Is Integration Imperial?

Most analysts, not only in Russia but abroad, recognize that integration of the former Soviet sphere is a natural process that fits in with similar tendencies in world politics. There are nevertheless some essential differences between post-Soviet integration and integration in other parts of the world.

First, the astounding speed with which post-Soviet integration is being carried out has raised some doubts about whether it is being done in an evolutionary and voluntary way. Second, it is clear that integration is part of the internal struggle for power in Russia, whatever politicians may say to the contrary. Third, the idea underlying integration is a desire for restoration of the Soviet Union. And such ideas, as the saying goes in Russia, are not the fault of current Russian and CIS politicians, but their misfortune.

However, there are some very serious counterarguments in response to these doubts and objections to integration. The Soviet empire was unique in that the metropolis and what was called its colonies existed in the same sphere. Significant ties between these states developed over centuries. Finally, what is occurring today is not integration, but reintegration and restoration to one or another degree of what has been destroyed.

Moreover, the fact that pressure to establish closer ties has come not so much from Russia but from Belarus, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan would seem to refute assertions that Russia has imperialist intentions. Many announcements about union, especially about a single defense sphere, are little more than declarations of intentions and rhetoric. The reservations expressed by Russian officials to counterbalance Belarussian President Alexander Lukashenko's statements on preparations for union with Russia attest to this.

But all these passions over integration are contagious. Russian President Boris Yeltsin expressed in an almost offhand manner his readiness to form a union with Bulgaria. As the scandal that arose in Bulgaria showed, however, he should not have done so.

Bulgarian President Zhelyu Zhelev considered the very proposition that Bulgaria could enter into such a union scandalous. The opposition parties, the Union of Democratic Forces and the Radical Democratic Party, which support Zhelev's re-election, started a campaign censuring the proposition. Zhelev himself officially announced that "this question was never discussed with the official government institutions of the country, and the Bulgarian people would never agree to it." The Social Democratic Alliance spoke about the inadmissibility of the "desire to turn Bulgaria into a Danube province. We are for a united Europe from the Atlantic to the Urals, but not from Belgrade through Sofia to Magadan."

Yeltsin's almost accidental words caused a sharpening of the relations among the Bulgarian president, the administration and the parliament, in which the socialist party has a majority. Zhelev demanded that the government publicly answer whether negotiations with Russia were held and why Bulgaria has recently begun to figure in Russia's military and political plans. Zhelev accused the parliament of acting against Bulgaria's national interests, European integration and membership in NATO. The government in turn accused the president of interfering in its international activities and exacerbating confrontation in society.

Despite the numerous political and economic interests in the former Soviet sphere, for example, Caspian oil, the West does not see this area as part of its vital interests. What is most important for the West is first that Russia does not take actions that will lead to a sharp increase in military power, which would again be seen as a "Soviet military threat," and second, that integration does not contradict democratic and market reforms.

But Russia's close neighbors -- former Warsaw Treaty and Comecon members in Eastern Europe -- cannot look indifferently on what is happening in the former Soviet sphere. Poland's sharp and immediate negative reaction to the plans of Russia and Belarus to create a "Kaliningrad corridor" through its territory should come as no surprise.

There are other cases of high-level officials who have spoken, for example, about the desire to create a "zone of low-level militarization" in Eastern Europe. Defense Minister Pavel Grachev told his Bulgarian counterpart during his visit to Moscow that "the time had come to put relations between Moscow and Sofia back on their former track," which also did not go unnoticed in Bulgaria.

A year ago, Bulgaria had reached serious agreements with Russia that have far-reaching consequences. The virtual restoration of Russian-Bulgarian military and technological ties not only strengthens Russia's military industry but Russian defenses. It also provides a basis for military and political cooperation with Bulgaria, whose chances of becoming a member of NATO are lower than those of Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic or Slovakia.

It is not by accident that the Bulgarian opposition spoke of a Europe extending from Belgrade through Sofia to Magadan. By strengthening interdependence with Bulgaria, as well as Greece, Russia will increase its chances of playing a role in the Balkans. If peace in the former Yugoslavia is established, competition for influence in this strategically important region will not stop.

Needless to say, any careless statement by Russia increases the pressure for the West to enlarge NATO more quickly. In the reintegration of the former Soviet sphere, Russia must, at the very least, avoid provoking its neighbors to search for powerful protection from Russia's embrace. For Russia to explain that it has no intention of restoring the Warsaw Pact or Comecon may be too late, difficult and even of no avail.

Irina Kobrinskaya is a senior associate of the Moscow Carnegie Center and the USA/Canada Institute. She contributed this comment to The Moscow Times.