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Russia: Policy Expert Says Moscow Seeks No Domination

  • Michael Lelyveld

Boston, 10 April 2000 (RFE/RL) -- A top Russian policy expert has assured specialists at Harvard University that Moscow has no plans to restore Soviet domination in the Caucasus and Central Asian regions.

The assurance comes from Vitaly Naumkin, president of the International Center for Strategic and Political Studies in Moscow. Naumkin, a professor and former adviser on foreign policy, painted the issue of Russian influence as a matter of economics.

Said Naumkin: "I cannot see any serious efforts to rebuild this empire."

He added: "In order to be more active in this region, you have to pay a lot. These countries, they need investment, they need money. I don't think that Russia is well prepared to do that at the expense of its interests."

Russia's priorities are security and its own economy, said Naumkin, who also heads the Middle East Department of the Institute of Oriental Studies at the Russian Academy of Sciences. Russia previously pursued a "triad" strategy in the "near abroad" of maintaining CIS border guards, military bases, and peacekeeping forces. But, he said, its commitments have steadily "eroded." Naumkin predicted: "Nothing will be left of this triad."

Naumkin's analysis comes at a time of high interest in the future policies of President-elect Vladimir Putin. The continuing war in Chechnya has kept the Caucasus on edge, while both Russian and U.S. officials have raised concerns about potential terrorist threats in Central Asia.

But in speaking Friday to an audience at Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government, Naumkin downplayed reports of an East-West struggle for influence. Naumkin said Russian policy experts do not see relations in the region in terms of conflict but as a series of "red-line" issues that should not be crossed.

Any move to establish a western military presence in the region would be seen as a red-line issue, he indicated, although he doubted that there is any likelihood for such a move. In response to a question from RFE/RL, Naumkin said the same attitude does not extend to the building of U.S.-backed pipelines from the Caspian region.

"I don't think that there is a red line for Russia," said Naumkin, speaking of the Baku-Ceyhan oil line and trans-Caspian gas pipeline.

He said: "Everybody understands that there is a necessity to diversify the routes of transportation. Nobody is going to rely upon the northern route. I think that everybody who is serious in his estimations understands this in Russia."

The assessment of competition in the region was far milder than the one given last fall by Russian Defense Minister Igor Sergeyev, who charged the United States with pursuing policies to oust Russia from the Caspian region.

Naumkin said: "All the problem is that there is a suspicion that by giving too much weight to different options other than to Russia, that there is a political desire, not to oust Russia from the region, but to damage relations between Russia and these states." Naumkin said.

He said: "I think the most reasonable part of the Russian political elite understands that the diversification of routes is inevitable, that it (does) not necessarily contradict the interests of Russia. On the contrary, if these states manage to provide a high economic level of development for themselves ... it will be better for Russia, because we need a stable southern belt."

Naumkin's comments on relations came as the United States has dispatched the heads of several key agencies to the region. In recent weeks, the directors of both the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency and the Federal Bureau of Investigation have visited Central Asian capitals, reportedly to discuss terrorism, drug interdiction and other issues. U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright is also scheduled to visit Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Uzbekistan this month.

On a question about Chechnya, Naumkin also discounted the concern among Caucasus countries about Russian troop presence in the area.

He said: "I don't think anyone wants to pressure Georgia or Azerbaijan."

During recent visits to Middle East countries, Naumkin said he had found clear evidence that Islamic fighters were passing through Georgia on the way to Chechnya, using tourist visas. But he also suggested that tensions have eased because Georgia has reached an understanding with Russia that its territory should not be used as an access route for the war.