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Russia: Analysis From Washington -- A New Vocabulary For An Old Agenda

Washington, 28 January 2000 (RFE/RL) -- At the Moscow summit of the Commonwealth of Independent States this week, acting Russian President Vladimir Putin used a new vocabulary with which few could disagree in the pursuit of an old goal which far fewer support.

Putin said that the post-Soviet states must band together in "the fight against international terrorism, extremism and separatism." Such goals, stated in this way, drew little dissent either from the participants of the CIS meeting or among leaders of the international community as a whole.

But recent Russian rhetoric about Chechnya suggests that Putin is using these words less as a precise statement of Moscow's specific intentions than as a means of increasing Russian power over the 11 other former Soviet republics now part of the CIS, something most appear likely to oppose.

Indeed, Putin's remarks this week appear to reflect the difficulties Moscow has had in trying to justify both its efforts to develop the power of the Russian state and its struggle to find a way to describe its campaign in Chechnya in a palatable manner.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russian leaders regularly talked about the importance of building democratic institutions, a position they saw as enhancing their chances of getting Western aid but ones that put Russia at odds with the even more authoritarian regimes in some post-Soviet countries.

But in recent months and especially after the appointment of Putin as acting president, Russia's rhetoric has shifted away from democratic norms to the need to build state power in the name of fighting terrorism and extremism.

Such a shift might have been expected to cost Moscow support in the West, except for the fact that many Western leaders have accepted the notion that the Russian state had become too weak to achieve anything and that its strengthening was thus a priority.

But such a shift clearly could and did win support both from authoritarian leaders in some post-Soviet states who were looking for a justification for their style of rule and from more democratic ones who face real challenges on the ground.

Thus, the highly authoritarian president of Uzbekistan, Islam Karimov, greeted Putin's words this week as an indication that Russian now represented the only power capable of foiling "the geopolitical plans of the supporters of extremism and terrorism."

And more reformist but increasingly threatened leaders in several other post-Soviet states saw Putin's words as a kind of justification for their adoption of tougher positions toward their own populations.

All of these tendencies have been exacerbated by the Chechen war. Moscow began its campaign there in the name of blocking an independence movement and opposing the spread of Islamic fundamentalism.

These slogans initially appeared to confer certain advantages, but each of them entailed serious drawbacks. Talking about opposition national independence did not play well in many of the post-Soviet states who only a decade ago had been a part of the Soviet Union.

And opposing Islam, while acceptable as a principle of action in some Western countries, was less and less plausible for a country with a rising percentage of Muslims in its own population and one that seeks to recover its influence over neighboring states with predominantly Muslim populations.

Consequently, Putin in particular and Moscow leaders in general have recast their campaign in Chechnya as a struggle against bandits, terrorists, and extremists -- a goal which few either in the West or in the post-Soviet states are prepared to reject as illegitimate.

That helps to explain why there has been such muted Western criticism of Russia's actions in Chechnya compared to five years ago. And it also helps to explain why so many of the participants in the CIS summit appeared to be such enthusiastic supporters of Moscow's current line.

Indeed, some observers have gone so far as to suggest that Putin won an important victory at this meeting. After all, they note, all the CIS presidents came out against the same things Moscow said it was against.

But that is a misreading of both what the leaders of the non-Russian countries actually feel and what Moscow all too clearly hopes to achieve. Many leaders, including Ukraine's Leonid Kuchma, were very explicit that the CIS was far from being an effective institution, even though they and he backed Putin's language on "bandits."

Moreover, Putin's use of the CIS summit to celebrate the new Russian-Belarusian "union" shows that his intentions are not limited to fighting terrorism.

For both these reasons, the agreement at this CIS summit as has been true at so many earlier ones was more apparent than real, a reflection of Putin's rhetorical skill and also of the near certainty that many of the leaders at this meeting will ultimately likely to see through it.