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Russia: Analysis From Washington -- Flights Canceled

  • Paul Goble

Washington, 29 March 2000 (RFE/RL) -- International airlines are cutting back on flights to the former Soviet republics, reversing the pattern of the early 1990s and exacerbating the increasing isolation of these countries from the outside world.

The latest carrier to do so, Emirates Air, announced earlier this week that it would no longer maintain its flights to Baku. Emirates Air is the fourth international carrier to stop flights to the Azerbaijani capital. Others who have eliminated service there include KLM Royal Dutch Airlines, Pakistan Airways, and Austrian Air.

All cited the declining number of passengers on this route and what they describe as excessive airport costs for fuel, landing, and handling. Indeed, according to one wire service, the German airline Lufthansa is also considering eliminating its Baku run in the wake of a decision by Azerbaijani authorities to demand pre-payment for services.

This pattern is being repeated across the region. Alaska Airlines has ended service to the Russian Far East, and numerous carriers have reduced the number of flights to particular cities or even eliminated these runs altogether.

By itself, of course, the cancellation of international flights does not completely isolate these countries. Most of them continue to be served by national and regional carriers or by Russia's Aeroflot system.

But for both practical and symbolic reasons, these cutbacks are likely to reinforce the sense in both this region and the West that they are again part of the Russian sphere of influence rather than independent countries with their own ties to the broader world.

Many Western travelers prefer to avoid both Aeroflot and the new national airlines and hence may cut back their visits to these countries if those are the only carriers they can use. And as some reduce their travel and thus lead international airlines to reduce their flights, still more travelers will decide not to go at all.

But it is at the symbolic level that these reductions are likely to have the greatest impact. Few things called attention to the transformation of the world after the collapse of the Soviet Union more clearly than the appearance of hitherto exotic destinations on the departure signs of major Western European airports.

In 1991, 1992, and 1993, cities like Kyiv, Ashgabat, Bishkek, and Tashkent began to appear regularly on these signs. They were no longer places no one could go directly, but rather places that anyone with a ticket now could. And people in both these countries and the West began to think of them as normal destinations, as places one need not go through Moscow to reach.

Now, with the new cutbacks, few things appear to symbolize the apparent reversal of that opening to the world. Ever more of these cities are dropping off the signs of West European airports, and those who want to visit them are increasingly forced either to use the national airlines of these countries or to go via Moscow.

In some cases, the national carriers do not have an outstanding safety record, and many Western travelers will do anything to avoid using them. And in many cases, going through Moscow by itself is causing Western business people to think again about operating in these countries.

On the one hand, the restoration of Moscow as a jumping off point to these countries implicitly suggests that they are part of the Russian sphere of influence and that Moscow rather than the new national capitals is where the action is and will be.

Such attitudes tend to reinforce many earlier Soviet-era prejudices and are being exploited both by the Russian authorities and Russian businesses to the detriment of political and economic developments in the former Soviet republics.

And on the other hand, this renewed focus on Russia has had the effect of leading some in the West to assume that the problems in the Russian Federation are typical of the problems elsewhere, something that is true only in part.

In fact, these countries vary widely both economically and politically. But as more of the direct flights to them are being cancelled, ever fewer people are making these distinctions. And that in turn is undermining not only the economic possibilities of these countries but their political futures as well.