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Russian Roulette - ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive
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It was the British Labor Prime Minister who invented the saying “A week is a long time in politics.” Someone who is feeling the meaning of that proverb right now is Russia’s “Supreme Guide” Vladimir Putin,

Just over a month ago, Putin was walking on the clouds after having annexed two tiny enclaves in Georgia apparently without incurring any political costs. His had served notice that triumphant Russia was back on its unstoppable march through history. The more imaginative panegyrists in the Kremlin were comparing “Tsar” Vladimir’s exploit to those of his predecessors in the 18th and 19th centuries when the armies of the “Third Rome” conquered an average of one square kilometres of territory, at the expense of Persia, the Ottoman Empire, and the khanates of Central Asia and Siberia, each day.

However, if a week is a long time in politics, six weeks is even longer.

Six weeks after the invasion succeeded, how do things look like for Russia?

The answer is: not very good.

The perception that Russia may become isolated and thus lose part of its access to international capital resources has already wiped more than half of the value of shares on its stock exchange.

At one point, the jitters felt there were so strong that the government had to suspend trading.

The consensus among experts is that Russia has already lost its place as the third most attractive place, among the new emerging economies, for foreign direct investment. Scores of projects worth billions of dollars are put on the backburner, signaling a negative impact on employment and growth rates in Russia.

The ruble, Russia’s ailing currency, appears to have sustained something of a shock, losing nearly a quarter of its value since the invasion.

Putin did not realise that we live in an age of interdependence in which no one could ride alone without being unseated at some stage.

When the tsars sent their armies marching, they did not have to worry about foreign investment levels, the value of the ruble, and the threat of recession and unemployment.

The invasion may also have a domestic political cost.

Under the Russian Constitution, foreign policy and matters of war and peace are reserved domains of the President of the Republic while the Prime Minister concentrates on domestic issues.

Last month’s invasion of Georgia however, revealed a different equation. It was Putin the Prime Minister who run the show from a to z, with President Dmitri Medvedev playing second fiddle. With one sweep, the world was reminded that the Russian presidency, its great constitutional powers notwithstanding, is a hollow shell, at least in the current set-up.

That is a major setback for the process of democratisation and the consolidation of institutional government in Russia. With the president marginalised, we are left with a system of rule by a “strongman” of the kind fashionable in Latin America in the era of juntas.

Putin now faces the thorny issue of what to do with the two enclaves he has recast as “independent states.”

The South Ossetians are demanding fusion with the North Ossetians whose republic was already part of Russia. As for the Abkhaz, they may well turn their mini-nationalism against ethnic Russians in their territory, creating a new time bomb.

When it comes to Russia’s foreign relations, however, the cost of adventure may be even higher.

The jitters sent down many spines produced their first results when Poland and the Czech Republic hurried to conclude accords with the United States to install anti-missile systems in their respective territories. Fear of a revanchiste Russia silenced the critics.

The invasion also led to the collapse of the pro-Moscow coalition government in Kiev, capital of the Ukraine. With the image of Russian tanks rolling into South Ossetia and Abkhazia still fresh in many minds, it is unlikely that pro-Moscow parties will do well in the forthcoming general election in the Ukraine. If anything, the Russian invasion has strengthened the position of Ukrainian parties urging membership of both the European Union and the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO).

Not surprisingly, the Ukraine has announced it will not renew the lease under which the Russian navy is present in Sebastopol in the Crimean Peninsula beyond 2017.

Kicked out of Sebastopol, the Russian navy would lose all pretense at being a blue-water marine force. It would shrink into a coastguard with problematic access to open waters.

One goal of the invasion was to topple the government of President Mikheil Saakashvili in Tbilisi. However, the invasion has strengthened Saakashvili’s position, as even his bitterest critics cannot afford to be seen as pro-Russian.

More surprisingly, perhaps, the invasion has forced the leaders of Bilerussia, the most pro-Moscow elite in the former Soviet republics, to review their view of the Russian “Big Brother”. One could already detect signs that President Alexander Lukashenko is trying to distance himself from Moscow and seek closer ties with Europe and the United States. The general election this weekend may offer him an opportunity to let some pro-Western politicians to enter parliament.

Fear of Russia has also pushed the new President of Turkmenistan, Qurban-Quli Berdi-Muhammadov towards abandoning his predecessor Safar-Ali Niyazov’s policy of neutrality.

In his recent visit to Ankara, the Turkish capital, Berdi-Muahammdov made it clear he was contemplating a major shift of policy towards closer ties with the United States and Turkey. He also hinted that his government would be more forthcoming with regard to the Trans-Caspian Pipeline (TCP) project, something that Russia and Iran oppose while the US and Turkey support.

Fear of Russia has also led to a warming up of relations between the Central Asian republics on the one hand and NATO on the other. Talks to revive cooperation with Uzbekistan and are scheduled to resume next year, ending the cold spell that started in 2005.

Moscow remains alone in its hasty recognition of the independence of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, indicating another aspect of the policy’s failure.

As always, invading someone else’s territory is easy, as the Americans found out in Afghanistan and Iraq. What is difficult is coping with the consequences.

Amir Taheri

Amir Taheri

Amir Taheri was the executive editor-in-chief of the daily Kayhan in Iran from 1972 to 1979. He has worked at or written for innumerable publications, published eleven books, and has been a columnist for Asharq Al-Awsat since 1987. Mr. Taheri has won several prizes for his journalism, and in 2012 was named International Journalist of the Year by the British Society of Editors and the Foreign Press Association in the annual British Media Awards.

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