_ Irina Bolgova, PhD in History, Post-Soviet Studies Center at the MGIMO University. Moscow, March 21st 2017.
Russia’s current policy in the post-Soviet space is a key part of its global strategy. The positioning of Russia in the international arena and the emergence of new rules for the world order that are seen as a precondition for the stable development of the country depend on the implementation of foreign policy goals in Russia’s immediate geographical surroundings. Successful completion of the integration project is thought to be an indispensable condition for creating an independent and self-sufficient centre in the global economy, hence the basis for the emergence of a real, undeclared poly-centricity of the global political system.
The period of turbulence in the former Soviet countries, which peaked with the Ukrainian crisis in 2014, has entered a phase of low intensity in which none of the players is interested in aggravating the situation. They are all aware of the possible consequences of such action; however, all the parties are trying to take advantage of the uncertain environment to maximise benefits. The emergence of the post-Soviet space as a region of open competition among several influential players is now perceived as a given. In this situation, Russia’s foreign policy response is to step up efforts to consolidate and synchronize the existing formats of interaction to promote and strengthen its influence in the region.
First and foremost, Moscow still views the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU) as a club of close political allies which must provide a reliable base for the active foreign policy positions of Russia, even though they are aware of all the weaknesses and limitations of the current stage of Eurasian integration. The Russian financial and economic crisis, which had a negative impact on the economies of neighbouring states led to a significant decrease in mutual trade within the EAEU (down 25 per cent in 2015, with further drops in the early months of 2016) . The possibilities for Russia to subsidize integration partners directly or indirectly are shrinking, which prompts greater independence of the partner states within multilateral formats in the post-Soviet space and encourages them to pursue their own agendas. Thus, Belarus uses its significance for Russia’s foreign policy as a trump card when seeking financial support for its national economy and the political regime; Yerevan uses its importance for Russian foreign policy in terms of new economic initiatives and maintaining a military-political balance to blackmail Moscow; Kazakhstan is strengthening its leading positions in the EAEU and is showing greater initiative in interacting with the Central Asian region and China.
Under these conditions, Russia seeks to become the leader of the multi-level processes of political and economic interaction in Eurasia, partly to increase production and consumer markets, which should give a new impetus to integration. Thus, at the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) Summit held in Tashkent in June 2016, Russia attempted to put the SCO format in the framework of cooperation within the Eurasian Union and the initiative to combine the EAEU and the Chinese Silk Road Economic Belt (SREB). Vladimir Putin invited those SCO countries that are not involved in the Eurasian Economic Union but which want to speed up the construction of the transport infrastructure in their countries to join the Russia–China project to combine the EAEU and the Silk Road Economic Belt. “The inclusion of all the SCO members in this integration process, along with the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), could become a prologue to the formation of greater Eurasian partnership,” Vladimir Putin said. The President’s proposal highlights Russia’s wish to be at the helm of the process to create a common economic space “from Lisbon to Vladivostok” and to synchronize the maximum possible number of multilateral projects on its own terms.
CIS: A New Lease on Life
The fact that the Commonwealth of Independent States is mentioned in this context indicates the intention to preserve and use that structure, which many people considered to be politically outdated. The results of the recent CIS summits show that post-Soviet states are increasingly interested in preserving the CIS format and investing it with new substance. Global political and economic conditions diminish the chances of relying on players outside the region and fuel interest in the search for resources to preserve political stability and drivers of economic growth within the post-Soviet space. In this context, the role of Russia is extremely important and continues to grow.
A separate topic of discussion in the CIS format in recent years has been the need for the organization to be more active in the security sphere, while the leaders of CIS states recalled the goals and mechanisms of collective security formulated at the inception of the CIS process. The CIS includes the greatest number of member states, has a special status with the United Nations and extensive experience of the conflict in Tajikistan in the 1990s. In that respect, Russia remains a key player in regional security matters. Developing the security agenda in the CIS format attests to the fact that Moscow is trying to bring in all the multilateral cooperation formats that exist in the post-Soviet space in order to have greater room for manoeuvre in the event that things turn nasty.
