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The Cascade Effect: Local Power from Old Soviets to New Russians (1985-2015)

Dr. Matthew Crosston

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Authors: Matthew Crosston, PhD & Dmitrii Seltser

We have undertaken an inter-regional comparison of seven subjects of the Russian Federation: the Ryazan, Samara, Tambov, and Ulyanovsk oblasts and the Republics of Mordovia, Udmurtia, and Chuvashia.

This approach we feel creates an adequate field for analysis as it encompasses two oblasts each from the Volga and Central Russian regions (these are traditional subjects for comparison in Russia) as well as three national republics with their extraordinarily high political diversity. The principal results of the project have already been published [1, 2]. However, in Russia over the past 10 years, new elections were held.

Table 1

Electoral procedures for city heads and rural raion administrations in Russia (1991-2015)

Periods Forms
1. 1991 Appointment
2. 1996 Direct elections
3. 2000 Direct elections
4. 2004 Direct elections
5. 2008-2010 Mixed electoral system
6. 2012-2014 Mixed electoral system

In Russia sub-regional authority was first appointed in 1991 and then elected through five electoral cycles (1996, 2000, 2004, 2008-2010, 2012-2014). Two new electoral cycles have occurred, thus creating a need to continue the research. This article is a report made by the authors in ICCEES IX World Congress, Makuhari, Japan, 3-8 August 2015.

II. The Collision: 1991

Recall the historical context: the autumn of 1991 was the zenith of Yeltsin’s glory as concerns societal support (not popularity, mind you, but glory in the pop-culture movie-star sense). This glory was marked by the ovations from oblast committees, the renaming of newspapers, the removal of Derzhinskii’s statue from Lyubyanka Sqaure and the naked pursuit of the local nomenclature with the shrill question – where were you on August 19? In a word, it was the apotheosis of an emergent anti-communist democratic country. The new authority would be able to begin its reign with great fanfare and, in the sense of obtaining legitimacy, with great effectiveness. The way was open and obvious – if you could win through general, fair, direct, and transparent elections, in direct contradiction to the Soviet experience, you could be infused by the process with a true democratic essence. Such a task seemed wholly attainable.

But if that was the case, why weren’t there such elections? The official explanation always returned first to the danger of a communist retrenchment, of a new August putsch: that the extraordinary circumstances brought the threat of the Russian state’s actual dissolution. These maxims (Don’t let the Russian Federation suffer the same fate of the Soviet Union!) were widely distributed both for public consumption and the scholarly community. Thus, the new Russia missed its chance for constituent elections (i.e., missed its chance for making a real movement to democracy) and began instead a transition to a more ‘culturally appropriate Russian way.’ Ultimately, this was in fact a tremendous mistake by the new authorities, a barrier to the democratization of the country, a blow to the party system, and a main source of the bitter conflict that would emerge between the President and Federal Parliament.

In our view this mistake was largely false and man-made, connected with a critically low-brow and peculiar world-view that was seemingly innate to the post-putsch Russian leadership. The new residents of the Kremlin not only understandably feared the Communist party, but they also didn’t believe in the personal victory they had just achieved and were not ready to fulfill a more responsible governance role. They possessed neither the statesman’s demeanor nor the legislative experience and thus found themselves buried deep in the captivity of decades-long complexes and stereotypes. From this foundation they inevitably positioned themselves like a fortress under siege and treated all around them as if they were enemies, actual or potential.

The Presidium of the Verkhovnii Soviet of the RSFSR, which had just before been a supporter of Yeltsin in opposition to the Soviet Union central government, adopted a decision on September 6, 1991 to allow for the direct election of the heads of regional administrations beginning on November 24, 1991. However the decision was subsequently vetoed: analysts for “Democratic Russia” prognosticated a tremendous defeat for the supporters of the President (at best they felt there might be 10 or 12 victories versus 36 iron-clad defeats). It was this very prognosis, which subsequently proved to be partly mistaken, that served as the basis for the realization of the “executive vertical.” As a result of this dramatic struggle the Russian Congress of People’s Deputies acquiesced to a resolution on November 1, 1991 that effectively placed a moratorium on elections across all administrative levels until December 1, 1992. Thus, in 1991 the new authority de facto rejected constituent elections and began a “democratic” transition in the style of a Byzantine court. The procedure they developed, born from the President’s inner circle, was quite simple: the President would appoint governors while these, in turn, would appoint the heads of sub-regional administrations. In this way, the glow of democratic victory following the August coup led immediately to the very same democrats turning their backs on democracy for the rest of the country moving forward. If Lenin felt he needed a vanguard of the proletariat, Yeltsin’s team apparently felt it needed the exact same for democracy.

