Rebellion in Russia's backyard

Although a move by four ex-Soviet republics to form a union has put Moscow on the defensive, Putin still holds a few trump cards.

Published April 26, 2005 1:50PM (EDT)

Russia's residual neighborhood-watch scheme in what was once the Soviet Union's tightly policed backyard took another knock last week when Ukraine, Georgia, Azerbaijan and Moldova joined forces in a new "Union of Democratic States."

Mikhail Saakashvili, the Georgian president who has been a thorn in Moscow's side since Tbilisi's 2003 "rose revolution," said the group would "not act as a counterbalance or a reproach to anyone." But then he offered a reproach anyway. Friendship based on independence and freedom, he said, was very different from belonging to "an alliance like the Warsaw Pact or an empire like the Soviet Union."

The timing was probably not coincidental. Along with a host of world leaders, U.S. President George W. Bush will be in Moscow on May 9 to mark the 60th anniversary of Nazi Germany's defeat. Bush, who backed Ukraine's pro-democracy "orange revolution" last year, will also visit Georgia, where the U.S. launched a $50 million military training program over the weekend and where it has become Saakashvili's principal ally.

It is no accident, either, that the U.S. leader will visit Latvia, which, like Lithuania and Estonia, escaped Moscow's clutches in the 1990s and joined NATO and the European Union. They are now viewed as role models by several post-Soviet states.

Last week's fleeting visit to the Kremlin by U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was meant to smooth the way for Bush's meeting with President Vladimir Putin. But her comments on regional issues, coupled with the latest machinations of Moscow's unforgiving former satellites, exacerbated Russian geopolitical paranoia.

Denouncing the Belarus government of President Alexander Lukashenko as Europe's last dictatorship, Rice said it was "time for a change." She hinted that forthcoming elections there could be the next target for the U.S. "soft power" pro-democracy pressure tactics perfected in Serbia in 2000. Unfortunately for Putin, benighted Belarus is just about the only Russian neighbor that still follows an unequivocal pro-Moscow line. Russia's foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, told Rice to mind her own business.

Russia's once unchallenged influence in Central Asia is also slipping. The United States has established military bases in the area since Sept. 11. And as recent upheavals in Kyrgyzstan suggest, regime change can be catching.

In this atmosphere, the post-Soviet Commonwealth of Independent States' summit in Moscow on May 8, which includes Ukraine and Georgia, could prove a schismatic, even terminal meeting. In a country historically fearful of encirclement and fragmentation, these accelerating neighborhood trends are seen by many Russians as externally threatening and domestically destabilizing.

In his book "Cold Peace: Russia's New Imperialism," Janusz Bugajski said that Moscow's neighborhood botch stems from internal weakness as much as foreign policy bungling. Russia "gained an empire before it became a state or a coherent nation," he wrote. Contrary to its vital interests and despite reduced capabilities, Russia continued to brandish regional ambitions like "phantom limbs," Bugajski argued.

But while the result has been repeated humiliations, rising hard-line nationalism and falling confidence in an increasingly dictatorial Putin, Russia's leader retains several trump cards. Rice admitted the U.S. needed a "strategic partnership" on nuclear proliferation, the Balkans and the Middle East, and terrorism. And then there are Russia's vast energy resources, on which the West increasingly relies. As at their Bratislava tete-a-tete in February, Bush can be expected to balance "freedom's cause" with pragmatic calculations when meeting with Putin.

Says analyst Anatol Lieven, "Putin may be an uncomfortable partner, but the West is unlikely to get a better one."

Washington hopes the democratic revolutions in the "post-Soviet sphere" will ultimately spread to Russia itself. But it knows such a transformation runs the risk of a disastrous, post-Putin relapse into unrestrained authoritarianism and an anti-Western siege mentality.

By Simon Tisdall

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