Autocracy Is on the March
Russia emerged from the wreckage of the Soviet empire with vaguely established borders and still more vague strategic interests. In the immediate aftermath of the collapse of the Soviet Union, isolationism reigned in Moscow -- a determination to cut the other former Soviet republics loose to go it on their own. In late 1991 and early 1992 no one even questioned the notion of a complete Russian troop withdrawal from all of the so-called near abroad. As post-Soviet Russia reasserted itself, integrationist forces began to prevail. Today Russia maintains military installations in all member countries of the Commonwealth of Independent States. Russian garrisons remain in Georgia and Moldova in violation of the explicitly expressed will of those countries' leaders and of pledges that Russia made during an OSCE summit in Istanbul in 1999.
The ruling elite in Moscow is obsessed with the idea of replacing the Soviet Union with a new, Russian-led union. For more than a decade, the Russian military has been involved in ethnic and civil conflicts throughout the CIS. Such intervention has helped to create a number of de facto dependencies unrecognized by the international community. Russia signed a union treaty with Belarus, but no functioning, unified state emerged. Various agreements have been reached on economic, political and military cooperation within the CIS, with few practical results.
Recently Moscow began to focus on tampering with elections in neighboring countries to install pro-Moscow leaders. This tactic has proven extremely effective within Russia. Kremlin-backed leaders have been "elected" in Chechnya, Ingushetia and other regions. But attempts to manipulate elections in Georgia and Ukraine have been less successful. During elections last month in breakaway Abkhazia, the Kremlin supported and bankrolled the campaign of former KGB officer and former Abkhaz Prime Minister Raul Khadzhimba. Campaign operatives from Moscow descended on the Abkhaz capital, Sukhumi, and plastered the streets with posters showing Khadzhimba shaking hands with President Vladimir Putin. Moscow restored passenger train service from the Russian border to Sukhumi, which had been cut in 1992 without the permission of Georgia -- the sovereign power in Abkhazia. Despite all this, voters rejected Khadzhimba in favor of opposition leader Sergei Bagapsh.
Before war tore Abkhazia apart in the early 1990s, half of the population consisted of ethnic Georgians who are now in exile and therefore did not vote. Both Khadzhimba and Bagapsh are separatists who want to improve relations with Russia. But Moscow's favorite, Khadzhimba, represents the corrupt ruling elite that has turned Abkhazia into a land of narcotics production and lawlessness. The people of Abkhazia wanted change and voted for Bagapsh.
The Kremlin did not accept the result. The bonds between corrupt Abkhaz officials and Moscow's political elite are apparently too strong and too complex to allow an unauthorized change of leadership. Bagapsh was summoned to Moscow and told to back down and allow a new election. He later said the Kremlin had threatened to blockade Abkhazia if he did not concede.
Bagapsh stood his ground. Last week his supporters occupied government buildings in Sukhumi, effectively dismissing the Moscow-controlled administration that refused to accept the election results. The Russian Foreign Ministry accused Bagapsh of attempting a coup and threatened to use force to prevent him from taking power. Russia has "peacekeeping" troops in Abkhazia and unofficially controls an elite Abkhaz special forces unit loyal to the regional leadership.
On Sunday, Ukrainians return to the polls to elect their next president. Putin openly supports a pro-Moscow candidate, Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych. Should Yanukovych come up short, the Kremlin may react as it has in Abkhazia, using all available means to install the leader of its choice against the will of the people.
In Belarus, Moscow has officially accepted the results of a rigged referendum that gave President Alexander Lukashenko the right to run for as many terms as he likes. Here at home, the Kremlin is pushing legislation that will deny more than 100 million voters the right to elect their regional leaders.
Putin's regime is suppressing freedom at home and slowly subjugating the countries of the near abroad. A Russian autocracy can "integrate" only with regimes of its own kind.
Pavel Felgenhauer is an independent defense analyst based in Moscow.