Table 2

Recruiting the heads of City and Raion administration (1991-1992)

Heads

R

Y

A

Z

A

N

S

A

M

A

R

A

T

A

M

B

O

V

U

L

Y

A

N

O

V

S

K

M

O

R

D

O

V

I

A

U

D

M

U

R

T

I

A

C

H

U

V

A

S

H

I

A

I

N

T

O

T

A

L

%
1st secretary 5 10 4 7 2 4 1 33 16,6
2nd secretary   1   1       2 1,0

Chair,

Dep. Chair, Soviets

1 1 1 1   1 3 8 4,0
Chair, Dep.Chair,Exec. Soviets 21 21 15 10 15 13 14 109 54,8
Directorate 2 2 6 3 5 11 6 35 17,6
Others     4 2 3 1 2 12 6,0
In Sum 29 35 30 24 25 30 26 199 100

In more than half of the cases (52%), the heads of administration were recruited directly from the chairs of the city and raion executive committees. The directorate and first secretaries lagged significantly behind, with only 17.6% and 16.6% respectively. The chairs and deputy chairs of the soviets, as well as the deputy chairs of the executive committees, added to the surprisingly impressive success of Soviet apparatchiks (5.1% and 4.6% respectively). In total it worked out that 117 people came to leadership positions in the sub-regions (58.4%) directly from the Soviet nomenclature apparatus. Most importantly, there were no striking inter-regional differences with this percentage, only a few minor exceptions. In Ryazan Oblast, the chairs of the executive committees of the Soviets achieved an extraordinary 75.9%. In Samara Oblast, the divergent result came from the first secretaries with 28.6%. In Udmurtia, the directors were greatly represented with 34.5%.

What accounts for this relative lack of success of the first secretaries? We surmise the continuous rotation of the oblast committee first secretaries (it subsequently came to be commonly known as the cadre meatgrinder), organized by the general secretary across the top echelons of the party hierarchy, created a de facto collapsing interchangeability at the sub-regional level.

Table 3
Interchangeability of City and Raion First Secretaries  of the Communist Party of USSR

 

Region 1985 1986 1987 1988 1989 1990 1991 In Sum
Ryazan 6 12 5 9 5   4 41
Samara 6 1 5 6 1 9 5 33
Tambov 7 2 9 6 3 3 13 45
Ulyanovsk 7 2 8 4 2 11 2 36
Mordovia 6 2 4 9 4 18 1 42
Udmurtia 5 4 7 9 1 22 1 49
Chuvashia   2 5 6 6 12 2 33
In Sum 37 25 43 49 22 75 28 279
% 13,3 8,9 15,4 17,6 7,9 26,9 10,0 100

The continuous shifting of first secretaries across various locations placed them in a tremendously difficult position. Many who appeared in the sub-regions for the first time were immediately placed in the position of first secretary. For a non-competitive system with a continuous rotation of cadres this would have been almost normal. In a competitive system this made the first secretaries politically doomed. Recall that in March 1990 Gorbachev became the President of the USSR and allowed for the simultaneous holding of dual political office, thereby crudely raising the status of local soviet leaders. The elections for these local soviet deputies in 1990 became a bitter pill for the city and raion first secretaries. They were charged with the difficult task of finding a way to be elected to these local soviets and then subsequently head them. Those who did not succeed were consequently relieved of their right to head the city and raion committees. In the majority of cases where the first secretaries succeeded in becoming the leaders of the local soviets, they usually found themselves in collision with the directors of local industry (for example, in Samara and Ulyanovsk Oblasts and the Republic of Udmurtia.)

