Sun, Sep 02, 2012 - Page 9 News List

Putin finds his forte in isolating Russia from its near neighbors

By Anders Aslund

In July, Putin went to Ukraine to discuss these issues with President Viktor Yanukovych. However, on his way to the Crimea Putin encountered a notorious Russian nationalist motorcycle gang, whose members demand that the Crimea be transferred to Russia. Putin spent so much time with the bikers that he arrived four hours late to his meeting with Yanukovych, which was then cut to 20 minutes.

Under these circumstances, not even Yanukovych can be pro-Russian. Since Putin offers Ukraine nothing, Ukraine has minimized its purchases of gas from Russia and downgraded other relations.

Moldova is in a similar predicament. Although it surrendered control of its gas pipelines to Gazprom, it is still charged a usurious price in the face of Russian demands that it, too, join the customs union. Little surprise that Moldova, one of the most democratic post-Soviet states, wants a free-trade agreement with the EU to escape the vagaries of Putin’s policy.

Since 1992, Russia has tried to build its other main foreign-policy tool, the CSTO, as an alternative to NATO, but for years it had only six members — Russia and its closest allies, Belarus and Kazakhstan, plus three poor and insecure states (Armenia, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan). In 2006, the Kremlin persuaded Uzbekistan to join, but, after Putin visited Tashkent in early June, President Islam Karimov suspended his country’s membership.

The happiest former Soviet countries are Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, all of which minimized their contacts with Russia in 1992 and joined both the EU and NATO in 2004. After its war with Russia in 2008, Georgia decided to leave the Russian-dominated Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS). Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan regularly boycott the CIS’s meaningless annual summits.

Kremlin policy in the post-Soviet space makes little sense, because Russia gains nothing. Presumably, Putin hopes to whip up nationalist sentiment to strengthen his weakened hold on power at home. The problem for him is that, increasingly, Russians are not being fooled.

Anders Aslund is a senior fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics.

Copyright: Project Syndicate

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