It’s been a good October for Moscow.
In each of the four former Soviet republics with elections scheduled for late September and October 2012 (Belarus, Georgia, Lithuania and Ukraine), Russia has reason to believe that its relations with each such country will strengthen. The elections have ranged in character from incredibly free, open and fair to completely rigged, and the countries fall across the spectrum of geography, economics and political development.
The one factor they have in common is the success of political leaders who aim to nudge their country’s foreign relations some degree friendlier with Russia:
- In Belarus on September 23, Alexander Lukashenko and his allies ‘won’ all of the seats in the House of Representatives in an unfair and unfree election. Lukashenko, in power since 1994, is one of the most pro-Russian leaders among former Soviet republics; Belarus and Russia share very tight-knit economic ties, a common approach to rule of law and human rights (not particularly progressive), and Lukashenko has at various times contemplated bringing Belarus and Russia back into some form of union. Belarus and Kazakhstan, for instance, joined a formal customs union with Russia in January 2012.
- In Georgia on October 1, an opposition coalition led by Georgia’s richest man Bidzina Ivanishvili took control of the Georgian parliament from the party of Georgia’s president Mikheil Saakashvili. Ivanishvili, an oligarch who made his fortune in the 1990s and 2000s in post-Soviet Russia, has argued that Georgia can remain committed to economic and democratic reforms and the rule of law and strive for better relations with Russia (though Ivanishvili says he’d still like to seek Georgian membership in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization). Under Saakashvili, Russia imposed a trade ban on many Georgian exports, including wine, agricultural products and mineral water; in 2008, after provocation from Saakashvili, Russian president Vladimir Putin sent Russian troops to the breakway provinces of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, which remain occupied by Russian forces.
- In Lithuania on October 14, in the first round of parliamentary elections, the Labour Party of Russian-born Viktor Uspaskich narrowly won the largest share of the vote and will likely form part of the next government coalition. Uspaskich’s party also finished first in 2004, but since then, Uspaskich has been charged with corruption and spent parts of 2006 and 2007 in apparent hiding in Russia. In any event, Uspaskich’s presence in the government could bring about more favorable relations with Russia, and it could possibly slow Lithuanian accession into the eurozone.
- In Ukraine on October 28, pro-Russian president Viktor Yanukovych, who narrowly defeated the more pro-Western Yulia Tymoshenko in the 2010 election (who was promptly charged, tried and imprisoned on politically motivated charges relating to the 2009 pipeline crisis with Russia) is leading his largely united pro-Russian Party of Regions in parliamentary elections, while the various pro-Western political parties remain split.
This autumn’s elections follow the September 2011 Latvian parliamentary elections, in which the Harmony Centre party won the largest share of the vote, a watershed for a party that derives much of its support from ethnic Russians and which actually signed an electoral pact with Putin’s ‘United Russia’ party in 2009. The result caused alarm in Washington and Brussels — Latvia joined NATO in 2004 along with Lithuania and Estonia, so a pro-Putin government in a NATO government would naturally be alarming. But despite some legitimate doubts about Harmony Centre, its anti-austerity platform attracted even not just ethnic Russians, but ethnic Latvians, and it seems more interested in elevating Russian as an official language in Latvia (one-fourth of Latvia’s population speaks Russian) than reconstituting a political union with Russia. In any event, other Latvian parties united to keep Harmony Centre out of the government.
Although some Western media have already started pearl-clutching about this month’s elections, it’s important to keep some perspective — it’s not exactly the second coming of the Warsaw Pact.
Putin, in 2011 as Russian prime minister, proposed a ‘Eurasian Union,’ although it’s unclear whether that has any chance of succeeding — the Commonwealth of Independent States, which incorporates nine of the 15 former Soviet republics, has not exactly prospered (and ask former French president Nicolas Sarkozy how his proposed ‘Mediterranean Union’ is doing). In recent years, Russia has reduced energy subsidies to Ukraine and Belarus, despite clearly pro-Putin governments, and it took a curiously lackadaisical approach to the 2010 coup in Kyrgyzstan. Except for perhaps Belarus, none of the Soviet republics seem to have the stomach to return to a ‘Soviet Union light’ alliance with Russia.
Rather, there’s a more pragmatic realization in the former Soviet republics that even if Russia isn’t quite the superpower that it was in the 20th century, the inevitability of geography suggests that it will continue to exert some influence, for good or for ill, in its ‘near-abroad’ — in terms of economics, energy, security, and in some cases, continued cultural and political ties. As the Cold War recedes further into history, though, it’s becoming less necessary to think of having to choose between ‘the West’ and Russia as a binary matter. If former Soviet republics overlearned the lessons of 1990 and 1991, perhaps they are now learning the countervailing lessons of Saakashvili’s mistakes — needlessly antagonizing Russia (not to mention ethnic Russians within former Soviet republics) is probably counterproductive, even for more pro-reform, pro-Western leaders.
Of course, the 15 former Soviet republics are an incredibly varied bunch — the countries include the three Baltic States, three countries in Eastern Europe, the five ‘stans’ in Central Asia, and three countries in the Caucuses. Some of the former Soviet states are dynamic private-sector economics driven by exports and services, while others are still state-oriented and commodities-driven. Some have reached middle-income status, while others remain incredibly poor: GDP per capita ranges from a high of over $20,000 in Estonia to just barely $2,000 in Tajikistan.
There are countries, like the Baltic States, that immediately distanced themselves from Russia, and were at the vanguard of leaving the Soviet Union in the late 1990s. There are also ‘color revolution’ countries that sloughed off Soviet-era leaders in the mid-2000s, such as Ukraine (president Leonid Kuchma in 2004), Georgia (president and former Soviet foreign minister Eduard Shevardnadze in 2005), and Kyrgyzstan (president Askar Akayev in 2005), wich turned, perhaps too naively, to the European Union and the United States as a counterweight to Russian influence. Finally, there are those that are essentially still under Soviet-era governance structures and which typically enjoy very good relations with, and often receive significant aid from, Russia, such as Belarus and Kazakhstan (governed since 1990 by president Nursultan Nazarbayev).
Across each of the countries that are going to the polls this month, I expect to see a more balanced approach to relations with Russia, but that doesn’t necessarily mean a corresponding zero-sum decline in building democratic institutions, the rule of law, and more liberal, dynamic economies — especially in countries like Georgia and Lithuania, and maybe even in Ukraine, which still has designs for joining the European Union.