Table 4

Chairs of local Soviets (elections of 1990)

Region 1st Secretary Secretary Chair, 1st Dep. Chair of Exec. Committee Others (Directorate) In Sum in the sub-regions
Ryazan 25 1 3 29
Samara 22 3 1 9 35
Tambov 22 3 5 30
Ulyanovsk 21 2 2 25
Mordovia 18 1 2 3 24
Udmurtia 15 2 5 8 30
Chuvashia 19 1 2 4 26
In Sum 142 11 12 34 199
% 71,3 5,5 6,1 17,1 100

This collision produced a direct hit on the authority of the first secretaries acting as the new chairs of local soviets and felt like someone was playing a cruel joke on them (in Tambov Oblast and the Republic of Chuvashia, for example). This “contra-elite” worked against the first secretaries/new soviet chairs, blocking all their attempts to penetrate the elite local power structure. Recruiting for the new elite thus came mostly from an old reservoir of power – the old guard Soviet party nomenclature with its preservation of an unadulterated pre-Perestroika rhetoric and access to local insider knowledge. In opposition to this development a democratic movement did try to emerge simultaneously at the local level, but in reality the aforementioned contra-elites had already formed the irrefutable foundation of regional power by 1991.

In the regions, where the successes of the first secretaries had been more humble in 1990, an immediate substitution was consequently made in favor of the chairs of the city and raion executive committees. Thus, the new federal authorities by 1991 had placed a risky political wager on their success. This was most easily symbolized by President Yeltsin’s decree on July 20, 1991, ‘About the dismantling of the party’ (O departizatsii). In the Republic of Mordovia, for example, the local apparatchiks reacted to the decree by being totally demoralized and were subsequently more preoccupied with finding new work. In the Republic of Bashkortastan only 34 city and raion secretaries remained, in Tambov Oblast only 13. In most cases replacements would end up being second secretaries who had no future prospects. These substitutions would succeed in place for only a few weeks at most, while some only managed to work in these positions for just a few days. These people were nearly without authority and wholly unsuited for the role of head of the local administration. The only remaining ‘choice’ to the first secretaries, becoming a source of regional support for the federal center, was not much better.

Table 5
“Agents of Influence” for the federal center in the regions

Region Name of regional leader Mini-political bio Sub-regional politics
Ryazan

L.P. Bashmakov

(appointed)

Industrial director, Chair of Oblast Exec. Committee (1988 – 1990) The domination of the chair and his recent subordinates
Samara

K.A. Titov

(appointed)

Deputy director of “Informatika”, Chair of city soviet (1990) Support the exec. committee chair and his recent subordinates
Tambov

V.D. Babenko

(appointed)

Chief doctor of Oblast Hospital (1977 – 1991), People’s Deputy of RSFSR (1990) Support the exec. Committee chair and agricultural directors
Ulyanovsk

V.V. Malafeev (appointed, 10/24/1991-11/2/1991)

Y.F. Goryachev (appointed)

Director of “Kontaktor”,

First sec. of oblast comm. CPSU (1990), chair of oblast soviet (1990)

Support the exec. Committee chair and agricultural directors
Mordovia

V.D. Guslyannikov

(elected President of Mordovia, 12/22/1991)

Senior scholar of NPO, People’s Deputy (1990) Support the exec. Committee chair and agricultural directors
Udmurtia

V.K. Tubilov

N.E. Mironov

Chair of Supreme Soviet (1990)

Chair SM (1989)

Support the exec. Committee chair and agricultural directors
Chuvashia

Presidential elections in 1991 did not achieve results

E.A. Kybarev

N.A. Zaitsev

Chair of Supreme Soviet (1991)

Chair of SM (1989)

Support the exec. Committee chair and agricultural directors

“Partycrat” Y.F. Goryachev (Ulyanovsk Oblast), industrialist L.P. Bashmakov (Ryazan Oblast), academic V.D. Guslyannikov (Republic of Mordovia), doctor V.D. Babenko (Tambov Oblast), duma deputies V.K. Tubilov, N.E. Mironov (Republic of Udmurtia) and E.A. Kubarev, N.A. Zaitsev (Republic of Chuvashia), all were chosen according to one stark logic: chief support fell on the chairs of the local executive committees as they were the least politically dangerous. If for whatever reason the chairs were inappropriate, then the choice fell on the industrialists. Only in those instances where both chairs and industrialists were not available did they seek out “loyal” first secretaries of the new authority, capable actors of the democratic movement, or people who had fallen out of the nomenclature during the Soviet era. Indeed this process of appointing first secretaries was done only with great reluctance. The only exception to this process seemed to be K.A. Titov in Samara.

