Cover

A MEDDLING NEIGHBOUR

Moscow's flexing its muscles—a blast from the past

CHARLIE GILLIS December 13 2004
Cover

A MEDDLING NEIGHBOUR

Moscow's flexing its muscles—a blast from the past

CHARLIE GILLIS December 13 2004

A MEDDLING NEIGHBOUR

Moscow's flexing its muscles—a blast from the past, writes CHARLIE GILLIS

Cover

IT WAS A scene drawn straight from Cold War archives: rows of goose-stepping soldiers, marching behind a hammer-andsickle flag while an arrow-backed Russian leader scowled from above. In the old Soviet Union, such shows of military might sent none-too-subtle messages to western rivals, or dissidents lurking in shadows. But this was Ukraine in October 2004, and the strongman saluting from the dais wasn’t Khrushchev or Brezhnev, it was Vladimir Putin.

Blasts from the Soviet past are nothing new for the Russian president. He’s been resurrecting themes from the Cold War era, touting strong government and the need for order. But those themes seldom converge with politics as symbolically as at the parade in Kiev, held to honour the city’s liberation from the Nazis in 1945. More than

celebratory, Putin’s appearance was a plug for Viktor Yanukovich, his preferred candidate in the Ukrainian election and a man who would presumably give Moscow a strong hand in Ukraine’s affairs. By then, Putin and Yanukovich had engaged in a monthlong noshfest, which saw the candidate summoned to Moscow to celebrate Putin’s birthday, while Putin took a three-day turn through Ukraine on Yanukovich’s behalf.

It’s all enough to make the democratic instinct recoil—an authoritarian Russian president wading into a neighbour’s election. But western governments can hardly feign shock at Putin’s interventionism, because it’s not the first time he’s tried to play puppetmaster. In Georgia and Moldova, Moscow has been openly supporting separatist elements. Latvia complains that the Kremlin sought to undermine its education reforms, fomenting dissent among Russian-

speakers in that country who were being forced to learn Latvian. In the meantime, Putin has built up forces in the southern republics of Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, though there appears

to be little threat to Russia’s interests there.

What’s motivating him? Conscience, perhaps: some observers think Putin feels duty bound to protect the interests of the estimated 25 million Russians living in former Soviet satellites, who feel vulnerable in newly independent and nationalistic states. Others point to European Union and NATO expansion, which, with the inclusion of the Baltics and four other East European countries, has brought western might to Russia’s doorstep. The U.S. military buildup in Central Asia following Sept. 11 has added to those sensitivities, and helps explain Putin’s rapid deployment of troops in that region. (He’s certainly become much more critical of the U.S., accusing it of pursuing a dictatorial foreign policy in a hard-hitting speech late last week in India.)

But the most likely explanation is the most obvious one: Putin is trying to preserve a vestige of the hemispheric might his country once wielded. And if that requires a little old-time strong-arming, then so be it. “Russia wants to be the regional power in that part of the world,” says David Marples, a history professor at the University of Alberta in Edmonton who specializes in Russian and Ukrainian affairs. “Putin is very careful when it comes to international diplomacy,

but he conducts himself much less tactfully in his own neighbourhood.” Marples believes Putin’s motivations are primarily political: he doesn’t want to see Russia reduced to EU or U.S. dependency. But he’s also seizing a gift of economic fate, Marples says. In the late Soviet years, and the time immediately following, Moscow couldn’t afford much military spending. The boom in oil prices has allowed oil-rich Russia to again fund its own military, while rewarding loyal neighbours with cut-rate petroleum. In bleaker times, he might not be so aggressive.

Whatever the reasons, Putin’s designs on neighbouring countries would be a lot less troubling if he showed any regard for democracy in his own. Instead, Russia’s neighbours are watching in dismay as he whittles away at the country’s federal system, with the approval of loyalists in Russia’s national parliament, the Duma. Late last month, mem-

bers began debating legislation that would restrict the number of national political parties, and since then they have passed a proposal to abolish the direct election of regional governors.

Both moves follow the widely publicized prosecution of oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky, part of Putin’s offensive against Russia’s so-called oligarchs: men with the financial clout to be a political threat to Putin. “Putin is harking back to the Soviet era, and perhaps even earlier, to czarist Russia,” says Bohdan Harasymiw, a political scientist at the University of Calgary. “He’s said that the idea of a strong state is in the Russians’ genes, and to me that suggests autocracy.” The question now is how far Putin is prepared to push uncooperative neighbours. Will he allow Ukraine’s opposition forces to take power if they win the next election, knowing they may bring their country into NATO? Will he interpret a victory by a proRussian candidate as an invitation to arm Ukraine against western encroachment? The answer, as ever, lies behind Putin’s inscrutable grey eyes. George W. Bush once boasted that he’d looked into the Russian leader’s soul (“He’s an honest, straightforward man”). But the rest of the world is left studying more superficial clues, such as Putin’s authoritarianism, unapologetic interference in neighbours’ affairs and a troubling nostalgia for a totalitarian past. If Bush indeed has a window into the man’s innermost thoughts, now might be a good time to look.