Until the collapse of the Soviet empire in 1991, Russian influence in Central Asia was beyond dispute. The emergence of independent states from Soviet republics and a succession of paralyzing domestic crises in Russia put an end to the days of diktat. But President Vladimir Putin has made the restoration of Russian influence throughout the former empire a priority in his second term. In a phrase redolent of 19th-century empire-building, Putin stressed in his address to the nation in April 2005 that "the civilizing mission of the Russian nation on the Eurasian continent should continue."
Putin's rhetorical flourish came amid a number of real and rumored initiatives to bolster ties with Central Asian states. Most recently, "Kommersant-Daily" reported on September 5 -- just as newly elected Kyrgyz President Kurmanbek Bakiev was arriving in Moscow for a visit -- that the Kremlin has developed "a special plan to strengthen Russian influence in Kyrgyzstan." According to the newspaper, the 2005-07 action plan envisions the "gradual transfer of the Kyrgyz energy sector to Russian companies." Gazprom, Russia's state-controlled natural-gas monopoly, will undertake "the exploration and development of gas fields and the modernization and construction of new gas-transport facilities." Russian electrical company Unified Energy Systems (EES) will build two hydropower stations, possibly with help from Russian Aluminum, which is seeking a convenient source of power for aluminum-production facilities it hopes to construct in Kyrgyzstan. In return, Moscow will write off half of Kyrgyzstan's $180 million Soviet-era debt and pass legislation to ease conditions for an estimated 300,000 Kyrgyz migrant workers in Russia.
The plan has a geopolitical component as well, the newspaper claimed. Russia hopes to boost its military presence at its air base in Kant, Kyrgyzstan. At the same time, Moscow would like to see Kyrgyzstan put pressure on the United States to set a departure date for the U.S. air base at Manas. Another point of contention for the Kremlin is what it perceives as the excessive pro-Americanism of several ministers in the Kyrgyz interim cabinet: Foreign Minister Roza Otunbaeva, Defense Minister Ismail Isakov, and Deputy Prime Minister Daniyar Usenov. The grand plan, the report suggests, would involve their replacement with figures more palatable to Moscow.
There is, of course, no proof that such a grand plan actually exists. The results of Bakiev's visit to Russia confirmed only some of the newspaper's bold predictions -- a Russian commitment to speed the passage of legislation codifying the status of Kyrgyz migrant workers and a debt-restructuring agreement. According to "Rossiiskaya gazeta," Bakiev and Putin discussed hydropower and aluminum projects in Kyrgyzstan but did not reach any concrete agreements.
The Plan In Effect
The purported plan's general outlines, and especially its economic component, are consistent with existing initiatives in Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, however. President Putin visited Tajikistan in October 2004 accompanied by Kremlin-friendly oligarch Oleg Deripaska, who heads Russian Aluminum. The result was a comprehensive agreement involving a Russian exchange of Tajik sovereign debt for a surveillance facility, the establishment of a permanent Russian military base in Tajikistan, and a RusAl commitment to undertake a multibillion-dollar project to build hydropower stations and aluminum-production facilities.
Similar trends are evident in Uzbekistan. Even as Tashkent's relations with the West cooled after the Rose and Orange revolutions in Georgia and Ukraine, and then abruptly nosedived after the violence in Andijon in May 2005, Russia and Uzbekistan have embarked on a rapprochement after an extended chill. Putin and Uzbek President Islam Karimov inked a strategic-partnership agreement in June 2004, and Russia's Gazprom and LUKoil have signed on to some $2 billion in long-term investments in Uzbekistan. Most recently, LUKoil joined a consortium of companies from Uzbekistan, China, Malaysia, and South Korea to explore and develop gas fields in Uzbekistan's Aral Sea region, RFE/RL's Uzbek Service reported on September 12. Specialists queried by Russia's "Vedomosti" said that the consortium, which hopes to sign a production-sharing agreement in 2006, could spend up to $2 billion to identify 1 trillion cubic meters of recoverable reserves.
Suspicions that neo-imperial aims may underpin these moves feed on a steady stream of articles in Russia that voice precisely such ideas, often in strikingly anti-Western and anti-American tones. And the authors need not be Russian nationalists. In fact, one of the most stirring calls for a revivified empire was written by Aleksandr Chachia, a Georgian opposition figure. In an article that appeared in "Ekspert" on August 22 (No. 31) under the title "Bring Back Our Russia," Chachia accused Western forces of mounting an "operation to expel Russia for good from post-Soviet space." He dismissed described recent upheaval in Georgia and Ukraine as attempts to "replace one puppet regime with another without any qualitative changes in the nature and structure of power" and bemoaned the two countries' fates as "post-socialist states that have become toys in the hand of the State Department."
According to Chachia, the so-called "revolutions" are "a component part of the American project of globalization" in which "national culture is intensively replaced with an Americanized cultural surrogate." Only Russia can save these potential victims of globalization from extinction. For Russia has already produced two world-moving ideas -- first when Moscow pronounced itself the Third Rome in defense of Christendom, and later when it embraced communism. The time has come for a third idea: "Russia must become the bearer of an elevated spiritual and cultural idea what will be attractive for peoples striving to preserve their national individuality under conditions of globalization, which Americanizes and Westernizes anything and everything."
