Russia’s Illiberal “Liberal Empire”

Across the West, many people are questioning whether Russia will continue using natural gas as a means of putting economic and political pressure on Ukraine, Georgia, and other countries in what the Kremlin regards as its “near abroad.” Using the “energy weapon,” however, is not just a tactic: it is at the heart of the prevailing doctrine guiding Russian foreign policy.

Russia’s policy toward the post-Soviet countries is based on the doctrine of a “liberal empire,” according to which Russia’s major government-owned and private companies should assume control of key economic entities across the territories of the former Soviet republics by acquiring their assets. In this context, the word “liberal” should be understood to suggest that the empire of the “new Russian dream” should be built by purely economic means, excluding all forcible action against other nations.

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Naturally, the key role in this model is given to the supply of energy to the post-Soviet countries. In particular, the Russian utility giant Gazprom uses increases in gas prices as a means to punish “disobedient” neighbors. Ukraine was punished in this way for its eagerness to integrate with the West following the Orange Revolution. However, after the return of the pro-Russian Victor Yanukovych to the position of Ukrainian prime minister, the country’s pro-Western orientation has been significantly weakened. So it should be no surprise that Ukraine under Yanukovych has faced no further problems with the supply of Russian gas.

But Georgia remains a major Kremlin-Gazprom target. Russia’s attempt to drag Georgia into its imperial net started in the summer of 2003, when the Russian power monopoly United Energy System took control of 75% of Georgia’s electricity network. After the Rose Revolution of November 2003, Russian companies turned out to be the most avid purchasers of Georgian enterprises and their assets.

The first significant obstacle in the way of Russia’s designs on Georgia was intervention by the US, which demanded that the Georgian government drop negotiations with Gazprom and banned Georgia from selling the gas pipeline that connects Russia and Armenia through Georgian territory. Russia punished Georgia almost immediately, banning the import of Georgian wines and mineral waters – both of which are key export goods.

As Georgia’s prospects of joining NATO seemed to increase, Russian actions became more illiberal. Ethnic Georgians living in Russia, including those who are Russian citizens, became targets of persecution.

Russia’s actions are aimed at fomenting an anti-government backlash in Georgia, thereby paving the way for pro-Russian political forces to come to power. But the illiberalism inherent in Russian imperialism is not limited to recent behavior, and, more disturbingly, it extends to the question of Georgia’s territorial integrity, as Russian troops continue to prop up secessionist regions.

By provoking ethnic conflicts in the territories of former Soviet republics, Moscow hopes to keep them under its control and influence. Ironically, the Russian troops deployed in the renegade Georgian regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia have been accorded the status of “peacekeepers.” But they are really illegal occupiers, as Russia’s decision to give Russian passports to these regions’ residents attests.

Now Russia is threatening to recognize the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia if the West recognizes the Serbian province of Kosovo as an independent nation. To the extent that most of the residents of Abkhazia and South Ossetia have already been given Russian citizenship, the recognition of those two regions’ sovereignty would be entirely fictitious and, in fact, an interim measure on the way to their full annexation by Russia.

To strengthen Russia’s political influence over Georgia’s separatist regions, Gazprom, without taking the trouble to ask for permission from Georgia’s democratically elected leaders, has begun constructing a gas pipeline connecting Russia and South Ossetia directly. Although there was no interruption of gas supply from Tbilisi to South Ossetia, this step is necessary for the Kremlin to ensure even greater integration of this Georgian region into Russia’s economic system.

With Gazprom having already doubled gas tariffs for Georgia, the energy noose is tightening. But, thanks to gas supplies from neighboring Azerbaijan, Georgia has not yet been strangled.

A revived Russian empire, whether it is constructed by force or through economic coercion, is not in anyone’s interests. Reigning in Russia’s illiberal “liberal empire” is the central question of European security today.