by Nick Ottens
As Europe was covered in a blanket of snow this January, a familiar spectacle played out in the east. Russia reduced gas exports to the West by some 15 percent because domestic consumption soared in the cold weather and the Kremlin had ordered Gazprom to prioritize Russian customers over foreign buyers (cf.: “Cold strains Europe’s natural gas supply“, UPI, 04.02.2012).
Transit countries like the Ukraine are hardest hit when Russia reduces exports. It receives more than 60 percent of its natural gas from Russia. By keeping prices high, Moscow hopes to force the Ukrainians to trade their industrial assets for energy and hasten the process of economic interconnection between the two countries that were both once part of the Soviet Union. The Kremlin has a more friendly president in Kiev now who does not aspire to join the European Union, let alone NATO. But even President Viktor Yanukovich is reluctant to allow Russia control of his nation’s gas transit system which is the only leverage he has over his powerful neighbor.
Energy, for Russia, is one of the few remaining tools of power it has at its disposal in Europe. Most of its former satellite states have been absorbed into the Western camp. They have economically integrated with the EU and through NATO, won the guarantee of American security. Among the few remaining Russian allies is stalwart Belarus, virtually a Russian province. The country’s pipeline infrastructure is wholly Russian owned and many industries depend on Russian oil and gas imports. But Belarus is the exception. If Russia is to regain an empire, it will have to look east.
In the Caucasus, Russia has an ally (Armenia), a foe (Georgia) and there’s Azerbaijan. It seeks to inhibit the expansion of Azerbaijani energy exports which would enable Europe to lessen its dependence on Russian gas but Moscow isn’t outright hostile to Baku. The Azerbaijanis have deepened their relations with the Turks, a NATO ally, for trade and security cooperation, including the construction of a pipeline across Turkish territory and weapon sales. This probably isn’t powerful enough of an alliance to deter Russian interference but Baku has seen what happened to Georgia when it tried to become a NATO member overnight. It knows it must tread carefully.
From the Kremlin’s perspective, Azerbaijan cannot be turned to join a Russian sphere of interest so let’s move further east. Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan are the most pro-Russian states in Central Asia. They have already entered a Eurasian Economic Space with Belarus and Russia which effectively replaces the 2010 customs union between Belarus, Kazakhstan and Russia. All of the former socialist republics in the region belong to the Collective Security Treaty Organization which was founded in 1992 although cooperation has largely been defensive. When Kyrgyzstan was engulfed in political turmoil last year and requested support from its neighbors, Russia turned down the offer to intervene.
Russian prime minister Vladimir Putin, who is set to be reelected president in March, is hoping to unite all of the intergovernmental bodies that exist in the former Soviet sphere. The Central Asian states are likely on the top of his list but does he know what he’s getting himself into? Russia’s reluctance to intervene in Kyrgyzstan was emblematic of the problems Russia faces in Central Asia — problems which it created in the 1920s and 1930s when it defined the borders of these republics which do not at all correspondent to ethnic realities on the ground. This was intentional. Joseph Stalin kept the peoples of the steppes divided and preoccupied with nationalist sentiments lest they challenge Soviet hegemony. Violent demarcation disputes followed the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. Separating the five now independent states are Soviet borders; linking them are Soviet roads, pipelines and power grids. A Russian influence continues to pervade up to this very day. Kyrgyzstan for instance is desperately divided, with an Uzbek minority living in the west near the Uzbekistan border while north and south different countries altogether. The north, around the capital of Bishkek, is more developed, with some industry and a semblance of Russian culture. The south, largely agrarian and more Islamic, is cut off by a mountain range that is traversed by just two roads.
Russian expansion into Central Asia begun in the nineteenth century. It soon discovered that the area is a tar pit filled with tiny “nations” and a geography that is hostile to military efforts. But it is also rich in natural resources could propel whichever country dominates it to the status of a global power. It’s no surprise that China is canvassing the region for minerals, oil and gas. Russia can’t be pushed out of the only sphere of interest is has left. Hence, whatever ethnic strife it encounters there, it must be the dominant power in Central Asia.
There’s also the question of restoring a sense of greatness to Russia. Since the demise of the Soviet empire, Western powers and most recently China have encroached upon its “near abroad”, robbing Russia of the feeling of security which an array of buffer states provides.
It’s not about recreating the Soviet Union, Putin insists. “It would be naive to try to restore or copy that which remains in the past,” he said last year, “but close integration based on new values and a political and economic foundation is imperative.” With a common language and Soviet era infrastructure still in place, the fundamentals for economic integration may appear to be present but perhaps the greatest threat to Putin’s schemes isn’t opposition in any of the former satellite states — it’s the rise of nationalism in Russia itself. Central Asian migrant workers in Russia are treated as second class citizens. There is mounting opposition to globalization which, in Russia, is represented by conglomerates that are so large and powerful that even the Kremlin can’t afford to challenge them all. Putin previously contrasted Russian nationalism to what he claimed was its “thousand year history” and warned that further disintegration in the former Soviet sphere would only weaken Russia. It’s true. Without Eurasian union, Russia could trade less and seem altogether less formidable internationally.