It was because of this that the first secretaries only managed to maintain their positions in 15% of the cases. Simultaneously, a small part of their number (less than 10%) did not fall from the nomenclature but simply exited into the oblast structures, as the new heads of local administration needed experienced and young administrators. These first secretaries of the provinces who ended up in the oblast centers were not considered dangerous and therefore acceptable. For example, first secretary of the Kotovsk city committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union O.I. Betin became the first deputy for the head of the Tambov Oblast administration in 1999. Betin would then become Governor of Tambov Oblast and has remained in this position. In this way nearly a quarter of the leaders of the sub-regions were able to preserve a primary spot for themselves in the local organs of power.

III. The Transformation: 1992-2015

The above explains why the events of 1991 did not allow the first secretaries many chances to hold on to their former positions of power. At best, only a few of them were able to hold on to power at the sub-regional level. This collision of appointments happened throughout 1991-1992. It is now necessary to move forward, discussing the developments that have emerged since the fall of the Soviet Union. After this appointing collision, the sub-regions in Russia went through three electoral cycles (the mid-1990s, the late 1990s, and the early 2000s). Each successive cycle further weakened the position of the first secretaries. Each successive election the first secretaries suffered losses of around 50%: the first cycle put an end to their dominant leadership role in the sub-regions; the second cycle displayed the futility in attempting to return to power; and the third cycle basically ended as a total fiasco for the former first secretaries.

Table 6

First secretaries of the City and Raion Committees of the CPSU – subregional leaders

(<+> = appointment of first secretaries as heads of administration [between elections])

(<-> = removal of first secretaries as heads of administration [between elections])

 

Subregion

Appointment

(1991-92; 1992-96)

1st Electoral Cycle

(1996; 1997-00)

2nd Electoral Cycle

(2001-04)

3rd Electoral Cycle

(2004)

4rd Electoral Cycle (2008-2010) 5rd Electoral Cycle (2012-2014)
1 Ryazan 5 5 7 5 1 0
2 Samara 10+1 5 5 4 0 0
3 Tambov 4+3-3 5-1 3 0 0 0
4 Ulyanovsk 7+1-1 4 1 0 0 0
5 Mordovia 2 3-1 0 0 0 0
6 Udmurtiya 4+1–3 2 2 2 0 0
7 Chuvashia 1+1-1 3+2-1 5-4 1 0 0
  In Sum 33+7-8 27+2-3 23-4 12 1 0

What accounts for these trends across the electoral cycles? This ‘washing away’ of the party nomenclature out of the local administration system can be explained through a number of circumstances. During the elections of the mid-1990s the first secretaries who remained in power largely conceded to one of two groups: either to the minions of the Communist Party of the Russian Federation (CPRF) or to the local industrialists/businessmen (ironically, these candidates were often overlapping in the sub-regions). During this time the opposition leaders within the CPRF were concentrated mostly in the local legislative organs (the Soviets and Dumas) and were continuously on the attack. For them, the first secretaries – whether they be the heads of administration already or simply candidates for the position – were traitors and opponents to their overall agenda. In Tambov Oblast, for example, during the elections for the head of the Muchkapskoi raion administration in December 1996, the raion committee for the CPRF issued a summons for its members to vote for A.V. Trubnikov as first secretary of the raion committee. Trubnikov was at the time only a farmer and had as the height of his Soviet career a position as instructor of the agricultural divison of the raion committee of the CPSU. As a result, nine candidates ended up being carried to victory across the oblast because of the support of the CPRF. Amongst them were only three former first secretaries (Uvarovo, Staryuryevskii, and Mordvoskii raions). Fascinatingly and contrary to the scholarly literature in the West, the Tambov communists simply ignored the former party nomenclature. The organizational structures of the CPRF instead supported representatives from the powerful industrial elite, who had been almost wholly unconnected to the former nomenclature.

