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 it?
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.
That 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 regimes.
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.