As Dmitry Shlapentokh pointed out in a September 2 commentary on EurasiaNet, such notions of "benevolent imperialism" emerge from the political philosophy of Eurasianism as it was espoused by a number of Russian thinkers in the 1920s. Shlapentokh notes that "there is a vital geographical component to Eurasianism, dictating that Russia should control the Eurasian heartland, including Central Asia and the Caucasus." Modern Eurasianists such as Aleksandr Dugin have "branded the United States, not Europe, as the mortal enemy of Russia/Eurasia...[and] forcefully argued that only Eurasianism could resolve Russia's numerous post-Soviet dilemmas." Shlapentokh concludes that while Eurasianism's "selective analysis of Russia's past" -- manifested in a tendency to ignore the seamier side of empire -- and failure to account for current regional complexities make it ill-suited to serve as a modern blueprint, the "apparent contradictions...do not preclude the possibility that Russian policy makers will rely on Eurasian thinking in making future policy decisions."
The Rise Of Russia's Eurasianist
In fact, Russia's best-known Eurasianist, Dugin, has become an increasingly prominent figure in Russia. A polyglot autodidact who once worked in the archives of the Soviet intelligence services, Dugin dabbled in esoteric extremism in the early 1990s. As the decade wore on, he adopted a Eurasianist ideology and started to make contacts with the political establishment. In 1998, he became an adviser on strategic and geopolitical questions to the speaker of Russia's parliament. With Putin's ascent, Dugin broke into the mainstream. Today, he runs the International Eurasian Movement, appears on national television, and publishes in big-name newspapers.
In early September, Dugin held a press conference in Moscow to announce plans to unify nationalist youth movements in an effort to fight the spread of "orange" revolutions, "Vremya novostei" reported on September 8. "We're creating an organizational committee to hold a congress of Eurasian nationalists in November-December," he said. Painting Eurasianism as a non-Western imperial project that will allow small states to retain their identity under Russia's big umbrella, Dugin claimed 40,000 supporters and described the Kremlin's attitude toward his project as "benevolent." With an eye to upcoming electoral struggles in Russia, Dugin hinted at clenched fists, "Gazeta" reported. "The 'orange guys' are definitely going to beyond the realm of the law, which means that we have the right to do this as well," he said. And while Dugin disavowed direct Kremlin involvement in his latest project, he stressed: "Business knows what's what, and now we have a solid economic base."
Though the rhetoric is tantalizing, it does not necessarily form a natural backdrop to a neo-imperialist turn in Russian foreign policy. For one, Dugin's project, despite its Eurasianist geopolitical pretensions, is firmly rooted in the vicissitudes of domestic politics. As Aleksei Makarkin, deputy director of the Moscow-based Center for Political Technologies, told "Gazeta," "The Kremlin is also getting ready for a scenario that involves violence in the new 2007-08 electoral cycle, so Dugin's initiative to unite nationalist organizations will definitely come in handy."
In other words, Dugin's new project, like the Kremlin-sponsored youth group Nashi, falls under the rubric of nationalist-tinged attempts to stir up popular sentiment for a defense of the status quo. In this context, Dugin's comment on business makes perfect sense: if people with money who "know what's what" have forked over enough cash to give a nationalist youth movement a "solid economic base," one can safely assume it's not for a revolution at home. It is, rather, to ensure that the powers that be continue to be just as they are.
Money And Power
For if one common thread runs through Russia's recent development, it is the increasing intertwining of money and power. Oligarchic capitalism was supposed to be the hallmark of Boris Yeltsin's Russia, with financial-industrial groups meddling in public politics for personal gain. The arrival of Putin and his much-ballyhooed "siloviki" has been taken by some to indicate a qualitative change, with the imprisonment of Mikhail Khodorkovskii and the subsequent court-assisted hostile takeover of his oil company presented as proof that the days of all-powerful oligarchs with a penchant for politics are over. But there is equal reason for viewing the change as qualitative, with fewer boundaries than ever between money and power making for a more placid exterior and seemingly authoritarian policy initiatives such as increasing state control over media emerging from a compact that is more material than it is political.
Khodorkovskii, for example, told "Zavtra" in a recent interview: "I'm convinced that they put me in prison not because of politics but to take away Yukos. Politics was just a pretext. ...I underestimated the extent to which a person close to Putin -- [deputy head of the presidential administration] Igor Sechin -- and some of his business partners are motivated by property and how far they are willing to go in the fight for other people's money."
Perceptive critics of Putin also couch their analyses in terms that have little to do with politics and a great deal to do with money. Here is how Stanislav Belkovskii, the founder of the National Strategy Institute, explained to "Zavtra," in an interview published on apn.ru on 12 September, why Putin is unlikely to seek a third presidential term: "As soon as the relatives of the former president stuff their pockets with revenues from the sale of Sibneft and the second president himself carefully carries out of rotting Russia a sizeable stake in Gazprom and $5 billion-$6 billion in cash, staying in the Kremlin will lose all meaning for [Putin]."
What this suggests is that the main "project" for the Russian elite is the preservation of a profitable status quo. In the context of Russian foreign policy, and specifically policy toward Central Asia, this project raises specific questions. When, for example, Oleg Deripaska travels to Tajikistan with President Putin, the president would appear to be advancing Russia's geopolitical interests as he oversees a debt agreement and establishes a permanent military base while the aluminum tycoon, moving in his wake, tends to economic interests with a promising investment initiative. But are the geopolitics and the economics really as complementary and coordinated as they appear? Which is the true driving force? And if the tail is wagging the dog, what does that mean for the "project" as a whole?
Daniel Kimmage is the Central Asia regional analyst with RFE/RL Online and editor of the "RFE/RL Central Asia Report."
Sign up for Eurasianet's free weekly newsletter.