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Volume IV, No 3 (February-March 1994)

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'A New Russian Imperialism'
Rector, Russian State University for the Humanities(1)

Every day Russian foreign policy is becoming tougher, in many cases more clearly defined and independent. What lies behind these changes in reality, and what may be the consequences for the world, as well as for Russia herself?

The official "Yel'tsin doctrine," as expressed in a message to the president of the Federal Assembly, presents these changes in terms of the consistent promotion of Russian (rossiiskie) national interests.


The 'Yel'tsin Doctrine'

The basic principles of this doctrine are as follows:

  • A strong Russia is the most effective guarantee of stability over the entire territory of the former Soviet Union;
  • Russia should assume the role of peacemaker in the post-Soviet political space;
  • A key aspect of Russian foreign policy is the strengthening of the CIS;
  • Integration within the framework of the CIS should not be harmful to Russia's own economic interests;
  • In defending her legitimate state interests Russia has the right, if necessary, to act firmly and toughly;
  • Russia is obliged to protect the interests of Russians (rossiyane) living in the "near abroad." If their rights are violated, this is not only an internal matter for their country of residence, but also a Russian state matter;
  • Russia is against the expansion of NATO through the membership of additional European states, unless Russia itself becomes a member of NATO;
  • Russia should defend the interests of Russian capital both in domestic and international markets; and
  • Russia is in favor of imposing order on the international arms trade provided that Russia's commercial interests are respected.

All this could be viewed as well-founded--or at least one might consider it justifiable to regard all these principles calmly and with comprehension as reflecting Russia's turn toward self-interest and a concern for its own needs. But if this were the case, why is there such growing alarm over these changes both in Russia and abroad? Is there a real basis for viewing these new guidelines--as many clearly do--not as the protection of Russia's national interests, but as a "new Russian imperialism"?

Unfortunately, there are grounds for this.

The provisions of the military doctrine stating that Russia's interests extend to the entire territory of the former USSR, as well as the attempts to impose a particular foreign policy on all the countries of the former European "socialist camp," are putting millions of people in a difficult position-- after all, they had been living under the belief that they had permanently freed themselves from Moscow's control.


Return of Great Power Drives
"Great power ideology" (ideologiya derzhavnosti) again is being proclaimed openly in many quarters as a component of official state policy. Russia has been waging undeclared wars in many areas of the former USSR--wars that can be termed imperialistic.

The worst problems have arisen in what Russia calls the "near abroad," and relate to the policies followed by the Russian government toward these former Soviet republics. Viewed from outside, events might appear as disconnected, but if the problem is examined more closely one can always discover an aspect which, as a rule, is concealed--i.e., Russia's interest in keeping control of the Black Sea shoreline,(2) of a major uranium mine in Tajikistan, of plants belonging to the military industrial complex dispersed all over former Soviet territory--an aircraft plant in Tbilisi or defense enterprises in Pridnestrovie.(3) But this is only the beginning...

The desire to bring the former Soviet republics under Moscow's control is becoming ever more patent, the aim being to allot to them the role earlier played by the countries of the "socialist camp"--i.e., a buffer zone between Russia and the Far Abroad.


Neighbors Coerced into CIS
The divorce between Russia and the republics of the former Soviet Union failed to take a civilized course; accordingly there have been quarrels over the Black Sea Fleet, nuclear weapons and space flight facilities. Now we have Russia's new desire to compel the former Soviet republics to join the CIS by employing economic pressure--despite the enormous costs that this entails. Unlike the former USSR, however, the Russian government assumes no responsibility for what may occur in these republics, whether it be slaughter in Georgia or famine in Armenia. In other words, Moscow is concerned to exert military, political, and economic control over the former Soviet republics, but not to take responsibility to ensure, say, that conditions for the population of Uzbekistan are similar to those prevailing in Russia, that there are comparable levels of infant mortality in Azerbaijan or equivalent living standards in Tajikistan. Who can approve of such a policy?

