Publication: Fortnight in Review Volume: 3 Issue: 9

The Fortnight in Review

Russian Government on the Offensive

The administration of Russian president Boris Yeltsin launched a simultaneous attack against two of its most stubborn opponents over the past fortnight: the Communist-dominated parliament and Russia’s headstrong regional leaders. The Kremlin’s newfound assertiveness seemed to be the result of President Boris Yeltsin’s return to health after nearly a year dogged by sickness.

The Russian Duma was caught off-guard by the Kremlin’s actions, which included threats from First Deputy Premier Anatoly Chubais and other Yeltsin-allies that the president might dissolve parliament if it did not approve the government’s revised austerity budget. The Duma would not normally be due for reelection before 1999, but the Communist press reported a secret Kremlin plan to discredit parliament and call a snap election. Reason argued that parliamentary footdragging over the budget did not constitute constitutional grounds for dissolution, and that fresh elections would likely produce a new legislature no more accommodating than the present one. Apparently convinced of its own unpopularity, however, the Duma seemed to take the threat of dissolution seriously, but was determined not to increase its unpopularity still further by approving cuts in public spending. A cliffhanger resulted: the Duma agreed to delay its summer recess by four days in order to consider the government’s proposals, but then postponed its vote. That action raised the possibility that Russia might be left without an approved budget when parliament begins its summer recess on June 24.

A Tale of Two Governors

Simultaneously, the Kremlin took on Russia’s powerful regional bosses. President Yeltsin used his weekly radio broadcast to launch yet another campaign against corruption and to warn provincial bribe-takers that they are not immune from prosecution. Anti-corruption campaigns were a traditional Soviet weapon for getting rid of political opponents, and Yeltsin apparently resolved to make an example of Yevgeni Nazdratenko, governor of Primorsky krai, who has ruled the Far Eastern region as a personal fiefdom ever since 1993. The Kremlin’s previous attempts to replace Nazdratenko failed because of the strength of his local support. In 1995, he was elected with 60 percent of the vote.

At the end of May, Yeltsin tried a new tack. He appointed Lt. Gen. Viktor Kondratov as his representative in the region and gave him most of Nazdratenko’s powers. As local security chief, Kondratov knew where all the bones were buried, and he immediately started to speak out about corruption in local government. Counter-attacking, Nazdratenko appeared nightly on regional television to denounce Moscow’s "diabolical plot" to sell the region into slavery to neighboring China. (Under a 1991 treaty with Beijing, Moscow is to transfer part of the krai’s territory to China.) Nazdratenko also accused Yeltsin of unlawfully endowing his representatives with executive functions inconsistent with the monitoring role envisioned in the constitution. The Kremlin retorted that Yeltsin intended to expand the powers of all his representative and let it be known that the president was considering sacking Nazdratenko. "The development of relations between the federal center and the regions will depend upon the fate of Yevgeny Nazdratenko," Nezavisimaya gazeta predicted on June 10.

Moscow’s Mayor: The Immovable Object

The only power struggle in which the Kremlin had to cede ground was that with Moscow’s feisty mayor, Yuri Luzhkov. Luzhkov won a protracted battle to secure the right to implement housing reform in the capital in accordance with his own schedule. The federal government wanted all but the poorest members of society to be paying 100 percent of their housing costs by the year 2003. Objecting that this would impoverish ordinary people, Luzhkov insisted on being allowed to raise rents at a gentler rate, with hikes beginning only after the year 2000.

Luzhkov’s power-base is so secure that even Yeltsin would think twice before trying to clip the mayor’s wings. Moscow has just launched Russia’s first sub-national Eurobond — a three-year $500 million issue that was so successful that it has encouraged other Russian cities, including St. Petersburg and Nizhny Novgorod, to plan their own international bond issues. Luzhkov has promised to spend the proceeds on public housing. His opposition to unpopular rent hikes and the populist stances he has adopted over issues such as Russia’s claim to Sevastopol are likely to raise his popularity in the country as a whole. Few observers believe Luzhkov when he says he will not run for president in the year 2000. Recently, the mayor was the driving force behind the establishment of Center-TV — Russia’s latest TV network which is owned and operated by the city of Moscow. Its director has promised to support Luzhkov if he runs for president.

