||Summary of the Round Table discussion „Projects and Prospects for Cooperation in Eurasia“ (25-26 February, 2009,Vilnius)
2009 05 09
A Round Table discussion „Projects and Prospects for Cooperation in Eurasia“ was organized by the Carnegie Moscow Centre and the Centre for Geopolitical Studies of Lithuania in Vilnius on 25-26 February 2009. The discussion was attended by representatives of former USSR republics and academic and expert communities of other countries, as well as representatives of state institutions. The discussion considered various issues, interesting ideas and forecasts concerning economic, social and cultural processes, as well as economic and energy security problems in the post-soviet space. This document provides the summary of issues considered during the discussion.
Certainly, Russia and its role in neighboring countries was one of the key issues. Today Russia is still in the transition period towards the establishment of a new statehood, but the profile of its global and regional strategy becomes more and more evident. In principle Russia seeks to restore or retain its political and economic influence „on near neighborhood“, but it is a very difficult task. Experts participating in the discussion indicated several reasons. First of all, after the break of the USSR, Russia has „successfully“ dissociated from solving the problems of neighboring countries or acted sporadically or even destructively. Secondly, in order to increase its influence, Russia acts as a „hard“ power and events in Georgia are a perfect example. As it could be expected, this war is evaluated differently. Some participants of the discussion said that Russia lost more than won, and first of all it lost the status of a reliable moderator of processes in the post-soviet space. The others noted that Russia demonstrated that it is still a great power ready to firmly protect its interests (this was perceived not only in the CIS space, but also in the West). However, according to one of the Georgian guests, today it is not enough to demonstrate „hard“ power in order to ensure influence. Therefore for the majority of former USSR republics Russia is not as attractive as a „soft“ and economically successful European Union (EU). Russia cannot suggest an attractive political, economic and social development model to its neighbors, and its friendly relations with Central Asian (CA) countries are more a result of their choice rather than targeted and effective Russian policy.
The passive Russian influence can still be perceived in the former USSR republics (because of the Russian language and still persisting but yet diminishing economic and energy relations), but this influence is inevitably decreasing. The Russian neighbors are frightened by the geopolitical neo-Eurasianism ideology which becomes more and more popular in Russia and which could be natural for Russia, but is skeptically (even critically) evaluated by its closest partners (except, perhaps, Kazakhstan). Finally, formation of the public opinion (certainly, influenced by the Kremlin) impairs the „soft“ image of Russia. According to surveys, today the United States, NATO, Georgia and Ukraine take leading positions among Russia‘s enemies (let alone the economic crisis and the threat of terrorism). The leading position of the United States and NATO in the above list is not surprising, whereas inclusion of Georgia and Ukraine was predetermined by the situation (Georgia‘s inclusion was caused by the war with Russia, Ukraine‘s – by its role in arming Georgia and the anti-Russian policy of the Ukrainian president V.Youshchenka). A similar course of events developed after the scandalous removal of the bronze soldier in Estonia and the decision of the Lithuanian president not to attend the international commemoration of 50th anniversary of Victory Day in Moscow. Consequently, from the point of view of the Russian population, Estonia and Lithuania have become one of the key Russia‘s enemies, let alone the United States and NATO. It is natural that by the above the Russian elite tries to negatively consolidate society, but this is a very dangerous game, since Russian neighbors would hardly appreciate a closer relationship with the country treating them as enemies (let alone the bloody sallies of the Russian nationalism directed towards the foreign-born). Thus, Russia‘s efforts (sometimes openly imperialistic) to regain dominance in the post-soviet space faces major ideological obstacles, i.e. serious shortcomings in the „soft“ Russia‘s image. Certainly, in this case Russia might keep to the position of V.Putin, expressed in 2009 in the business forum in Dallas. He said: “let other countries consider how they look in the eyes of Russia, and they could further repose their trust in the “hard” power”. But power and blackmail (without denying certain cases of hostile policy of the West and CIS countries towards Russia)Russia will not bring long-lasting positive results, and the collapse of the Soviet Union could serve as a perfect example.
