US official are warily monitoring a policy debate in Russia over how Moscow should deal with its former Soviet neighbors. Many in Washington believe that the strong showing by nationalists in the recent Russian parliamentary election could prompt the Kremlin to toughen its stance towards states in the Caucasus and Central Asia.
Developments in Georgia where a pro-Western administration has come to power -- has prompted policy makers in Moscow to reexamine Russian foreign policy towards its neighbors. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. The fact that nationalists will exert considerable influence in the Russian legislature appears to sharply reduce the chances of a softening of Russian policy.
In all, four political parties gained sufficient electoral support to win seats in the Russian parliament, led by United Russia, which serves as President Vladimir Putin's powerbase. The other three the Communist Party, Vladimir Zhirinovsky's Liberal Democrats and Rodina, (Motherland) all embrace nationalist-oriented foreign policy views.
There are two competing policy viewpoints in Moscow today. The first, articulated by the Chairman of the Federation Council's Foreign Affairs Committee, Mikhail Margelov, maintains that Russia does not stand to benefit from the geopolitical competition with the United States in the Caucasus and Central Asia. This faction wants Russia to be more accommodating towards its neighbors.
In Georgia's specific case, Russia's confrontational stance risks causing renewed conflict between Tbilisi and Georgia's separatist-minded regions of Abkhazia, Ajaria and South Ossetia. Such tumult could create "another Chechnya," some believe. It would thus be better for Moscow's own security aims to use its influence to promote rapprochement among the Georgia government and the three autonomous regions.
The other approach, as described by a senior policy expert with close ties to the Kremlin, holds that Georgian President-elect Mikhail Saakashvili is an implacable opponent of Russia. Accordingly, Moscow should do nothing that helps to stabilize his administration.
"Saakashvili is an unknown quantum in Moscow, and he's not made efforts to build relations here. There is no way Abkhazia and South Ossetia will return to Tbilisi's fold," the expert said.
While on a visit to Armenia on January 8, Saakashvili repeated his call for improved Russian-Georgian ties. At the same time, he said a new approach was needed in Moscow. Bilateral relations "should not be based on previous relations when Russia itself instigated conflicts, tried to resolve them and never succeeded," the Arminfo news agency quoted Saakashvili as saying.
For the United States, the implications of a rise in instability in Georgia are clear. Tumult could easily spill over Georgia's border into neighboring states, and threaten to delay, or even prevent completion of the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan Pipeline. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
A senior U.S. diplomat in Moscow believes that the "reservoir of imperial nostalgia" will lead to a "more muscular approach" in Russian policy towards Central Asia and the Caucasus.
If Russian policy makes a right turn, a key political figure will be Dmitri Rogozin, one of the leaders of the Rodina party. Rogozin's nationalist rhetoric has repeatedly sparked controversy. Most recently, he called for the creation of a Russian land corridor across Lithuanian territory linking Russia proper to the exclave of Kaliningrad, which Rogozin represents in parliament. Rogozin has also called for the expansion of Russia's borders to include areas such as northern Kazakhstan that have heavy concentrations of ethnic Russians.
US analysts do not expect Russia to make any significant moves in the Caucasus or Central Asia until after the Russian presidential election, which is scheduled for March.
At the same time, the rhetoric of some Russian MPs indicates that an influential policy-making segment is disinclined to adopt a more cooperative tone with Russia's neighbors, in particular Georgia.
Georgia's "over-reliance on Western countries in the solution of these issues [the separatist struggles of the country's autonomous regions] was the previous Georgian leadership's [i.e. former president Eduard Shevardnadze's] great mistake," Andrei Kokoshin, current chairman of the Russian Duma Committee on CIS Affairs, told the NTV television channel on January 8.
In a separate interview with Ekho Moskvy news agency, Kokoshin insisted Russia needed to maintain military bases in neighboring states. Georgia and Russia have long haggled over a timetable for the withdrawal of Russian forces still housed at two bases in Georgia.
"To win its place under the sun, Russia must not only speed up its economic development, but also show military muscle," Ekho Moskvy quoted Kokoshin as saying. "In a number of post-Soviet areas, we need either permanent bases, or agreements enabling us to deploy our military contingents rapidly."
Ariel Cohen, Ph.D., is Research Fellow in Russian and Eurasian Studies at the Heritage Foundation.