New Defense Team Goes Quietly to Work

The installation of a new leadership team atop Russia’s military hierarchy and a series of initiatives in the area of defense reform proceeded quietly in Moscow over the past fortnight. These most recent developments, which began with the unexpected sacking of Russia’s Defense Minister and General Staff chief by Boris Yeltsin on May 22, stood in sharp contrast to the tumultuous goings-on that have characterized Russian military politics in recent years. During a Kremlin meeting on June 9, Russia’s new defense minister, Army General Igor Sergeev, was reported to have won Yeltsin’s endorsement for an initial series of military reform efforts that include some consolidation of Russia’s Strategic Rocket Forces (which Sergeev formerly commanded) and the country’s space troops. On June 11, Sergeev announced the generalities of a second initiative which involves the creation of so-called "rapid reaction forces." Sergeev’s plans, which seem likely to enhance the role of Russia’s troubled Airborne Forces, appear to coincide with a military restructuring plan announced some five years ago that envisioned the creation of a new branch of service — the Mobile Forces — to be made up of rapid reaction forces and more heavily-armed rapid deployment forces.

Too little has been revealed of the Defense Ministry’s plans to know with any precision what shape the latest military reform effort will take. What does seem certain, for the time being at least, is that Sergeev and the influential secretary of Russia’s powerful Defense Council, Yuri Baturin, are working together on the defense reform effort in a fashion that contrasts sharply with the hostile relationship that had developed between Baturin and Sergeev’s short-lived successor, Igor Rodionov. As a prelude to more personnel reductions, Defense Ministry officials appear right now to be trying to assess exactly what Russia’s current military manpower levels are. Military leaders have also conceded that they are unlikely to see any increases in defense spending in the near term, and that military reform will have to be financed through internal cost-cutting measures. That stance coincides with views held by Baturin rather than those voiced by Rodionov.

Russia vs. NATO: War by Other Means

Relative to the frenzied activity that took place in the months preceding the May 27 signing of the Russia-NATO Founding Act, the past fortnight has been a relatively quiet one for Russia’s diplomats. Political leaders in Moscow have continued to make clear, however, that they view the agreement with NATO as primarily a tactical retreat, and that the Kremlin fully intends to continue its fight against both NATO enlargement and formalization of the Western alliance’s role as Europe’s leading security agency. The first theme was sounded by a Russian deputy foreign minister in Moscow on June 3, when he claimed that the Russia-NATO agreement had in fact weakened the case for enlargement because the act stipulates that Russia and NATO do not view each other as enemies. Several days later the same official said that it is "untimely" to speak of a "second wave" of admissions to NATO because, in his view, it is still not certain that even a "first wave" of aspirants will actually be inducted into the alliance.

On the same day, June 5, Russian foreign minister Yevgeny Primakov reprised Moscow’s long-standing arguments against an enhancement of NATO’s role in Europe. Addressing the Geneva Conference on Disarmament, Primakov criticized what he called "NATO-centrism" and said that the idea of a European security system based on NATO "does not suit" Russia. Later, on June 10-11, Moscow alleged that the U.S. and NATO are pressuring Austria to join NATO, and Primakov strongly urged Vienna to maintain its current status of neutrality. That message was amplified by an unnamed Russian diplomat, who said that Moscow opposes NATO’s enlargement in general, and not merely its expansion eastward toward Moscow’s borders.

On June 3, meanwhile, two Duma leaders indicated that the Russian lower house would soon debate the Russia-NATO agreement, but they allowed that the action would not constitute an act of ratification or non-ratification of the document. Kremlin leaders had earlier intimated that the Founding Act might be submitted to the parliament for some sort of formal approval, a position that clashed with NATO’s claim that the agreement had been crafted so as not to require parliamentary ratification.

