Good Policies Should Make Good Neighbors

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At his first news conference following his election victory, President-elect Dmitry Medvedev touched upon only one foreign relations topic. He said Moscow's priority was the Commonwealth of Independent States, and he promised that his first state visit would be to one of the CIS countries.

That would have not have been such a noteworthy remark were it not for the interesting events that are unfolding in the CIS countries, altering the region's political landscape once again.

The former republics of the Soviet Union for the most part have completed the process of becoming independent states. These countries have achieved full-fledged statehood and are not at risk of losing that status in the foreseeable future.

The post-Soviet states are entering a new stage of development. During the first phase, each tried to decide which ideological stance would be most advantageous. That is now giving way to a more pragmatic approach. In other words, these countries are reconsidering the previous stereotype that Russia is the bogeyman and that Europe is some kind of paradise.

In the 1990s these countries were focused on resolving problems of basic survival and could not look far beyond their borders. Once that was accomplished, the political elite, comprising nationalist and nomenklatura elements, have turned their attention to finding a place for their countries in the greater political picture.

The Orange Revolution in Ukraine in 2004 was a turning point in the policies of all post-Soviet countries. Moscow's aggressive stance during that period turned out to be so counterproductive that it decided to switch tactics.

From the spring of 2005, the Kremlin took the following approach: Inasmuch as it was powerless to change the political situation in the countries along its borders, there was no point in trying to do so. But it would not lift a finger to help any state that departed from the approved path. Further, those states would automatically be given "least-preferred" status and would not be able to count on economic or other indulgences from Moscow.

From that point on, the Kremlin distanced itself from the passions simmering in neighboring states. Although this did not protect Moscow from getting blamed for every misdeed -- the result of its dominating role in the region -- it did enable it to save resources and lower tensions.

Naturally, Russia's mercantilist approach did not make it very popular in the world community, especially among the former Soviet states, which hope for a more benevolent and promising patron.

But Moscow's new course has clearly highlighted the objective limits to these opportunities -- to both the CIS countries and their would-be benefactors on both sides of the Atlantic. A host of former Soviet republics has felt deeply dependent upon Russia. And the politicians of the European Union, for example, have demonstrated that their readiness and desire to actively participate in transforming these newly independent states is fairly limited.

That realization forced each country to make a choice.

The first option available to each country is to continue distancing itself from Russia and gradually move into the orbit of a different global power, as Georgia is doing.

The second option is to try to follow a separate and independent course -- a viable option only for countries blessed with abundant natural resources.

The third option is to strengthen relations with Moscow and to use its help in solving domestic problems, as Moldova has done.

Ukraine serves as a unique example. During the last gas crisis, the two leading players of the Orange Revolution tried to draw Russia into the role of refereeing their mutual disagreement. Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko and Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko have butted heads over the role of Gazprom and intermediaries in the natural gas trade, which have been stigmatized for interfering in the affairs of Russia's sovereign neighbors.

Changes were also brought about by another external factor -- the West. Elections have become a national pastime in many countries. Wherever there is the slightest degree of political freedom, the opposition accuses the authorities of widespread election fraud. But until now, it has been an unwritten rule that the arbiters in such disputes are election observers from international organization, such as the Organization of Security and Cooperation in Europe. When OSCE observers express doubt regarding an election's fairness and validity, this mobilizes opposition forces to organize an election campaign against the ruling elite. In some cases, this results in a change of leadership. If, however, the observers certify that an election meets democratic standards, efforts to contest the results quickly lose steam.

The recent presidential election in Armenia proved an exception to this rule. International observers confirmed that the election met European standards. But the opposition, led by former Armenian President Levon Ter-Petrosyan, ignored their verdict and continued to demand that his "stolen victory" be returned.

The OSCE's reputation also suffered in Georgia, where the observers' mission made a quick initial conclusion that the vote had been honest, then expressed some doubts, and finally confirmed the original opinion. By the way, the final verdict released a few days ago, which was more critical in tone than the one issued immediately after the election, strengthened the impression that conflicting motives were behind the group's evaluation. The result is that the Western standard no longer appears as unbiased as it was before.

The primary question of post-Soviet regional politics in the coming years will be how each of the CIS member countries defines its relationship to Moscow.

If Russia is interested in expanding its influence, it will have to make corrections to the course it has been following since 2005. Countries that are willing to develop closer relations with Moscow will be more responsive if the Kremlin offers attractive economic and political incentives.

There are already signs that Moscow is making efforts toward change. These include a willingness to sell arms at domestic prices to members of the Collective Security Treaty Organization and a clear change in Russia's approach to Abkhazia and South Ossetia -- threatening to apply the Kosovo precedent on the one hand and developing a settlement plan for the Transdnestr territorial problem on the other.

But Russia's policy should be based on well-defined principles and should be designed not for short-term effect, but for creating long-term, partnership relations with other countries. For that, Russia might have to renounce some short-term gains, but pragmatism, after all, does not always mean maximizing profits.

Fyodor Lukyanov is editor of Russia in Global Affairs.