The stakes that Russian political elites made in the U.S. and Ukrainian presidential races reveal Russia’s growing concern over its leading role in the Commonwealth of Independent States, according to Moscow pundits. While President George W. Bush’s reelection is seen by the Kremlin as an outcome that is relatively favorable for Russia’s pursuit of its interests in the post-Soviet space, Viktor Yanukovych’s win in the November 21 Ukrainian runoff is regarded as an indispensable prerequisite for the preservation of the CIS as Moscow’s zone of influence.
The news of Bush’s re-election was received in Russia’s political circles with a sigh of relief. Most Moscow strategists appear to have sincerely believed that the Kremlin would have had serious difficulties in dealing with a Democratic administration. As one influential commentator pointed out, there was a widespread belief in Moscow that the so-called “anti-Putin” open letter signed by a large international group of foreign policy specialists and criticizing, among other things, Russia’s neo-imperialist policies towards its neighbors “was initiated by the Kerry team.” In contrast, President Bush, with his fixation on the “war on terror” and his hands full in Iraq, is less prone to meddle in Moscow’s policies in the former Soviet lands, the experts say.
Internationally, both the United States under Bush and Russia under Putin “pursue national interests with little regard for world opinion,” noted one commentary analyzing the affinities between the two leaders. But this lack of interest in how the world views their policies may paradoxically facilitate accommodation between Moscow and Washington — including in post-Soviet Eurasia, where Russia aspires to be the main “stabilizing force” within the framework of the global war against terrorism.
But if the outcome of the American election was perceived by Russian analysts as a factor capable of either facilitating or hindering the pursuit of Russia’s interests in the “near abroad,” the result of the presidential race in Ukraine is likely viewed as a development that can “make or break” Moscow’s leadership role in the CIS.
A number of Russia’s liberal political scientists explain why it is so. As Dmitry Furman, a scholar at the Institute of European Studies, notes, most CIS countries have developed political regimes based on “phony democracy”; their dominant feature is the lack of alternatives to presidential power. In all these post-Soviet states, Furman argues, constitutions are mere tools of this concentrated power; they can be easily “thrown away” as soon as they cease to be useful. In such a polity, democratic form is just a thin veil over authoritarian content. The mechanism of political succession in the majority of the CIS states has been almost uniform: elections are formal mechanisms to transfer power to a designated successor; there is no genuine chance for the opposition to capture the presidency.
This procedure, in the words of political analyst Gennady Sysoyev, is “one of the main principles guiding the CIS in its current form.” If this law proves to be working in Ukraine, argues Sysoyev, the CIS will remain post-Soviet space with all its specific political attributes and characteristics. But if the time-tested “succession mechanism” fails, it will mean, “The CIS ceases to be just the space of the former Soviet Union and gradually starts to become a part of the single European space.”
Furman holds a similar view. Toppling one of the unchallenged presidents and a shift from “phony democracy” to a truly democratic political system in any of the CIS countries will inevitably create a “demonstration effect,” Furman says. Thus Ukraine is an extremely important test case. Indeed, should Russia fail with Yanukovych, argues Andrei Ryabov of the Carnegie Moscow Center, it would cast serious doubt on Russia’s ability to influence affairs in what it considers to be its own backyard, where both the EU and the United States are playing an increasingly active role. But should Yushchenko win, it could inspire opposition forces in other CIS countries.
(Gazeta, October 25; Novaya gazeta, October, 28; Kommersant, October 28; Moscow Times, November 1; Polit.ru, November 2).