Situation in Caucasus was another focal point for discussion. Several observations were especially interesting. According to one of experts, today Georgia has two possibilities: either to recognize independence of Abkhazia and Ossetia and try to integrate into NATO and the EU as a state free of territorial problems, or to seek the return of the lost territories and further remain within the orbit of Russia‘s manipulations. There is also a third option: to radically change policy from the pro-Western to the pro-Russian, but this option is more theoretical than realistic, since Georgia would hardly benefit from the above decision. Recognition of separatist territories wouldn‘t guarantee Georgia’s membership in the Euro Atlantic community in the nearest future, and it would lose the territories for good. Thus, situation is in a certain dead-end, but participants of the discussion noted that a military conflict for South Ossetia and Abkhazia between Moscow and Tbilisi might resume. In this case position of the West would be instrumental. Other participants emphasized that the newly elected president of the United States B.Obama might not be as interested in Caucasus as his predecessor G.W. Bush. Whereas the role of the EU in Caucasus is very limited, since Europe is „soft“ power, and regional policy is currently moving towards „hard“ policy and here Russia is taking the leading position. Quite a lot of criticism was said towards the EU for its amorphous position and bureaucratic inefficiency determining its ineffective policy (Russia agrees with a certain EU‘s role in Caucasus, but only because it does not consider it as a serious geopolitical competitor, differently from the United States). On the other hand, Moscow would hardly manage to fully expel America from the region. In this respect participants expressed their opinion on the initiative of Russia and Turkey 2+3 (Russia and Turkey plus Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan). Its key notion is that problems of South Caucasus might be solved without the interference of „strangers“ (i.e. without the EU and U.S). In this context the position of Turkey is especially interesting. According to participants of the discussion, Ankara’s actions might hide two different motives related to possible Turkey‘s membership in the European Union. It might be the Turkish game demonstrating to Europe that the Turkish can change their priorities subject to membership in the EU (notably, public dissatisfaction on never-ending Europe‘s promises is increasing, and the Turkish authorities must respond to that). On the other hand, Turkey might have decided, together with Russia, to jointly resolve problems in South Caucasus (here it is worth while recalling the situation when the Turkish forbade the U.S warships heading to Georgia to enter the Black Sea). But Ankara cannot understand certain issues. First of all, situation in South Caucasus is very complicated and a constructive 2+3 dialogue is hardly possible under current conditions (relations between Turkey and Armenia are improving, but contraposition of Russia and Georgia has already reached climax). Secondly, today one cannot imagine the international South Caucasus policy without the United States. Certainly, America’s interest in the above region might diminish, but it surely wouldn‘t disappear, therefore talks of Russia and Turkey about the dissociation from „strangers“ in South Caucasus are not justified. Thus, a conclusion could be made that resolution of the problem of the Russian separatist territories would depend in the nearest future firstly on the U.S and Russia’s actions, and domestic political processes in Georgia. Concerning the Nagorno Karabakh, participants of the discussion said that conflict might resume and develop according to the Georgian scenario, but there are no serious preconditions for the above events. In any case the guests from Azerbaijan and Armenia did not discern them. On the contrary, they positively evaluated efforts of Russia as a mediator to resume the process of conflict resolution (notably, Russia activated its policy in solving the conflict in Trans-Dniester), but tangible results both concerning Baku and Yerevan and Tiraspol territorial disputes would not be achieved in the near future.
The Round Table meeting discussed the problems and policy in Central Asia, Ukraine and Belarus. The discussion disclosed an especially pragmatic approach of the Central Asian countries towards cooperation with foreign countries. They were of the opinion that first of all it is necessary to develop cooperation with closest neighbors, and only then with the more remote ones. That‘s why they enhanced cooperation with Russia and China but not with the West, which, differently from the above subjects, does not feel comfortable on the authoritarian and unstable political arena of the region. In this case it is necessary to highlight that although Russia‘s influence in Central Asia today is substantial, it is passive and gradually decreasing. One of the key reasons of the above trend is that the future elite of the CA countries is inclined to study in China, Turkey and the West (respectively start speaking English and Chinese instead of the Russian) investing to domestic NGOs as the basis of the Western civil society (Russia works more with the elite of CA countries, the position of which is yet unsettled). Besides, Turkey, China and even Iran try to push aside Russia as the main economic partner of CA states. Economic influence of China in the region is obvious, since Beijing is ready to invest to joint projects and to immediately realize them. Finally, the trend of establishment of the Islam in CA states cannot be forgotten as well: it occupies the ideological and social economic space (governments of these states fail to do that), and this is a worrying fact, since this Islam has a shade of radicalism.