The Ponto-Baltic Isthmus: History as Burden and Mentor

The space between the Black (or Pontic) and the Baltic seas, traditionally known in European geopolitics as the Ponto-Baltic Isthmus, forms a geographic unit, but one that has hardly ever been embodied by political cohesion among its diverse nations. During most of modern history, much of this space was ruled by the Russian Empire and the USSR. The visionary theorist of the Central Europe concept, Friedrich Naumann, described this region’s nations as a "community of fate," situated in the path of Russia’s westward expansion, torn by it from the European civilization to which they belong, and compelled to join forces if they are to regain and secure their freedom.

Yet the nations and peoples of the Ponto-Baltic Isthmus historically failed to develop that sense of community. They seldom managed to overcome religious and ethnic fragmentation, territorial disputes, social conflicts that often coincided with national ones (yielding particularly destructive consequences for Ukraine and Poland), and sheer ignorance of and isolation from one another. These factors provided major openings to Tsarist Russian and Soviet conquest. While formally unifying the region under its rule, Moscow in fact perpetuated and even fanned those internecine divisions as a method of divide-and-rule.

Historically, attempts to unify the region from within came mainly from Poland. Most of the Ponto-Baltic Isthmus formed a part of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, which included Ukraine in the late middle ages and early modern period. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, Polish intellectuals and some Ukrainians influenced by them propounded the concept of Prometheanism, which envisaged liberation from Russian rule through a region-wide confederation. Between the world wars, Polish diplomacy pursued a design known as Inter-Marium ("space between the seas") seeking to secure the independence of a large part of the region under Polish leadership. These attempts foundered under the weight of historic divisions, and were followed by a new push of Soviet expansion and five more decades of Soviet control.

The collapse of the USSR has given political elites in the region an opportunity to rethink mutual relationships and to begin constructing multilateral links in the new circumstances. The national governments were, however, slow to grasp this opportunity. It was only last year that the idea of multilateral cooperation from the Baltic to the Black Seas was aired publicly and comprehensively — albeit still in the context of a bilateral meeting — by the presidents of Ukraine and Latvia. And it was not until the last few weeks that multilateralist initiatives evidenced a significant momentum, highlighted by a series of summits held in late May and early June of this year.

New Era in Ukrainian-Polish Relations

On May 20-23, Ukrainian president Leonid Kuchma hosted his Polish counterpart, Aleksander Kwasniewski, and signed with him a declaration on accord and unity. Kwasniewski remarked that Poland and Ukraine are determined to pursue a "joint regional policy" and "form an influential political force in the region and in Europe" in the interest of general stability. Both presidents noted that their countries’ relations with NATO — in the form of impending Polish membership and Ukrainian partnership — would preclude another partition of the region. Kwasniewski described NATO as the guarantor of a new system of European security and Ukraine as an important component of that system.

The statement on accord and unity, also referred to as a declaration of historic reconciliation and signed symbolically in front of a Kyiv student audience, reviews the history of Polish-Ukrainian conflicts and proclaims their end on the basis of overriding common interests. While citing some "moving examples of mutual aid and cooperation," the declaration acknowledges and exorcises the legacy of conflict. It mentions the "tragic pages of that record," including the religious and military conflicts in the 17th and 18th centuries; Polish repression in Western Ukraine in the 1920s and 1930s; Ukrainian atrocities against Poles in Volhynia during World War II; deportation of Ukrainians from eastern Poland in the Communist "Wisla action;" and persecution of the Polish population in Soviet Ukraine. Blaming that history of conflict on both foreign and internal factors, the document announces the determination of both sides to "turn the page" and "live together in a new Europe, free from prejudice and mistrust." The two presidents "take under their personal supervision the promotion of Ukrainian-Polish accord and unity" and appeal to the young generations to develop those relations. Youth friendship centers and cultural houses are to be opened by each side on the other’s territory.

The declaration crowned the earlier Ukrainian-Polish treaty of good-neighborly relations, in which the two countries had recognized the existing mutual border, gave up territorial claims, and committed themselves to protecting ethnic minority rights. In signing the declaration, Kuchma and Kwasniewski announced that they would meet with the three Baltic presidents for multilateral consultations on region-wide economic and security issues. Whether fortuitous or planned, the sequence of these summits was logical in that the bilateral Ukrainian-Polish accord in its unambiguous form helped pave the way to developing region-wide understanding.