Regional Security: Old Problems in New Conditions
The issue of military-political security in Russia’s foreign policy in the post-Soviet space makes up an agenda in its own right. The conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan poses the greatest destructive potential, not only because it has been more severe over the past two years than at any time in the past, but also because it creates additional animosities between partner states in multilateral formats (the EAEU and the Collective Security Treaty Organization, CSTO). Russia’s desire to remain an active mediator in the conflict was complicated by visible tensions between Kazakhstan and Armenia, and by the independent position taken by Belarus. New proposals were made in 2016 for a diplomatic solution, but they failed to produce the desired results. Nevertheless, Moscow’s position was backed by the main players outside the region, notably France and the United States. Surprisingly, the main antagonist in the proceedings for Russia turned out to be Armenia, which tried to force Russia into taking a clear pro-Armenian position in the conflict. Yerevan is unhappy about military-technical cooperation between Moscow and Baku and the lack of consensus on the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict within the CSTO and the EAEU
The process of change that is happening with regard to the political elites in the post-Soviet authoritarian regimes has the potential to destabilize the situation. The death of the President of Uzbekistan Islam Karimov, who did not name a successor, has raised questions about the future positioning of the country and its place on Russia’s foreign policy agenda: the threat of growing radical Islamism and the possible return of Uzbekistan to the CSTO; the prospects of the country joining the EAEU; and a change of terms for Russian businesses operating in Uzbekistan. Seeing how the transition of power is completed in Uzbekistan can be considered a model for the analysis of similar changes and their consequences in other countries in the region, above all in Tajikistan and Kazakhstan, where the internal political systems are similar to that of Uzbekistan.
Multilateral Formats: Fresh Efforts
Summing up, it can be said that Russia’s policy in the post-Soviet space depends directly on its global goals, and this in turn is in many ways dependent on the international situation. In designing its global agenda, Russia will have to deal with a number of new (or the worsening of existing) trends in multilateral relations in its immediate surroundings.
The EAEU has never been an intimate circle of like-minded parties for Russia. The member countries have refused to support Moscow on international issues that have been of great importance for Russia. On the contrary, they have sought to derive political dividends and economic benefits from the weakening of Russia’s influence and the worsening of its relations with Western partners. The relative decline of Russia’s influence within the organization, partly due to the increased membership, threatens to increase differences on how it should develop among the founder states and make the organization less effective overall.
Realizing this, Russia has given other multilateral organizations greater priority in its foreign policy agenda: it has intensified the discussion on the revival of the broad CIS format and has been paying more attention to the enlarged SCO. Moscow continues to view the SCO rather as an image prop in its relations with the United States and Europe that enables it to reaffirm its status as a global power. Therefore, in the course of discussions within that organization, it seeks moral support for its initiatives in regions that it deems more important. First of all, Russia’s foreign policy has to demonstrate that it has the support of influential allies and stress its commitment to strengthening the global influence of the SCO. In all these multilateral formats, Russia’s foreign policy efforts are aimed at lowering tensions between the member countries – in the first place by shifting sensitive issues from the multilateral agenda to the level of bilateral relations and attempting to solve them through “micro-management” as these relations become more difficult.
Bilateral relations with the majority of the post-Soviet states are determined by the fact that the key value for their elites is the stability of their regimes. Russia thus remains the main foreign policy beacon for them. An increasingly pragmatic approach is being taken towards bilateral economic relations, and the intention to put an end to unlimited subsidizing exists, especially if it does not produce immediate political results. At the same time, Russia is facing the problem of the “domino effect” taking hold in crisis regions, notably in the South Caucasus.
On the whole, Russia has to pursue its foreign policy in the context of a very fragile balance – a balance to which all the post-Soviet states seek to adhere, because a dramatic change of foreign policy orientation is fraught with serious potential crises. A kind of equilibrium has been established between the key players outside the region who have tacitly determined “red lines” and principles of interaction. The context of relations with the West remains persistently negative, despite the occasional rapprochement. Now, the main source of intrigue is relations with China: Russian foreign policy tries to enlist Beijing’s support on the key issues of the global agenda, while at the same time preventing it from significantly spreading its presence in the post-Soviet space. Considering the dramatic imbalance of the financial and economic potential of the two countries, it remains uncertain how effectively and painlessly Russia will be able to use its diminished resources to achieve the main political and economic goals of its foreign policy in the post-Soviet space.