CIS Allies Wary of Moscow After War

The Moscow Times, Russia
Aug 10 2009

CIS Allies Wary of Moscow After War

10 August 2009
By Nabi Abdullaev / The Moscow Times

A year after Russian troops crushed the Georgian army in South
Ossetia, Moscow has cobbled back together its ties with the West, but
in a largely unforeseen consequence of the war relations with other
former Soviet states have become increasingly strained.

The war and Moscow’s subsequent recognition of Abkhazia and South
Ossetia as independent states halted NATO’s advance toward Russia’s
borders and demonstrated to the world the country’s decisiveness in
defending what it deems national interests. But Russian officialdom
has yet to learn how to package a convincing message for its main
foreign policy audience ‘ the West ‘ to show the legitimacy and
expediency of its moves, political analysts say.

Even now, in comments for a documentary on the conflict shown Friday
by NTV television, President Dmitry Medvedev spoke at length about his
emotions when he decided to send troops into Georgia, but he said
little about his motivations ‘ other than that the decision `helped to
defend people’s lives.’

The new administration in Washington and the necessity of Russian
cooperation on issues of vital importance to the United States have
not allowed President Barack Obama’s team to make the Russian-Georgian
conflict a major bilateral topic, said Pavel Zolotaryov, an analyst
with the Institute of USA and Canada at the Russian Academy of

`Georgia was a project of the previous American administration,’ he
said, referring to then-U.S. President George W. Bush’s backing of
President Mikheil Saakashvili, a U.S.-trained lawyer who came to power
after a bloodless popular uprising in 2003. `Of course, now Washington
cannot turn away from Tbilisi, an ally that sends troops to support
Americans in Iraq, but Obama’s hands are not tied.’

When Obama visited Moscow last month, the looming anniversary of the
Russian-Georgian war and continuing tensions between those countries
did nothing to hinder wide-ranging talks between the U.S. and Russian
presidents and their advisers.

Russia has also restored relations with NATO, which were abruptly
severed after the conflict last year.

The Georgian conflict proved to be a fleeting thorn in Russia’s ties
with its major partners in the European Union, too. Several diplomats
from the EU have told The Moscow Times on condition of anonymity
because of the sensitivity of the topic that their governments place
blame for the conflict on Tbilisi rather than Moscow.

And while concerns of lasting damage to relations with the West have
largely passed, Moscow has seen a burgeoning estrangement with its
most loyal allies in the Commonwealth of Independent States, a loose,
Russia-led alliance of post-Soviet states that Georgia abandoned last

None of the CIS countries ‘ including what had been Russia’s closest
allies, Belarus, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan ‘ has followed Nicaragua,
the only state other than Russia that has recognized South Ossetia and

`The war has shown all other CIS countries that they are in no sense
equal to Russia, despite all the formal arrangements, and that they
should always understand that there is a limit to Russia’s tolerance
of their behavior,’ said Vladimir Zharikhin, an analyst with the
Institute of CIS Countries.

The situation has pushed CIS leaders to look for ways to affirm their
sovereignty, he said.

Last month, five CIS heads of state snubbed an informal summit in
Moscow despite being invited by the Kremlin. Previously, a no-show by
one would have caused a scandal.

Also, Belarus and Uzbekistan are stalling Russia’s latest pet project
in the region: the creation of a multilateral rapid-response military
task force.

Kyrgyzstan, now the most devoted of Russia’s allies, has hinted that
it needs additional support for setting up a new Russian military
facility on its territory, while Tajikistan has suggested dumping
Russian as an official language.

One of the positive lessons that Russia has learned from the war is
that frozen conflicts, if left unattended, risk degenerating into war,
as happened in South Ossetia, Zharikhin said.

He pointed to Russia’s postwar effort to advance talks between Moldova
and leaders of the separatist, Moscow-leaning Transdnestr republic, as
well as last month’s attempt to restart Azeri-Armenian talks in Moscow
over the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh republic.

`Of course, these problems are very far from being solved, but Moscow
is at least striving to create some dynamics in the talks there,’
Zharikhin said.

He and Sergei Markedonov, a Caucasus analyst with the Institute for
Political and Military Analysis, agreed that poor informational
support for Moscow’s actions remains one of the biggest mistakes still
not addressed by the Russian leadership in the conflict or its

`I don’t remember any press tour to South Ossetia for foreign
journalists arranged by Russian officials. Why don’t they demonstrate
the effects of war on the republic to professionals instead of telling
us how cruel it was?’ Markedonov said.

He pointed to the outbreak of the belligerent rhetoric on both sides
as the anniversary of the war approached.

`The same [deputy chief of the Russian General Staff Anatoly]
Nogovitsyn who was Russia’s chief talking head during the war last
year ‘ in what almost everyone said was Moscow’s PR failure ‘ is doing
most of the official talking about the anniversary,’ Markedonov said.

Russia’s reluctance to allow international monitors into South Ossetia
and Abkhazia is also a counterproductive PR strategy, he said.

`If monitors go there and talk to the locals, this may not change the
general perception of Russia’s role in the conflict abroad, but at
least a new range of voices supportive of Russia’s actions will be
heard,’ he said.