The elections in the late 1990s clearly demonstrated that the only leader capable of mobilizing the popular vote was one that had become part of some clan, namely, one that was pro-presidential. At the local level a peculiar ‘party of power’ arose again and again – formed from the various politico-economic groups that were stable enough to be consolidated around formal and informal leaders. The unity of such structures was established through official coordination, informal connections, coinciding interests on the personal front, and the manipulation of extreme dependence. The elections in the early 2000s only strengthened that trend toward clan development. Unfortunately for them, a place for the first secretaries really was not part of this new power structure. It quickly became clear to them, however, that there were other options, post-USSR, for achieving a more-or-less comfortable standard of living outside the organs of local administration. In fact, it would be more accurate to say that only the less successful first secretaries were ultimately recruited into the organs of local administration. For obvious financial reasons, these administrative positions were clearly on a secondary level in terms of priority. Two other sectors were more ideal and preferred: head in the direction of industrial activity, as captains of new industry emerging with the privatization of state property, or the pursuit of positions within the oblast administrative structures. Regardless of the choice, both of these options were attractive in comparison with local administrations because of their swift opportunities for personal enrichment. And so, where does that leave scholars if they seek to find the footprints of the sub-regions’ original ‘local heroes’? What became of them and what finally were their long-term career trajectories?

IV. The post-Soviet careers of City and Raion first secretaries

The post-Soviet career of city and raion first secretaries evolved along six trajectories:

First trajectory: ‘The Boom – jumping to a new system.’ This trajectory comprised governors, vice-governors, heads of oblast administrative structures, and top managers. It was less than 10% of the overall nomenclature and was marked by an ability to achieve increases in overall authoritative capacity. In 1991-1992 they became the new authority and ultimately the self-interested protectors of the new order. These figures would have likely achieved a comparable status within the Soviet Union with but one significant difference: under the new system they were incomparably better off financially.

Second trajectory: ‘The Preservation – successfully maintaining the continuation of administrative-political activism.’ This trajectory was comprised largely of the heads of oblast and raion administrations and was about 15% of the overall nomenclature. These figures managed to sustain their pre-1991 levels of authority. They did not form a support network for the new powers within the system (as this effort would be politically dangerous) and by the mid-1990s had achieved an administrative distance between themselves and the top trajectory.

Third trajectory: ‘The Quasi-Survival – remaining in the system of administration but suffering a reduction in authority to secondary roles within municipal structures.’ This trajectory comprised the largest percentage of the nomenclature, nearly 35%, and included the deputy heads of city and raion administration, the chairs and deputy chairs of city and raion soviets, and municipal workers who had a higher administrative status pre-1991. These successes did sometimes become significant: across a majority of sub-regions (57.1%) the first secretaries succeeded by 1990 in combining their post with another, usually chair of the local soviets. The dissolution of all local soviets, however, in 1993 ended this opportunity.

Fourth trajectory: ‘The Exchange – voluntarily transitioning away from political authority toward economic opportunities.’ This trajectory was the second largest category (25%) and was comprised of the managers/directors of industry. A large number of industrial managers came into the party organs by answering the “Gorbachev summons” during the second half of the 1980s, as Gorbachev sought to produce a swift transformation of party cadres. This status gave them a significant advantage when the privatization of industry and agriculture began. These managers and directors eagerly returned to what was for them a more comfortable and habitual role of activity and quickly established for themselves an enviable standard of living.

Fifth trajectory: ‘The Orthodox – resisting the new system.’ Comprising only 10% of the overall nomenclature, this group was mostly made up of the first secretaries of the official raion and city branches of the Communist Party of the Russian Federation. They successfully clung to their orthodox rhetoric and became ideological fighters against the new system. In the first half of the 1990s this trend was actually rather popular. The calculation to pursue this course of action paid off in the success of G.A. Zyuganov as a potential candidate for Russian Federation President and in their own personal success as the most believable and trusted heads of local administration. In the present day such opposition to the authority of V.V. Putin is not only futile but almost masochistic. Today this trajectory is basically closed.

Sixth trajectory: ‘The Exit – retiring into the pension system.’ This age group, who were mainly the most elderly first secretaries of the local Communist Party branches, made up only 5% of the total nomenclature. For the most part they put in for retirement immediately after the failed coup attempt in 1991.

