Towards a new dynamic in the post-Soviet Space

Posted in Russia | 17-Oct-05 | Author: Georgeta Pourchot

Map of the former Soviet Union.
Map of the former Soviet Union.
A new inter-state dynamic has been emerging in the geographic space formerly known as “the Soviet sphere of influence.” The core-periphery relationship between Russia and its near-abroad has given ground to a dynamic characterized by break-away republics asserting their national interests in foreign and domestic policies irrespective of Russia’s position. This dynamic has not occurred over night, it does not (yet) apply to the entire former Soviet space and is not aimed against Russia. If successful, this dynamic will lead to new and healthy relations between Russia and its neighbors based on mutual respect, partnership and increased mutual benefits.

This paper is the first in a series that highlights the dimensions of the emerging Russia -near abroad dynamic. The major characteristics of this dynamic are:

  • defining domestic and foreign policy priorities based on national interest, not (necessarily) on the Kremlin’s interests or preferences;
  • maintaining a strategic relationship with Russia;
  • discarding the traditional subordination to the Kremlin illustrated by the core-periphery approach.

The new dynamic started emerging as early as 1990, in the former communist countries of Eastern Europe. Even if they were never Russia’s “near-abroad”, from Poland to Bulgaria all former communist countries retained a degree of subordination to Moscow throughout the Cold War. One by one, the countries of the region set domestic priorities for the development of democratic institutions, market economy and civil society independent of and different from the direction in which Russia went after the break-up of the Soviet empire 1991. In foreign policy, these countries asserted their national choice of integration with Euro-Atlantic structures, adherence to market rules through membership in the World Trade Organization and maintaining a strategic relationship with Russia.

At no point during the resetting of these domestic and foreign policy priorities was the assertiveness of these countries aimed against Russia. Fifteen years after the end of the Cold War, results prove that neither Eastern Europe nor Russia’s near abroad defined national geo-strategic goals as “anti-Russian.” Over 200,000 million people representing nine former communist countries are members of NATO and seven of the EU (Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, and the Slovak Republic are members of both, Bulgaria and Romania are only members of NATO – for now). Three of these countries used to be Russia’s near-abroad, the Baltic countries. Despite Russia’s forebodings and strong opposition against NATO expansion during the nineties, relations between Central European countries and Russia remain cordial, trade and investments continue and stability spread throughout the entire European continent. Relations with the three former near-abroad countries, Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia continue to swing between Russia’s seeming acceptance of the countries’ current Euro-Atlantic affiliation and rejection of any claims to set the “historic record straight.”

Perceptions matter as much as, if not more than reality in international relations. As more near-abroad countries such as Ukraine, Moldova and the Caucasus further assert their national interests irrespective of the Kremlin’s position, Russia needs to learn to accept this new dynamic graciously, without being worried of isolation. Eastern Europeans viewed their domestic and foreign policy transformation as incremental steps towards becoming functional and stable democracies, eventually on a par with older democracies of the West. In the same vein, Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia, most recently Ukraine, Georgia and in the future possibly other former Soviet republics may view their national interests with more assertiveness, as children who grow up and want to stand on their feet instead of continuing to be held by the hand by their big brother. Occasionally, Russia has been encouraged to perceive these attempts and assertiveness with a skeptical eye by its own political elite. Unfortunately, persisting in the view that the emergence of viable democracies in the former Soviet space is due to an “international coalition to isolate Russia” simply does not do justice to developments in the region; it also does not help relations between the Kremlin and the near-abroad, or “the international community”.

Yet Russia has also moved away from its past towards closer ties with the United States, the European Union, the WTO, and has built relations with countries in the Middle East that even Europe cannot claim to have. Iran is a case in point. Domestically, Russia may not be the kind of democracy that Washington or Brussels think it should be but it is well off the track of the past and should be given credit for it.

Yet Russia in general and Moscow in particular need to come to terms with a historical reality: The near-abroad is not “the enemy” but it wants Russia’s respect and fair treatment. Many of the “crises” encountered in relations between Russia, Central and Eastern Europeans, and former Soviet republics stemmed from the Kremlin’s persistence in treating these countries as vassals rather than partners. From recognition of historical realities regarding the massacre of Polish troops to the invasion and annexation of the Baltic countries, Russia needs to come to terms with past realities before it can build solid relations for the future.

Events and political rhetoric indicate that the Russian political elite is undecided between rejection of the past and acceptance of the present. This series of articles will examine the Russia - near-abroad dynamic of increased assertiveness in foreign and domestic policies, covering issues of Euro-Atlantic integration, prestige and regional arrangements fostering stability with or without Russia. It examines trends both within and between Russia and the near-abroad as they related to a broader question: Where is the region headed?

Georgeta POURCHOT, Senior Associate, Center for Strategic and International Studies, Adjunct Faculty, Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University

Published in: Eurasian Home web site