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Russia's Neighbors Redefine Their Foreign Policies

  • Paul Goble

Washington, March 27 (RFE/RL) -- Moscow's latest efforts to integrate the CIS more closely have had an unexpected result: they have seriously reduced the influence of that organization and the ideas behind it on the foreign policies of its member states.

One of the most interesting consequences of this shift has been that many of Russia's neighbors are now defining their foreign policies in terms far more like those of countries outside the region.

But precisely because of the specific experiences of these countries, the meaning of such familiar terms as sovereignty, integration, and neutrality may be significant in very different ways than some might think.

Sovereignty is perhaps the most troubling of these terms. Even before the collapse of the USSR, many political figures in this region regularly contrasted sovereignty and independence, implying that the two are different things.

In the West, the two are assumed to be the same: that is, an independent country has sovereignty, and a sovereign country is independent. But Russian leaders, beginning with Mikhail Gorbachev, argued that a republic could be sovereign without being independent, a line of thought Russian President Boris Yeltsin and Belarusian leader Alyaksandr Lukashenka have continued. Consequently, many in the West viewed protestations about sovereignty by other non-Russian countries as nothing more than claims of autonomy.

Such a position was entirely consistent with the ideas behind the CIS and appeared to be accepted by many of the CIS member governments. Recent Russian actions, however, have led many of the CIS countries to conclude that the Western identification of these two terms is correct. As a result, their insistence on sovereignty has a very different meaning compared to what it had only a few months ago.

Nowhere has that shift been more obvious than in the statements of the Central Asian governments, which in the past have been the most supportive of Moscow's integrationist ideas.

A second term that causes problems is integration. Russian political figures have used integration and reintegration almost interchangeably, and non-Russians have followed their lead until recently.

But now ever more writers and spokesmen in the non-Russian countries are recognizing that the two are very different, and that while they are very interested in the one, they are totally opposed to the other. Specifically, they have come to understand that "reintegration" would mean the rapid restoration of economic arrangements that had been laid down by the Soviet system to promote Moscow's control of the region and the political power of the communist party.

"Integration" on the other hand has an entirely different meaning: it denotes cooperation among the various parties on a more equal basis and presupposes the genuine independence of the entities coming together.

Consequently, when non-Russians such as the Ukrainians or the Kazakhs speak of "integration," they want integration like that being pursued in Western Europe, an integration of independent states rather than the restoration of a past imperial arrangement. This distinction needs to be understood in order not to misunderstand the changed nature of discussions in the former Soviet space.

And finally there are the terms "neutrality" and "non-aligned." To many in the West and to many who fought the Soviet system from within, the use of these terms smacks of collaborationism or worse. Thus, many observers were troubled when Turkmenistan sought to have U.N. support for its policy of neutrality. But such conclusions were unwarranted. In fact, a move toward neutrality or non-aligned status by Turkmenistan or any of the other former Soviet republics represents a step away from Moscow not a step towards it.

Were countries like Ukraine, which is seeking tighter integration with the West, to begin to talk about neutrality as a policy, that would be another matter. But for many of the post-Soviet states, neutrality is a useful and entirely defensible position: It helps to mobilize international support against any stationing of foreign troops on the territory of these countries, and it represents a step away from the past.

Unless such apparently minor linguistic distinctions are recognized, the enormous fundamental changes taking place now in the foreign policies of these countries will not be understood.