In order to understand the basic principles underlying the "new" foreign policy, one needs to know what criteria are being applied by the Russian Federation to determine which former Soviet republics are to be supported, and which are not.


Russian Military Intervention
In cases where there are attempts (by the newly sovereign republics) to demonstrate genuine independence and to achieve freedom from Moscow, Russia supports "national-liberation" movements against these republics under the pretext of protecting the Russian-speaking population. Sometimes the direct involvement of Russian troops is camouflaged and presented to the world as a "peacekeeping mission" in an area where interethnic conflicts have arisen. It is evident, moreover, that there is no willingness to evacuate remaining Russian army divisions stationed in these republics (after initial partial withdrawals in 1991-92). Recently, Foreign Minister Andrei Kozyrev declared at a conference of Russian ambassadors to the CIS and Baltic countries that the near abroad is the source of the main threats to Russia's vital interests. In Kozyrev's opinion, Russia's military presence in the Commonwealth countries should be maintained.(4)

Imperial intentions are evident in many different areas. The Pridnestrovian Republics that was set up artificially, thanks to the efforts of former Supreme Soviet chairman Anatoli Luk'yanov and the "power ministries" of the Soviet Union, was given Russian support in order to bring the Moldovans to heel. In September 1993, a military parade of Pridnestrovian Republic forces was shown on television. Who has been funding this "government," both during the military conflict and in recent months? It certainly was not Moldova, of which the Pridnestrovian Republic forms part, since the Pridnestrovian authorities rejected the "services" of Moldavia while the fighting was continuing. Is Russia providing secret financial support? By direct support from the state budget, or through "credits" granted by the Russian Central Bank? What can be the legal basis for such payments? Or is the government specially funding certain Russian enterprises, which then transfer money to the Pridnestrovian capital, Tiraspol'? What, if any, is the role played by the Russian Central Bank? Is the bank's head, Viktor Gerashchenko, "aware" of this--moreover, was it not he who was responsible earlier for transferring CPSU money abroad? I believe I am not the only one who is interested in obtaining replies to these questions.


Caucasian Wars
There is an analogous situation in the Caucasus. In reality, Russia was in a state of war with Georgia, but the Russian government denied this, using very strange language in its public statements. If, to illustrate the situation, one were to compare Abkhazia(6) with Russia's Tambov oblast', the question would arise from where the Tambov governor could obtain SU-27s, MiG-29s, modem tanks and thousands of Kalashnikovs?(7) Where did Abkhazia acquire such large quantities of airplanes, tanks, and artillery? Who provided the help needed to enable Abkhazia to carry out major military operations? Who has been funding arms deliveries and the upkeep of the Abkhaz army as well as hundreds of "volunteers" from Russia?

In this case I do not plan to accuse the Russian authorities of first taking the side of Abkhazia, and then going over to the other side. We know how this war began--Shevardnadze was partly to blame, Ardzinba(8) was also at fault, and now it is difficult to say who was the more culpable. But the principal aspect is the still-unclarified role of Russia in this war for instance, was it considered necessary to help the Abkhazians against Georgia, which had "overdone it" in its striving for national independence?(9) In any case, Abkhazia was helped, with the result that the Abkhazians "liberated" their entire territory, thanks to Russian troops and hardware.

Did things go too far? Anger was replaced by friendship--now Russia supported Shevardnadze and forced him to join the CIS.(10) Why? Is this just a symptom of the general situation? Russian government agencies have begun actively to achieve or maintain control over the territories that belonged to the former Soviet empire. Recent hearings that were held by the Duma Committee on CIS Affairs constitute further confirmation of this. The criticism made of the (Georgian) treaty showed that the political opposition views Yel'tsin's foreign policy as still insufficiently imperialistic. The proposal was advanced that Russia should not guarantee the territorial integrity of Georgia, but act instead as an arbiter between Georgia and its autonomous regions--which would mean in practice that Russia would hold Georgia by the throat after bringing it to its knees . One means to achieve this would be to separate the conflicting sides in South Ossetia(11) along a demarcation line reflecting the boundary of the area controlled by Russian forces. In practice, this would mean the annexation by Russia of a portion of Georgian territory.

