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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

A New Post-Soviet Doctrine

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Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov recently stated that foreign radical fundamentalist forces with links to the Taliban were behind last week's uprising in Uzbekistan. He made it clear that Russia supported the use of force by the Uzbek authorities in Andijan, since no country should "tolerate foreign forces seizing arms depots, staging violence, raiding administrative buildings and taking hostages on its territory." Other Russian officials made similar comments, endorsing the Uzbek government's view that the events in Andijan had been carefully planned and executed by Islamic militants with connections to international terrorist networks.

While this version of events might have some truth to it, it seems to be only part of the story. Credible international reports from the region and the considerable number of Uzbek refugees fleeing to Kyrgyzstan indicate that the disturbances in Andijan might have been provoked by arbitrary repression on the part of the local Uzbek authorities, as well as by intolerable poverty and deprivation in the region. Even more disturbing is evidence that government forces fired indiscriminately at unarmed protesters, including women and children, killing hundreds.

The EU, the British Foreign Secretary and, somewhat later, the United States condemned the "indiscriminate use of force against unarmed civilians" and urged the Uzbek government "to exercise restraint." The U.S. State Department also came out against the use of force and acts of violence on the part of the protesters in Andijan.

But Russian officials have failed to make this important distinction and continued to push the official Uzbek line. In this, Russia may be repeating the mistakes it has made and apparently failed to learn from in other parts of the former Soviet Union. Russia should have learned the importance of speaking the truth, however uncomfortable it might be, to the people and the governments of the former Soviet states and taking a high moral ground when human life and human dignity are at stake. The protesters in Andijan called on Russia -- and not the United States or the EU -- to intervene in the unfolding crisis. Moscow at least should not have painted them all as terrorists and Taliban fighters.

It is noteworthy that President Vladimir Putin himself has not publicly commented on the events in Uzbekistan. It might be that he himself has a different view of the situation. His recent state of the nation address strongly suggests that the president wants Russia to be an agent of change in the former Soviet Union, not a guarantor of a status quo that is increasingly untenable.

In his speech, Putin formulated what could amount to Russia's new doctrine in the former Soviet space, a doctrine of "continuing the civilizing role of Russia on the Eurasian continent." He essentially called for promoting freedom and humanist values in the former Soviet states. Never before has Russia formulated its national interests in the region in such lofty moral categories.

Putin has often spoken of the common destiny of the former Soviet nations, but this time he interpreted it in a qualitatively new way, as "a common desire for freedom." He stated that Russia is "bound to the former Soviet republics ... through a common history, and through the Russian language and the great culture that we share."

Putin made it clear that it will only be possible to make further progress on mutually beneficial integration projects in the former Soviet Union on the basis of common values, which the president sees in a liberal, pro-Western light. This is how he framed the debate: "With independent countries now formed and developing in the post-Soviet area, we want to work together to correspond to humanistic values, open up broad possibilities for personal and collective success, achieve for ourselves the standards of civilization we have worked hard for -- standards that would emerge as a result of common economic, humanitarian and legal space."

The principal policy message from this statement is unmistakable: Integration is possible and desirable, but it should lead toward the future, not focus on the past.

Putin further emphasized that Russia is interested in the economic development of the former Soviet states and in "strengthening their international authority." This means democratic development and market reforms. The reputation of certain CIS countries as the "last remaining dictatorship in Europe" or the "North Korea of Central Asia" does not contribute to "strengthening international authority."

Putin called for accelerating economic, social and political modernization of the former Soviet states and suggested synchronizing the pace and parameters of reform in Russia and the CIS. This would increase the competitiveness of the former Soviet states, pull their people out of poverty and give them opportunities for free development.

It is here that Putin sees the continuation of Russia's civilizing mission in Eurasia. He understands it as the need for "democratic values, combined with national interests, to enrich and strengthen our historical unity." This is staking a serious claim to Russia's regional leadership in pursuit of not imperial but humanitarian objectives. What Russia seeks in the former Soviet states is not their territory or natural resources, but freedom, human dignity and a better quality of life for their citizens, whom Russia regards as its own cultural compatriots.

This Putin Doctrine is clearly setting a moral imperative for Russia's foreign policy in the post-Soviet space, an imperative that is in line with Russia's essence as a free country of free people. Putin's speech attempted to set a new foreign policy mission: Russia should become "a pivotal force for good" in the post-Soviet space.

Russia's awkward reaction to recent events in Uzbekistan shows that the Putin Doctrine has yet to be effectively implemented by Russia's reluctant foreign policy bureaucracy. The Kremlin's track record of delivering on presidential addresses is also somewhat spotty. But a presidential address to the nation is a good place to start charting a new course and pushing for some bold moves on the international stage. And it is the right step toward a lasting foreign policy legacy for Putin.

Vladimir Frolov is a private political consultant. In 2003-04 he was deputy director of the Fund for Effective Politics. He contributed this comment to The Moscow Times.