Thursday, December 5, 2013

Window on Eurasia: Ukrainian Events Leave Russians Feeling More Isolated from Their Neighbors

Paul Goble

            Staunton, December 5 – The hostility many Ukrainians feel toward Moscow that has been very much on display this week in the demonstrations in Kyiv and other Ukrainian cities has led many Russians to drop Ukraine from the list of “the main friends” of Russia, according to a new poll.

            That list now includes only Belarus, Kazakhstan and Armenia, the Public Opinion Foundation says, a remarkable narrowing  of that circle and a trend that simultaneously reduces the significance of the CIS as a whole and leaves many Russians feeling increasingly isolated and alone (

            In an article entitled “[The Customs] Union in Place of the Commonwealth [of Independent States],” posted on the Svobodnaya portal yesterday, Vasily Vankov note that while 45 percent of Russians say Russian-Belarusian relations are friendly and 39 percent say that of Russian-Kazkhstan ties, only 13 percent say Russian-Armenian relation are.

            Despite that low figure for Armenia, Vankov says, it is high enough for Armenia to “occupy an honored third place,” and it underscores just how few Russians view Ukrainians or any other former Soviet republic as a friend. The absence of Ukraine on this list is especially striking given the Kremlin’s effort to promote it as “’a fraternal Slavic people.’”

            According to the poll, Russians have the most negative attitudes toward Georgia (49 percent say its relations with their country are unfriendly), Ukraine (37 percent), and Moldova (22 percent), a reflection of the pursuit by the governments of these countries of expanded ties with the European Union.

            Despite such attitudes, 58 percent of Russians say that they favor uniting the majority of  CIS countries “into a single state” and “positively assess the reconstruction of Soviet reality, considering it as an era of economic development and social well-being,” attitudes that help explain why some of the former Soviet republics are increasingly looking toward Europe.

            Vankov interviewed three close Russian observers of these developments for their assessments.  Azhdar Kurtov, editor of the RISI journal “Problems of National Strategy,” said that Moscow had miscalculated in thinking that concessionary prices and preferences to its neighbors would lead to improved relations.

            That has not happened, Kurtov said, and consequently, some in Moscow are now calling for harsher policies.  Moscow won’t be able to avoid at least some of them, he continued, because there is now a serious struggle going on between Moscow and the outside world for influence in the region.

            Aleksey Vlasov, executive director of the North  South Political Analyst Center, said that one should take a longer view. When there are tensions between Russia and a neighbor, many are inclined to talk about them in apocalyptic terms, but in most cases, the situation corrects itself with time.  The only country where that is not the case, he said, has been Georgia, but even there improvements are possible.

            He said that he did not see a danger that Moscow would be “too attracted” to the use of force against its neighbors in the name of uniting them under it influence. Instead, he said, Russians will continue to seek cooperation with their neighbors, with the older generation viewing the revival of the USSR as necessary and younger seeing integration as a requirement.

            In order to win friends, Vlasov continued, “it is important to use not only harsh mechanisms but also the much-talked-about ‘soft force.’”  Moscow has failed in the latter and “already lost entire generations of our neighbors in the post-Soviet space,” as events in Ukraine show.  There, it is the young who are “the drivers” for European integration.

            Russia’s agitation and propaganda are “hopelessly” losing this competition.  “Our leadership continues to think in the categories of macro-economic indicators,” forgetting that for many of those involved economics is far from the only or most important factor in their decision making.

             Leonid Ivashov, president of the Academy of Geopolitical Problems, agreed. He said that Russia needs but does not have a geopolitical strategy and all too often relies on economics alone. “Neither Gazprom nor Rosneft nor other oligarchic monopolies think in the categories of geopolitics. They need immediate profit according to the principle of ‘here and now.’”

            According to Ivashov, Russia needs to define itself in civilizational term and to look first to its own internal arrangements to make it a center of attraction for others. Unless it does so and soon, he implied, it will not be able to win over let alone retain what friends and partners it now has.

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