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Riding a Tiger


To hear the Kremlin tell it, all of the recent revolutions in former Soviet republics were instigated by Washington and directed exclusively against Russia. Experts authorized to speak on behalf of the leadership explain that events of this nature undermine efforts to integrate the new independent states and threaten to encircle Russia with hostile regimes.

Meanwhile, the new leaders of these formerly fraternal republics make a point of immediately traveling to Moscow and assuring President Vladimir Putin that he is mistaken: All existing agreements will remain in force, economic ties will be strengthened and the Russian speakers will not be subject to discrimination.

The United States unquestionably took a very active interest in the processes unfolding in Georgia, Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan. Various foundations and NGOs provided serious financial backing to the opposition parties and movements that eventually prevailed. But strangely enough, the victims of these democratic uprisings were leaders who until recently had been considered loyal partners of the United States. Their record of service speaks for itself: Eduard Shevardnadze, who invited U.S. military advisers to the Caucasus; Leonid Kuchma, who sent Ukrainian troops to Iraq; and Askar Akayev, who allowed the United States to operate military bases on Kyrgyz territory.

On the whole, the United States does a better job of destabilizing friendly regimes than hostile ones. Take Venezuela, where President Hugo Chavez has declared himself an adversary of the United States and the opposition can’t seem to get off the ground.

Yet while Washington shows no lenience in its dealings with partners and allies, Moscow just as stubbornly (and hopelessly) defends politicians who were until recently, if not enemies, then certainly not good friends of Russia.

Washington’s approach is easier to explain. The leaders of the 1990s were tried and true. They sacrificed their own popularity by pursuing a political and economic course approved and supported by Washington. Their lack of popularity in turn forced them to take a tough line in domestic policy and to resort to authoritarian measures.

But this didn’t give them the right to expect gratitude or intercession from the United States. Nothing personal, fellahs. It’s just business.

As soon as Washington realizes that popular dissent is rising in a country and that regime change is imminent, it immediately begins to seek out new partners among the opposition. The success of this policy owes in part to the widespread belief that you’re better off enlisting shady characters’ support than crossing swords with them. The money invested in the opposition by various NGOs is a sort of insurance policy, ensuring that regime change will not result in a change of course, and that if change is inevitable, it will not be radical.

Washington works to maintain the status quo. And the pragmatic folks at the State Department understand that sometimes leaders have to change for policy to remain the same.

Paradoxically, Moscow is trying to achieve the very same thing. It fears serious changes in the former Soviet republics more than anything in the world. But the Kremlin has adopted the opposite strategy: It opposes any and all transformations and backs existing regimes with everything it’s got and at any cost.

People in the Kremlin have their own reasons. America is too far away. Even if something goes wrong with the new, post-revolutionary regimes, this will not affect long-term perspectives of G.W. Bush administration. It is hard to imagine US republicans losing office because of events in the Central Asia. But for Putin administration perspectives don’t look good. Spreading revolutionary fire can become dangerous.

Washington’s flexibility and Moscow’s corresponding rigidity mean that the Bush people and the Putin people wind up in different camps. When leaders realize that the United States has betrayed them, they see Moscow as their last hope. Old grievances are instantly forgotten. Doomed dictators cling to Putin like drowning men clutching at straws.

At first glance, the contrast between the effectiveness of Washington’s approach and the ineffectiveness of Moscow’s is striking. But it may well emerge after a few years that the Kremlin’s blunt, ineffective strategy will prove to be far more sensible than the subtle maneuvering of U.S. diplomats. Managing a revolution is like riding a tiger. What’s to ensure that the process of change unleashed by these “velvet revolutions” will come to a stop as planned? Who’s to say that the new leaders will not be forced out by a new wave of more radical politicians?

Washington’s belated disappointment would be cold comfort to the men now in the Kremlin, however. If things go that far, they’ll be driven from power as well.

But this might just give the process of integrating the former Soviet bloc a fresh start. Nations could come to an agreement on their own, without Bush or Putin. Boris Kagarlitsky is director of the Institute for Globalization Studies.

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