Sheer size, history and straightforward economics combine to ensure that Russia remains a central feature of the domestic politics of the former Soviet space. For example, the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) joins the European Union (EU), China and Japan as a major importer of Russian natural resources. Countries ranging from Belarus to Tajikistan also remain receptive to Russia’s vision of a more economically-integrated region through the creation of organizations like the Eurasian Economic Community (EurAsEc). Moscow continues to maintain its grip on the regional levers of hard power. Despite the challenges laid by the likes of Georgia, it is simply unrealistic for the former Soviet states to compete with Russia’s military superiority. Moreover, the political and economic ties that many states try to build with the West remain contingent on favorable economic conditions and need to consider Russia’s robust demand for the resources of the former Soviet space. And last but not least, Soviet-era policies led to the relocation of millions of ethnic Russians throughout the Soviet Union. Accordingly, Russia’s policy vision for the post-Soviet space appears consistent, albeit with some significant regional variations.
All Quiet on the Western Front?
In particular, consistency underpins Moscow’s relations with its western neighbors. With the re-election of Viktor Yanukovych as Ukrainian president in 2010 Moscow currently benefits from Kiev’s attempts to accommodate both its eastern and western neighbors. Not only has Ukraine cooled its rhetoric regarding membership of the EU, in 2010 it also extended Russia’s lease for its Black Sea port until at least 2042. A number of economic and social considerations also favor Moscow in the short-to-medium term. Ukraine’s reliance on Russia for natural gas supplies resulted in a 2009 agreement pegging Kiev’s gas supply and transit contracts with Moscow at international prices for the next ten years. Kiev’s opposition to Russian policy initiatives also need to take into account the sizeable ethnic Russian minority living in eastern Ukraine.
Belarus also remains economically dependent upon Moscow. Despite recently announcing plans to build its first nuclear power plant in 2017, Minsk is likely to continue exporting 22 billion cubic meters of gas a year from Russia. Belarus also looks to Russia for substantial electricity supplies. Accordingly, Belarus is part of the fabric of closer economic ties that Russia continues to develop with its former Soviet states, a point underlined by the country’s membership of EurAsEc. And despite public statements that it does not seek membership of any Russia-dominated economic or political union, the fact that Russia has only recently resumed oil imports to Belarus suggests that Minsk has little room for maneuver regarding Moscow’s integrative efforts.
It seems likely that Russia will use the short-to-medium term to consolidate its position as the main regional power in the Caucasus. While the proposed Nabucco pipeline has the potential to deliver natural gas from Azerbaijan to the EU without crossing Russian territory, the Caucasus region continues to rely on trade with Moscow to maintain internal economic and social stability. In the case of Azerbaijan, economic ties with Russia seem likely to increase. In early 2012, for example, it was announced that annual trade between Baku and Moscow had exceed $3 billion for the first time. Despite the fallout from the 2008 conflict, Georgia’s trade with Russia remains robust. In 2011 Tbilisi imported approximately $390 million-worth of goods from Russia, with almost $40 million in exports going in the other direction.
But Not to the South
However, a recent statement by the Prime Minister Sergei Lavrov that calls for the United States to remain in Afghanistan exposes Russia’s weaknesses on its southern borders. While natural resources, growing populations and limited infrastructure create ideal conditions for Russia to influence the economic and political affairs of the region, Moscow today does not carry enough leverage over developments in Central Asia. Moscow is particularly concerned that Russia does not have enough say over the former Central Asian Republics to prevent outbreaks of unrest akin to events that led to the overthrow of Kyrgyzstan’s Askar Akayev in 2005. This feeds into another concern that the Islamization of Afghanistan after the proposed American withdrawal in 2014 may spill over into Central Asia and, indeed, Russia’s restive republics of Chechnya and Ingushetia.
Yet prevailing economic conditions – coupled with predictions that Russia’s >population is set to decline to 107 million by 2050 – means that Moscow does not have the option of significantly increasing its military presence or crafting realistic immigration policies to safeguard its borders with the Central Asian Republics. Moreover, since the formation of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) in 1996, the Central Asian Republics have also increased in geopolitical significance to China. Beijing’s economic ties with Kazakhstan, for example, are likely to further increase with the launch in December 2011 of a trans-national free trade center on the Chinese-Kazakh border. Such initiatives suggest that no matter how much Russia may desire greater integration through devices like EurAsEc, the Central Asian Republics are unlikely to be willing to give up their new-found confidence in favor of Moscow's vision for the former Soviet space.
Given that some Central Asian states are increasing their trade with China – often at the expense of Russian economic interests – and that it is not in Russia's interest to maintain the Central Asian region as a less-developed "buffer", Moscow is faced with several unflattering choices. Firstly, Moscow may seek to regain a degree of influence by replicating the recent joining of the Chinese-Kazakh railway and offer to make further improvements to Central Asia’s infrastructure. By enhancing "south-north" transportation and economic routes across vast distances, Russia would potentially re-inject itself into the region as a major facilitator of Central Asian economic development. However, this option would inevitably carry a hefty price tag and it remains doubtful that Moscow would be willing to finance such initiatives.
Russia may seek to negate such costs by encouraging greater partnerships with the EU or China on major economic projects at a frequency much greater than Moscow's current efforts. This may not indicate that Russia would be a majority stake-holder of specific infrastructure or natural resources projects, but would reflect the fact that Moscow desires a much greater political and economic presence across Central Asia than it currently maintains. In doing so, Russia would have to admit, however grudgingly, that China seems to have secured enough trust and political goodwill to become the Central Asian Republics’ most influential external partner. This is certainly not something that Moscow would be prepared to admit in public. But given the United States’ minuscule economic partnership with Central Asian states and its security commitments in South Asia, it is inevitable that China has used the likes of the SCO and its growing economic prowess to increase its influence in Central Asia at Moscow’s expense.
Ultimately, Russia’s vision for the post-Soviet space may need to factor in domestic concerns that extend beyond the resources and ethnic mix of its former sphere of influence. The recent protests against Russia’s electoral processes suggest that the returning President Vladimir Putin will need to confront an increasingly active political opposition. And as and when such opposition gathers momentum, it is entirely plausible that it will present to the Russian electorate a different geopolitical and economic outlook for the former Soviet space. This may not view Moscow’s near-neighbors through zero-sum lenses and instead focus upon a different set of internal priorities. And this may, in turn, compromise Russia’s consistent approach to its relations with the states born out of the decline of the Soviet Union.
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Originally published by ISN