MOSCOW — This was supposed to be Russia’s round in the battle over its backyard. All year, despite its own economic spasms, Moscow has earmarked great chunks of cash for its impoverished post-Soviet neighbors, seeking to lock in their loyalty over the long term and curtail Western influence in the region.
But the neighbors seem to have other ideas. Belarus — which was promised $2 billion in Russian aid — is in open rebellion against the Kremlin, flaunting its preference for Europe while also collecting money from the International Monetary Fund. Uzbekistanjoined Belarus in refusing to sign an agreement on the Collective Rapid Reaction Forces, an idea Moscow sees as an eventual counterweight toNATO.
There are other examples, like Turkmenistan’s May signing of a gas exploration deal with a German company, and Armenia’s awarding of a major national honor to Moscow’s nemesis, President Mikheil Saakashvili of Georgia. But the biggest came last week when Kyrgyzstan — set to receive $2.15 billion in Russian aid — reversed a decision that had been seen as a coup for Moscow, last winter’s order terminating the American military’s use of the Manas Air Base there.
“A game of chance has developed in the post-Soviet space: Who can swindle the Kremlin in the coolest way?” wrote the military analyst Aleksandr Golts, when news of the Manas decision broke. “Such a brilliant result of Russia’s four-year diplomatic efforts!”
There are few projects that matter more to Russia than restoring its influence in the former Soviet republics, whose loss to many in Moscow is still as painful as a phantom limb. Competition over Georgia and Ukraine has brought relations between Moscow and Washington to a post-cold-war low, and the matter is bound to be central to the talks that begin on Monday between Russia’s president, Dmitri A. Medvedev, and President Obama.
Russia’s ability to attract its neighbors to its side and keep them there is unimpressive. The Kremlin’s methods have been reactive and often bullying, combining incentives like cheap energy or cash disbursement with threats of trade sanctions and gas cutoffs.
The war in Georgia seems to have hurt Moscow in that regard. Rather than being cowed into obedience, as most Western observers feared, the former republics seem to have grown even more protective of their sovereignty. Moreover, the leaders themselves have thrived by playing Russia and the West and, in some cases, China off against one another, although that has not brought stability or prosperity to their countries.
In Moscow’s so-called zone of privileged interests, in other words, Russia is just another competitor.
“There is no loyalty,” said Oksana Antonenko, a senior fellow at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, based in London. “Rivalry is the persistent dynamic. They have to play in that game, to compete.”
Kyrgyzstan’s reversal on Manas is a case study in canny horse trading. Russian officials, including Mr. Medvedev, have said they blessed the decision, and that may be true, but President Kurmanbek S. Bakiyev is the one who walked away with what he wanted.
Moscow wanted the base, a key transit hub for the United States’ war in Afghanistan, shut down; Kyrgyzstan wanted more money. In February, Moscow seemed to have achieved a master stroke — at a news conference announcing the pledge of $2.15 billion in Russian aid, Mr. Bakiyev said the United States would have to leave Manas in six months.
The first Russian payments — a $150 million emergency grant and a $300 million low-interest loan — arrived in April, allowing Mr. Bakiyev to pay wages and pensions as he began his re-election campaign. Then Kyrgyzstan shocked the region by announcing a new agreement with the United States. Washington will pay more than triple the rent for the base — now called a “transit center” — increasing its annual payment to $60 million from $17.4 million, while kicking in upwards of $50 million in grants to the government. No one knows if the Kremlin will make good on the rest of its pledge.
Mr. Bakiyev “played the Russians, then he played us,” said Alexander A. Cooley, an associate professor of political science at Barnard College who addressed the Manas dispute in a recent book, “Base Politics.” “It’s all about getting as much as they can.”
This should be easier for Russia, which dwarfs its Eurasian neighbors in both size and wealth. Russia retains a military presence in more than half the former Soviet countries, and huge swaths of their populations rely on Russian media for their news. Russia can offer muscular assistance in elections, as in Moldova, which has just received a Russian pledge of $500 million four weeks before voters go to the polls to elect a new Parliament.
But Russia’s strategy for consolidating support in neighboring capitals can hardly be called a strategy. Belarus’s president, Aleksandr Lukashenko, who is avidly pursuing Western partners, has been barraged with carrots and sticks from Moscow — first promised $2 billion in Russian aid, then bitterly chastised for his economic policy, then punished with a crippling ban on the import of milk products, then rewarded by a reversal of the import ban. Russia regards Mr. Lukashenko’s truculence as a bluff.
“He is imitating a quarrel with Russia until the West demands serious changes from his regime, at which point, he will, of course, surrender,” said Parliament member Konstantin F. Zatulin, a standard-bearer for Russia’s ambitions in former Soviet space. “It’s just his greedy line of behavior.”
But the examples extend much farther. Every post-Soviet country that can manage it is pursuing a “multivector policy,” Mr. Zatulin acknowledged. Mr. Zatulin said he was not upset by these tacks away from Russia, but there was an edge to his answer.
“What is the point of being disappointed?” Mr. Zatulin said. “Pride comes before a fall. These are weak, dependent and poor countries which want to attract attention to themselves — not only attention, but aid. I cannot criticize them for that. But there are some red lines that shouldn’t be crossed.”
Herein lies the problem: Russia’s appeal to them just does not sound very seductive. Ideally, it would present an attractive model for its neighbors, politically and economically. Young generations would learn Russian because they wanted to, and the post-Soviet alliances would be clubs its neighbors are lining up to join.
In any case, Moscow will have to use tools other than wire transfers if it hopes to emerge from the financial crisis with a solid political bloc. As Alexei Mukhin, director of the nonprofit Center for Political Information, put it, “Love bought with money will not last long.
“That is purchased love,” he said. “It’s not very reliable.”