To turn to the Azerbaijan-Armenia conflict, obviously there is an abundance of local causes, but in this case also Russia has played a role that is not irreproachable. Here too Russian economic interests are apparent, and business kingpins have learned to use the Russian government in order to affect the course of military operations in the region. For instance, the attempt of the Azerbaijan leadership to set up a consortium for the exploitation of oil deposits without Russian participation immediately resulted in two regions of Azerbaijan being occupied by the (ethnically Armenian) Nagorno-Karabakh army, which then pushed forward right up to Azerbaijan's Iranian border.(12) However, once Russia's Lukoil concern was included in Azerbaijan's consortium, the Azeri army suddenly came to enjoy military successes leading to the liberation of the Armenian-occupied territories.

Many vague words have been uttered about "strategic goals," but there have been no exhaustive official statements by the Russian Foreign Ministry, the government, or the president on this subject. Russia's strategy should be comprehensible, if only to enable the public to know how to interpret it. If we say that democracy means an open society, Russia's interests must be publicly known. They cannot be concealed, as was formerly the case.


Russia's War in Central Asia
The most alarming situation today concerns Central Asia. Russia continues to be in a state of undeclared war-- a war with unannounced objectives. In Tajikistan, Russia is fighting on the side of a (pro-Uzbek) puppet regime. The Tajik government is a reactionary regime that is mercilessly crushing the slightest signs of free thought and democracy in the country . Persons calling for democratic reforms are being forced to live in virtual exile outside Tajikistan--in Russia, India, or elsewhere. Meanwhile, the Russian authorities are helping this regime to finish off what remains of the Tajik opposition and the nation's democratic forces. Andrei Kozyrev, our democratic minister of foreign affairs, travels to Kirgizia and Kazakhstan to persuade their government to come out in support of Russia over this conflict, so that Russia, instead of fighting alone in Tajikistan, could act under the cover of the flags of several different countries-- as during the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968.


Moreover, when we look more closely we see that some steps undertaken by the regime, which originally seemed to be purely political, in fact were motivated by material considerations. Russia's participation in the civil war underway in Tajikistan does not amount merely to a struggle for control over territory that formerly was part of the USSR; it is explained also by a desire to plug a gap in Russia's border, since it would require far greater expenditure to establish an impervious frontier between Russia and the newly independent Central Asian republics than to re-establish the old Soviet (Tajik-Uzbek-Turkmen) border with Afghanistan and Iran. Tajikistan's joining the ruble monetary area amounts in fact to a not-inconsiderable payment for a service rendered.

We also find here a reflection of the hope that the former empire can be restored. It is one matter when communists demand the restoration of the USSR at public meetings, but for that to be the official position adopted by the Russian government and the de facto policy followed by the authorities is altogether a different matter.

The experience of the 10-year war in Afghanistan evidently has taught our present leadership nothing. People are already dying, but if current policies continue, not only the welfare, but the very lives of thousands of Russians living in Russia and abroad will be placed in danger.

Coercive pressure to bring about greater integration with Russia is being exerted on the former Soviet republics not only by military methods. Financial pressure is also becoming a powerful lever to this end.


Financial Pressure
One example of this is the way in which Belarus' was brought into the ruble zone. When the Russian Central Bank hastily carried out a banknote exchange operation last year, it justified this action with the supposed urgent need to isolate the domestic monetary circulation within Russia from the use of the ruble as currency in the countries of the near abroad, thus finally turning the ruble into the Russian national currency. However, very soon further actions which were taken by the Central Bank made one doubt that this had been really its main goal.