This presentation has elaborated six trajectories which explain the general mutation and flow of authority and power of the sub-regional party nomenclature after the dissolution of the Soviet Union. While this article certainly provides proof of the fusion between municipal service and business, it also shows the subtlety and diversity of options from which the late-stage Soviet nomenclature was able to choose. Clearly some options for lines of authority dominated over others. What should be emphasized, however, is how closely those choices ultimately gave foreshadowing for some of the most significant problems and flaws that would occur throughout the 1990s and beyond as Russia tried to complete its transition to democracy and a free-market economy. The poor choices and frustrations of the sub-regional nomenclature were often ultimately mirrored in poor choices and frustrations within the transition at the federal level.

Thus, the chain of power in Russia evolved in the following manner:

1991 – Manager with work experience in Soviet organs (so-called «the Soviet nomenclature»).

1996 – Manager Nomenclature of the Soviet era.

2000 – Non-nomenclature Managers, placed by clans.

2004 – Non-nomenclature Managers plus other persons, also placed by clans.

2008-2010 – Peoples from outside, Varangians (Businessmen and Intelligence officers).

2012-2014 – Varangians somewhat transformed into a new type, but still close to the governors.


MattDimaMatthew Crosston, PhD
Bellevue University, Omaha, Nebraska, USA
Professor of Political Science
Miller Endowed Chair for Industrial and International Security,
Director – The ISIS Program: International Security and Intelligence Studies
Dmitrii SELTSER
Tambov State University named after G.R. Derzhavin, Tambov, Russia
Doctor of Political Science, Professor of Foreign Affairs and Political Science

Dr. Matthew Crosston is Senior Doctoral Faculty in the School of Security and Global Studies at the American Military University and was just named the future Co-Editor of the seminal International Journal of Intelligence and Counterintelligence. His work is catalogued at: https://brown.academia.edu/ProfMatthewCrosston/Analytics

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Future of Russia’s “Breakaway Empire”

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As the West-Russia tensions have grown over the past years, one theater of Russian foreign policy, namely management of breakaway regions, has largely fallen out of analysts’ works. Where, in the first years following the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia had to manage breakaway conflicts in small and poor Georgia and Moldova, by early 2019, Moscow’s responsibilities have increased exponentially. In a way Nagorno-Karabakh was also under the Russian geopolitical influence, although the Russians were not directly involved.

Following the Ukraine crisis, Crimea, Donetsk and Luhansk were added to Russia’s “Breakaway Empire”. This means that at a time when economic problems are looming large within Russia, Moscow has to spend more on multiple actors across the former Soviet space. This means that Russia’s broader strategy of managing breakaway conflicts, though not very much visible, could be coming under increasing stress. Where Russia previously used the conflicts in Moldova, Georgia and Ukraine to limit the ability of those countries to enter the EU/NATO, now Moscow is losing its ability to maneuver in so many diverse conflicts simultaneously. At times, various players are trying to play their own game independently from Moscow. In Transnistria, the geopolitical situation is troublesome for Moscow as Kiev and Chisinau at times consider constraining the breakaway territory, and Moscow can do little as it has no direct land or air route. In Abkhazia and South Ossetia, Russian forces watch as NATO exercises take place on Georgian soil, which suggests that, despite the Russian military footprint in the region, Western countries are continuing to expand their support for Georgia.

Without doubt, Russia will remain a dominant military power in the region and the breakaway territories will stay dependent on Moscow’s support. Yet, it will be increasingly difficult for Moscow to successfully pull the strings in several different theaters at once, particularly as the Russia is facing its own financial problems, increased Western efforts to confront its foreign policy, and “disobedience” from various separatist leaders.

Bad, but Still a Strategy

If Russia has any notion of a grand strategy in its recent foreign policy, it is certainly the purposeful creation of conflict zones and their management across the post-Soviet space. The fall of the Soviet Union was indeed a colossal geopolitical setback for Moscow as the country instantly lost portions of land on a scale rarely, if ever, seen in recorded history. But maintaining 11 buffer states (except for the Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania) around Russia has remained a cornerstone of the Kremlin’s foreign policy against Western military and economic encroachment. Russians knew that because of their own country’s low economic potential, the South Caucasus states would inevitably turn to Europe. The same would happen on Russia’s western frontier with Moldova and Ukraine, which have been more susceptible to Western economic and military potential because of geographic proximity and historical interconnections with Europe.

