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Despite war, post-Soviet states find breaking up with Russia hard to do

There was a time, not so long ago, when Russia’s Victory Day, marking the USSR’s triumph over Nazi Germany, was considered a shared international holiday.

At one point, it even included contingents of NATO troops marching in the traditional military parade across Red Square under the gaze of Russian leader Vladimir Putin and visiting Western leaders.

The outside world largely ignored this year’s parade on May 9, which was a greatly scaled-back affair amid the war in Ukraine and the very real threat of Ukrainian drone attacks. But to the surprise of many analysts, Mr. Putin was joined on the reviewing stand by the leaders of seven other post-Soviet countries, including all five former Soviet Central Asian republics, plus Armenia and Belarus.

After more than a year of severe stress, many of those countries have sought to distance themselves from embattled Moscow and find alternative avenues for trade, political connections, and security.

But it’s not that easy to escape the bonds of geography, history, economic integration, and geopolitical dependence. All of the leaders sitting with Mr. Putin, and a few others who weren’t, have discovered evergreen reasons not to burn their bridges with Moscow.

Most of the Central Asian leaders, and Belarus, run some degree of authoritarian regimes that make them almost as unwelcome in the West as Mr. Putin himself.

As a recent study by the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development details, the war in Ukraine has uprooted traditional trading patterns, with former Soviet neighbors of Russia benefiting enormously from cheap Russian energy exports that used to go to the West, while their own exports to Russia – including sanction-evading ones – have proved extremely profitable.

“Many of these countries are hedging their risks,” says Dmitry Suslov, a foreign policy expert with the Higher School of Economics in Moscow. “This leads to some distancing from Russia, making gestures to avoid the threat of secondary sanctions from the U.S. and the EU.

That gives an impression that Russia’s relations with them are deteriorating. But in fact, they simply cannot afford to break with Russia.

“There is too much economic interdependence, shared security concerns – Central Asian states are far more worried about Afghanistan than Ukraine – and demographic considerations. Millions of workers from Central Asia, from Georgia and Armenia, come to Russia as guest workers, and their remittances are very important. A lot of Russians have moved to these countries since the war began. Some are draft dodgers, but others are relocating businesses, developing new ways to keep working in the Russian market in an age of blanket sanctions. There are a lot of new dynamics in play.”

“Why would we pick a quarrel?”

For Central Asian states, at least, the main counterbalance to Russia is not the West, but China. In mid-May, Beijing hosted a lavish summit for Central Asian leaders in Xi’an, which included major promises of Chinese aid and investment, and a general warming of relations. Many commentators have pointed out that these new ties between former Soviet states and China may come at Russia’s expense, but Moscow and Beijing are very much on the same page about excluding Western influence from the region.

“Realistically, only Russia and China are in a position to support economic development in Central Asian countries,” says Alexander Knyazev, a Central Asia expert with the Moscow State Institute of International Relations, which trains Russian diplomats. “Countries like Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan are more wary about China, and look to balance those concerns through relations with Russia. After American troops left Afghanistan, they sought to strengthen security cooperation with Russia. Who else can provide stability and security in that region?”

Kazakhstan’s new leader, President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, has huge hopes for his resource-rich country, and has made efforts to balance geopolitical relations between Russia, China, and the United States.

But in practice, Kazakhstan’s political stability was ensured during riots last year by the timely intervention of Russian-led military forces, who left after restoring order. Kazakhstan, which has seen a huge influx of Russian business and investment since the war began, has declined to condemn Russia’s war outright.

“You couldn’t say that Kazakhstan supports Russia. We have a multivector foreign policy” that aims to balance the country’s interests, says Pyotr Svoik, a political analyst and opposition politician in Kazakhstan. “But we have lots of ties to Russia – through history, language, culture – which can’t be wished away. About three-quarters of Kazakhstan’s exports to the West are transported through Russian pipelines, railroads, and ports. Why would we pick a quarrel with Russia? We had no part in creating these problems; why should we pay for it?”

One of the more pro-Western states in the post-Soviet region is Georgia, which actually fought a war with Russia in 2008 over its Russia-sponsored breakaway territories. Despite popular sentiment in favor of joining NATO and the European Union, the little country has been drawn back into Russia’s orbit by economic dynamics and a reluctance to be drawn into the Ukraine war.

The country has seen major unrest in recent months by pro-Western civil society groups seeking to curtail what they see as an authoritarian and pro-Russia drift by the Georgian Dream government. Fresh protests broke out in mid-May after Mr. Putin ordered visa requirements for Georgians be canceled, and the reopening of airline links between Tbilisi and Moscow.

The Georgian government argues that easing tensions benefits Georgian business, stimulates tourism, and is also good news for the large Georgian diaspora in Russia.

“Georgian society would prefer to join the EU and NATO, but these options are not realistic,” says Andrey Kortunov, academic director of the Russian International Affairs Council, which is affiliated with the Foreign Ministry. “Meanwhile, Russia can offer very real advantages, which a normalization of relations brings. Why should they lose that? Georgia hasn’t shifted its nature, but it is becoming more realistic.”

The necessity of maintaining ties

Azerbaijan, an oil-rich post-Soviet state on the Caspian Sea, has likewise carefully threaded the needle between Russia, Iran, Turkey, and the West. It has recently won a major victory over a longtime enemy, Russia-allied Armenia.

With Western mediation, Azerbaijan and Armenia have agreed to settle their key differences over the Armenian-populated region of Nagorno Karabakh, a deal that suggests a hope that peace may reign in the troubled region for the first time in three decades.

Azerbaijan could be a key link in the long-stalled North-South Transport Corridor project, which is intended to connect Iranian ports on the Indian Ocean by rail with Russia’s vast east-west railway network.

In mid-May, Mr. Putin signed off on $1.6 billion in Russian financing to complete the last leg of the railway in northern Iran. When completed in four years, the new transport route could rival the Suez Canal, advocates say.

“Azerbaijan sees what is happening in Ukraine, and we try to help the Ukrainians,” says Ilgar Velizade, an independent political scientist in Baku. “But distancing ourselves from Russia is not a geographical possibility. How do you isolate yourself from a close neighbor? Transport relations are impossible to break. The dialogue we maintain with Russia is essential for political and economic processes in our region.”

The ongoing war in Ukraine hangs over the wider region, and drives a good deal of the instability and shifting stances of many countries, says Mr. Suslov.

“Russia has certainly suffered a loss of influence in many areas, but the necessity of maintaining ties has also asserted itself. Russia is going to retain a central place in regional relations. In general, the West has been too blunt in demanding post-Soviet countries sacrifice their own interests for the anti-Russian cause, and too quick to threaten secondary sanctions. If they matched the threats with real resources and economic opportunities, Western diplomacy would be more effective in taking advantage of Russia’s weakness,” he says.

“As long as the Ukraine war continues we’ll see this intense rivalry between Russia and the West in the post-Soviet region, with various losses and gains on both sides. How the wider spheres of influence develop will depend very much on the results of the war, and how Russia emerges from it.”

Source: Fred Weir for CSMonitor

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