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CIS: Referendums Seen As Kremlin's Master Plan

  • Ahto Lobjakas --> More than 97 percent of Transdniester voters favor independence with the ultimate goal of union with Russia (ITAR-TASS) BRUSSELS, September 20, 2006 (RFE/RL) -- There is no evidence of direct Kremlin involvement in the September 17 referendum in Moldova's breakaway Transdniester region, in which voters overwhelmingly approved a course of independence with an eventual view to joining Russia. But the referendum -- and a similar vote upcoming in Georgia's separatist South Ossetia -- is widely seen as part of a broader Russian strategy to entrench its influence in the former Soviet republics.

Few observers think that the Transdniester referendum is only about Transdniestrian independence. Amanda Akcakoca, an analyst with the European Policy Center, a Brussels-based think tank, says it's also a gesture to Russia.

"I think the point is to show their short of undying support for Russia. To show to the world that they're unhappy with the situation they are in and that they continue to support and want to be part of Russia," says Akcakoca.

She adds that this, in turn, "gives Russia in return a very strong case for keeping its troops, armaments in Transdniester."

You Scratch Moscow's Back...

It's a symbiotic relationship that Moscow appears happy to exploit. While Western governments turned their back on the Transdniester vote, Moscow announced it planned to recognize the referendum.

The results of the vote have no legal weight. But they are a useful tool in keeping the Transdniestrian conflict "frozen" -- something that, in turn, stalls Moldova's stated aim of closer ties with the European Union and NATO.

Michael Emerson of the Center for European Policy Studies, another Brussels think tank, says the Transdniester referendum comes amid heightened EU presence in the region.

For the past year, an EU Border Assistance Mission has monitored Transdniester's boundaries to cut down on suspected smuggling.

'Nuisance Value'

Emerson says there is no evidence to suggest either that Russia was involved in organizing the referendum, or that it came in response to the heightened EU presence. But he says the referendum clearly aids a broader Kremlin scheme.
Russia, one expert suggests, does not think it needs stable and peaceful neighbors on its borders. And the EU is failing to persuade it otherwise.

"The Russian strategy is to try to consolidate its power and influence in the European [neighborhood] countries or in the former Soviet states in general, excepting the Baltic cases, which they have given up," Emerson says. "But to sustain this Moldova affair unresolved is quite useful 'nuisance value' in terms of Russian diplomacy."

The other frozen conflicts -- Abkhazia and South Ossetia in Georgia, and the Azerbaijani-Armenian standoff over Nagorno-Karabakh -- have similar "nuisance value" in terms of holding back those countries' Western ambitions.

Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia -- like Moldova and Ukraine -- have all been offered Action Plans as part of the EU's Neighborhood Policy, which offers closer ties to Brussels but does not necessarily connote a promise of eventual membership.

Georgia, too, has made plain its aim to join NATO. Foreign ministers for the military alliance are expected to announce in New York on September 21 that they are prepared to step up talks with Tbilisi, although an invitation to join NATO may still be far in the future.

Frozen Barriers To The West

But as long as their separatist conflicts remain frozen, all these countries are limited in terms of far how their talks can advance with the EU and NATO, which will not accept new members still afflicted by unsettled internal conflicts.

Keeping Georgia away from the West? (ITAR-TASS)

In this way, the Kremlin -- by tacitly or openly supporting the separatist bids of regions like Transdniester and South Ossetia -- can keep an effective leash on the former Soviet republics.

The EU is aware of this policy, and its actions are in part a counterbalance to those of Moscow. It is clearly interested, for example, in reintegrating Transdniester into Moldova in order to bring Chisinau into the EU fold.

But Emerson notes that the EU "does not exactly mirror the Kremlin's geopolitical style." While it supports the Westward leanings of Moldova, Ukraine, and the South Caucasus countries, it is eager to ensure that they -- and the EU -- work to maintain a good relationship with Russia.

No Match For Moscow

It's a more "subtle" position than that of Russia's, Emerson says. And that, in his opinion, means it doesn't go far enough.

"The European Union is not doing enough in those countries. It is offering them 'Neighborhood Policy Lite,'" Emerson says. "In particular, it is doing everything to prevent either Moldova or Ukraine from having any perspective of membership of the European Union."

Both Emerson and Akcakoca note that the EU is suffering from "enlargement fatigue" after its last expansion to 25 countries in 2004. Both also point out that the union's neighborhood policy offer has great potential for its targets if they chose to pursue it with vigor.

However, in the end, this may not be enough. The EU's "subtler" strategy appears to be no match to Russia's more robust approach.

More To Come

The Transdniestrian referendum will set a precedent for other breakaway regions in the former Soviet Union -- first and foremost South Ossetia, which holds its own independence referendum on November 12.

Russia, she says, clearly does not think it needs stable and peaceful neighbors on its borders. And the EU is failing to persuade it otherwise.

"Russia does things the way Russia does things, and no voices in the EU are going to change that policy, I would imagine," she says.

A substantial number of EU member states have long made it clear that they value good relations with Moscow above most other EU foreign policy objectives.
Russia And The West


COOPERATION, CONFLICT, CONFRONTATION: Relations between Russia and the West are notoriously volatile. "To see the kind of relationship that presidents Bush and Putin have developed and to see Russia firmly anchored in the West, that's really a dream of 300 years, not just of the post-Cold War era," then-national security adviser Condoleezza Rice said in May 2002.
But observers have increasingly called into question the extent of the shared values between Russia and the West, particularly on issues relating to the transformations going on in other former Soviet countries.


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