Russia’s Post-Soviet Hegemony Is Fading

(Bloomberg Opinion) - Vladimir Putin has long tried to portray himself as a strong statesman and guarantor of stability at home and abroad. Now the Russian president is grappling with successive crises among his country's neighbors. It is an undesirable test of Moscow's role as a regional guardian.
From Belarus to the Caucasus, the Kremlin cannot leave the results of these thrusts to chance. However, the post-Soviet region has been atomized, Russia's economic power has been injured, and leverage has been greatly reduced. There seems to be little appetite for military action and Moscow has few successful models of engagement to fall back on. It is also no longer the only power in the city, as Turkey and others play a bigger role.
While the destruction on the outskirts of Russia was not caused by the pandemic, the added burden did not help. Remittances from migrant workers, who make up around 30% of GDP in countries like Kyrgyzstan, have dried up. Management of the health crisis ranged from mediocre to complete disapproval, as was originally done in Belarus. Turkmenistan has not yet officially registered a single case.
Domestic struggles contributed more to the unrest, but also to the unfinished three-decade-old business of post-Soviet transition. This makes Moscow's role or absence all the more significant. There is a risk that more hotspots will appear in upcoming surveys. The November presidential election in Moldova, a country torn between Europe and Russia, and the parliamentary elections in Georgia later this month, the first since the rules were changed, reduce the likelihood of an overly powerful majority.
The conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh, a mainly Armenian-populated enclave in Azerbaijan, is currently the most alarming. When Moscow emerged from the ruins of the Soviet Union in 1994, it successfully brokered a ceasefire between the two sides and has since defused serious border collisions. Another breakthrough is needed as the two teams meet on Friday.
So far, Putin had tried largely to relieve tension and avoid causing problems at home, where there is a large population of Armenians and Azeris. Turkey has tested this determination by backing Azerbaijan and linking the crisis to the occupation of Crimea by Russia, which is portrayed as instability.
Belarus is no less complex. If anything, it's more important to the Kremlin and Putin's future, and there are even less good options. Moscow has so far stuck to the strong Alexander Lukashenko, who could not stand a successful uprising on his doorstep. But the mass protests continue two months after his controversial election, so it must be done lightly. There cannot be risked turning a pro-Russia population into one that is more likely to seek support elsewhere. Opposition candidate Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya has already met European heads of state and government, and there are EU sanctions.
Meanwhile, Kyrgyzstan is again in turmoil as the groups battle for power after Sunday's controversial parliamentary elections. The difficulties of this more democratic but also corrupt state are far less dramatic for the Kremlin, even if it prefers to see stability in the entire region. Even so, it will still be uncomfortable to watch a corrupt poll trigger resignations.
These situations may be determined by internal dynamics rather than geopolitics, but Putin needs each one of them in order to follow Russia's path.
Certainly the aura of hegemony is still there, nourished by the Kremlin, which gives Russia a superpower role from Libya to the post-Soviet states. However, the country was ill-prepared for events near its homeland that should have been foreseeable, no doubt due to the tight financial and analytical resources.
After years of paralysis and Russia's increasing isolation, Moscow's backyard is no longer what it was. A multipolar world is emerging, but not the one that Putin was trying to promote. China is increasingly present as an important trading partner and accounts for the majority of foreign direct investment in Central Asia. Then there is Turkey in the Caucasus and Iran. The Turkish head of state Recep Tayyip Erdogan has cleverly used external conflicts to strengthen his domestic support. When you add the relative US retreat, each collision becomes more unpredictable.
It is all the more difficult for Putin to project strength abroad with a stagnating economy and signs of resentment among the population at home, as in street protests in the Far East. It is an unprecedented set of challenges for a leadership that hates change.
When the two warring parties meet in Moscow to discuss Nagorno-Karabakh, Russia will have a real opportunity to show that it is still an administrator, not just a necessary participant. Successful negotiation is already encouraging. The complexity of the clashes suggests a truce at best - but even de-escalation would be a victory, and a welcome one.
This column does not necessarily reflect the views of the editors or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Clara Ferreira Marques is a columnist for Bloomberg Opinion on natural resources, environmental, social and governance issues. Previously, she was Associate Editor for Reuters Breakingviews and Editor and Correspondent for Reuters in Singapore, India, the UK, Italy and Russia.
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