Following the banknote exchange, immediate transfers of ruble funds were made to several neighboring countries-- a decision which perhaps could be explained on a rational basis. Yet, right after this, under the guise of measures to create a "new type" of ruble zone, attempts began to recreate an unsullied ruble zone of the most blatant "old type." Thus in the case of Belarus', de facto the country will not have its own budget, but financially will be entirely dependent on Moscow, just as in earlier times. Later, it will be possible to follow the same course in relation to Moldova, Ukraine, Tajikistan, etc.

In attempting to explain the changes in Moscow's official foreign policy, many observers point not unjustifiably to their genesis in domestic politics. Moreover, it is noted that recently Moscow's foreign policy course has become alarmingly independent of Russia's real national interests, becoming instead a derivative of the correlation of political forces within the country.

In particular, this course is being determined by the efforts of the authorities to wrest the patriotic battle flag from the hands of the opposition, as well as by the Kremlin's intention to harken more closely to the voices coming from Russia's hinterland. These, however, are the voices of a country that, after the disintegration of the Soviet Union and the loss of its past greatness, is suffering from an inferiority complex, the voice of a country that feels humiliated and insulted, now that it is no longer listened to as in former times.


Russia's 'Unmodernity'
All the factors listed may be considered major causes of the recent changes in foreign policy. Yet they are not exhaustive. There are further reasons that are both more general and more profound. These might be defined succinctly as arising from the "unmodernity" of modern Russia. The special characteristics of the Russian environment and of Russian history, the country ' s geopolitical position, its age-old autocracy, and finally three-quarters of a century of Soviet totalitarianism--all these factors provide reasons why Russia dropped out of the modern world both technologically and politically. However, in the military sense, and in the ability to apply coercive pressure, we can still do a great deal. Consequently we are knocking on the door of the modern world with what God gave us so far, i.e., our Asianness.

For instance, last year we made a big splash on the world market with our exports of aluminum, astounding everyone with the low price at which it was being offered, and indeed we appeared to come out ahead. But how did we manage to do it? Again, it was by Asian methods. We produce aluminum with greatly outdated energy-intensive technologies, and Oleg Soskovets(13) is able to freeze this technological lag by artificially holding down energy prices. He is able to preserve the unmodern in the midst of the modern, since he is all-powerful in economic matters, with a total of 14 ministries subordinated to him, in addition to enjoying the support of all the political forces which have turned their backs on reform.

Soskovets is not alone in this, however. Many of the centuries-old extremes and abnormalities in our economy are being vigorously preserved by such officials as A. Zaveryukha, Yu. Skokov,(14) and V. Chernomyrdin. This is why we are selling products that cause alarm, discord, and death, i.e., weaponry, missile launchers, and military missions.

We find the same phenomenon in politics: a striving to restore past greatness without the attainment of stable statehood, democracy, or a proper economic basis. As a consequence of all these factors, the world is struck by unexpected foreign policy actions such as the strained Bosnian initiative, or the peculiar paradoxes of our fledgling diplomacy.

Playing on the strong imperialistic attitudes of post-Soviet society, the Russian authorities are endeavoring to offer up to it--as an oath of fealty to great-power aspirations--a number of achievements that they have to their credit, i.e., the maintenance of military control over the entire territory of the former USSR; a war in Tajikistan to preserve the inviolability of borders; a veto on the admission of the Central and East European countries to NATO; the removal from Russia's agenda of the issue of returning the South Kuriles to Japan; treaties providing for military bases and the stationing of Russian troops in the Transcaucasus; deployment of the 14th Army in Pridnestrovie for an indefinite period; the preservation of the Black Sea Fleet as a Russian fleet; the preservation of Russia's nuclear monopoly within the borders of the former USSR; our military bases and troops in the Baltic Region; steadily increasing pressure on the countries of the near abroad in order to "safeguard the rights of the Russian-speaking population" can all this still not be enough?

