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Page last updated at 23:05 GMT, Thursday, 21 August 2008 00:05 UK

Russia's neighbours go their own way

By Bridget Kendall
BBC diplomatic correspondent

It is easy to assume that escalating tensions between Russia and the West could mean an end to the blurry fudges of the post-Cold War years and a recasting of East-West relations into black and white antagonism, with two opposing camps, each surrounded by its own sphere of influence.

Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili is flanked (right) by Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko in Tbilisi on 12 August
Ukraine's leader (R) went to Tbilisi to back President Saakashvili

But look at how the Georgia crisis is being received around Russia's edges. The response is often evasive, and sometimes downright surprising.

Among the countries of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), which 20 years ago were constituent parts of the USSR whose loyalty to Moscow was automatic, Russia has won remarkably few endorsements. Some Central Asian states have sent in aid to South Ossetia. But on the whole the response has been decidedly muted.

To be fair, Georgia too has drawn criticism. But gone are the days when Moscow could rely on satellite states to speak up for it. For Russia's leaders to declare that Russia was and always will be the "guarantor of stability" in the Caucasus is now a risky statement that could repel as well as draw regional backing.

Its neighbours are now independent countries whose priority is not to please the Kremlin but turn any crisis to their advantage, or worry about how it might adversely affect them.

Economic interests first

Next door to Georgia in the Caucasus, Azerbaijan's top concern is to keep the pipeline that runs from Baku through Georgian territory to Turkey free from threat of attack.

But President Ilham Aliyev is also apparently wary of aggravating Russia. He has now publically backed Georgia's territorial integrity, but steered clear of more vigorous support of Tbilisi.

Elderly refugees from South Ossetia sit in a refugee camp in North Ossetia, Russia,  on 10 August
Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan have donated aid for Ossetian refugees

Landlocked Turkmenistan too, with its immense gas fields on the other side of the Caspian Sea, has a lively interest in making sure the Baku pipeline is not disrupted and Georgia remains a stable reliable partner.

It competes as well as collaborates with Russia as an energy supplier. It does not want one of its main outlets threatened.

And beleaguered Armenia, at the southern tip of the Caucasus, has even more reason to be alarmed. Any prolonged conflict in Georgia would disrupt all its supply routes.

Further west and closer to Europe in the "former Soviet space", there has been an even more marked shift in governmental responses.

Tiny impoverished Moldova, on the border between Romania and Ukraine, has its own "frozen conflict" unsolved from Soviet days: the Russian-supported and heavily armed enclave of Trans-Dniester.

So this week Moldovan President Vladimir Voronin pointedly turned to the European Union for help in finding a peaceful way out of that stand-off.

Ukrainian ambivalence

In Ukraine, President Viktor Yushchenko from the very start saw Russia's military intervention in Georgia as an implied threat. Ukraine too is a Nato aspirant, and Russia has frequently warned it that Nato membership is something it will not tolerate.

Ukrainian Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko (image from 14 July)
Yulia Tymoshenko is likely to run in the next election

So President Yushchenko was swift to define himself as the champion of Ukraine's right to join Nato and defy Russian pressure.

Not only did he fly to Tbilisi to offer moral support, he issued a presidential decree to remind Russia that its Black Sea Fleet in Sevastopol in the Crimea does, after all, use a Ukrainian port.

In future, he demanded, Russia must give 72 hours' notice before moving its vessels and he once again raised the prospect that Ukraine might not renew its lease for the port when it expires in 2017.

But how Russia's relations with Ukraine might unwind is not straightforward.

The fear has certainly been expressed in Kiev that a restive pro-Russian population in the Crimea might provide a pretext for another Russian military intervention. Russian nationalists who see the Crimea as historically Russian territory would seize any pretext to realise their ambitions, goes the argument.

What is certainly true is that a clash between Moscow and Kiev over the Crimea would probably cleave Ukraine in half and open up a dangerous conflict with widespread repercussions. But a more likely scenario is less dramatic.

Russia has only to wait for a change in Ukrainian politics. President Yushchenko may be a prominent leader but his long term-durability is not guaranteed. Opinion polls put his popularity at under 10%.

With presidential elections due in 18 months, the Kremlin may well reckon it can look for a more reliable partner in his likely opponent and current Prime Minister, Yulia Tymoshenko, who has been remarkably quiet on the Georgia crisis.

Mixed signals from Minsk

But perhaps the most interesting response has come from Belarus and its President, Alexander Lukashenko, sometimes described as "Europe's last dictator".

Belarussian police arrest demonstrators outside the Russian embassy on 11 August
Belarussian police pounced on anti-Russian protestors during the conflict

Only a few years ago Russia was such a close ally, there was talk of the two countries merging, so one might have expected him to back Russia's action in the Caucasus.

But Belarus has had a series of bad-tempered rows with Russia over energy supplies and has recently shown more interest in improving Western contacts.

The initial response from Minsk to Russia's intervention in Georgia was decidedly ambivalent - so much so, that the Russian ambassador there even publicly expressed his displeasure.

President Lukashenko then travelled to Sochi to reassure President Medvedev that Moscow's military operation had been conducted "calmly, wisely and beautifully".

But he took steps to clear the way for better relations with the US and Europe.

In the last few days the final three political prisoners in Belarus have been suddenly released - the beneficiaries, it seems, of an unexpected presidential pardon.

"It's very significant," said Britain's Ambassador to Minsk, Nigel Gould Davies. "For the first time in a decade Belarus does not have any political prisoners."

And watch this space. Whether Belarus is really serious about improving its relations with the West will be tested in September, when it holds parliamentary elections.


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