Originally Published 2005-10-10 05:47:58 Published on Oct 10, 2005
It can happen in the hurly-burly of politics that a flood of images abruptly wells up to the naked eye and demands attention so that we do not miss out on an entire slice of politics breaking away to get transmuted as current history.
A pause in the post-Soviet space
It can happen in the hurly-burly of politics that a flood of images abruptly wells up to the naked eye and demands attention so that we do not miss out on an entire slice of politics breaking away to get transmuted as current history. 

The last ten days of the month of September indeed formed one such period in the transition saga of the "post-Soviet space". The events in their rush seemed like a delayed summer storm blowing across the immense Kara Kum and Kizil Kum "killer deserts" of the Central Asian steppes - smashing up the debris of fanciful notions accumulated over the past decade and a half, and offering clarity to the landscape.

It all began in Ukraine in the midriff of Eurasia, where by early September, the signs had begun appearing what many were already anticipating - the inevitable unravelling of the eight-month old "orange revolution". There was scarcely any foreplay left in what was happening. As the prominent Russian political observer and chief editor of the prestigious journal Politicheskiy Klass , Vitaliy Tretyakov wrote recently, "Broadly speaking, the political question concerns the character of the so-called "orange revolution" in Ukraine…Apparently a few people would continue to believe that the "orange revolution" was really a revolution - a free, democratic and spontaneous revolution. Even Western experts and journalists, who had, as if on someone's orders, uniformly described the events in Kiev ten months ago as a spontaneous outburst of love for freedom by democratic-minded masses, have presently, without battling an eye lid, begun describing the "orange revolution" as a coup within Ukraine's political elite that was artificially and skilfully orchestrated, inspired and financed from the outside." 

The Ukraine developments are nonetheless taking such curiouser and curiouser turns by the day that the entire post-Soviet space is watching transfixed. President Viktor Yushchenko and former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, the iconic figures of the "orange revolution", having now fallen out, both want to cut a deal with Moscow for enhancing their respective chances in the forthcoming parliamentary elections in coming March where the Russian-dominated eastern provinces of Ukraine will have a decisive role. Their popularity within Ukraine has dramatically plunged. They want Moscow's patronage for assembling new coalitions involving their erstwhile political adversaries in eastern Ukraine. 

Yushchenko has appointed a pro-Russian Prime Minister, Yuri Yekhanurov, an ethnic Russian born in Russia, and has entered into a written agreement with Viktor Yanukovich (whom he had humbled during the "orange revolution" hardly 8 months ago as Moscow's pawn on the Ukrainian chessboard). Tymoshenko, in turn, has reached out to the pro-Kremlin Russian oligarchs who are dominating the business in the heavily industrialised eastern Ukraine especially in the Donetsk region. Vladimir Putin's superb sense of irony came into play when he told the visiting Prime Minister Yekhanurov while receiving him at the Kremlin on September 30: "Russia very much hopes that you will be able to help the President (Yushchenko) consolidate the society and successfully overcome the negative tendencies that have begun to emerge in the Ukrainian economy." On his part, Yekhanurov responded: "Russia is our main partner and we clearly understand this." 

Meanwhile, one after another, the countries of the post-Soviet space are stepping out and have begun narrating their own woes and resentment toward the West for shabbily treating them as mere battlegrounds of global influence. 

On September 20, the trial of the militants involved in the violent uprising last May in Andizhan in Uzbekistan commenced. The Uzbek prosecutors alleged that Islamic militants belonging to the Islamic Movement of Turkestan (previously known as the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan) that had close links with the al-Qaeda in Afghanistan and Hizb ut-Tahrir (which is believed to be operating out of Western capitals) were involved in the Andizhan uprising. The prosecutors highlighted that prominent Western media organisations had positioned themselves in advance in Fergana in May to narrate to the world, as if with foreknowledge, about another "colour revolution" unfolding in the heart of Central Asia. The testimony by the defendants, inter alia , listed out details of the American embassy in Tashkent having financed some of the militants involved in the Andizhan uprising. 

Coinciding with the Andizhan trial, Uzbekistan conducted its first-ever military exercise with Russia on Uzbek soil. Considering the tortuous course of Uzbek-Russian relations during the 15-year period since the collapse of the Soviet Union, Tashkent was indeed making an important political statement. 

