Tuesday 28 September 2010
Delusions of Empire
In the wake of the 2008 war with Georgia, Dmitry Medvedev, Russia’s president, made mention of his country's “zone of privileged interest”, which I take to mean that the Russians still maintain, or pretend to maintain, a watching brief over the constituent republics of the old Soviet Union. It was a warning, in other words, to NATO and the West to maintain a respectful distance.
But events earlier this year in Belarus and Kyrgyzstan have made this neo-imperialism sound ever so hollow. The ethnic clashes in the latter and the failure of Russia to send a peace-keeping force, requested by the Kyrgyz government, is arguably the greatest demonstration of the limits of both power and ambition. After all, here is a country that is still not freed itself from the wars in Chechnya, or lost sight of its disastrous involvement in Afghanistan in the 1980s. The official line from Moscow was that it could not interfere in Kyrgyzstan’s internal affairs, a curious contrast with the previous intervention in Georgia.
If anything the growing divisions with Belarus are an even greater blow to Russian esteem and pan-Slav ambitions. Alyaksandr Lukashenka, the president of Russia’s western neighbour and the closest Europe now has to an old-style dictator, is proving to be particularly bloody-minded in his determination not to fall under the servitude of Moscow. There have been disputes over the price of gas. Lukashenka, moreover, is even more awkward over sensitive issues of Russian political prestige. He has refused to recognise the independence of South Ossetia or Abkhazia, the two breakaway Georgian territories that served as a cause for the 2008 war. He also gave refuge to Kurmanbek Bakiyev, the former president of Kyrgyzstan, a figure much despised in Moscow.
The fact is, despite the power it derives from reserves of gas and oil, Russia is weak both politically and militarily, something that Lukashenka clearly understands. Quite apart from fears of being trapped in another swamp, the unwillingness to intervene in the Kyrgyz situation is an indication that the army is simply not equipped for a prolonged peace-keeping mission. The Russian ‘sphere of influence’ is clearly little more than a geo-political dream, pretence at a power that has vanished and vanished for good.