Image by MosNews.com
Image by MosNews.com
Russia’s Putin Reclaiming Dominant Role in Former Soviet Union
The Kremlin may be reclaiming a dominant role in its former Soviet backyard.
In Belarus, Moscow-allied strongman Alexander Lukashenko just won re-election by a landslide — at least by the official count. And President Vladimir Putin’s allies could return to government in Sunday’s Ukrainian parliamentary election, just over a year after the Orange Revolution.
Such developments set back Western hopes of a democratic tidal wave in the former Soviet sphere and could further tarnish Putin’s democratic credentials as he tries to cast himself as a statesman capable of brokering deals with Iran and Hamas.
For Putin, however, asserting dominance over Belarus and Ukraine appears to be part of his strategy to re-establish Moscow as a global player during his year of the G-8 presidency.
"Russia wants to restore its superpower status, and that includes putting these countries back into its orbit," said Yevgeny Volk, Moscow director of the conservative U.S think tank Heritage Foundation.
"It is seeking to reclaim its influence over the former Soviet Union, and remove that of the United States and European Union," he added.
Russia was furious at what it saw as Western encroachment on its home turf after Ukraine’s November 2004 Orange Revolution — the mass protests over election fraud that brought reformist opposition leader Viktor Yushchenko to power over the Kremlin’s favored candidate, Viktor Yanukovych.
Months later, the impoverished Central Asian nation of Kyrgyzstan had its Tulip Revolution, becoming the third former Soviet state within 18 months to see opposition forces topple a Soviet-era leader. Georgia’s Rose Revolution started the process in 2003.
Today, however, Russia is once again on the rise as nervous authoritarian regimes from Kazakhstan to Uzbekistan — where rights groups say government troops killed hundreds of civilians in a crackdown on protesters last year — build closer ties to Moscow, partly as a way to cow opposition forces.
Even in Ukraine, disillusionment at political infighting and the economic collapse that followed the Orange Revolution have brought about a political comeback for Yanukovych, whose rigged victory in the 2004 presidential election was annulled by the Supreme Court.
Enjoying strong support in the Russian-speaking east, his party is poised to win the most seats in the new parliament and earn the right to form the government, even if it will probably need to govern in an uneasy coalition with the party of the pro-Western Yushchenko.
"The West’s influence that triumphed in the color revolutions has clearly become a dead end for these nations," said Sergei Markov, a Kremlin-connected political analyst. "In Georgia, Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan, people live worse, not better than before."
By contrast, in Belarus, whose authoritarian president is shunned by Western nations as Europe’s last dictator, cheap supplies of Russian gas provide a vital lifeline to the inefficient, state-dominated economy.
Analyst Alexei Malashenko of the Carnegie Moscow Center think tank said on Ekho Moskvy radio that while the Kremlin sometimes had tense relations with Belarus, its greatest interest lay in preserving the status quo in Minsk.
He also said that despite loud Western criticism of the Belarus election, there was no serious attempt to help pro-democratic forces, as happened in Ukraine.
"There was a strong fight for Ukraine, but no one fought for Belarus," Malashenko said.
Analysts agree that Russia’s trump card in the region is its immense energy resources. They ensure that despite pro-Western inclinations, both Georgia and Ukraine remain dangerously dependent on their larger neighbor.
A pipeline explosion that cut off Russian supplies to Georgia this winter left millions shivering in their homes — provoking accusations from the tiny U.S.-allied Caucasus mountain state that Russia was deliberately trying to bring it to its knees.
Ukraine meanwhile had to swallow a twofold increase in gas prices after a bitter New-Year dispute that saw Moscow turn off the gas taps.
"Russia is using strong economic levers. With the growth of oil and gas exports it has become much richer than it was in the 1990s and it is translating this economic might into political influence and power," said Volk.
At the center of the Russian policy in the region is a determination to resist the West’s efforts to boost its influence at Russia’s expense, in what Moscow says is falsely portrayed as a bid to promote democracy.
Russia yesterday accused the United States of trying to enforce its vision of democracy on others, angrily rejecting President Bush’s criticism that the Kremlin has rolled back freedoms.