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What do Aleksandr Surikov, Vladimir Babichev, Valentin Vlasov, Ramazan Abdulatipov, Viktor Chernomyrdin, and Mikhail Zurabov have in common?

They are all Russian political figures who are either serving or have served as Moscow's ambassador to a former Soviet state.

Andrey Molchanov, the chairman of the Federation Council's Committee on CIS Affairs has an interesting piece in "Nezavisimaya gazeta" (h/t to Paul Goble over at Window on Eurasia for flagging it), that looks at Moscow's practice of appointing "political ambassadors" in the so-called "near abroad."

This relatively new trend, Molchanov writes, is reminiscent of the Soviet Union's practice of sending politically influential ambassadors who were chosen at the highest levels of the Communist Party to Warsaw Pact countries. This assured that "leaders of socialist countries, a direct communication channel with the highest Soviet leadership."

Molchanov writes that the increasing use of political ambassadors in the CIS reflects how Russia's relations with the former Soviet republics is changing:

An important feature of diplomatic relations between [Russia] and the newly independent states [of the former Soviet Union] initially was the close personal contacts among the senior leadership that existed long before the USSR collapsed...

With the passage of time it has become clear that the personal ties among leaders is insufficient to resolve a number of questions, especially those which bear a long-term character. The logical solution, at least from the view of the Russian side has become the institution of political [ambassadors], of people whose experience of administrative and/or economic (and not just diplomatic) activity allows them to speak as intermediary heavyweights with the highest leadership of the partner states of the Russian Federation.

He adds that "the peculiarity of the Russian ambassadors to the former Soviet states lies in the fact that they act not merely as diplomats, but rather as public politicians. Often, the degree of their autonomy -- and responsibility -- is significantly higher than that of career diplomats."

Reading Molchanov's article -- and recalling a Foreign Ministry policy paper that was recently leaked to "Russian Newsweek" -- I couldn't help but discern another motivation.

When the report was leaked, much of the media attention focused on it's recommendation that Russia forge closer ties with the United States and the European Union to secure badly needed investment for President Dmitry Medvedev's ambitious modernization program.

But as I have blogged here, and other analysts have noted here and here, cozying up to the West was only part of the plan. The document also called for Russia to extend its influence in the former Soviet space by integrating the region's economies more tightly with Russia's and by spreading Moscow's authoritarian political model of "managed democracy."

Looks like a perfect mission for a cadre well-connected "political ambassadors."

-- Brian Whitmore

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The Power Vertical
The Power Vertical

The Power Vertical is a blog written especially for Russia wonks and obsessive Kremlin watchers by Brian Whitmore. It offers Brian's personal take on emerging and developing trends in Russian politics, shining a spotlight on the high-stakes power struggles, machinations, and clashing interests that shape Kremlin policy today. Check out The Power Vertical Facebook page or

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