The Kremlin appears determined to prove that Russia is back as a world-class superpower. Immediately after the pomp and fanfare of the St. Petersburg G-8 summit on July 15-17 — the event that has allegedly seen Russia’s return to the first league of global heavyweights — Russian President Vladimir Putin is hosting a gathering of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) leaders in Moscow on July 21-22. The Kremlin’s agenda at this forum seems to be crystal clear — to reconfirm Russia’s leading role in the former Soviet lands. Indeed, if Russia has left the Western “solar system,” it has to make sure that it remains the center of gravity within its own system of satellites and clients.
According to Kremlin foreign policy aide Sergei Prikhodko, President Putin invited his counterparts to meet in Moscow to “discuss the CIS reform informally” ahead of the regular summit in autumn. Kazakhstan’s President Nursultan Nazarbayev, who currently presides over the CIS presidents’ club, prepared a program document on CIS reform for the Moscow summit, Kazakh Foreign Minister Kasymzhomart Tokayev told journalists.
But unlike the glitzy St. Petersburg gala, the Moscow CIS gathering risks ending as a flop. Just hours before the forum was scheduled to open, four presidents — Turkmenistan’s Saparmurat Niyazov, Georgia’s Mikheil Saakashvili, Ukraine’s Viktor Yushchenko and Armenia’s Robert Kocharian — pulled out of the Moscow summit. According to the press reports, on the morning of July 21, Saakashvili launched a massive reshuffling of his government. Yushchenko referred to his country’s internal problems he has to attend to. Kocharian said he felt unwell. As for the notoriously mercurial Turkmenbashi, he demonstratively made clear to his CIS colleagues that he is busy doing more important things. In a letter sent to summit participants he explained that he is currently on leave and preparing for a meeting with the Iranian president, who arrives in Ashgabat on July 24. Whatever the true reasons for the four leaders’ refusal to attend the summit, Putin was badly humiliated.
The forum of CIS heads of state was meant to take place against the backdrop of Russia’s unprecedented assertiveness, which, some more critically minded observers say, borders on almost unbridled geopolitical hubris. This sentiment of enormous self-confidence is best encapsulated in a programmatic article by Russia’s Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov that was published in the July 14 issue of Izvestiya under the title, “The Triad of National Values.” Today, Ivanov asserts, “Russia has fully reclaimed the status of great power — the one that bears global responsibility for the situation on the planet and the future of human civilization.” Moscow’s dramatically enhanced international posture rests, according to Ivanov, on Russia’s new set of national values: sovereign democracy, strong economy, and military might.
The cumulative power of this home-grown “triad” will likely be tested first in Russia’s relations with the former Soviet republics where Moscow’s influence has been on the wane following the democratic “color revolutions” in Georgia and Ukraine. To be sure, the Kremlin has been as rattled by the Western-leaning policies of the Georgian post-revolutionary elites as much as it disliked the pro-European orientation of Ukraine’s Orange camp. But the way Russia deals with Saakashvili and Yushchenko will likely differ markedly.
Currently, Yushchenko is politically enfeebled by the final collapse of the Orange coalition and the prospect of his arch-rival — and the Kremlin favorite in the 2004 presidential ballot — Viktor Yanukovych becoming Ukraine’s prime minister with significantly enhanced powers (see EDM, July 19). Some Ukrainian and international commentators have already written Yushchenko off as “politically irrelevant”; this is probably an exaggeration caused by the frustration with his poor performance as a national leader but there is no doubt that his political position and ability to stand up to the increasingly assertive Russia have been seriously undermined.
It would appear that a consensus is emerging within Russia’s policymaking and analytic community as to what kind of Ukraine Russia wants to have as its neighbor and partner. According to one recent commentary, Russian strategic interests in Ukraine can be summed up in three points. Moscow wants to see Ukraine as a territory where there are no conflicts, as a reliable transit country for Russian energy exports to Europe, and as a neutral (that is, non-NATO) state. Given the current realignment of political forces in Kyiv and the growing “Ukraine fatigue” in the West, the Kremlin appears to believe it will not be that hard to secure its interests in the neighboring Slavic country.
Unlike Yushchenko, Saakashvili seems intent not to ask for favors but to demand concessions from Moscow. As some observers suggest, prior to his now-cancelled meeting with Putin, he had strengthened his bargaining position: first, Tbilisi withdrew its signature from the protocol regarding Russia’s entry into the World Trade Organization; then the Georgian legislature passed a resolution ending the Russian peacekeepers’ mandate in the secessionist regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia (see EDM, July 19, 20). Even his decision to pull out of the Moscow CIS summit at the last minute suggests he’s in a pugnacious mood: the sources within the Saakashvili presidential administration say the decision not to come to Moscow was prompted by Putin’s refusal to meet the Georgian leader on the sidelines of the two-day gathering.
But the Kremlin is not likely to change its tough line in relations with the pesky Caucasus neighbor. In a recent wide-ranging interview, Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov firmly stated that the Russian peacekeepers will stay put where they are currently deployed. Lavrov blasted Georgia for thwarting peacekeeping operations and violating international agreements on conflict settlement. In addition, Russia’s top diplomat sternly warned Tbilisi that Moscow would use “all means at our disposal” to protect Russian citizens living in Georgia’s breakaway provinces.
(NEWSru.com, RFE/RL, Kommersant, July 21; Novye izvestiya, Kommersant, July 20; Gazeta.ru, July 19; Izvestiya, July 14; Polit.ru, July 4)