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The East: Report Says Russia Seeking To Reassert Regional Influence

A new report says Russia is trying to reassert its influence over its regional neighbors -- such as Ukraine, Azerbaijan, and Georgia -- partly in response to concern over the eastward expansion of NATO. The report by British security experts also says Russia's effort to dominate surrounding countries -- and its own multiethnic regions -- could worsen international tensions and compromise its own security. Our correspondent in London speaks with one of the authors of the report, as well as a spokesman at London's Russian embassy.

London, 20 July 1999 (RFE/RL) -- The report by British security experts appears in the latest edition of Jane's Sentinel, issued by the respected Jane's publishing group. The report says members of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), created in 1991, have shown a determination to come to terms with the Soviet legacy and reshape their national destinies.

But it says Russia has tried to assume the mantle of the former Soviet Union in terms of economic, political, and military power and seems set to try to reassert its influence again over the entire CIS region.

The report finds that Russia has sought to retain "regional hegemony," or at least to exclude other powers -- such as the U.S. and Turkey -- and has also sought to elevate its own national interests over those of the CIS.

It concludes that Russia has often bypassed CIS structures -- as when it deployed troops in Tajikistan -- and has had some success in re-establishing a military presence in all CIS republics except Azerbaijan.

The report notes that a symbolic sign of what it calls a "possible return to the old order" was a plan three years ago to move CIS headquarters from Minsk to Moscow. When the CIS was set up, the Belarus capital was -- according to the report -- "deliberately chosen to avoid any echoes of Soviet central control from Moscow."

Russian analyst Paul Beaver, who contributed to the new report, says Moscow is reasserting the doctrine of the "near abroad" -- the idea that Russia has a natural right to dominate the territory of the former Soviet Union. He says Moscow appears to be seeking to apply this in the Caspian nations and is also clamping down on independence movements within Russia itself.

"The crux of it is around the Caspian Sea. We've already seen the reaction Kazakhstan has had to the fact the Russians are still trying to use the Baikonur (space facility), as if it belonged to them, refusing to pay rent for it. We are seeing it in the way they are trying to exert influence over Azerbaijan, particularly by backing Armenia. We are seeing it in the way they are dealing with Ossetia, Ingushetia and also Dagestan. They are clamping down on anything that sniffs at all of being any independence movement whatsoever."

But will Moscow succeed in its attempt to -- as the report puts it -- "dominate and control surrounding regions, as well as its own multiethnic constituents?" No, according to the report, which says that the retention of an exclusively Russian sphere of influence is "doubtful."

The report says that as CIS nations build up their own bilateral political, economic and military ties with outside powers, Russian influence will become "increasingly diluted."

The report says it is only in Belarus and Tajikistan that Russia will retain anything approaching exclusive military control, and in both cases, Moscow is starting to question the value of the commitments.

Still, Russia is concerned about the growing influence of NATO on its borders, despite the fact that Moscow itself signed a special charter with the western military alliance two years ago. By early 1995, 11 of the 12 member states of the CIS (all but Tajikistan) had signed NATO's Partnership for Peace framework document.

According to the report, Russians fear that the further enlargement of NATO -- which has already expanded to include Poland, the Czech Republic and Hungary -- could "perpetuate the division of the continent, with Russia on the wrong side of any divide."

Moscow is said to be particularly concerned because Ukraine participated widely in NATO's Partnership for Peace program and also signed a special charter with the western alliance. The report says Ukraine is "uneasy" about Russian attempts to re-exert its influence over its neighbors, a concern shared by Azerbaijan, Georgia, and others.

Vladimir Andreyev is press counselor at the Russian embassy in London. In an interview today with RFE/RL, Andreyev denied that Moscow is trying to dominate and control neighboring regions:

"No, it's not true. Russia is basing its relations with our neighbors on the foundation of equality. We understand that we are dealing with independent sovereign states and that is the foundation of our relations with our neighbors and all other countries of the world. So it is not true what this report says. The general principle, the general idea, is very clear. And it has nothing to do with any search to be dominant in the region, or elsewhere."

The report says resistance to any Russian attempt to re-establish dominance of the CIS remains strong, particularly in the Caucasus region, which could be threatened at any time by a new eruption of ethnic strife and separatist movements.

Azerbaijan has resisted increased military cooperation with Russia and opposes a greater Russian military presence in the region. In Georgia, there has been controversy over the presence of Russian military bases. Tensions are high in the Russian Caucasus in the wake of Chechnya's successful bid for de facto autonomy. The report also predicts increased unrest in neighboring Dagestan.

The Jane's report notes that the formal Russian National Security Concept -- adopted in December 1997 -- puts considerable emphasis on the "preservation and strengthening of Russian national values."

It says there is a real danger that this could be interpreted as legitimizing or threatening a renewed policy of enforced Russification of the other 100-plus nationalities within the Russian Federation (28 percent of the total population), something that the Jane's report says "could seriously worsen rather than improve interethnic relations."