Thursday, July 11, 2019

All Moscow’s Imperial Restoration Projects have Failed or Will, Shelin Says

Paul Goble

            Staunton, July 10 – For almost 30 years, Russian leaders have been plotting to restore the empire, but their various projects in this regard have all failed or are failing – and even the one thing they point to as an obvious “success” – the annexation of Crimea – only intensifies the commitment of the surrounding countries not be reabsorbed, Sergey Shelin says. 

            “The norm of relations between Russia and its former brothers in the USSR is hostility,” the Rosbalt commentator says, something that only varies according to the specific features of the unfriendly attitudes on both sides depending on particular circumstances (

            Over the post-Soviet decades, Moscow has come up with one restoration project after another. “The majority of them have gone into a dead end or suffered obvious failure, but not one of them has been completely disbanded.” And “present-day, Russian policy is conducted through the ruins of these undertakings.”

            The most prominent of these projects, of course, is the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), an institution which “long ago outlasted its role as the liquidation commission of the Soviet Union” but one that continues a shadowy existence event though it is impossible to say exactly which countries are members. Ukraine says it is leaving but hasn’t done so officially.

            “In practice,” Shelin argues, “there of course is no ‘Community’ any more, but the officials who ensure its ‘functioning’ earn their bread from this specter.” But the hopes and dreams that the CIS would be a space for the application of Russian soft power by drawing on the economic and human ties left over from Soviet times haven’t been realized.   

The old economic links have broken down and the new ones that have emerged are much weaker.  Inn 1995, 23 percent of Russian trade was with CIS countries, including 11 percent with Ukraine. Now, in the first quarter of this year, only 11.6 percent of Russian trade is with its CIS “partners” – and only 2.1 percent with Ukraine. 

The movement of people has also not had the effect Moscow hoped for. In 2018, immigrants from the CIS to Russia sent home 13.3 billion US dollars, while Russians in the CIS countries sent back 3.6 billion.  Russia thus lost in this way as well, and except possibly for Tajikistan, hasn’t made any of the others dependent on it in this way.

Despite Moscow’s expectations, Shelin continues, “Ukraine and Georgia like the Baltic countries before them, have not collapsed as a result of the breakdown of ties accompanying their divorce with the CIS or their initial decision not to enter it.” 

Meanwhile, the Russian government’s efforts to take part the empire by seizing or supporting parts of its neighbors hasn’t worked out to Moscow’s advantage either. Not only has this project further alienated everyone else, but none of these projects, Transdniestria, Abkhazia or South Ossetia has been a great success. And Crimea hasn’t really been either.

It like the others has reminded the other post-Soviet states of why they must fear Moscow and why any claims of friendship from the Russian capital are to be dismissed as completely insincere.

Moscow’s efforts to promote “a Russian world” are not identical to the projects of imperial restoration but the two do overlap, the Rosbalt observer says.  But they too are proving a failure not only because of the problems the promotion of a narrowly ethnic Russian state at home presents but also because ethnic Russians in others are now mostly loyal citizens of them.

Even Moscow’s efforts to form around it a smaller group of countries that it can integrate haven’t worked. The Eurasian Economic Committee was dead on arrival – only eight percent of Russia’s trade is with these partners -- and “the fictional Union State of Russia and Belarus” has not brought Moscow the benefits it expected.

 The Kremlin still talks about absorbing Belarus and Belarusians still fear that possibility, “but the chances for success are less than half,” Shelin suggests. As a result, that project too is likely to prove a failure even though it will continue to echo for some time because in Putin’s Moscow no project ever really is allowed to die even if it is a failure. 

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