TOPICS : Russia softens toward neighbours

Fred Weir

Stung by democratic revolts around Russia’s periphery and the Western drift of former subject nations, Kremlin is mulling a switch from the use of “hard” political manipulation to

“soft” methods of persuasion in its dealings with the troubled post-Soviet neighbourhood. A new Kremlin department to oversee “cultural relations” with former Soviet countries was created last month, which experts say will spearhead Moscow’s new charm offensive in its own rapidly changing back yard. Many experts say the pro-democracy wave that broke over Georgia, Ukraine, and Kyrgyzstan in the past 18 months has left the Kremlin stunned and determined to prevent fresh uprisings in its dwindling sphere of influence. Another worry is that Western authority is rapidly marching in as Moscow’s recedes. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who met with a seemingly disinterested President Vladimir Putin Wednesday, apparently upset by Rice’s criticisms of Russia’s authoritarian drift, will be

in Lithuania Thursday for a NATO meeting, the first time the alliance has convened in a former Soviet republic. Ukraine, a key Russian partner until its democratic revolt late last year, could be invited to join the Western military alliance as early as this week.

Critics say Kremlin’s heavy-handed intervention in neighbouring countries has been the chief cause of Russia’s declining regional fortunes. Putin twice visited Ukraine during its presidential elections last year to throw Russia’s support behind pro-Moscow candidate Viktor Yanukovich. Ukrainian experts accuse Moscow of channelling as much as $300 million and dispatching top Kremlin “spin doctors” to aid Yanukovich’s campaign. Russia’s support for Moldova’s breakaway Transdnestr Republic, where it maintains an army, was a key reason Moldova’s Communist Party government has distanced itself from Moscow and appealed to Europe for help. Russia also maintains two Soviet-era military bases in Georgia and continues to aid the rebel republics of Abkhazia and South Ossetia against the central authorities.

Sociologist Olga Kyrshtanovskaya, who studies Russian elites, says the Kremlin’s main concern is to stifle the spread of rebellious moods to Russia’s own far-flung, multiethnic population.

Sergei Markov, an analyst, says Kremlin will actively attempt to identify and assist pro-Russian political forces around the region. For example, he says, polls show that many Ukrainians oppose joining NATO despite President Viktor Yushchenko’s championing of the idea as a means of anchoring Ukraine in the Western camp. Russia’s long-dormant policy of seeking reunification with Belarus, the only post-Soviet state that has shown interest in merging with Russia, could be revived as the Kremlin surveys its options. “Russia’s sphere of influence is dramatically shrinking, and so a country like Belarus that wants to join our club takes on new importance,” says Sergei Strokan, a foreign affairs expert with Kommersant, a liberal newspaper. Wednesday’s meeting with Rice isn’t the last Putin will hear from the US. President Bush will visit next month to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the Allied victory in World War II. — The Christian Science Monitor