In a way, geopolitical trends also point towards the conclusion that Russia’s usage of breakaway territories to stop Western expansion in the former Soviet space is not working. True that Moscow needed, be it Abkhazia or Donetsk, to stop the countries in its “immediate neighborhood” from joining the EU/NATO. And to the Russians’ credit, it has worked: the West is hesitant to quickly make Georgia, Ukraine and Moldova the members of the EU/NATO groupings. But there are also signs that the Russian gambit that those very breakaway regions would undermine the integrity of Georgia and Ukraine has largely failed. Only Moldova might be regarded as a success for the Russians, as the country has still failed to unite around its geopolitical choice.

The point here is that although there are breakaway territories, Western expansion into Georgia and Ukraine continues through various means, importing a much “deadlier” weapon – economic influence – against that of traditional Russian military and religious influence.

Author’s note: First published in Georgia Today

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Russia: Open, hospitable, only in short-term for Africans

Kester Kenn Klomegah

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The Russian Interior Ministry has reiterated that the legislation that allows special 2018 FIFA visa-free entry to Russia for the foreign visitors ended on Dec 31.

“In accordance with the legislation of the Russian Federation, foreign citizens who visited the 2018 FIFA World Cup matches as spectators and who have Fan IDs will not be able to enter the Russian Federation after December 31, 2018,” the source said.

The World Cup attracted only hundreds of football fans from many African countries while thousands arrived from the United States, Europe and Asia to Russia. According some statistics, about five million foreigners visited the country over this period from June 14 through July 15, the highest number among foreigners were fans from the United States, Brazil and Germany.

It set a new record of audience in the history of world football championships as over half of the world’s population watched the matches on televisions at home and on digital platforms.

Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said in remarks while opening the Russia-Africa Social Forum on October 22 that he considered it (the sport event) necessary to maximise the potential of public and cultural diplomacy in the interests of strengthening and expanding the traditionally friendly and mutually beneficial ties between Russia and African countries.

“It is hard to overestimate the role of this in strengthening friendship, trust and mutual understanding between nations. For example, many Africans have in fact discovered Russia for themselves while visiting Russia as fans during the 2018 FIFA World Cup,” he said.

Foreign Ministry’s Spokesperson Maria Zakharova, during her weekly media briefing, also expressed great satisfaction and added that the MFA continued receiving messages about the enthusiasm regarding the organisation of the World Cup, the atmosphere surrounding the event, infrastructure and the country in general.

According to her, Russia in its role as the host of the World Cup had demonstrated yet again that it deserved the highest marks for the tournament. It has left an indelible impression on the memory of numerous foreign fans who arrived in the country from all over the world to support their football squads.

Commenting on Russia’s image abroad, specifically in Africa, Ambassador of Zimbabwe, Major General (rtd) Nicholas Mike Sango, told me in an interview that the Sochi International Olympics and the FIFA international football extravaganza surprised many Africans on the level of development of the Russian Federation.

“There is a dearth of information about the country. Russia-Africa issues are reported by third parties and often not in good light. As a result, Africa’s media should find space to operate in Russia. In spite of the limited resources, Russia should make it easier for African journalists to operate on her territory and consistently promote the positive changes and emerging opportunities to the African public,” Mike Sango suggested.

According to official reports released by the Presidential Press Service and the Presidential Executive Office, the initiative was crafted to promote public diplomacy and raise Russia’s image abroad.

Significant to recall here that at the opening of the World Cup, Putin said: “We prepared responsibly for this major event and did our best so that fans could immerse themselves in the atmosphere of a magnificent football festival and, of course, enjoy their stay in Russia – open, hospitable, friendly Russia – and find new friends, new like-minded people.”

FIFA World Cup ran from June 14 to July 15 in 10 different cities in Russia. The foreign fans who received Fan IDs and purchased tickets for the matches went to Russia without visas. After the end of the World Cup, the Russian president declared that the Fan ID holders would have the right to visit repeatedly visa-free until the end of 2018.

