A Ukrainian Perspective on Russia’s Policy Towards CIS Countries

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

Russia's attempts to increase its influence over in its near-abroad is likely to lead to conflict and authoritarianism in neighbouring countries, but not necessarily to pro-Russian regimes, argues Alexey Leshchenko.

Alexey Leshchenko is vice president of the Gorshenin Institute, a non-profit analytical centre which researches political and social processes in Ukraine and the wider world.

"In the contextof rapidly escalating tensions in Ukrainian-Russian relations, many laws of the policy that Russia implements to handle its CIS partner states become obvious. As the largest country with bountiful resources that no other CIS state has at its disposal, a developed financial system, a streamlined system of state administration, Russia can aspire to hegemony in the CIS.

It can play this role not only in the CIS but also in all of Western Europe and the entire post-socialist area. As it enjoys high levels of public support, the Russian government can totally ignore criticism coming from the West about human rights violations, infringements of civil liberties and democracy, and the development of authoritarianism.

Furthermore, in the current environment of the world economic crisis, whose roots can be traced back to the largest world economy, Russia has the right to criticise and correct the system of economic relations that was constructed and imposed on the world by the direct involvement of the USA.

Yet, what do we see in reality? Leaving aside debate about global processes and focusing on the effectiveness of Russian policy towards the CIS states, one can say that the scale of the super-state obviously does not match its accomplishments on the international arena.

Why is this happening? We believe that, first and foremost, this can be linked to the social and political structure that exists in Russia. Some time ago, on 22 January 2010, Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin said in the Kremlin: 'We must constantly think about improvement of Russia's political system and to make required changes in a timely manner. However, one certainly needs to act very cautiously and avoid by any means the Ukrainisation of political life in Russia.' At the same time, he believes that Russia cannot slide towards totalitarianism and despotism. 'Unfortunately, this also exists in the post-Soviet area,' Putin said.

What does the Russian prime minister and many Russian pundits and political actors imply when they say the 'Ukrainisation' of the political realm? According to Russian political experts and analysts, Ukrainisation takes place 'when a political opposition attempts to win broad support by means of economic populism which is destructive for the economy of a state. Such a turn of events is accompanied by the undermined stability of the political system and frequently repeated crises in economic and political life.

There is still a possibility for such politics in Russia nowadays. However, such a course is more typical for societies with a poorer population. This policy gained popularity in Russia in the mid-1990s and in the mid-2000s in Ukraine when the proportion of a poor, by Russian standards, population significantly exceeded 50%, which ensured a stable populist majority.

In modern Russia, the share of the population (by relative criteria) that is poor dropped down to less than 15% and to less than 10% in Moscow.

A massive middle class with consumption standards comparable to those in Western Europe has emerged in Moscow and other large cities. The populist policy of redistribution does not correspond to its interests and will be effectively resisted.

The Ukrainisation of Russian politics leads to the situation 'when all the resources of the political system are thrown towards the maintenance of elementary stability and the struggle for political control. The implementation of responsible policy becomes an unfeasible political possibility. In fact, Ukraine has lost an entire decade of economic and social development due to political instability. This is the worst scenario that could happen' (Sergey Belanovsky and Mikhail Dmitriev).

Hence, Russian experts consider political competition, a plurality of opinions, political parties and trends to be a negative phenomenon that makes the implementation of 'responsible economic policy' impossible.

In other words, the Russians believe that their society cannot embrace key democratic values since they lead to instability and hinder development. Only the semi-authoritarian rule that has been established in modern Russia can ensure that the implementation of effective economic policy and the development of the state proceed in the right direction.

We have reached the main point here that, in our opinion, explains why Russian foreign policy is ineffective. If one assumes that Russia's neighbouring states become democracies with the freedom of party competition and rival political forces, free mass media, freedom of speech and consciousness, freedom of assembly, then the constant aspiration of authoritarian Russia to subject the former USSR countries under its influence will necessarily lead to Russia developing pro-Russian political projects in these countries.

The free mass media will definitely broadcast Russian ideology and propaganda, as well as Russian state authoritarian values. Such a state will definitely turn into what has happened to Belarus. Given that the nature of Russian values is authoritarian, then an authoritarian rule, similar to that in Belarus, will also be established in this state.     

However, a second scenario is also possible. We can call it 'Georgian'. In this case, the level of public support for the political leadership of the state provides an opportunity for resisting Russian expansion in multiple senses of the word – political, ideological, media, and others. For example, even the US ambassador to Georgia admits that the Georgian mass media are monopolised by the ruling regime.

At one time, Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko said that his treatment of the opposition was the same as that of his Georgian counterpart Mikheil Saakashvili. All the signs indicate that an authoritarian regime has also been established in Georgia. However, it is not pro-Russian, but rather anti-Russian.

Otherwise, if Georgia were democratic, with freedom of speech and competing political forces, views and ideologies (in other words, with policy that has been Ukrainised), Russia would have gained ideological, economic and political and control over this little state whose lack of resources and capabilities cannot place it in the same category with any G8 state.

So what do we see? If we generalise, then it turns out that Russia promotes authoritarianism in its CIS partner states. In some cases, pro-Russian authoritarianism is established, while other states become anti-Russian authoritarian societies. Consequently, any CIS country that clashes with Russia will become authoritarian, either pro-Russian or anti-Russian in nature.  

We believe that, as a result of escalating tensions in Russian-Ukrainian relations, Russia faces the risk of turning Ukraine into another Georgia, as opposed to another Belarus."

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