Five Countries to Cooperate on Regional Security

On May 27 the presidents of Poland, Ukraine, Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania met in Tallinn to discuss prospects for multilateral cooperation. Kwasniewski, Kuchma, Lennart Meri, Guntis Ulmanis, and Algirdas Brazauskas asserted in a joint communique their countries’ sovereign right to protect their security through means of their choice, including accession to alliances. Emphasizing the indivisibility of European and regional security, the five presidents called on NATO to remain open to all countries that will meet admission criteria following the first round of the alliance’s enlargement. The five countries will work together to help create a stable and secure Europe and to enhance the effectiveness of NATO’s Partnership for Peace program, the joint communique announced. It also reaffirmed these countries’ goal of joining the European Union in due course.

The five-country summit was held on the very day of the signing of the NATO-Russia cooperation agreement. While welcoming that event, the presidents termed the upcoming NATO-Ukraine agreement "a key factor of stability in Europe;" and they warned against the risk of "leaving the region without security guarantees for an indefinite period." Estonian foreign minister Toomas Ilves, who attended the presidents’ discussions, said afterward that the five countries intend to continue consultations on regional security issues in the future. A ministry statement introducing the presidents’ meeting pointed out that the five countries share a concern to avoid the formation of a "gray zone" of lesser security in this region.

The Tallinn summit also discussed plans to develop transportation and trade between the Baltic and the Black seas. Ukraine’s preliminary discussions with Latvia on a coast-to-coast transit corridor, and Kyiv’s proposal to transport Caspian oil via the Black Sea and Ukraine to Poland and other countries, represent the first elements of multilateral economic cooperation in this region.

Multilateral Summit Carries Historic Symbolism

Shortly after the Tallinn summit, the five presidents joined their German, Czech, Slovak, and Hungarian counterparts — Roman Herzog, Vaclav Havel, Michal Kovac, and Arpad Goencz — for a political meeting and a special religious service celebrated by the Polish-born Pope, John Paul II. The event was held in Poland’s former religious capital of Gniezno on June 3 to mark the 1000th anniversary of the death of St. Adalbert, one of the symbols of the Christian unity of East-Central Europe and its political and cultural links with the West. A German-educated Slav from Bohemia who conducted missionary activities in large areas to the east and was martyred somewhere near Koenigsberg, St. Adalbert is a unifying figure honored in various parts the region.

The political side of the Gniezno summit again focused on European and regional security, NATO’s eastward enlargement, and economic cooperation among the region’s countries. The presidents emphasized Ukraine’s pivotal significance to common security and the need to expand communications and trade between the region’s Baltic and Black Sea coasts. The three summits, held in the space of as many weeks, appear to mark the beginning of an effort to build multilateral political and functional links, long overdue among the region’s nations.

The Absentees

The discussions on coast-to-coast transit highlighted the absence of Belarus from the meetings. The authoritarian president of Belarus, Alyaksandr Lukashenka, took his country in the opposite direction last month by entering into a union with Russia. Belarus separates Ukraine from the region’s northern tier. The five democratic presidents, four of whose countries border on Belarus, found the situation there a cause for concern and agreed to work with that country toward overcoming its constitutional crisis and preventing its isolation.

Moldova and Romania were also not present at the multilateral summits. It was only on June 2 that Romania finally signed a treaty of good-neighborly relations with Ukraine and recognized Ukraine’s borders. That step was due in large measure to newly elected president Emil Constantinescu’s effort to secure internal political acceptance of that treaty. Meanwhile, Romania and Poland have agreed to cooperate with Ukraine on security issues in a trilateral framework; Ukraine and Moldova plan to form a bilateral customs union; and the Ukrainian, Moldovan, and Romanian presidents are due to meet next month to launch a Euroregion project in southern Bessarabia, an area that was at various times a part of each of the three countries. Political consolidation on the southern flank augurs well for the development of multilateral cooperation in the region as a whole.