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China: Russia’s Source of Hope & Fears

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The current crisis between Russia and the West is the product of many fundamental geopolitical differences in both the former Soviet space and elsewhere. All trends in bilateral relations lead to a likely conclusion that fundamental differences between Russia and the West will remain stalled well into the future. The successful western expansion into what was always considered the “Russian backyard” halted Moscow’s projection of power and diminished its reach into the north of Eurasia – between fast-developing China, Japan, and other Asian countries, and the technologically modern European landmass.

What is interesting is that as a result of this geopolitical setback on the country’s western border, the Russian political elite started to think over Russia’s position in Eurasia. Politicians and analysts discuss the country’s belonging to either Western or Asian civilization or representing a symbiosis – the Eurasian world.

As many trends in Russian history are cyclic so is the process of defining Russia’s position and its attachment to Asia or Europe. This quest usually follows geopolitical shifts to Russia’s disadvantage.

In the 19th century, following a disastrous defeat in the Crimean War (1853-1856) from Great Britain and France, the Russian intellectuals began thinking over how solely European Russia was. Almost the same thing happened following the dissolution of the Russian Empire in 1917 and break-up of the Soviet Union in 1991. Though in each case the Russians were reacting to European military or economic expansion with discussions, the reality was that a turn to the East was impossible as most developed territories were in the European parts of the Russian state. Back then, the Russians, when looking to the East, saw the empty lands in Siberia and the Russian Far East.

What is crucial nowadays is that Russia’s pull to the East is now happening due to the presence of powerful China bordering Siberia. This very difference is fundamental when discussing Russia’s modern quest for their position in Eurasia.

Today, Europe is a source of technological progress, as are Japan and China. Never in Russian history has there been such an opportunity to develop Siberia and transform it into a power base of the world’s economy.

Russia’s geographical position is unique and will remain so for another several decades, as the ice cap in the Arctic Ocean is set to diminish significantly. The Arctic Ocean will be transformed into an ocean of commercial highways, giving Russia a historic opportunity to become a sea power.

Chinese and Japanese human and technological resources in the Russian Far East, and European resources in the Russian west, can transform it into a land of opportunity.

Russia’s geographical position should be kept in mind when analyzing Moscow’s position vis-à-vis the China-US competition. However, apart from the purely economic and geographical pull that the developed Asia-Pacific has on Russia’s eastern provinces, the Russian political elite sees the nascent US-China confrontation as a chance to enhance its weakening geopolitical position throughout the former Soviet space. Russians are right to think that both Washington and Beijing will dearly need Russian support, and this logic is driving Moscow’s noncommittal approach towards Beijing and Washington. As a matter of cold-blooded international affairs, Russia wishes to position itself such that the US and China are strongly competing with one another to win its favor.

In allying itself with China, Russia would expect to increase its influence in Central Asia, where Chinese power has grown exponentially since the break-up of the Soviet Union in 1991. Although Moscow has never voiced official concerns about this matter, that is not to deny the existence of such concerns within the Russian political elite.

However, if Moscow chooses the US side, the American concessions could be more significant than the Chinese. Ukraine and the South Caucasus would be the biggest prizes, while NATO expansion into the Russian “backyard” would be stalled. The Middle East might be another sticking point where Moscow gets fundamental concessions – for example in Syria, should that conflict continue.

Beyond grand strategic thinking, this decision will also be a civilizational choice for the Russians molded in the perennial debate about whether the country is European, Asiatic, or Eurasian (a mixture of the two). Geography inexorably pulls Russia towards the East, but culture pulls it towards the west. While decisions of this nature are usually expected to be based on geopolitical calculations, cultural affinity also plays a role.

Tied into the cultural aspect is the Russians’ fear that they (like the rest of the world) do not know how the world would look under Chinese leadership. The US might represent a threat to Russia, but it is still a “known” for the Russian political elite. A China-led Eurasia could be more challenging for the Russians considering the extent to which Russian frontiers and provinces are open to large Chinese segments of the population.

The Russian approach to the nascent US-China confrontation is likely to be opportunistic. Its choice between them will be based on which side offers more to help Moscow resolve its problems across the former Soviet space.

Author’s note: first published at Georgia Today

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