Concerning political realities in Ukraine, participants were of the opinion that its main problem is domestic political struggle for power, which is successfully used by Russia through realpolitique. On the eve of the presidential elections certain political cataclysm might occur in the country (or might be initiated by Russia), e.g. it could be related to separatist moods of the pro-Russian Crimean Peninsula. Therefore, the apathy of the EU concerning Ukraine is worrying, as was the case concerning the gas crisis, although it was hard to expect another response from cautious and disunited Europe.
Situation in Belarus is different. Relationship of Belarus with Russia and dependence (including mental) on Russia is higher that that of Ukraine‘s. For quite a long time A.Lukashenka managed to successfully „play“ political and economic games with Moscow, which provided for stabilization of situation in the country (and even to ensure certain dynamic development of the country) and meeting the personal interest of those in power. But the Kremlin increases its pressure on Minsk by making it accept the Russian terms of „a confederate state“ (e.g. to move towards a common currency - the Russian ruble). A.Lukashenka realizes that sooner or later Moscow might decide to eliminate him if he does not agree to „connect“ Belarus to Russia, and today there is no other leader on the political country‘s stage who could unify the Byelorussian community and systematically resist the Russian plans. Therefore, A.Lukashenka started looking for a more close contact with the EU as a counterbalance to the Russian influence. The European Union did not reject him with a view to ensuring stability in the frontier and to partially counterbalancing Moscow‘s pressure on Belarus. According to experts, in the above case the EU takes a risk of being involved into a dangerous game: A.Lukashenka might use Europe for his own interests as he did in the relations with Russia.
Energy problems were also considered during the discussion, including the perspectives of Nabucco gas pipeline. Representative from Azerbaijan explained that Azerbaijan might fully supply the country with gas and that realization of this project depends in the first place on the decision of Europe. However, other participants contradicted him by saying that the main guarantee for construction of this pipeline (let alone the inability of Europe to rapidly coordinate and realize strategic projects) is the decision of Iran and/or Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan on the engagement in the pipeline gas supply. Today the above states either cannot normalize their relationship with the West (the case of Iran) or don’t demonstrate enthusiasm concerning gas export to the West but not to Russia and/or China (the case of Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan). Thus, today the Nabucco’s future is very vague.
At the end of discussion participants highlighted that national similarities and affinities sometimes generate conflicts rather than friendly relations or search for a compromise. For instance, all former USSRstates have common soviet past, but today this past tears the above states apart. In this case it is necessary to highlight that usually abstract „states“ are involved in conflicts and their selfish elite, but not ordinary citizens. This Round Table discussion has again proved the above, because it embraced the Russians, Lithuanians, Tadjiks, Latvians, Georgians, Armenians, Kirgizs, Azerbaijanis, and Polish etc. around one table. Conflicts of the national character on a social level cannot be denied either, but these are more a reflection of a public discourse, which is usually formed by those who benefit from national conflicts since provides for the achievement of selfish interests. One of participants of the discussion suggested a joint membership of post-soviet states in the Euro Atlantic and CIS structures, e.g. in the EU and CSTO. In principle this is an issue of a more wide – civilization – nature. In case of a closer relationship between Russia and the EU (economic, institutional etc.), such problems as, for instance, extension of NATO or deployment of the U.S Anti-Missile Defense elements in Europe, would lose relevance. However, irrespective of a promising perspective, this is not realistic in the short and medium term due to many reasons which lead not towards the development of constructive dialogue among countries, but towards twisting the spiral of their inner conflict. In any case, the times change (who could expect that after the World War I Germany and France would be members of one union?). In conclusion, organizers of the Round Table discussion „Projects and Prospects for Cooperation in Eurasia“ said that we are at the beginning of a long road trip and that we all are responsible for the final destination. According to one of participants of the discussion, we also must not forget simple human values.