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Commonwealth Or Empire?

Russia’s attack on the Chechen nation surprised those who thought that the Russian Federation had become a liberal democracy. The Russian bombing and shelling of Grozny and the gradual slide of Russia away from market democracy, however, fit a pattern which has been developing in the past two years. To understand the road to Grozny, it is important to realize how Russia’s foreign policy has evolved.

Immediately after the breakup of the USSR, Russia’s leadership seemed to accept the liberation of former soviet republic from Moscow’s orbit. In fact, the dissolution of the USSR would not have taken place had Russia not led the way in its abolition. Whereas the Central Asian republics’ rulers wished to keep the Soviet structure, it was Yeltsin and the Russian government which wanted to put an end to the Soviet Union and create an independent Russian Federation.

Since 1993, however, there has been a Russian switch to imperialism in the “near abroad”. The decisive moment was Russia’s move to join the fighting in the Tajik civil war. By proclaiming that Tajikistan’s border (with Afghanistan) was Russia’s, Moscow denied Tajikistan’s sovereignty. Moreover, since there are several Central Asian republics between Tajikistan and Russia, the Kremlin was really implying that all of Central Asia was still Russian territory. In Georgia, Russia provided military support to Abkhazian opponents of the Tbilisi authorities and coerced Georgia into the CIS. Russian operatives also involved themselves deeply into Georgia’s many political and ethnic conflicts, striving to weaken the Georgian state as much as possible. In other republics through agreements on border guards, training, and military facilities, Moscow has kept control of security-related affairs and so made a mockery of their independence. In industrial affairs, Russia has grabbed stakes in Kazakhstani and Azerbaijani oil developments. Moreover, Russia has pressed these countries to rely on Russian pipelines to export their commodities, giving the Kremlin a veto over their petroleum exports.

In Chechnya, we are seeing the tactics Russia has developed against the newly independent states utilized against a republic of the Russian Federation. The attempt to manipulate rival factions, and the use of military power to achieve Moscow’s aims, are familiar to the Tajiks and the Georgians. The difference is that Chechnya is within the Russian Federation, whereas the “near abroad” nations are not. The similarities, however, are more important than the differences. In both the “near abroad” and Chechnya, Moscow has chosen to settle disputes with force and bloodshed rather than through civilized discussions and negotiations. The definition of Russia’s true frontiers, and its relations with the former Soviet republics and the Federation’s own non-Russian regions, is obviously a complex task. Unfortunately, Moscow is following a path which will prevent the peaceful settlement of these post-Soviet disputes.