I sat down to lunch last month in Abkhazia with Vladimir Churov, the head of Russia’s Central Election Commission and a man who has been accused of rigging elections, and Alexei Ostrovsky, head of the Duma’s Committee on CIS Affairs. They were officially in Abkhazia to monitor the elections, but the presence of such a high-level delegation was proof that Moscow didn’t want to lose its grip on its newest friend in its “near abroad”.
After all, it doesn’t have many of them left, and this after a decade where keeping influence in the former Soviet countries has been one of the key policy goals of the Putin era. And 2010 looks like it will see little improvement.
“We never interfere in the elections of neighbouring countries,” said Churov, over bites of kebab and cheesy bread. Ostrovsky, in between vodka shots, lamented the lack of democracy in Georgia and Ukraine. By lack of democracy of course, he meant lack of respect for Russia.
But while Georgia and Ukraine have spent the last few years loudly and proactively trying to slip Moscow’s noose, what is more striking is the quiet manoeuvring of almost all the other countries in the region to diversify their political allies.
The past year has seen a number of humiliating policy failures for Russia in the post-Soviet arena, among states that are traditionally seen as its most loyal allies. Alexander Lukashenko, the quixotic Belarussian president, snapped up Russian aid, but then launched a series of withering attacks on Russia and Putin, which coincided with attempts to mend broken fences with the EU. Or take Central Asia – one of Putin’s biggest gripes with the Bush administration was that he felt that Russia had allowed the US to use Central Asian states for airbases after 9/11, but had got precious little in return – “not even a thank you”, as one high-ranking Russian diplomat complained to me.
The Russians wanted to show the incoming Obama administration that airbases in Central Asia were a privilege, not a right. So, when the president of Kyrgyzstan visited Moscow early in the year, he chose the Russian capital to announce that his country would be closing the vital Manas airbase, used to support Nato troops in Afghanistan. During the same visit, Russia offered Kyrgyzstan a $2bn loan and further financial aid. The generous loan had nothing to do with Kyrgyzstan’s sovereign decision to close the airbase, said Russian officials.
A few months later, amid an increased rent offer from the US, the Kyrgyz changed their minds and said the base could stay open, leaving Russia looking rather silly. It’s a pattern that has been repeated across the post-Soviet space over the last year. Countries want to keep good relations with Moscow, but they are terrified of becoming vassal states. So in the coming year we’ll see Kazakhstan taking over the chairmanship of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) in a bid to have more contact with Europe and the US, and Turkmenistan continue to diversify its energy supplies. A gas pipeline to China opened in December, and more diversification is likely to follow as the reclusive country seeks to avoid Moscow setting the prices for its gas exports.
The one place where the opposite trend might be visible is Ukraine. A country split in two when it comes to eastward and westward pulls, has spent the years since the Orange Revolution trying to stake a case for EU membership. But with Viktor Yushchenko almost certainly on the way out in January’s presidential election, the two most likely winners will both seek to mend relations with Moscow. If the last 10 years have shown that post-Soviet countries want other friends as well as Russia, they also demonstrate the grave dangers of pushing too hard and angering the Russian bear.