Walking Carefully From Transdnestr to Yerevan
- By Fyodor Lukyanov
- Sep. 17 2008 00:00
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Following the tumultuous events in the Caucasus, the struggle for influence in the former Soviet republics has turned into an open confrontation. Moscow has clearly articulated its policy toward its neighbors, calling those regions Russia's exclusive sphere of influence. By trying to create its own geographical sphere of influence, Moscow is essentially pushing for a multipolar world -- a global system of competing power centers with each attempting to strengthen and extend its reach.
The very idea of establishing an exclusive sphere of influence is inherently confrontational since Russia's international partners would never agree to such a model. Western politicians' oft-repeated refrain is that it is inadmissible to apply 19th-century principles in the 21st century. At the outbreak of the current crisis, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said Washington would not allow Moscow to achieve its strategic goals. Of course, the United States does not consider its own goals to be a return to the 19th century. After all, it does not have a regional sphere of influence in the classic sense. Its interests encompass the whole world.
The European Union categorically rejects the rhetoric likening current events to the epoch of the Great Game, insisting that modern international relations are built upon a different foundation. But that has not stopped the EU from attempting to expand its model on its neighbors. Thus, the EU is effectively increasing its own exclusive sphere of influence.
China is the third major participant in post-Soviet politics. Beijing views any discussion of spheres of influence as being attributes of Western -- including Russian -- colonialism, characterized by contemptuous and arrogant attitudes toward others. This is why it would be futile to expect China to support Russia's new course. Beijing portrays its own ambitions for expansion in terms of a desire for global harmony. In practice, this means the steady promotion of China's economic interests wherever and whenever possible. Central Asia is the region in which both Beijing and Moscow have strong interests. This region is the most valuable chunk of the post-Soviet landscape. Its huge energy deposits make it the choice prize in the larger geopolitical standoff.
It is not difficult to imagine that Central Asia could become the focal point for future conflicts.
Russia is taking active diplomatic strides in the Transdnestr territorial problem. The Kremlin wants to prove that it can resolve crises through diplomacy and not only through military force.
In all likelihood, Moscow's terms for resolving that situation will involve neutralizing Moldova by forbidding it to join NATO and insisting that Russia maintain a military presence on its territory. It is hard to imagine that Washington would simply sit and twiddle its thumbs were such a resolution imminent. If the United States and Europe were unhappy with that possibility in 2003, they would hardly agree to it now, especially given the prevailing competition for influence in the region.
If the United States and the EU do step in and disrupt the agreement again, it will prove that their motivation is not to preserve Moldova's territorial integrity, but to prevent Chisinau from falling under Moscow's sphere of influence.
But Russia's frustration at seeing its efforts derailed for a second time could complicate the situation. Of course, recognition of Transdnestr's independence is not likely to be in the offing. In that case, it is unclear what to do with the territory Ukraine rudely severed from Russia, and any resolution of the conflict would remain only a theoretical possibility.
Belarus is the second object of potential rivalry. The more the East-West conflict heats up, the more important Minsk becomes. For Russia, Minsk is the only exception to the number of ill-wishers that flank its western border. For Brussels and Washington, Minsk represents an opportunity to snatch from Moscow its ally. Belarussian President Alexander Lukashenko is a master at squeezing an advantage out of any situation and now a huge opportunity has opened before him.
From the West, the Belarussian leader wants official recognition of the legitimacy of his upcoming parliamentary elections, a thawing in political relations with the United States and greater contacts with the EU. From Moscow, it wants natural gas discounts and, if possible, other economic perks.
Lukashenko has already made conciliatory gestures toward the West by releasing political prisoners -- including presidential candidate Alexander Kozulin -- and relaxed restrictions against the opposition during the election campaign.
Belarus will probably offer Russia military cooperation and joint opposition to NATO -- for a price, naturally. Judging from the evasive language Minsk has used in describing its position in relation to Abkhazia and South Ossetia, it is not planning to recognize their independence. But rejecting such a possibility outright is also not in its best interests.
The West has already indicated that it is willing to be flexible. Washington anticipates a more democratic Belarus emerging and does not rule out repealing sanctions against the country's leadership. For now, sanctions have been lifted from two Belarus firms. The EU is likely to follow suit.
The third possible cause of disagreement concerns Georgia's neighbors in the South Caucasus. Azerbaijan is walking a fine line, exhibiting its readiness to cooperate with everyone, but being careful not to move too close to any one particular partner. Yerevan finds itself in a difficult position because of the Russia-Georgia conflict and not only because its oil pipeline passes through Georgian territory. Armenia worries that Moscow will require more concrete forms of support from fellow Collective Security Treaty Organization member countries. But if Yerevan were to spoil its relationship with Georgia -- an important economic partner and home to a significant Armenian population -- it would become more hopelessly isolated. At the same time, upsetting Russia could be dangerous because a great deal is riding on that relationship, including the situation in Nagorno-Karabakh.
A possible breakthrough in the impasse between Yerevan and Ankara could change the situation. In this scenario, Turkey would become an independent regional power with interests that often differ from the United States and the rest of Europe. That would open up additional opportunities for Russia, but could also intensify existing rivalries.
I have purposely avoided mentioning Ukraine. Nobody denies that Ukraine will be the main battleground in the impending geopolitical confrontation. The situation there is fraught with the possibility of wide-scale destabilization and intervention by foreign powers. The entire post-Soviet landscape increasingly resembles a minefield where the slightest sudden movement could lead to yet another explosion.
Fyodor Lukyanov is editor of Russia in Global Affairs.