"Not enough!" responds the inflamed consciousness of a traumatized society, and there occurs a marvelous transformation: the earlier romanticism of Russian Westernizers assumes hawkish forms.


Self-fulfilling Prophecy
Many readers will remember Andrei Kozyrev's December 1992 Stockholm address. [In his Stockholm address, Foreign Minister Kozyrev (regarded at the time as pro-Western and a model of moderation) spoke in startlingly imperial, chauvinistic, and anti-Western terms. He then stalked off, leaving his audience in shock. Persuaded by Secretary Eagleburger to return, Kozyrev explained that he had adopted this tone simply to warn Westerners what kind of nightmare to expect if his and Yel'tsin's ultranationalist opponents were to gain the upper hand in Moscow. However, in the course of 1993-94, Kozyrev's own statements increasingly came to resemble, in tone and content, the sentiment he had attributed in 1992 to his "red-brown" adversaries. Thus his Stockholm speech indeed was "prophetic"--but in foreshadowing Kozyrev's own political transformation into a spokesman of Russian neo-imperialism--ed.] The minister of foreign affairs spoke as if impelled by a kind of nightmare, and he made up his mind to take this extraordinarily paradoxical step (unprecedented in diplomatic history) fearing that the dreadful dream might prove to be prophetic.

Few would have thought then that, only a few months later, none other than Kozyrev himself would, in the words of the famous Soviet song, "transform a fairytale into life."

1 The outstanding historian Dr. Afansyev is an ever-lonelier voice among Russian democratic intellectuals willing to risk isolation to speak out against his government's neo-imperialism.
2 The reference is to the successful effort by Russian military elements to help Abkhaz Moslem separatists to implement the secession of Abkhazia, with its long Black Sea shore, from the Georgian Republic. (ed.)
3 The reference is to the Moldovian Republic's "Transdnestrian" portion which the Russian 14th Army, under the ultranationalist General Lebed, has been attempting to establish as a separatist, ethnically Russian state. (ed.) 4 Kozyrev stated his opposition to final dates for complete Russian military evacuation, even where such dates had been stipulated in bilateral treaties with the newly independent republics. (ed.)
5 See note 2, supra. (ed.) 6 See note I, supra. (ed.) 7 Ethnic Abkhaz separatist mountaineers, numbering fewer than 91,000 (out of Abkhazia's--mainly Georgian population of 524,000) suddenly and miraculously were in possession of such an ultra-modem airforce. (ed.) 8 General Vladislav Ardzinba, commander in chief of the armed forces of the Republic of Abkhazia." (ed.)
9 Georgia demanded, and Yel'tsin's government originally recognized, Georgian sovereignty overall the former Georgian Soviet Socialist Republic, including Abkhazia and South Ossetia. (ed.)
10 After Georgia was defeated by joint Russian-Abkhaz forces, Georgia's leader Shevardnadze, having failed to obtain help from the West, sued for peace--which Moscow granted, in return for de facto acceptance of Abkhazian secession, joining the CIS, Russian troops deploying along the Turkish frontiers, and "garrisoning" Georgia's four main cities. (ed.)
11 Ossetian, like Abkhaz, mountaineers seceded from Georgia with Russian aid and/or connivance. See also note 8, supra. (ed.)
12 Like the fewer than 91,000 Abkhaz separatists, fewer than 146,000 Armenian separatists from Nagorno-Karabakh were able "miraculously" to defeat am adversary with a huge demographic superiority (over 5,800,000 ethnic Azeris). (ed.)
13 Oleg Soskovets, First Deputy Prime Minister and chairman of the (government) Commissions for Operational Questions and for Export Control. (ed.)
14 Aleksandr Zaveryukha, Deputy Prime Minister and Chairman of the (government) Council for Agrarian Policy (former Minister of Agriculture), and Yuri Skokov, chairman of the Federation of Russian Manufacturers and former secretary of the State Security Council. (ed.)


Copyright ISCIP 1994
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