Former Soviet states aren't just Russian pawns
The Guardian

Countries such as
Kyrgyzstan have shaped regional politics, triggering events to which
Russia and the west can only react.

As the ousted Kyrgyz
president, Kurmanbek Bakiyev, has left the country, and an interim
government in Bishkek, the capital, tightens its hold on power,
speculation is rife – not only about the immediate causes and
consequences of the protest, but also the broader regional
constellation, and Kyrgyzstan’s place in a Russian grand strategy in its
backyard. Much has been made of an ongoing ”new great game” in central
Asia, a struggle between Russia and the US for influence in the former
Soviet space. Many are prepared to see Russia’s hand in Bakiyev’s
downfall, pointing to dissatisfaction with his breach of his 2009
promise to close down the US airbase in Manas.

It is often
assumed that a Kyrgyz turn away from the west would be a more than
symbolic victory for Russia. And after all, did Bakiyev not come to
power in a democratic revolution in 2005? Russia has been openly unhappy
with the ”colour revolutions” in the former Soviet space and removal of
the democratic revolutionaries from power, be it in Ukraine, Georgia or
Kyrgyzstan is part of Moscow’s strategy of ”imperial comeback”. Or is

This kind of interpretation depicts the smaller states of the
former Soviet Union as little more than pawns in the hands of more
powerful actors. The Kremlin does openly pursue a strategy of asserting
its influence in the former Soviet space, and so do the US and the EU.
But these states are not objects of a geopolitical game over which they
have no control. The image of a ”new great game” underestimates the
extent to which the smaller former republics have been actively shaping
regional politics in recent years, triggering events to which Russia –
and the west – could only react.

The events in Georgia in August
2008 are a case in point; we now know that Saakashvili invaded South
Ossetia first, leading to a heavy-handed Russian reaction. Another one
is the way in which Ukraine was able to depict itself as a victim of
Russia’s ”gas imperialism” in the ongoing dispute over non-payment of
gas debts, putting energy security firmly on the EU’s agenda and
endangering Russia’s long-term security of supply. Likewise, Bakiyev was
able to extract maximum profit in the form of substantial loan
guarantees from his apparent promise to Russia to oust the Manas
airbase, a promise on which he backtracked a little later, when the US
offered a substantial increase in its aid package to Kyrgyzstan. In all
of this, small states in the region have been calling the shots.

said, while small states may trigger events to which Russia and the
west react, they do not necessarily control the outcomes of their own
actions. After all, these are not stable states with a set of interests
and long-term goals, and, often enough, their own broader regional
orientation depends on the outcome of complex domestic struggles – as
Georgia, Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan all illustrate in different ways. This
domestic instability is a headache for Moscow, especially if it leads to
violent popular uprisings strong enough to oust corrupt authoritarian

In this, as in other recent events, Moscow nevertheless
appears ready to make the most of the altered circumstances,
successfully perpetuating an image of great power politics cherished by
the Kremlin. However, as long as unstable regimes in small states
continue to shape the agenda in the former Soviet space, this remains an
image more than a reality on the ground.

For the west, the first
step would be to recognise that even though Russia is a major
challenge, it is not the sole cause of instability or lack of genuine
democratic development in the region. Russia very much reacts to what
happens. On the other hand, the other powerful regional actors are also
reacting to events to a larger degree than is often recognized. In this
regard more attention should be paid to the domestic and international
politics of smaller post-Soviet countries, rather than seeing Russia as a
possible, if willing, counterpart in a new Eurasian chessboard.