Russia softens toward neighbors

Secretary of State Rice met with Putin Wednesday while NATO may invite Ukraine into the Western alliance.

Stung by democratic revolts around Russia's periphery and the Western drift of former subject nations, the Kremlin is mulling a switch from the use of "hard" political manipulation to "soft" methods of persuasion in its dealings with the increasingly troubled post-Soviet neighborhood.

A new Kremlin department to oversee "cultural relations" with former Soviet countries was created last month, which experts say will spearhead Moscow's new charm offensive in its own rapidly changing back yard. Many experts say the prodemocracy wave that broke over Georgia, Ukraine, and Kyrgyzstan in the past 18 months has left the Kremlin stunned and determined to prevent fresh uprisings in its dwindling sphere of influence.

Another worry is that Western authority is rapidly marching in as Moscow's recedes. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who met with a seemingly disinterested President Vladimir Putin Wednesday, apparently upset by Ms. Rice's criticisms of Russia's authoritarian drift, will be in Lithuania Thursday for a NATO meeting, the first time the alliance has convened in a former Soviet republic. