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CIS at crossroads: the shift in geo-political dynamics

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2016 was out of the ordinary year. The ‘skittish’ Donald Trump got elected as the 45th President of the United States. Britain voted to make its historic exit from the European Union and for the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), the year was a political carnival as it completed 25 years of its existence. The last event indeed feels like a cold day in the hell especially when the grouping has been seen in a disparaging light ever since it kicked-off. Scores of critical remarks talking in length about its inefficacy, institutional failure and uninspiring progress has not only exposed its innate impotence but has also developed a sense of distrust towards it. However, it would be unjust to label the CIS as moribund without offering adequate explanation for the case. The article will delve into the strategic play of geo-politics extant during the formation of the CIS, how Russia and other CIS states perceive of the alliance in the present era and its subsequent contribution in making the organization irrelevant. 

Theorizing CIS

Why do states come together to form a regional organization at the expense of their most invaluable gem, national sovereignty? This question has been answered on multiple occasions through multifarious theories of international relations. However, strategic considerations played out an imperative role when the foundation of the CIS was laid. Prima facie, the ‘threat perception’ was the most conspicuous motivation that forced the states into action. This perception nonetheless was not uniform. For Russia, the western powers drive for democracy, NATO’s eastward proliferation and unruly CIS states in its ‘near abroad’ were a cause of alarm. For other CIS states, political and religious turmoil in their own lands and Russia’s amplified aspirations were deleterious to their national sovereignty and territorial integrity. Blown by the fate worse than death, Russia endeavored to encapsulate all the former Soviet states (except the three Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania) within its reach by employing unhesitant coercion towards the disobedient states that were reluctant to join the CIS. Russia in the CIS was a status-quo power, tenacious on preserving its Soviet pre-eminence. Adoption of such radical measures appeared as the only potent tool to secure its interests. For the other CIS states, the challenge to uphold their newly granted independence from external and internal threats with their frail military was an even more daunting task. Russia’s splendid force was the brightest star in the dark night, which could defend their territory in the event of a military attack. Moreover, Russia’s membership in the organization was an excellent tool to balance Russia’s ambitions to dominate the Greater Russia. CIS states were quick to realize the merit in these moves and acquiesced to be part of the CIS. 

The role of intricate interdependencies in the emergence of the CIS is even more paramount given the complex web of relationship that the former Soviet Republics shared. Constructivists emphasize on the notion of cognitive interdependence and cultural affinity as the raison d’être for the development of an organization. CIS is a vindication to the point. In the face of burning civil warfare and local threats, the political elites of many states thought it to be advantageous to bandwagon with regionally strong states and thereby bolster their chances of survival. This very act of bandwagoning is termed as ‘omnibalancing’ by its propounder Steven R. David. However, whether the regionally strong state will come to the rescue of the war-torn state depends upon multiple calculations. This line of thought holds credence in the case of Central Asian states that conjoined with Russia in the CIS. Geographical proximity can also be cited as a reasonable inducement to be a part of an organization. Central Asian states were closer to Russia than Ukraine, Moldova, Armenia, and Georgia. This idea held true in case of CIS.                                            

Operational dynamics of CIS

After a protracted period of debate on the character of CIS, the organization came into being on 8th December 1991. It was a kind of historical process that accompanied the civilized divorce of the Soviet Republics. CIS aided the newly independent states to reinvigorate their relationship that had been marred by the break-up. For the CIS states, the organization was a platform to embalm the most quintessential elements of the past cohabitation. In its blooming years, CIS approved more than 250 agreements. It was on the crest of a wave. Albeit, no sooner than later, suspicions and inhibitions cloaked in the garb of deep cultural sway, political and economic interdependencies, and the so-called obedience to the leader of the Greater Russia stood unveiled. Nature and purpose of the CIS began to be contested. Neither was the CIS a full-fledged state in the clichéd sense nor was it a subject of the international law. There was not any unified CIS foreign policy or a CIS national interest, largely owing to the diversification of dependencies and geo-political pluralism. Geo-political, geo-economic and ideological chasm made a headway between the two groups of states. There were pro-CIS states and CIS-skeptic states. The former mainly included the Russian Federation, Belarus, Armenia, and the Central Asian states barring Turkmenistan. The latter comprised of Azerbaijan, Ukraine, Moldova, Turkmenistan, and Georgia. Pro-CIS states wanted consolidation of common economic space by appropriate structures, while those skeptical of CIS were opposed to any form of institutionalization. Participation of post-Soviet states in the CIS meetings was irregular. Many of them complained the existential institutional upheaval. Trade relations could not endure the privileged luster that characterized the intense bonhomie and inter-linkages of the CIS states. In the aftermath of the 1998 crisis, trade ties were further derailed by payment arrears and the practice of states of keeping up with the barter arrangements. Nonetheless, the economic landscape was not something out of the blue. Inherited interdependence is not emblematic of shared inherited interest. Besides, the level of interdependence is not the same for all and sundry.

The charter of the CIS dictated the attainment of functional cooperation through consensus and this proved to be a stumbling block in the flourishing of the CIS. Many states chose not to ratify the agreements or approve of necessary reforms and policies such as elimination of value-added taxes on exports. Any venture or organization’s success is contingent upon the quantity and quality of time and resources that is invested into it. Faced with the mammoth task of nation building, coupled with meager resources and time, the CIS states steered all their energy to making their frontiers and economy as formidable as possible. Scant attention and probably low political will on part of the states pushed CIS toward the shambles. Furthermore, many of the ideals sacrosanct to all such as respecting state sovereignty, renouncing the use of force were walked over by some, if not all. Cognizant of the fact that the organization was unable to find a common ground to manage crisis in the post-Soviet space and serve the interest of the states, many of the CIS nations, primarily CIS skeptics formed their minilateral groupings such as GUAM (Georgia, Ukraine, Azerbaijan and Moldova), Central Asian Union, later renamed as Central Asian Cooperation Organization. In 1992, Azerbaijan and Central Asian states joined the Economic Cooperation Organization. In 2005, Ukraine, Moldova, and Georgia, together with Slovenia, Romania, and Macedonia, formed the Community of Democratic Choice. Some states began leaning towards the west and this ringed the alarm bells for Russia.

Future of CIS amid Preponderant Russia

Russia, which in the 1990’s was floundering to rebuild its identity on the vestiges of socialism made a ‘great leap’ to be the 11th largest economy in the world. With high growth rates and satisfactory public exchequer, the political elites were now able to direct their energy towards effectuating their global hegemonic aspirations. With politically deft leaders, Russia turned towards regional organizations to exert their influence. Right after his ascendance as the President of Russia, Putin pledged to improve Moscow’s relations with the CIS states. Russia’s foreign policy document of 2008 reaffirmed the fundamental importance of the CIS and identified the development of bilateral and multilateral cooperation with CIS member-states as the major thrust of Russia’s foreign policy. Nonetheless, it is not to suggest that Moscow’s political elites in the last years of the previous century turned a blind eye to regional cooperation mechanisms. Under Primakov, attempts were made to reform CIS in 1998. He also pronounced his plans of creating several CIS free-trade zones. Russia has invariably viewed CIS, in the words of Medvedev as a ‘sphere of privileged interest’.

The delightful memoirs of the soviet consolidation are very much alive in the hearts of the Russians. A desire to re-forge spiritual unity of the Soviet era with the CIS states is profound. However, the real impulse is to obtain unquestionable loyalty which is feigned under the label of ‘spiritual unity’. Russia’s mention of ‘near-abroad’ (Blizhnee-Zarubezhe) in political speeches is seen in a pejorative sense outside Russia, especially by the CIS states. Russia’s cold war mentality demands ultimate obedience whereas the CIS states have grown sterner when it comes to securing their national sovereignty and territorial integrity. Moscow’s rigidity, its preference to bilateralism over multilateralism and its threat to other CIS states have compelled states to branch out in terms of their international involvement. 

Russia’s obstinacy to secure its near-abroad from foreign powers, especially the West has resulted in many incursions into the post-soviet states, thereby violating the essential ideals of CIS. Georgia and Ukraine are a case in point. Georgia has been inclined towards the west and had sought NATO’s membership. Its exit from the CIS in 2006 fanned Russia’s anger and the latter-imposed a near-total embargo on Georgian wine and agricultural exports. As if it was not enough, Moscow encouraged pro-Russian secessionist groups in Abkhazia and South Ossetia, later resulting in the Russian-Georgian war in 2008. Ukraine and Russia have been locked in chronic disputes over pricing and tariff rates for long. Ukraine too believed that CIS has outlived its usefulness and therefore wanted to be a part of NATO and EU. However, Kiev’s desire was nipped in the bud when Russia annexed Crimea in 2014. Putin justified the intrusion as an act of defending ethnic Russians. Rather this was an act of embracing civilizational identity. It demonstrated that Russian military deployments in and near CIS countries are not just for show. Furthermore, there were others who had to bow to Russia’s arm-twisting. Moldova aimed to build ties with the west and in retaliation to it; Russian government stepped up its support for the secessionist movement in Transnistria. Reluctantly, Moldova had to give up its plan of forging improved ties with the west and remain a part of CIS. The examples cited above would lead one to infer the centrality of CIS in Russia’s foreign policy. However, it is not the case. What is significant to Russia is not CIS as an organization but CIS as a region. Russian government did not deploy troops or bully the leaders in Turkmenistan when it reduced its status from a full member to an associate member. This was mainly because Turkmenistan did not pose a serious challenge to Russia’s ambitions, thus it did not feel the need to get into a military scuffle. Color revolutions for Russia were the ‘menace of phantom’. Russian administration ostracized and intimidated all those countries that had undergone democratic change and accommodated autocratic leaders who stifled the drive of people for greater freedom. 

Power projection is one of the most overpowering instruments to solidify one’s hold over a region. Putin was wise to realize this, and his tenure witnessed the emergence of inter-governmental structures such as EEU (Eurasian Economic Union), SCO (Shanghai Cooperation Organization) and CSTO (Collective Security Treaty Organization). Undoubtedly, these structures of power made the battle of survival for CIS even more intense, it also made the fact crystal clear that regaining its superpower status and its lost glory dominated their idea of foreign policy above anything else.

Conclusion

CIS which was developed with the intent to mitigate the pains and sufferings of the collapse of the USSR now is itself reeling under legitimacy crisis. Amid failures and successes of power politics, CIS still hobbles on. At least, it provides a forum to discuss and manage some issues of ‘low politics. CIS states, other than Russia have a different construct of the organization. For some it is a forward-moving group, while for other, stagnant, or simply digressing from its actual path. Russia is concerned about raising its stature in the ‘near-abroad’ and CIS legitimates its presence. Furthermore, equality of states is a pre-requisite of any inter-governmental organization. This serves as an ideological hindrance to Russia’s rise as it never considered other states as its equal partners. Therefore, progress of CIS has impeded as Russia did not want to part away with its sovereignty and stature with other CIS states. Use of coercion by Russia may have helped it win some wars within its near- abroad, but such a triumph may not be fruitful in the longer run, when Russia would need to be aided by smaller states surrounding it. It also needs to realize that in the wake of geo-political pluralism, every state has its own priorities and diversification of interest is anything but obvious. It should get hold of the fact that it can no longer dominate the region as it once did. CIS has been a pawn in the geopolitical scuffle between states ever since its inception. Some call it a defunct organization, while others hope for its revival, what CIS will turn out to be depends upon how CIS states perceive the global politics and CIS’ utility in the times to come.

REFERENCES:

Kubicek, P. (2009). The Commonwealth of Independent States: An Example of Failed Regionalism? Review of International Studies,35, 237-256. Retrieved June 5, 2020, from www.jstor.org/stable/20542785

Imanaliev, M.(2016),”The Commonwealth of Independent States: Not Subject to Reform”, [Online: web] Accessed 2 June, 2020 URL: https://valdaiclub.com/a/highlights/commonwealth-of-independent-states-not-subject-to-reform/

Wilson, J.L,”The Russian Pursuit of Regional Hegemony”, [Online: web] Accessed 2 June, 2020 URL: https://risinngpowersproject.com/quarterly/russian-pursuit-regional-hegemony/

Sakwa,R.(2008),”Commonwealth,Community and Fragmentation”, in Richard Sakwa Russian Politics and Society, Routledge, Taylor and Francis Group.

Kremer, M. (2008),”Russian Policy Toward the Commonwealth of Independent states: Recent Trends and Future Prospects”, Problems of Post-Communism,vol. 55, no.6,November/December: 3-19

Zahoor Ahmad Dar is a researcher based in New Delhi. He has completed master’s in International Relations from the School of International Relations, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, email – zahoorjnu[at]gmail.com

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The European Union and Russia: To talk or not to talk and about what?

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The recent visit of the High Representative of the European Union Josep Borrell to Moscow was seen by those, who care about good-neighbourly relations between the EU and Russia, as a first step on the way of putting an end to their decline, since already for some time they were going from bad to worse. Why didn’t the expectations of these people of good will bear the fruit? Were they simply naïve? To an extent, it is true. But why was there such a negative reaction to Borrell’s visit in several European capitals, and also in the European Parliament, including the calls for his resignation? What led Sergei Lavrov, the Foreign Minister of Russia, to declare that his country must be ready to severing relations with the EU in case the latter adopts new sanctions against Moscow? What would this mean for Europe, for Russia and even for the wider world since notwithstanding the coronavirus the world remains interconnected and interdependent, even if a reverse tendency has also become visible?

First of all, it has to be noted that there are those, both in Russia as well as in Europe, who are actively against any improvement of relations between Moscow and Brussels. In Russia these are not only, and even not so much, those ultra-nationalists (exemplified, say, by Alexander Prohkanov) for whom the Western influence in Russia is like a bat from the hell infected by coronavirus. These are also members of the radical pro-Western opposition to the Kremlin, exemplified by Alexei Navalny. For them any sign of reconciliation between the West and Russia is a cause for alarm since in such a case they may be soon out of job. And both of these Russian opponents of rapprochement between the EU and Russia have their counterparts in the West, including Europe. Significant parts of political elites, particularly in the Baltic countries and in Poland, for whom trans-Atlantic ties are much more important than European interests, hope that by supporting the radical opposition in Russia they could enforce there a regime change, a kind of ‘colour revolution’.

However, as the success of such scenarios is ‘highly unlikely’ and political pragmatism and economic self-interests usually prevail over vociferous extremism, be it political or religious, there is still hope at the end of the tunnel. Moreover, when Sergei Lavrov said that Russia should be ready to possible severing relations between EU and Russia, he didn’t mean at all that it would be Russia’s choice. It was said in the context of a response to a threat of new EU’s sanctions and Moscow’s countersanctions since all such unfriendly measures inevitably undermine relations between States and societies. And though it is impossible to realistically imagine a complete severance of relations between Brussels and Moscow, it may well be that at least for the nearest future political relations between them become a bit frozen. It maybe even advisable to take the time off and reflect for a while, instead of continuing with mutual recriminations. However, this would also mean that relations between Russia and individual member-States of the Union would necessarily rise in importance since there are areas and issues where cooperation between Russia and Europe is inevitable and unavoidable (be it the situation in the Middle East, the fate of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action with Iran, responses to cyber-terrorism and even the conflict in Eastern Ukraine or the situation in and around the Nagorno-Karabakh, etc.). Moreover, Covid-19 is not only forcing States to impose stricter border controls, even within in the Schengen zone; the virus is also pushing them to cooperate in the distribution and use of effective vaccines, notwithstanding their ‘politically incorrect’ origin. This all means that the role and position of the EU in the world would further weaken.

The failure of Borrell’s mission was also predetermined by what the High Representative himself called ‘the DNA’ of the European Union – the concern for human rights, particularly in States that don’t belong to the Union. As the High Representative himself claimed, in justification of his visit and apologising before the MEPs for its meagre results, the primary purpose of his twofold mission was to convey to the Kremlin the Union’s concerns for human rights and political freedoms in Russia and particularly for the situation of Mr Navalny. He even demanded Navalny’s ‘immediate and unconditional release’. And only then came issues of bilateral cooperation between the EU and Russia. This was an absolutely wrong, even disastrous, way to start a dialogue. The European Union is not a human rights NGO, like the Amnesty International or the Human Rights Watch, and even if it has a human rights mandate, then only vis-à-vis its member-States. Moreover, the whole history of the human rights movement shows that inter-State relations (and relations between the EU and Russia are inter-State relations) are not the best forum for conducting a human rights discourse. For that there are specialised human rights bodies, both international and domestic, intergovernmental and non-governmental. When human rights diplomacy of States has had tangible positive effects, it has been achieved by unobtrusive approaches, never through public criticism in the face of mass media. Such criticism has always been counterproductive, even vis-à-vis smaller and weaker States, to say nothing about great powers.

Usually such public criticism doesn’t even have a purpose of improving the human rights situation in a target country. It may be a form of self-satisfaction – we are holding a moral high-ground, while you are outcasts (rogue or pariah States). It is nice to feel virtuous even if things on the grounds don’t change at all or even get worse. It may be also a part of regime-change tactics in parallel with undercover support for opposition forces in target States. Never have such public campaigns improved human rights situations. The opposite is true – human rights situations have improved as a result of fruitful cooperation between States. So, the reforms in China and the inclusion of China in the world-wide economic cooperation have lifted, according to the World Bank, 850 million Chinese out of extreme poverty, helping thereby the UN to achieve one of its Millennium Development Goals. However, such an unexpected success has not been to everybody’s liking and today Washington is trying to harness its allies to help contain Beijing’s rise, using for it, inter alia, human rights discourse that is not doing any good either for Uighurs in the North or Hongkongese in the South of the country. But such policy of containment is not at all about Uighurs or inhabitants of Hong Kong; it is about geopolitics in the disguise of human rights. 

In the aftermath of the failed attempts to promote democracy and human rights in the wider Middle East, the former British Prime Minister Theresa May promised that there is no ‘return to the failed policies of the past. The days of Britain and America intervening in sovereign countries in an attempt to remake the world in our own image are over.’She vowed never to repeat the ‘failed policies of the past’, breaking from the ’liberal intervention’ principle established and promoted by her predecessor Tony Blair. Hubert Védrine, the former French Foreign Minister, was right in emphasising that ‘democracy and human rights will progress in future much less through the prescriptions and interference from the outside by the West than depending on the internal dynamics of individual societies’. It is often, though not always, the case that the less States publicly criticise other States on human rights issues, the better would it be for human rights.

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The Role of Ideology in Foreign Policy: Why Contemporary Russia Cannot Be Compared to the Soviet Union

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Ideology is a crucial component in understanding the motivation behind any individual or group of people. Realism falsely presupposes that the motivation of actors can be understood purely through the lens of survival in a limited resources zero-sum domain. At face level, this sounds rational and economic, but it should be understood that in microeconomics, even though people are assumed to always act self-interestedly, it is also understood that what their self-interest is actually composed of is ultimately subjective. Therefore, a more realistic and analytical view of realpolitik allows us to understand that the self-interest of nations is also subjective, which means that the role of ideology cannot be discounted as it pertains to foreign policy.

Throughout human history, nearly every nation has been founded for the sake of itself, even expansionist empires. A glaring exemption to this rule was observed during the Cold War, a clash of two markedly ideological countries.

The United States is a country that was founded on the ideology of humanist enlightenment liberalism and is a country whose founding was assumed to be not for the sake of themselves, but for the sake of all mankind. This was seen as early as the settling of the American continent, with John Winthrop’s famous imagery in A Model of Christian Charity which portrayed the country as a moral paragon, a city on a hill for all the world to see. Likewise, this idea of liberal universalism was evident in the very founding documents of America. In the United States Declaration of Independence, the founding fathers wrote that their country was being incepted to secure the idea “that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness”.

This founding ethos directly affected America’s foreign policy, as America has historically occupied a position as the world’s “policeman,” believing that they uniquely have an obligation to defend democratic values everywhere. This rhetoric can be found exhaustively in colloquial American media, but one noticeable concrete example of it is found in George Bush’s 2006 U.S. National Security Strategy, where the document states that “It is the policy of the United States to seek and support democratic movements and institutions in every nation and culture, with the ultimate goal of ending tyranny in our world”.

In a similar vein, the Soviet Union was also founded upon an ideology that extended beyond its national borders. The USSR was the product of Marxist theory and was therefore not founded for the sake of national interest or nationalism, but for the sake of facilitating the international communist revolution, a sentiment captured in the final remarks of Marx’s Communist Manifesto: “the proletarians have nothing to lose but their chains…WORKING MEN OF ALL COUNTRIES, UNITE!”

This created an interesting vision for communist statehood, because in the USSR, the state was not the merely the final end, as it is in many governance structures, but both an end in itself and a means to a further end. This Proletarian internationalism manifested itself into an interventionist foreign policy, one that sought to propagate communist ideology across the world and facilitate revolution. In fact, it could even be said that this was the primary function of the USSR. Even Lenin once admitted that “from the beginning of the October Revolution, foreign policy and international relations have been the main questions facing us” (Jacobson, 1994) [1].

The clash between these two ideological superpowers became physically manifest during the Cold War through various “cold conflicts” such as the Vietnam War, conflict in Angola, and Cuban missile crisis, instances when the US and USSR sought to project their values onto other nations. As can be imagined, the war made tensions very high between the two countries, and in the West, a staunch fear-based perception of Russia developed. The Cold War was portrayed in America as a fight between good and evil, and Russia was portrayed as a relentless enemy that will never back down, a sentiment which had a lasting effect on the way that Russia is viewed in the contemporary West. This impact has been so salient, that even Russia today is still often characterized as if it was some great evil, waiting for “red dawn” to arrive.

When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, the communist ideology that had influenced the behavior of the USSR fell with it. Without this ideological superstructure, Russia reverted back into a country that falls into a normal range of ideological behavior, determined primarily by a defined set of national interests. While the USSR and US fought for the ability to hegemonize a bipolar system into a unipolar one, contemporary Russia rejects the idea of unipolarity and seeks to coexist with other nations in a multipolar world. Russia certainly has defined geographical areas in which it has foreign interests, specifically the Eurasian sphere, but these interests are predicated on a shared history and mutual economic benefit, and not desires to imperialize.

Nevertheless, in the modern age, there are still fears about Russian imperialism and a “new cold war”. Such fears come from a misunderstanding about the role of ideology in foreign policy. These sentiments demonstrate both a failure to understand the determining factor behind Soviet foreign policy—the union’s ideology, and a failure to analyze a modern country independently of its ideological history. These feelings come from an assumption that Russia today has the same motivational foundation as the Soviet Union, and that is simply not true.

The ideology supporting modern Russia’s foreign policy had formed largely in response to the conclusion of the Cold War, when a bipolar system was turned into a unipolar one, dominated by the United States. In this condition, the world was severely influenced by American foreign policy, military interests, politics, culture, and media, and could be defined as what many scholars would call a global hegemon. Russia considers such a distribution of power to be undemocratic and an affront to the individual autonomy of nation-states.

In his 2007 Munich address on security policy, Vladimir Putin criticized the idea of an America controlled hegemonic order when he stated that in our world, “there is one master, one sovereign. And at the end of the day this is pernicious not only for all those within this system, but also for the sovereign itself because it destroys itself from within”. Another comment by Putin from around the same time period attacks this model of governance was when he stated that “(the) people are always teaching us democracy but the people who teach us democracy don’t want to learn it themselves”.

It was in response to this new structural backdrop, as well as increasing levels of globalization, that an ideology of multilateralism and polycentrism became the underlying motivator behind contemporary Russia’s foreign policy. Russia’s ideology rejects a vision of an American led hegemonic order, but also does not seek to hegemonize the order for itself either, it merely beckons for the mutual coexistence and recognition of autonomy between the world’s global powers and regional subsystems.

This sentiment is captured in the words of Sergey Lavrov, the current Minister of Foreign Affairs for Russia in 2013. Lavrov stated that the world was undoubtedly moving towards a polycentric system of international relations, and that in order to ensure an equitable outcome during this transition, “fairer and more democratic systems where economic growth centers and new financial power centres should play a greater role in managing the world economy and political processes”. While the moves and actions of modern Russia are often framed in a realist lens by Western critics, the underlying ideology of the Russian Federation is actually quite liberal, as Russia accepts that a multipolar world should be brokered by polycentric or multilateral means, such as the United Nations.

It would be foolish to judge any country by its ideological history. It would be intellectually dishonest to evaluate a previously religious state in the context of religious ideology after secularization. Likewise, Russia today has largely, if not completely separated from its interventionist communist past and has embraced a new vision of both the world order and its foreign policy. When evaluating contempo

1. Jacobson, J. (1994). “The Ideological and Political Foundations of Soviet Foreign Policy.” In When the Soviet Union Entered World Politics. University of California Press. pp. 12.

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What Russia Wants In The Balkans

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Popular narratives on Russia’s geopolitical interests in the Balkans point to two rather divergent directions. One of them, inherited from the 19th-century strategic thought, says that Russia, as a landlocked empire, must expand into the Balkans, so as to gain access to the Mediterranean Sea. According to this narrative, the Balkans is treated as an empty space, regardless of the ethno-religious identity of the inhabitant population. The other one, which can be traced back to 19th-century romanticist pan-Slavism, but which has been popularized in its present form after the publication of Samuel Huntington’s theory of „the clash of civilizations“, says that Russia conceives of its influence in the Balkans through the cultivation of fraternal relations with the region’s Orthodox Christians, using common religious identity to project its geopolitical ambitions.

Facts on the ground, however, do not support either. Russia’s influence in the region, from the early 19th century to the present day, could never compete with the influence of the Anglo-French axis, exercised through the channels of Serbian and Greek nationalisms, constructed on the anti-Ottoman/anti-Islamic and anti-Habsburg/anti-Catholic foundations, in accordance with strategic interests of the two West European powers to dismantle the declining empires and transform them into a number of weak nation-states. Although these nationalist movements used Orthodox Christianity and a popular folklore motif of fraternity with Orthodox Russia as effective tools for mobilizing the targeted populations on the anti-Islamic and anti-Catholic grounds, their elites always remained clearly detached from Russia, being continuously oriented towards their true patrons in London and Paris.

The Russian motive in mobilizing Serbian nationalism in the 1990s was, of course, quite convenient for London and Paris, having concealed their continuous support to the Serbian military invasion of Bosnia and Croatia, which produced a gigantic campaign of ethnic cleansing of the non-Serb population in the occupied areas, with more than 100.000 dead and over one million expelled. That was one of the reasons why the British propaganda, both diplomatic and public, insisted on the alleged Russian support to Serbia and its military expansion as a reason why the Western powers could not intervene in the war in Bosnia and prevent further bloodshed. Another reason, much more important from a strategic point of view – indeed, the reason why the Serbian campaign of genocide and ethnic cleansing was supported by London and Paris in the first place – was the global promotion of Hungtington’s theory of „the clash of civilizations“ as „the next pattern of conflict“. According to that pattern, future geopolitical blocs would be formed on the basis of religious identities, acting as „civilizations“ in ineradicable conflicts. As a model of such conflicts at a micro-level was the one launched in Bosnia, in which Catholics, Muslims and Orthodox Christians were pushed to the point of mutual extermination, in an attempt to form „ethnically cleansed“ areas. This scheme was imposed on these communities’ self-appointed leaders (Izetbegović, Karadžić, Boban) by the European Community’s negotiator Lord Carrington at the conference held in Lisbon in 1992, several months before the war. The widely promoted narrative of the alleged Russian support of the Serbian aggression on Bosnia, and the alleged pan-Islamic support to Bosnia’s defenders (with the deliberate media characterisation of all Bosnians, whatever their religion, as „Muslims“) served the purpose of transforming the world into one of clashing „civilizations“. The ultimate goal was to generate an analogous conflict between Orthodox Christians and Muslims on the macro-level, which would eventually push Russia into a lasting armed conflict with the former Soviet republics populated by Muslims, and then into a global conflict with the rest of the Islamic world. Needless to say, such a development would have created a significant strategic advantage for the Anglo-American powers and a great strategic loss for both Russia and the Islamic countries. 

Yeltsin’s foreign policy at the time did not show too much understanding of that geopolitical game, allowing for a public image of Russia as a promoter of pan-Orthodox ideology and a sponsor of the Serbian aggression in the Balkans. However, it must be noted that Russia was not drawn into any major conflict that would fit the pattern of Hungtington’s „clash of civilizations“, although the local conflicts in Chechnya and Nagorno-Karabakh, in which it was directly or indirectly involved, did possess some elements of that model. In contrast, Putin’s foreign policy was based on a much deeper understanding of global relations and geopolitical games at play, so that eventually the Anglo-American strategy of drawing Russia into inter-religious conflicts in Central Asia, in line with Huntington’s theory, did not bear much fruit. And so did the constructed image of Russia’s involvement on the Serbian side gradually wither away.

Yet, paradoxically, in the last couple of years Russia has played the role, previously insinuated by the Anglo-American propaganda, of a protector of Serbia’s efforts to create a Greater Serbia out of the territories of the neighbouring countries with a Serb ethnic minority population (Bosnia, Montenegro, Kosovo).It is difficult to imagine anything more destructive for a country, which is a home to more than 190 ethnic groups, than to adopt the principle of ethnic and religious homogeneity. However, contrary to the principles of ethnic diversity applied in its own territory and in the broader area of the former Soviet Union, Russia’s attitude in the Balkans has shown open support to the Greater Serbian programme of uniting all Serbs into a single, ethnically homogenous state. Russian foreign policy of open support for the Serbian efforts to cede the Serb-populated renegade province of Bosnia to Serbia is self-contradictory, to say the least. It is also self-defeating, if taken seriously and applied to Russia itself and the neighbouring countries with a Russian ethnic minority. Can anyone imagine today’s Russia in permanent efforts to cede parts of all post-Soviet republics populated with Russians, so as to unite them in some mythical Greater Russia? Or, can anyone imagine Russia attempting to ethnically cleanse its own territory, so as to expel or exterminate all those 190 ethnic communities, in the name of an ethnically homogenous Russian nation-state? Of course not. Yet, that is precisely the policy of Serbia towards its neighbours and towards its own population that Russia now openly supports on the international scene. Therefore, one has to rightfully ask, what is it that Russia wants in the Balkans?

In the first place, it is highly questionable how influential Russia really is in Serbia, despite its public support for it. For, the very existence of Serbia, from a semi-autonomous principality within the Ottoman territory in the 1830s to the creation of the Kingdom of Serbia in 1882 , to its expansion into other South Slavic territories in the form of the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes (later, the Kingdom of Yugoslavia) at the Versailles Conference in 1919, always had explicit support by London and Paris. The dissolution of the communist Yugoslavia, which Serbia used as a convenient opportunity to implement the Greater Serbia programme, was also clearly backed by London and Paris, with no relevant participation by Moscow. Under these conditions, it is difficult to imagine a strategic shift from the centuries long Anglo-French influence to that of Russia. It is also difficult to identify Russian strategic interests in the Balkans, given that Russia’s foreign policy was not designed to exert control in the zones outside the territory of the former Soviet Union. 

Yet, if Russia has no real influence on Serbia, then the current Russian support of Serbia’s continuing hostile policy towards its neighbours may well be a simulation of influence. Even if such a simulation cannot deceive the foreign policy circles in London, which are quite familiar with the extent of their long-term control over Serbia, it may well deceive such circles in Washington, which are commonly persuaded that Moscow’s influence can be detected everywhere. For what purpose? If the Balkan region is of strategic importance for the US, not only as a link between the West and the Middle East, but also in terms of its natural resources (e.g. Kosovo), then the simulated Russian influence in the Balkans might serve as a leverage against the American influence in the zones of true strategic importance for Russia. What first comes to mind, of course, is Ukraine and its aspirations to join NATO: if a tactical simulation of Russian influence in the Balkans, as a zone of traditional strategic influence of the West, turns out to be successful, then it might be possible to push Washington to reduce its ambitions in Ukraine and leave it outside NATO structures.

There is also another purpose for which such a simulation might serve. Not so many analysts, diplomats or politicians are aware of the tacit strategic alliance between Russia and Turkey, which has elevated Turkey to the status of a great power. This alliance has already been tested in Libya, Syria, and Nagorno-Karabakh. In Libya, Russia and Turkey simulated a possibility of mutual military confrontation, each supporting one of the warring parties, while in reality they agreed to divide the spheres of influence, using the Libyan warring parties as their respective proxies. In Syria, under the pretended confrontation, the new allies also divided the spheres of influence. Still, the most interesting game was played out in Nagorno-Karabakh, where Turkey openly supported Azerbaijan in its efforts to restore sovereignty over this region. On the other side, Armenia was persuaded by Western powers, namely France, to go into the war over Azerbaijan’s region under the pretext that Russian military support to Armenia was a geopolitical inevitability. However, Azerbaijan, with Turkish military support, took the region over, with no resistance on Russia’s part. Russia thus returned to the principle of inviolability of post-Soviet borders and finally abandoned the principle of ethnically homogenous greater states, advocated by Armenia and its patrons in Paris and London. Is there a possibility for Russia and Turkey to play a similar game in the Balkans? Is there a possibility that Russia and Turkey want to generate an illusion among the Serbian nationalist elites that Russia would unquestionably support their attempts to cede parts of Bosnia and Kosovo, at the same time leaving Turkey with a free hand to extend its military support to Bosnia’s and Kosovo’s efforts to prevent Serbia from questioning their sovereignty? Is there a will in Russia to return to the principle of inviolability of borders in the Balkans, too, thereby abandoning the principle of ethnic homogeneity advocated by Serbia and its sponsors in London and Paris, the most harmful principle for Russia’s own interests? Is there a will in Russia to follow its own geopolitical interests, in cooperation with Turkey, along the same lines and with the same implications as in Nagorno-Karabakh? Really, what is Russia doing in the Balkans? 

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