Russian policy makers are relying on the precedents established by the US military campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq to justify Moscow's own push to forge a "liberal empire" in the Caucasus and Central Asia. Recent Russian activity in Georgia and Kyrgyzstan underscores Russia's new imperial tactics.
The notion of a "liberal empire" has its roots in the United States. The military actions in Afghanistan and Iraq have fueled discussion inside Washington's Beltway about the possibilities and responsibilities of a potential American empire. An example of this debate is a recent article by political scientist Stanley Kurtz published in the journal Policy Review. "Today, Afghanistan may be the germ of a new American imperium," wrote Kurtz, who added that the US-led ouster of Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein brought the imperial question into greater focus. The current debate on an American empire largely centers on the question of whether postmodern imperialism is capable of being democratic in nature. Symptomatically, Kurtz's article is titled "Democratic Imperialism."
Russian leaders have quickly seized on the notion of a liberal empire to refashion their own foreign policy agenda. To a great extent, since the collapse of the Soviet empire in 1991, a policy priority for Moscow has been retaining influence in the Caucasus and Central Asia. The concept of a liberal empire, Russian leaders hope, provides the Kremlin with an ideological rationale for pursuing a controlling interest in those regions that will not meet stiff resistance by the international community.
To date, the leading spokesman for Russia's liberal imperial ambitions has been Anatoly Chubais, Russia's former privatization tsar who now heads the energy conglomerate, Unified Energy Systems (UES). In late September, Chubais, who remains one of Russia's most influential politicians, delivered a broad policy speech, and later penned an article, arguing that Russia's top 21st century goal should be to develop "liberal capitalism" and build up a "liberal empire."
"It's high time to call a spade a spade," wrote Chubais in a commentary published in the Nezavisimaya Gazeta daily. Economically and culturally, Russia is a "natural and unique leader" of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS). Thus, Russia's strategic task over the next 50 years should be to "beef up, increase and strengthen its leadership position in this part of the globe."
"Liberal imperialism should become Russia's ideology and building up liberal empire Russia's mission," Chubais argued.
During a later television debate October 10, Chubais forcefully defended his "liberal empire" thesis. He asserted that a combination of market economic practices and aggressive expansion should serve as the foundation for Russian foreign policy. Without economic and political expansion within the CIS and beyond, Russia cannot preserve its own territorial integrity and resources, Chubais argued. Only by combining liberal values and a program designed to reestablish its empire "can Russia occupy its natural place alongside the United States, the European Union and Japan, the place designated for it by history," Chubais contended.
Chubais is dismissive of the notion that Russia's first autocratic, then totalitarian past precludes the possibility of Moscow's emergence as a liberalizing force. Linking the words "democracy" and "empire," Chubais admits, would have been impossible in the 20th century. "But the 20th century has ended for good. We live in a different country, in a different age, and in a different world." In this brave new world, Chubais suggests, there is one working model of the liberal empire. It is, of course, the United States. Russia, he believes, is destined to become another one.
Chubais has not only been a man of words, he has also taken action in recent months to advance the concept of a Russian liberal empire. During the summer, UES made deals with the Georgian government that gave the Russian firm a dominant position in Georgia's power market. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. Russia's increased economic leverage in Georgia could soon translate into Moscow's rising political influence in Tbilisi, some regional analysts believe.
Now, Russia appears to be making Kyrgyzstan an economic takeover target. In connection with the opening of a Russian-led Collective Security Treaty Organization airbase in Kant, outside the Kyrgyz capital Bishkek, Russian officials have indicated they wish to enhance Moscow's economic profile in the country. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
In a report published by the Slovo Kyrgyzstana newspaper on October 17, Russian ambassador to Bishkek Yevgeny Shmagin predicted that "in the near future, new [Russian] companies will join the ranks of those already operating on Kyrgyz soil."
Russian President Vladimir Putin, who attended the opening ceremonies at the Kant base on October 23, hailed "the attention paid by the [Russian] business community" on Kyrgyzstan, adding that he "shares the optimistic" forecasts of rapidly expanding Russian-Kyrgyz economic relations, the Itar-Tass news agency reported. At the same time, Kyrgyz leaders welcome the prospect of an increased Russian role in the country's economy. "All measures are being taken to create a favorable investment climate," Itar-Tass quoted Kyrgyz President Askar Akayev as saying. "Now, together with Russia, we have to move on from purely trade relations to initiating investment projects."
It is noteworthy that Chubais' "liberal empire" thesis has quickly been embraced in Russia by neo-Eurasianists a political force that has traditionally pushed for the reassertion of Moscow's position in post-Soviet Eurasia. Chubais' thesis is particularly valuable, argues Aleksandr Dugin, chairman of the Eurasia Party, because "it modernizes and rehabilitates the theme of Eurasian integration and gives the whole [Eurasian] project that used to smack of nostalgia and utopia a pragmatic and concrete dimension."
In the opinion of Eurasianists, the overwhelming majority of nations around the world today face the prospect of a de facto takeover, i.e. incorporation either in one global empire or several regional empires. "Nation-states are doomed; under the new conditions, they are incapable of defending their sovereignty either politically, or strategically, or economically," Dugin said in a commentary published in the Vedomosti newspaper.
CIS countries have few options, Dugin argued. They might be gobbled, one by one, by the global read American empire; in this case, American cultural hegemony would erode their national identity, and even their sovereignty, Dugin claimed. Just about the only alternative for CIS states would be to join Russia's would-be regional empire a so-called Eurasian Union. Under such an arrangement, CIS states could develop what Dugin called a "new type of sovereignty collective imperial sovereignty." The latter is clearly a distant echo of the idea of "Pan-Eurasian nationalism" advanced by the Prince Nikolai S. Trubetskoy, a brilliant representative of classic Eurasianism of the 1920s.
There is one issue, though, where Chubais and Dugin don't see eye to eye. Chubais, a liberal turned "democratic imperialist," has so far avoided, consciously or not, the question of a potential clash between American and Russian empires in, say, Central Asia or the south Caucasus. He seems to believe that democracies or democratic empires, for that matter don't fight each other.
Meanwhile, Dugin, a traditional Russian imperial thinker, clearly sees the potential for conflict. He has been quick to point out that the ideology of American empire in particular, as it is defined in the US national security doctrine does not envisage any rival center of power in Central Eurasia which would be capable of defying American supremacy. Russia clearly does not adhere to the US view
Igor Torbakov is a freelance journalist and researcher who specializes in CIS political affairs. He holds an MA in History from Moscow State University and a PhD from the Ukrainian Academy of Sciences. He was Research Scholar at the Institute of Russian History, Russian Academy of Sciences, Moscow; a Visiting Scholar at the Kennan Institute, Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, Washington DC; a Fulbright Scholar at Columbia University, New York; and a Visiting Fellow at Harvard University. He is now based in Istanbul, Turkey.