Staunton, May 26 – Moscow rulers for the last 30 years have talked so much about “the near abroad,” the area which the Kremlin used to control completely but now no longer do, that many are inclined to think of this concept as something uniquely Russian, Vladislav Inozemtsev says.
But not only is it not unique to Russia, but the near abroad Moscow talks about overlaps with “the near abroads” of two other countries, Turkey, which in fact developed it long before Russia did and Poland which controlled much territory it has since lost, the Russian economist argues (magazines.gorky.media/nz/2021/1/o-peresekayushhihsya-postimperskih-periferiyah.html).
And the parallels among the three help to explain much of Moscow’s obsession about this concept precisely because it sees itself challenged not just by larger powers further away but because it fears that those who once controlled territory Russian leaders believe must be one that they think Moscow must have a droit de regard may seek to recover it just as Russia is.
In the new issue of Neprikosnovenny zapas, Inosemtsev argues that in 1991, “the Russian Empire did not die either in the imaginations of its political elite or in those of the majority of our fellow citizens” and thus both accept as axiomatic that the newly independent states must remain in Moscow’s sphere and their citizens be both national and “post-Soviet.”
This imperial policy, he continues, “really represents an important if not the most important aspect of our country, one formed over the course of its more than a thousand-year-long history.” But what is striking is that Moscow’s focus of concern is dictated less by its own direct interests than by the actions of other powers with their own “near abroads.”
Thus, Moscow up to now has been much less interested in Central Asia which was not anyone’s near abroad in the past than in the Caucasus and the former Soviet West which were part of the near abroads of two other countries, Turkey in the first instance and Poland in the second.
Moscow has been especially concerned about Turkey, a rising economic and military power and what is “much more important,” a country that “for many years has carried out a policy very similar to that which Russia has begun to conduct only recently,” a policy of insistence on the existence of its own “near abroad.”
Illustrative of this is Turkey’s actions in Cyprus in 1974 when it used military force to prevent that island from joining Greece and in the process created a puppet state “unrecognized by anyone except Ankara.” In doing so, “Ankara’s arguments have practically completely copied Moscow’s rhetoric during the period of the operation for reuniting Crimea.”
“There is no doubt,” Inozemtsev says, “that the policy of the two countries is similar in many respects: Ankara much earlier than Moscow (more precisely from the tiues when the latter still preserved its empire) recognized the existence of its own ‘near abroad’ and began to dominate it by many of the same methods which its northern neighbor later used.”
Moscow’s reaction to this was driven in large measure because the Russian authorities recall that it was not that long ago that a Turkish state did control much territory that later formed part of the Russian Empire and the Soviet Union, and it is that recognition that explains some of Moscow’s reaction to Turkey’s new moves in the Caucasus.
Turkey, however, is not the only “near abroad” Russia is now contesting in defense of what it sees as its own, Inozemtsev says. Poland and its “near abroad” are as important or even more important in the minds of Russian policy makers. For them, the fact that the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth controlled much of what Moscow sees as Russian is critical.
Concerns about that are behind the fact that Moscow’s “historical agenda exerts [on the Kremlin] exceptional influence and that Russia experiences extraordinary complexities in developing relations with those countries which in the distance past represented centers of power competing with Moscow.”
This pattern of course explains why “as an empire, Russia is much more sensitive in reacting to those states which for long periods controlled part of its imperial territory and which represent ed ‘civilizational’ competitors than with those who inflicted enormous harm” but with whom the struggles were shorter and did not cast doubt on Moscow’s empire.
The impact of such attitudes affect Russian domestic arrangements as much as its foreign policies, Inozemtsev argues, an impact that arises from the fact that Russia became an empire before it became a nation and that it has not been able to accept the demise of empire as a natural and inevitable phenomenon.
“Under such conditions,” he continues, “the conceptions of ‘the near abroad,’ ‘the Russian world,’ and even ‘Orthodox civilization’ have become compensatory instruments directed not so much at securing acquiescence to the new reality as to create the illusion of the possibility of changing it by reviving former imperial structures.”
As a result, “in the coming decades, Russia in both its foreign and domestic policy may try to act as an empire regardless of who stands at the head of the state and what common images will guide the powers that be.” Escaping this difficult, even tragic past is not going to happen anytime soon.
Russia’s “dependence on history may be much more serious than this is typically acknowledged” and “our past will hold us to it much more strongly than it typically appears.” What this means is not that Russia is anti-Western or Asiatic but that it is caught in the 19th century. And that lag time is “the main problem” of Russia in this one.