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Russia to Seek Neighbours' Backing on Georgia

Moscow to adopt softly, softly approach to keeping neighbours on board and allaying their concerns about recent conflict.
By Mirgul Akimova
A meeting of former Soviet states in Bishkek presents Moscow with an opportunity to shore up support among its traditional allies following its conflict with Georgia. However, persuading them to back Russia in its growing confrontation with the West is not going to be easy, analysts say.

The Commonwealth of Independent States, CIS, is holding a summit in the Kyrgyz capital on October 9 and 10. On the second day, heads of states that are members of the CIS’s economic grouping, the Eurasian Economic Community or EurAsEC for short, were scheduled to hold a separate meeting.

While the CIS includes all the states of the former Soviet Union bar the three Baltic countries, with Turkmenistan holding only associate member status, EurAsEC is a narrower grouping comprising the Russians and Belarusians and, in Central Asia, the Kazaks, Kyrgyz, Tajiks and Uzbeks.

These meetings will be followed by a meeting between leaders of the Central Asian states.

The agenda for the three meetings covers a wide range of issues including economic cooperation as well as water, energy and security.

The CIS summit is the first since Russia’s short war with Georgia in August, which resulted in Moscow formally recognising South Ossetia and Abkhazia as independent from Tbilisi. One immediate consequence of the war that the meeting has to address is Georgia’s announcement that it is withdrawing from the CIS.

When CIS foreign ministers met on day one of the Bishkek summit, two controversial issues came up – first, Russia’s desire to get other members to recognise the two breakaway republics; and second, the possibility that – in light of its deteriorating relationship with the West – Moscow might pressure Kyrgyzstan to close an airbase close to the capital used by the United States since 2001.

Sergey Lebedev, who chairs the CIS’s executive committee, told reporters that the independence issue was not on the agenda. Instead, he said, each member state must decide for itself how it would handle the issue.

“No collective decision on this matter has been taken, and as far as I know none will be taken,” he said.

Lebedev’s comments reflected the challenge that Moscow will face as it tries to win over its neighbours on Caucasus conflict. With the exception of Kazakstan, none of the normally loyal Central Asian states has openly backed Russia’s military intervention in Georgia. And even the Kazaks have not gone as far as recognising South Ossetia and Abkhazia.

Their cautious stance may be partly due to a reluctance to join Moscow in open confrontation with the West, and in part because these leaderships were taken aback by the way Russia flexed its muscles in a neighbouring state.

When Central Asia leaders joined their Russian and Chinese counterparts for a meeting of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation in August, they withheld full backing for Moscow’s actions. The final resolution they issued urged all sides to resolve the conflict through dialogue and negotiations, and underlined their commitment to upholding the territorial integrity of states – a clear allusion to Moscow granting recognition to two territories still claimed by Georgia. (See Moscow Fails to Win Over Regional Allies, RCA No. 549, 05-Sep-08.)

On the second issue, the US base at Manas airport, Russian deputy foreign minister Andrei Denisov told the Interfax news agency on October 9 that Moscow would not pressure Bishkek to sever its security ties with the West.

“The US military presence in Central Asia lies within the competence of the sovereign countries,” he said.

Denisov added, however, that Moscow would countenance a continued American military presence in Kyrgyzstan only if its purpose was to support operations in Afghanistan – its original aim – and not to project US power to the detriment of other regional players.

His carefully nuanced remarks appeared to be designed to indicate where Moscow’s red lines lie without actually telling the Kyrgyz what to do.

According to Orozbek Moldaliev, a political analyst in Kyrgyzstan, it is a question of priorities. “Right now, what is more important for Moscow is not getting rid of the airbase, but for Bishkek to recognise South Ossetia and Abkhazia.”

Central Asian expert Daniil Kislov agrees that Moscow is not going to make a big issue out of the US airbase, although its own plans in Central Asia undoubtedly do not envisage a strong American presence there.

Pointing out that Russia has its own military airbase in Kyrgyzstan only a few kilometres from the American one, Kislov said Moscow had been “shocked” by the arrival of NATO warships in the Black Sea during the recent conflict, and by their proximity to Russian naval vessels.

Many analysts believe that pressing for the recognition of Abkhazia and South Ossetia is part of a broader attempt by Russia to recruit support as it positions itself as a counterbalance to Washington.

“Russia is trying to restore…its influence in the ex-Soviet republics,” said Elmira Nogoibaeva, head of the Polis Asia think-tank. “It needs new allies, a new political protectorate consisting of post-Soviet countries on which it can count in its new political confrontation with the West.”

Another analyst, Mars Sariev, argues that Moscow will seek to project its influence in the region through persuasion rather than intimidation.

“Russia will build a constructive dialogue with CIS countries and pursue soft diplomacy,” he said.

Noting that Prime Minister Vladimir Putin has been touring Russia’s neighbours with pledges of investment and loans, Sariev describes this as Moscow’s “new policy”.

“In light of Kazakstan’s recent statement that it wouldn’t recognise South Ossetia, Russia is going to gently reel in the CIS states by means of investment projects,” he said.

Mirgul Akimova is the pseudonym of a journalist in Kyrgyzstan.

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