The Eurasian Dream

January 8, 2003 Topic: Domestic PoliticsPolitics Tags: BeslanHeads Of State

The Eurasian Dream

Putin apparently views George W.

 Putin apparently views George W. Bush (in terms of his administration, not on a personal level) as an overbearing yet wealthy uncle whose tedious holiday visits can be endured because he presents a lucrative gift at the end of the day. Consider this: the United States did in a matter of weeks what years of Russian aid to the Northern Alliance was unable to do-decapitate the Taliban regime. Washington removed a major threat to the stability and territorial integrity of the Russian Federation. Russia cannot afford to state-build in Eurasia, while the United States can offer one country, Uzbekistan, long-term financial aid, loans and investments that could easily reach $8 billion-a sum equal to Russia's entire annual military budget. Therefore, while the United States takes on the lion's share of the costs to revamp Eurasia's security architecture, "we are increasing our security, saving the lives of our soldiers, and gaining time for our own rearmament," declared Putin advisor Gleb Pavlovsky.

Putin is gambling that U.S. guarantees, such as the one extended to Uzbek president Islam Karimov during his visit to Washington this past March, will be of short duration, especially as the threat from Al-Qaeda recedes and the United States seeks to extricate itself from the region. In other words, post-9/11 developments are simply one more set of steps in the "Eurasian shuffle", as regional leaders dance between Moscow and Washington to secure maximum advantage. Even though the United States can easily outbid Russia, Washington's concerns about how its assistance might be misused-either by authoritarian regimes seeking to crack down on opposition movements, or by corrupt local officials to improve the quality of the protection they extend to criminal organizations-means that tensions between Washington and its new "partners" are inevitable.

Karimov himself is most adept at this waltz. When it appeared that the United States was prepared to play a more active role in Central Asia, especially in the energy sector, Karimov declared, in 1995: "The presence of the United States in Central Asia is a guarantee of stability in [this] part of the world." When no large-scale Western investment materialized, and when Washington intensified its criticisms of his unreconstructed authoritarianism, Karimov made the pilgrimage to the Kremlin, where, in May of last year, he pronounced: "We favor Russia's presence in Central Asia. This is a fundamental guarantee of security and stability in the region." Karimov may be America's new best friend but when the relationship with the United States cools (whether over human rights, lack of democratization, or corruption), Moscow will be waiting to receive the prodigal back into the common Eurasian home.

Even if the United States intends to establish a long-term presence in the region, the naval base at Guantanamo Bay is a telling example of how a military presence in an area can have virtually no impact at all on events in the host country. Given the U.S. penchant for "freezing" conflicts indefinitely rather than expending its own treasure and energy to craft final solutions, Russia can retain its forward "enclaves" in the region (such as peacekeepers in Abkhazia or Tajikistan, or the base at Akhalkalaki in southern Georgia) to counterbalance any American presence.

Moreover, the lack of substantial Western investment in the region, other than in the hydrocarbons sector in certain areas, allows Russia to retain a considerable degree of economic and political leverage in the new Eurasia. The Russian economy remains underdeveloped by Western standards, but Russia is an El Dorado for millions of legal and illegal guest workers who send remittances back to their families in the Caucasus and Central Asia. After years of decline caused by the Soviet breakup, trade between Russia and other former Soviet republics grew by more than 40 percent in 2000, totaling over $25 billion. Finally, several of years of continuous growth in the Russian economy-not to mention the enormous profits obtained by Russian corporations, especially in the energy sector-have enabled Russian firms to buy up assets, at bargain prices, in other Eurasian countries (as well as in Eastern Europe) where Western investors still fear to tread. An influential Ukrainian newspaper thus opined, "Moscow will not go anywhere. The old debts and old links that determine mutual dependence will stay."

Putin has thus revealed himself as the consummate pragmatist. While the United States focuses on the open-ended, idealistic task of rooting out global terrorism (and dispensing its largesse in pursuit of that lofty goal), Russia has kept its eye firmly on the more earthy objective of resurrecting its power and influence among its neighbors. One result of the Russo-American "partnership" in the war on terrorism is likely to be a revived and strengthened Russia as the dominant power in Eurasia, and this will cost Russia not a single kopeck in the coin of its institutional advance toward Europe.

Nikolas K. Gvosdev is editor of In the National Interest.