merkel disapproves of the move. This law solidified the Kremlin's assault on organizations that could disagree with its agenda, especially ones that accept foreign money and influence. The nature of the Putin presidency has created another circumstance that should be considered in any study of Russia and its periphery. As the former head of the FSB —successor to the KGB and the best-informed agency in all of Russia — Putin, along with his allies, has kept files on all former Soviet functionaries in the republics. Most of the former Soviet states are still ruled by those functionaries. Even if a country's leader did not inherit his position after the fall of the Soviet Union, people in his government held Soviet posts. The idea of kompromat is not new to the FSU — few practices have changed since the Soviet Union's demise. Even the Georgian team of young reformers has been associated with former Soviet Minister of Foreign Affairs Eduard Shevardnadze. Putin has reversed Yuri Andropov's long-standing policy of trading geopolitical concessions for economic stability. He has shown no qualms about abandoning international obligations to promote his policy of re-establishing a protective barrier around Russia. Also high on his agenda is retaining influence after the March 2008 presidential election. Although constitutionally barred from running for another term, he could become the president of the impending Russia-Belarus union or take a high position in the government of his hand-picked successor. With these steps, Putin has made it his priority to fortify Russia's geopolitical position at the expense of economic consideration and international reputation. He can be expected to do what — by post-Soviet standards — would be unthinkable in order to retain power, control the flanks and diminish international influence in Russia.

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