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Russia: Analysts Weigh Effect Of Duma Vote on CIS Behavior, Russian Expansionism

Following Russia's State Duma elections, in which pro-Kremlin and nationalist parties won an overwhelming majority, will leaders in the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) countries be inspired to emulate Russia's example? And is Moscow's foreign policy toward its neighbors likely to change?

Prague, 9 December 2003 (RFE/RL) -- The expected formation of a majority pro-Kremlin, nationalist alliance in the Russian State Duma following the 7 December elections has raised concerns about the future direction of Russian policy.

Outside of Russia, the election, which saw the routing of liberal, pro-Western parties, was most closely watched in what some nationalist politicians still call the "near abroad" -- that is to say, the states that once formed part of the Soviet Union.

Does the outcome of the poll, as military analyst Pavel Felgenhauer writes in "The Moscow Times" today, mean it is "virtually inevitable that Russia will attempt to dominate the post-Soviet landmass -- installing pro-Moscow governments, destabilizing those that refuse to integrate and annexing neighboring territories"?

Most observers do not share this view, noting that Russia -- although it has long sought to preserve influence across the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) -- does not have the financial and military resources to mount a serious challenge to its neighboring independent states.

Where there is instability and Russia can weigh in on one side of the equation to further its own interests, it will do so, as many analysts suspect the Kremlin of doing in the recent Georgian crisis. But as regional expert Alex Vatanka, editor of "Jane's Sentinel Security Assessments," told RFE/RL, if the president of tiny Moldova can stand up to Moscow, as he recently did -- rejecting a Kremlin-backed initiative to settle the Transdniester conflict -- prospects for a strongly expansionist Russian foreign policy are not in the cards.

"The Russians don't have the capacity, the tools, the cohesion on a political and economic level to do it. And I don't think the interest within the Central Asian states or within the other states is there to assist any such move coming from the Russians, if you see what I mean," Vatanka said.

Some politicians in neighboring CIS states believe that since the election results concentrate more power in Russian President Vladimir Putin's hands, Moscow's policies may actually become more predictable and they welcome the expected change. Mikhail Saakashvili, head of Georgia's National Movement that toppled President Eduard Shevardnadze, said: "The strengthening of Putin is good because of one reason -- we will know whom to deal with. Nobody now can say that there are two or five or 10 Russias. It will be clearly only one Russia, centralized, that has a leader, and we have to speak with this leader. And our relations will be based on the fact that we are a state with our own interests."

In Armenia, opposition politician Vazgen Manukian agrees. He told RFE/RL that Putin's strengthened hand will make him a tough negotiating partner, but he expects pragmatism to carry the day. "I think that Russia will have a more hard-line policy in our region. Russia's moves in the region will be more calculated," he said. "It can have good and bad consequences for us."

On the issue of whether CIS leaders will seek to concentrate even greater power in their own hands, analysts point out that, in this regard, it is Russia that is copying its neighbors, rather than the other way around. "There's open talk in Russia now that the country is becoming kind of a one-party state. I can only say that yes, it's looking more and more like what we face in Central Asia," Vatanka said.

Petr Svoik, of Kazakhstan's opposition Democratic Choice movement, told RFE/RL that Sunday's Duma elections mark a watershed moment for Russia. He says parties backing market reforms in other CIS states should draw a lesson from the failure of their colleagues in Russia. The main point is that reforms have to be seen to benefit the majority of the population, not just a narrow clique of well-connected business people, to receive voters' long-term backing.

"This is a very important event. We have not yet fully perceived this yet. But it is clear now that the liberal idea -- or the idea of a civilized market according to a Western model -- has suffered a defeat in Russia. Practically, all those who entered the new parliament in Russia are representatives either of state capitalism or even of something much stronger, let us put it this way. That is a lesson to those reformers who have been building a market economy in Russia for only a select group of people. And now they are seeing the fruit of their labors," Svoik said.

In a sign of the Russian president's tightening grip on the Russian legislature, Putin today criticized some lawmakers for their slack attendance record, saying new mechanisms to enforce discipline could be introduced.

(RFE/RL's Georgian, Armenian, and Kazakh services contributed to this report, as well as RFE/RL correspondent Bruce Pannier.)