Maintaining imperialist control over its backyard: Mission Impossible for the Russian bourgeoisie

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The impression that Russian imperialism is making more and ground in its immediate sphere of influence has been strengthened by a number of spectacular events recently: the rapprochement with the Yanukovych government in Ukraine and the signing of a an accord allowing for long-term Russian military bases there; the signing of a deal with Ankara for the construction of a Russian nuclear plant in Akkuyu in the south of Turkey; Medvedev's ‘brotherly' visit to Syria in May and the rumours that the elimination of the Bakiyev government in Kyrgyzstan was entirely to the advantage of Moscow. But is this actually the case?

Without doubt, the situation we saw in the 1990s is long gone. Then Russian experienced a very significant enfeeblement. It had lost all its old satellite states and, on the domestic front, under Yeltsin, entered an era of openly Mafia style functioning. The Russian state was urgently compelled to put both its internal and external affairs under the control of its apparatus. The accession to power of the bourgeois faction around Putin in 2000 was a significant sign of the effort to restore the strength of the Russian state and reinforce its imperialist policies.

But do the successes that Russia has achieved allow us to talk about a triumphant forward march of Russian imperialism? Not at all. In reality, Russia today is faced with a desperate struggle against instability in the region of the former eastern bloc. Instability and a loss of control are a general tendency, which most powerfully affects the USA, the world's leading gendarme. But Russia, which aims to maintain its role as leader in this region, and to draw long-term advantages from the weakening of the USA, is itself not able to escape this international dynamic.

Kyrgyzstan : the extension of uncontrollable chaos

At first sight, the overthrow of the government of Kyrgyzstan in April 2010 seems to mark a point for Russia in the imperialist game: the government clique around Bakiyev had broken its promise to Russia to close the country's American military base, so it would be easy to think that the new government clique around Otunbayeva was being placed in power with the official support of Russia, to take revenge on Bakiyev for breaking his word. But the situation in Kyrgyzstan is rather more complex. It's not possible to reduce it to a struggle between two bourgeois factions, one supported by the USA and the other by Russia, as was often the case in third world countries during the Cold War. It's wrong to imagine that with the overthrow of the Bakiyev government, the spoils automatically fall to Russian imperialism and the situation will calm down.

What we are seeing in Kyrgyzstan on the contrary is an extension of chaos and conflicts between national cliques. Russian imperialism is very far from emerging as the big winner in the situation. With the tensions in the south of the country, in the region of Jalabad and Osh, a phase of instability is opening up in a country which is both at the gates of Russia and shares a frontier with China - which is an increasingly aggressive imperialism. Kyrgyzstan is already an important point of entry for Chinese products into the markets of the CIS. But even if Russia and China are really bitter rivals over gaining influence in Kyrgyzstan, they still have a shared concern about this region: the development of uncontrollable battles between regional cliques, which often take the form of ethnic pogroms like the ones we have just seen in Kyrgyzstan.  And even the USA will not accept its military presence in Kyrgyzstan being put into question!  Kyrgyzstan is a country that is getting more and more difficult to govern because it lacks a unified national bourgeoisie. It is now a clear example of the danger of loss of control so feared by the great imperialist powers. The bloody pogroms in Osh this June clearly illustrate the delicate situation facing Russian imperialism: asked to provide military aid by the Otunbayeva government in order stem the chaos, Russia hesitated because it didn't want to get drawn into a second Afghanistan. Independently of the question of the local cliques in power, it is difficult for Russia, which is being shaken by the economic crisis, to intervene with the aim of maintaining its influence, given the enormous military costs involved. On top of this, Russia's efforts to play its role as regional imperialist gendarme are being undermined by the actions of a small imperialist hyena in the region, the Lukashenko government in Belarus which immediately tried to throw oil on the fire by offering asylum to the exiled Bakiyev. 

Election of Yanukovych in Ukraine: a great victory for Russia?

