Although Russian President Vladimir Putin was given the symbolic position of chairman of the CIS Council at the end of last week’s summit in Astana, the gathering demonstrated that Russia has no coherent policy that would help it maintain a leadership position in the former Soviet lands. In lieu of a meaningful strategy, Moscow called on its neighbors to unite in the name of the “war against terror.” After the Beslan tragedy, Russia appears to have doubled its efforts to cast itself as a major force bent on eradicating international terrorism in post-Soviet Eurasia. But Putin’s exclusive focus on beefing up security and increasing state control at the expense of democratic transformation — the approach the Putin administration now clearly encourages also in the “near abroad” countries — will likely weaken Russia’s long-term influence in the post-Soviet space and deepen the crisis within the CIS.
Most independent commentators have long deplored Russia’s lack of a well-thought out and long-term strategy that would help secure Moscow’s vital interests in what it has traditionally regarded as its strategic backyard. Last July, President Putin echoed this criticism, having acknowledged that a comprehensive policy toward the CIS countries was yet to be elaborated. The Kremlin leader also noted that the CIS is faced with a tough choice: either turn itself into a “really working, internationally influential structure” or cease to exist.
This is not to say that Russian strategists have not advanced any interesting and potentially viable blueprints aimed at perpetuating Russia’s political and economic leadership in the former Soviet space. At least two such mutually complementary concepts — “Russia as a liberal empire” and “Russia as a beacon of democracy” — have been floating within Moscow political circles since the end of last year. According to the liberal empire thesis, a pet project of the influential head of Russia’s United Energy System, Anatoly Chubais, Russia is way ahead of its neighbors in terms of democratic development and should prod the CIS countries toward liberal reforms rather than try to preserve friendly dictatorships along the perimeter of its borders. Russian independent economic actors, “banks rather than tanks,” would be the main agents of change. Acting freely and pursuing their own interests, Russian private companies would take up strategic positions in the neighboring countries, accelerating market reform there and thus leading these nations towards democracy.
The second concept, focusing more on the development of political systems, argued that Russia should send its neighbors democracy, not stagnation. This idea was most forcefully put forward in a policy paper penned by Konstantin Kosachev, head of the State Duma Foreign Affairs Committee, and published in the June 25 issue of Izvestiya. Kosachev urged a thorough revision of Moscow’s policies toward the CIS states and advocated offering a true “democratic alternative” to Russia’s neighbors. Obviously alarmed by the growing competition in post-Soviet Eurasia between Russia and the West, Kosachev argued that Russia should pursue a strategy that would result in the “elimination of the currently widespread perception of Russia’s influence and presence in the post-Soviet space as a phenomenon hindering the development of democracy” (Izvestiya, June 25).
Neither of the strategic blueprints was endorsed by the Kremlin, likely because there was no consensus about which policy to implement. Thus Moscow has continued pursuing its old incoherent course, which basically boils down to bribing loyal CIS leaders with cheap energy and bullying the defiant ones into submission. Meanwhile, Russia’s steady shift away from liberal economic practices and democratic political norms appears to have made irrelevant the notion of Moscow as an “exporter of democracy.” Nowadays, Russians themselves suffer from a deficit of this commodity, bitterly notes one liberal commentator.
Significantly, speaking to a group of Western academics 10 days before the Astana CIS summit, Putin argued that the democratic system of government could produce dangerous political and ethnic conflicts, rather than resolve them. Indeed, he contended, democracy introduced too quickly or in ways that are not “in conformity with the development of society” could even be “carrying a destructive element” (RFE/RL, September 17).
It would be fair to suggest that Putin’s obsession with the centralization of power and his understanding of democracy as a threat rather than an opportunity is shared by most current leaders of the CIS states. But it is exactly such an outlook — and the policies it engenders — that multiply the crisis situations within the post-Soviet space, some liberal experts contend. The evaluation of the CIS development made by political analyst Nikita Nikolayev is not terribly encouraging. “Permanent reproduction of the post-Soviet [socio-political] model will ultimately lead to its final collapse,” argues Nikolayev. For each CIS state, he adds, this scenario may differ in form but not in content (Rossiiskiye vesti, September 16).