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An Old Game With New Rules In Russia's Backyard

  • Brian Whitmore

Demonstrators in Yerevan protest against Armenia’s surprise announcement earlier this month that it was joining a Russian-led customs union.

Demonstrators in Yerevan protest against Armenia’s surprise announcement earlier this month that it was joining a Russian-led customs union.

A former Soviet republic has its sights set on moving closer to Europe, a move staunchly opposed by Moscow.

With the Kremlin's tacit support, one of its majority ethnic-Russian cities votes to secede, sparking fears of violent conflict. Officials in Moscow vow to defend the rights of its smaller neighbor's Russian-speaking residents.

Ukraine or Moldova in 2013? Not quite. This scenario played out, peacefully in the end, in the Estonian city of Narva during the summer of 1993, less than two years after the Soviet Union dissolved. Today, the Russian-speaking residents of Narva -- EU passports in hand -- are far less restive.

The Kremlin's current drive to prevent Ukraine, Armenia, and Moldova from signing Association Agreements with the European Union has again focused attention on Moscow pressuring its neighbors into remaining Russia's sphere of influence.

But as the averted conflict in Estonia two decades ago illustrates, this is nothing new. Almost from the moment the Soviet Union broke up in 1991, Russia has been leaning hard on its former vassals -- stoking conflicts in Georgia and Moldova and stirring unrest among Russian speakers in the Baltics and in Ukraine.

But while Moscow's policy toward its so-called "near abroad" has been consistent, analysts say the game in the post-Soviet neighborhood has changed dramatically. The West -- and particularly the European Union -- is becoming more proactive. The Kremlin has become more focused in pursuing its interests. And Russia's former Soviet neighbors have become increasingly confident in charting an independent course.

According to John Lough, a former NATO official who is now a fellow at Chatham House's Russia and Eurasia Program, this all adds up to the region becoming "an area of increased competition" between Moscow and the West.

"I think the Russian approach has become more coherent," he says. "But at the same time, those countries around it have become much stronger."

EU Gets Tough

Observers say the EU's more forward leaning profile in places like Ukraine and Moldova is a direct result of Moscow's tactics in the region, which have included boycotts, threats of trade wars, using energy to gain political leverage, and inciting unrest among Russophone minorities.

Longtime Kremlin-watcher Edward Lucas is the International Editor for the British weekly "The Economist" and author of the book "Deception: Spies, Lies, and How Russia Dupes the West."

He believes the current situation "is teaching the EU that whether they like it or not they are in a geopolitical clash with Russia."
Edward Lucas

Edward Lucas


"There has been this naive assumption in the EU in the past that there are lots of win-win [situations] out there and if we only talk nicely to the Russians then everything will be fine," he says. "It's not. It's pretty much a zero-sum game and either you go with Russia or the EU. And I think the EU has had to fight much tougher than it's done in the past."

Moreover, as memories of the Soviet Union fade and Russia's neighbors become more comfortable with their sovereignty, they have become more willing to resist pressure from Moscow. Lucas says this tendency has been reinforced by the stronger European presence.

"The West has gotten much more entrenched in these countries and the national consciousness is more developed," he says. "People in Belarus or eastern Ukraine genuinely believe they are in a real country, whereas back in the early 1990s it hadn't clicked for a lot of people that the Soviet Union was over. So the national identities are stronger."

Lucas adds that trade in many post-Soviet states has been "hugely reoriented" toward the West creating "a stronger base for European influence."

Old Habits Die Hard

Nevertheless, Moscow still has cards to play.

Strong networks continue to exist between Russia's political and business elites and those in its former Soviet neighbors. Corruption remains rife and many prefer the clannish post-Soviet style of doing business than the more transparent model that integration with Europe would entail.

"The Russians know that their way of doing business is widely accepted in many of these countries and that there are people in the business and political elites in those places who would prefer to operate in the Russian way," says Lough.

Lough adds, however that even these elites are resistant to accepting a "diktat from Moscow" and that too much Kremlin pressure could drive them away. And, he says, others already "see what the Russians are offering as a scary proposition."

Nevertheless, Russia appears determined as ever to prevent Ukraine, Moldova, and Armenia from signing Association Agreements with the European Union at a summit in the Lithuanian capital Vilnius in November.

Instead, Moscow is pushing these countries to join a Russian-led customs union that already includes Belarus and Kazakhstan -- something Brussels says would be incompatible with an Association Agreement.

And at least in the case of Armenia, Russia appears to have been successful. On September 3, Armenian President President Serzh Sarkisian announced that his country would join Moscow's customs union project, in essence, scrapping years of work toward an EU Association Agreement.

Analysts say the unexpected move came after Russia threatened to cut off its military aid to Armenia, which would leave Yerevan vulnerable to its main regional rival Azerbaijan.

"The Armenians took the hint: If they signed the trade deal with Europe, Russia might sell more arms to their rival and expel the Armenians who live in Russia," Anne Applebaum, author of the book "Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe, 1945-56," wrote in Slate.com.

Counterproductive Pressure

But having apparently cowed Armenia, Russia is having less success with Ukraine -- which Lough calls "the key prize" -- despite placing boycotts on Ukrainian goods and threatening Kyiv with rising gas prices, trade wars, and bankruptcy.

And on September 21, Sergei Glaziyev, a senior adviser to Russian President Vladimir Putin, upped the ante, darkly warning that Russian speakers in Ukraine's east and south would seek secession if Ukraine goes ahead and signs the Association Agreement.

But Glaziyev, who made his remarks at a conference in the Black Sea resort of Yalta, was met with boos, jeers, and catcalls.

"For the first time in our history more than 50 percent of people support European integration, and fewer than 30 percent of the people support closer ties with Russia," Ukraine's former Trade Minister Petro Poroshenko said in response to the Kremlin adviser according to press reports. "Thank you very much for that Mr. Glazyev."

Indeed, Ukraine's move closer to the EU -- and its defiance of Moscow -- comes under President Viktor Yanukovych, who won election in February 2010 on a platform of closer relations with Russia.

And the country's powerful Russian-speaking oligarchs in eastern Ukraine, once staunchly pro-Moscow, have been making it increasingly clear that they prefer closer relations with the EU.

Analysts say Russia's deep historical ties to Ukraine often cause Moscow to overplay its hand in dealing with Kyiv.

"Russia finds it terribly difficult to deal with Ukraine because it is such an emotional issue," says Lough. "The heart seems to get in the way of the head and invariably they seem to adopt policies that are counterproductive and wind up driving Ukrainians away."

Like in Ukraine, Moscow's efforts to persuade Moldova to forego an EU Association Agreement are also making little headway. On September 11, Russia banned Moldovan wines and spirits, claiming they contain impurities.

In response, Dacian Ciolos, the EU's commissioner for agriculture has proposed eliminating all restrictions on Moldovan wine imports ahead of Moldova's initialing of an Association Agreement. Moldova's Foreign Minister, Natalia Gherman, told RFE/RL that Chisinau is "strong enough to resist any pressure" from Russia as it strengthens ties with the European Union.

Analysts nevertheless expect Russia to continue ramping up the pressure on Kyiv and Chisinau in the two months remaining before the EU's Eastern Partnership summit in Vilnius.

"We're still more in the overture to the opera than in the opera itself," says Lucas. "The people in the countries concerned know that there is a lot more that Russia can do. If you have an unpleasant dog and it growls you don't need for it to bite you in order to be scared."
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