Without doubt, the elections in February 2010 in Ukraine brought to power a bourgeois faction which is much more open to Russia. In April, Ukraine signed a significant deal with Russia guaranteeing a Russian military presence in Sebastopol until 2042, and massive economic concessions for deliveries of Russian gas to Ukraine until 2019. In June, Ukraine took the decision to halt plans to enter NATO drawn up by the previous Yushchenko government. But relations with Ukraine are not at the point where Russia can pat itself on the back and they present it with a real dilemma. Even though Ukraine has been hit hard by the economic crisis and needs immediate financial aid, the Ukrainian state is not jumping once and for all into the arms of its big brother - and it is also asking for something in return from Russia. Russia has to reward the temporary goodwill of the Yanukovych government at the cost of the billions knocked off the price of gas, and this just to maintain its military presence in the port of Sebastopol. But the real imperialist needs and ambitions of Russia towards Ukraine go much further than the deal struck with the Ukrainian government. From the geographical point of view Ukraine represents a passage-way for the export of Russian gas to the west, and the Russian economy is highly dependent on this trade. To avoid this degree of dependence on Ukraine (and even on Belarus), Russia is obliged to undertake hugely expensive alternative routes like the Northstream pipeline. For Russia, a stable, long-term relationship with Ukraine is a necessity, not only on the economic terrain of the transport of gas, but above all on the geostrategic terrain, for its military protection. But Ukraine, with its deeply divided bourgeoisie, does not represent a stable partner and the Yanukovych government offers no guarantees in the long term. If the faction around Timochenko gets back into government, new frictions won't be long in following. For the Ukrainian bourgeoisie, which is motivated fundamentally by its own national interests, its current political orientation is not the expression of a deep love affair with Russia.  The weakness of the European Union means that a rapprochement between Ukraine and the EU is not an option for the former. It is economic necessity and the need to find the cheapest source of energy which is pushing Ukraine into a path so typical of imperialism today: immediatist, unstable and dominated by the ‘every man for himself' philosophy.

After the war in Georgia: no stability in sight in the Caucasus

Even though in the war against Georgia in 2008 Russian imperialism did gain ground by occupying new geographical zones, such as Ossetia and Abkhazia, and even though the USA was unable to intervene on behalf of its friend Georgia because it was bogged down in Iraq, Russian has in no way consolidated its position in the Caucasus.  Russia has not really been able to take advantage of the USA's weakness. This was basically the sign of a new stage in imperialist confrontations, since for the first time since the collapse of the blocs in 1989 the old rivals America and Russia were once again facing each other directly.

But this war also showed clearly that it is quite wrong to think that in the present stage of imperialism a war automatically produces a winner and a loser. In the end this war only produced losers. Not only from the point of view of the working class (which always loses on both sides of any imperialist conflict) but also among the imperialisms involved in it. Georgia has been weakened, so the USA has lost its influence in the region but Russia is confronted with an aggravation of chaos in the Caucasus which is proving impossible to calm down.

In many regions of the Caucasus, in official territories of the Russian Federation, such as Dagestan or Ingushetia, the armed forces of Russian imperialism play the role of an occupying force rather than of a deeply rooted state apparatus. But again the situation in this region is extremely complex: the Russian police and army have been acting in a very brutal manner, but in the end have proved powerless against the numerous local clans at each others' throats.

Apart from the necessity to defend its immediate strategic and economic interests, the aggressive stance of Russian imperialism also contains a historical dimension. Founded on a history of permanent expansion since Czarist times, Russia has today been squeezed back into a reduced territorial corset - a situation which its bourgeoisie cannot accept. 

The May terrorist attacks in Moscow, not far from the area of the city inhabited by the security forces, show that terrorist actions are aimed directly at the authority of the Russian state. The present efforts to increase the powers of the FSB are not a sign of strength but of fear. The situation in the northern Caucasus where Russia finds itself in a state of more or less open warfare in its own national territory - in other words, in a situation where it is constantly threatened with losing control and thus providing an example to other local cliques to start contesting its authority - shows that Russia too is caught up in a process of weakening. A situation like this is specific to Russia. Other big imperialisms like America or Germany don't face such problems in their own territory, or do to a lesser degree, like China. Even if Russia is struggling manfully to overcome the historical crisis it entered with the collapse of the Stalinist form of state capitalism, the development of centrifugal forces in its historical sphere of influence is continuing and getting worse.

The whole situation in Russia's sphere of influence is one more example of the total irrationality of capitalism today. Even if the ruling class arms itself to the teeth, it still can't control its own system.

Mario 29/6/10