Again, on September 27, the talks between the U.S. and Uzbekistan on the leasing of the Karshi-Khanabad air base to the U.S. military finally broke up in acrimony. The U.S. officials went public with the announcement that the base would be handed back to the Uzbek authorities by the end of the year. This is a huge blow to the U.S. military presence in the region as a whole since Karshi-Khanabad base is simply irreplaceable. Incidentally, it was by far the biggest base in the so-called Turkestan Military District of the Soviet era, dominating the Central Asian region as a whole. 

Washington has been making overtures to Tashkent to let bygones be bygones and to work out some level of political understanding regarding continued use of the Karshi-Khanabad base. As a fallback, Washington hinted that it would regard at least over flight arrangements through Uzbek air space (for sorties by American aircraft in and out of Afghanistan) would be "helpful"; Washington agreed to pay 23 million dollars for some of the services rendered to the base by the Uzbek side during the past 4 years. But it is an indication of how anti-American feelings are running high in the region that Tashkent simply ignored these U.S. overtures. 

Curiously, on September 21, as if taking the cue from next-door Uzbekistan, the President of Kyrgyzstan, Kurmanbek Bakiyev demanded that Pentagon should pay higher rent for its base in Manas and also dismantle it as soon as the situation in Afghanistan became stable enough. Bakiyev was making a subtle point that for Bishkek, any continued association with Washington over the basing arrangement was primarily a money matter and no geopolitical connotations were to be given to it. Significantly, Bakiyev made the statement while on a visit to the Russian military base at Kant to the north of Bishkek - in the presence of the visiting Russian Defence Minister Sergei Ivanov. Bakiyev said that the current rent for Manas was "too low" and the Kyrgyz economy needed funding! 

Within the week, the Kyrgyz parliament refused to ratify the continuance of Roza Otunbayeva as the foreign minister in the new government formed by Bakiyev after the July presidential election in Kyrgyzstan. Otunbayeva, a former Kyrgyz ambassador in Washington, was widely regarded as close to the Americans. Her departure from the Kyrgyz government indeed signifies a further diminution of American influence in Bishkek. 

Hardly three days later, on September 30, the newly appointed Kyrgyz Prime Minister Felix Kulov, who had often been labelled as the "pro-American" leader of the Tulip revolution in Kyrgyzstan in March, arrived in Moscow on an official visit. Kulov said: "The visit is purely political, and as my first visit abroad in my capacity as Prime Minister, we thought it important to outline our foreign policy priorities and our loyalty to our friendly, partnership relations with Russia, which is our main strategic partner." According to the Russian press, Kulov also announced during the visit that the deposed Kyrgyz leader Askar Akayev "can come back (to Bishkek) anytime he wants to, and I see no obstacles to his return." 

As if he did not want to be left out of all these contagious thoughts raging across the post-Soviet space, Tajikistan President Imomali Rakhmonov announced suo moto during a tour of the eastern regions (bordering China) on September 23 that "in Tajikistan there never was, nor will there be, a U.S. military base." Rakhmonov's statement has stifled the rumours in the recent days that it was possible that some of the U.S. troops and equipments to be vacated from the Uzbek base could be relocated in Tajikistan. 

Without doubt, Ukraine's "homecoming" is having a huge psychological, political impact on the entire post-Soviet space. The shock waves of the "orange revolution" 8 months ago were indeed felt as far away as Central Asia. Arguably, the phenomenon of "colour revolutions" of the past 18-20 months constituted a defining moment in the transition of the countries in the post-Soviet space. It is only natural that the unravelling of the "colour revolutions" in such vivacity, would cast a profound spell all across Central Asia.

The developments in Ukraine have certainly accentuated the contradictory realities in the post-Soviet space. First, the events in Ukraine underline that a mere change of elites in the transition countries of the former Soviet Union--as had happened in "revolutionary" Georgia, Ukraine or Kyrgyzstan--had been mistaken for the irreversible shift that had surely resulted from similar convulsions in the transition countries of Central Europe in the mid and late-1980s. 

