In his recent state of the nation address, Russia’s President Vladimir Putin was excruciatingly specific about his administration’s economic policies. He was much less specific, however, in addressing the issue of the Kremlin’s foreign policy. True, Putin did repeat a worn-out mantra about the strategic priority for Russia of the CIS countries. Yet he divulged no details on the concrete strategies Russia plans to pursue in what it regards as its geopolitical backyard. Russian leader’s silence on the issue of Moscow’s behavior in the post-Soviet space appears to betray the lack of consensus amongst Russia’s key foreign-policy movers and shakers. The appearance over the last two weeks of at least three policy papers airing different views on Russia’s CIS policies reveals an ongoing heated debate on how to shape strategy toward former Soviet lands.
Currently, there seem to be three main schools of thought suggesting various CIS policies for the Putin government. The first group of thinkers comprises the neo-imperialists who bemoan Russia’s continuing retreat from its exclusive sphere of interest. One of the group’s main ideologues, Stanislav Belkovsky, president of the National Strategy Institute, argues, in an article titled “After the Empire,” that the recent developments in post-Soviet Eurasia – in particular, the apparent success of Georgian leader Mikheil Saakashvili’s reconquista – have seriously endangered the very existence of the Commonwealth of Independent States as a specific form of organization of the post-Soviet space. The CIS, Belkovsky contends, has been formed as a three-tier structure. Russia is at the core of the system with other former Union republics and self-proclaimed de-facto independent states like Transdniestria or Abkhazia constituting the second and the third tier. It was primarily the unrecognized states, Belkovsky says, that allowed Russia to maintain strategic dominance in former Soviet lands and preserve the unipolar model of the CIS since Moscow retained levers of influence and direct military presence in the various distant spots of post-Soviet Eurasia. In Belkovsky’s opinion, the downfall of the Abashidze regime in Ajaria has launched a negative dynamic leading to the eventual demise of the other unrecognized states and the crumbling of the three-tier structure guaranteeing Russia’s over-lordship in the CIS. Belkovsky and other analysts who are close to Russia’s defense and security community argue that there is an urgent need to arrest this dangerous development. The Kremlin, they say, has to immediately extend help to the third-tier (unrecognized) states and support them “economically, politically and, if need be, militarily.” (Vedomosti, May 12, Komsomolskaya Pravda, May 18.)
The so-called “benevolent integrationists” constitute the second group of Moscow political thinkers. Their views are best represented by the programmatic article of Gleb Pavlovsky, the Kremlin’s veteran spin doctor. The key element of Putin’s foreign policy is the integration process in what Pavlovsky calls the “Euro-East.” Due to civilizational dissimilarities and to disconnect in basic values, neither the US nor the EU can offer the post-Soviet countries of Eastern Europe a viable blueprint for integration, Pavlovsky believes. Only Russia, he says, can lead the process of “building in the Euro-East a unique supranational model distinct from the one sponsored by the EU.” Europe, on the other hand, should not be afraid of this Russia-led project, the integrationists contend, since Moscow’s efforts will ultimately bring about the Europe-wide integration of a higher level than is currently offered by Brussels. (Nezavisimaya gazeta, May 31, Russ.ru.)
In contrast to the integrationists, Russia’s “pragmatists” advocate a radical shift in Moscow’s CIS policies away from what they call the “paper integration” and move toward a strategy based solidly on bilateral relations. “The CIS countries grow increasingly different; thus the policies toward them should vary,” argues Sergei Karaganov, chairman of the Council on Foreign and Defense Policy. Moscow should base its strategy in Eurasia on a set of pragmatic and clear-cut principles, Karaganov says. First of all, Russia should prioritize its relations with various CIS countries depending on their economic potential, transit capacities, and significance for Russia’s security interests. Aggressive expansion of Russian capital into the post-Soviet states should be systematically supported. Penetration of the CIS information market by Russian media outlets should be strongly encouraged. Finally, a naturalization program for the CIS migrants should be elaborated and implemented, Karaganov and the other pragmatists suggest. Only such a well-nuanced policy, they say, can “turn Russia into a true leader and magnet for the majority of the former Soviet countries.” (Rossiiskaya gazeta, May 19.)
It is hard to tell at this point which approach will be ultimately used by the Kremlin as a strategic blueprint. Given the complex process of shaping Russia’s foreign policy agenda, Moscow policies in the CIS will likely remain a mixed bag of neo-imperial, integrationist and pragmatist positions.