Former Soviet Republics: Fear, concern and frustration

23 years after the fall of the USSR, Russia and the West are still quarrelling over the new international order.

Indeed, no other empire has been able to revive itself. The Russians have done so four times throughout their history, writes Oskanian [AFP]

Watching the events in Ukraine and Crimea since President Viktor Yanukovich’s departure, has created a mixed sense of fear, concern and renewed frustration here in Armenia. No doubt, it’s the same in most former Soviet republics, particularly among those who are former and current candidate countries for European Union Association.

The fear arises from the thought that this could happen to any one of us, the concern emanates from the West’s public declarations on their intent to isolate Russia, and the frustration stems from the fact that 23 years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia and the West are still quarrelling over the nature of the new international order – and us.

Inside Story: Russian defence or dominance?

Russian coercion?

This stand-off between Russia and the West resembles a divorce battle over custody of the children, where children are forced to choose. But Armenia and Ukraine are adults, and they should not be forced to choose.

At the beginning of the path to Association, it seemed we knew what we wanted and where we were heading. But now, in different ways, we’ve found ourselves in a totally different place.

Yanukovich had calculated Ukraine’s benefits and losses and determined, first, to sign the Association Agreement and later, as the benefit and loss calculation changed, to refrain from signing.

As the pro Europeans ousted him, and Russia was propelled into action, all the assumptions, suspicions and punditry pointing to Russian pressure and coercion were now vindicated. Indeed, trade barriers, a gas price hike and most acutely, Crimea’s secession from Ukraine are the bargaining chips that Russia has publicly put on the table to bring Ukraine into its fold.

We know. It was not much different in Armenia. As the story unfolds in Ukraine, there is reaffirmation of the inevitability of Armenia’s choice to join the Russian-led Customs Union and the various factors that weighed heavily in Armenia’s decision to go north, rather than sign EU’s Association Agreement. Like Ukraine, there was the price of gas, there were trade relations, and there was the future of Nagorno Karabakh. Both Nagorno Karabakh and Crimea, although at different times under different leaders, were gerrymandered into republics ethnically different and historically adversarial.

Both Nagorno Karabakh and Crimea, although at different times under different leaders, were gerrymandered into republics ethnically different and historically adversarial.

Every region in the world has, at one point in its history, experienced  its own “peace to end all peace” moment. If David Fromkin said that for today’s Middle East, that moment was the self- serving and arbitrary First World War peace deals, the troubles in today’s post-Soviet space can be traced to Stalin’s and Khruschev’s “peace” arrangements embedded in their divide and rule policies.

There was hardly a Soviet republic that did not have within it a ticking bomb in the form of an autonomous region or republic. The Soviet constitution postulated that if any republic opted for secession from the union, then the autonomous entities within it would have to conduct separate referenda to decide their own fate.Thus the geographic and ethnic mosaic that was deliberately created by the Kremlin was intended as an insurance policy against dissent and secession.

Simmering ethnic conflicts

Mikhail Gorbachev tried to cash in on that insurance policy when he realised that his reform policies were getting out of hand. But to no avail. The Soviet Union collapsed and those bombs eventually all exploded creating a half dozen ethnic and self-determination conflicts that continue to simmer.

Russia is a key player in the solution of each of those ethnic conflicts. The former Soviet space clearly remains within Russia’s perceived sphere of influence.

The recent developments in the Crimea have sent a second shock wave throughout the world, but particularly in those former Soviet republics with simmering ethnic conflicts. The first shock was in 2008 when a Georgian-Russian war flared up over South Ossetian provocations, leading to Russia’s recognition of Abkhazia’s and South Ossetia’s independence.

Winston Churchill said the key to the Russian riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma was Russian national interest. Putin, in his inaugural address of May 2000, clearly reaffirmed Russia’s imperial tradition.

US condemns Russian ‘aggression’ in Crimea

“We must know our history, know it as it really is, draw lessons from it and always remember those who created the Russian state, championed its dignity and made it a great, powerful and mighty state,” he said.

Indeed, no other empire has been able to revive itself. The Russians have done so four times throughout their history.

If we are going to understand Russia’s behaviour and intentions, we have to begin with Russia’s perception of its fundamental weakness – its borders, particularly in the northwest. Russia believed the farther west into Europe its borders extend, the farther conquerors would have to travel to reach Moscow. Therefore, Russia is always pressing westward.

But Europe is always pressing eastward. Thus, given its historical experience, Russia is bound to have a special concern for security around its vast periphery and the West needed to be careful.

The West must adopt two considerations as it formulates its Russia policy. One is to not only see that Russia’s voice is heard in the emerging international system, but seriously listened to. Second, Russia must have actual space to participate in international decisions, especially those affecting its security. Simply announcing that NATO expansion is not a threat is not enough. It must be actual engagement.

Countries like Armenia and Ukraine would have expected that the political diplomacy was clearer. The EU’s domestic political wishy-washiness was inadvertently expressed in its foreign policy.

Of course, the West’s respect for legitimate Russian security interests pre-supposes that the Russian definition of “legitimate” is compatible with the independence of Russia’s neighbours and that Russia takes seriously the domestic political choices of its neighbours.

It’s time the self-styled parents find more respect towards each other, and towards the new-found adults in their midst.

Vartan Oskanian is a member of Armenia’s National Assembly, a former foreign minister and the founder of Yerevan’s Civilitas Foundation.