That is to say, the evolution of the transition countries of the former Soviet Union (except the Baltic republics which have their unique character and history) to stable democratic systems and thriving market economies will remain extremely difficult and complicated. These countries (unlike the Baltic republics or the countries of Central Europe) lack a tradition of independent statehood; they are bedevilled by fault lines of ethnicity and sub-nationalism which is further compounded by regional divisions, clan structures and so on; their sensitive geopolitical location between Russia, China and Western Europe introduces specific problems and circumstances. 

Second, there is serious doubt whether a revolutionary dynamic indeed exists in any of these transition countries whereby the opposition is willing to move beyond the prevailing political rules and to appeal directly to the people. Paradoxically, this is the reality today even in Georgia, where the potency of such a revolutionary dynamic might probably have seemed the highest at one point two years ago. President Mikhail Saakashvili's rule is fast reverting to the good old Caucasian ways. Washington seems to be getting exasperated now and then. This is despite the generous American bankrolling of the Saakashvili government, and the unfinished American agenda of eliminating the Russian military presence from the south Caucasus. (Georgia is second only to Israel as the per capita recipient of American aid anywhere in the world.) 

Third, to quote Ira Straus, the expert on Russia, the developments in Ukraine firmly signal that geography is indeed part of the destiny of the transition countries of the former Soviet Union. "So is history. It (post-Soviet space) is not going to float out into the Mediterranean or the Atlantic. No earthquake is going to turn its legal border with Russia into an ethnic or social border, or rupture its organic intercourse with its larger neighbour. It is also impossible to eliminate the underlying gradualism of socio-economic development, or the multiple complexities of reform and its contradictory requirements." 

Fourth, it must be understood that a major factor for the unravelling of the "orange revolution" lies in the belated realisation in Kiev that the European Union simply does not have the stomach to "enlarge" further, let alone try to integrate a country as large and problematic as Ukraine. Of course, the post-Soviet republics of Central Asia understood this hard reality even earlier and, therefore, proceeded to address their Western integration orientations by developing bilateral ties with the EU member countries. Ukraine at least might have looked both ways - east and west - for a brief while, but Central Asians have known deep down all along that there are serious limits to cynically balancing their relations between the east and west, or playing off Moscow against the Washington. 

True, the Central Asian pendulum swings were manifestly there through the 1990s but they were in actuality more a mirror image of what Boris Yeltsin's Russia itself was doing - vacillating between impromptu dalliances with the West and a hankering for continued strategic autonomy. The then U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott rationalised this paradigm in "The Russia Hand", his masterly memoir of President Bill Clinton's diplomacy with Yeltsin, when he spoke of "the Westernised Russian's sense of his own country as an exotic, bulky, untamed Eurasian giant not comfortable in its own skin, unsure whether it was welcome in Europe or, for that matter, in the West, or even whether it really belonged there."

It was apparent that with the advent of Vladimir Putin at the helm of affairs in Russia, these "pendulum swings" began to soften in the post-Soviet republics of Central Asia (and even in Ukraine under Leonid Kuchma or Georgia under Eduard Shevardnadze). Arguably, the "colour revolution" in Georgia, Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan were urgently necessitated by the challenge posed by such softening of the pendulum swings. 

Fifth, Ukraine developments once again show that the Western integration processes in the post-Soviet republics are very much linked and are conditional on Russia's own Western integration orientation. Indeed, what happens in Ukraine in the coming weeks and months will be an important indicator of the shape of things to come for the entire post-Soviet space. 

Will Russia and the West cooperate in Ukraine instead of pulling in opposite directions? Will Ukraine be allowed to settle into acting as a bridge between the West and Russia? The trend is likely to be of Ukraine itself not wanting to be integrated in a form that separates it from Russia. If so, will it prompt a remedial course on the part of the West to draw Russia itself closer to it? The post-Soviet space will be keenly awaiting the answers to these questions.

Significantly, in a major speech on Russia's relations with the U.S. delivered at Stanford University ( alma mater of U.S. Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice) on September 20, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov called for an honest stocktaking, now that the dust had settled, of the calumnies and precipitous moves that had led to the Cold War - so that the world did not blunder all over again. 

The author is a former Indian Ambassador in Turkey. He is presently Visiting Senior Fellow, Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi.
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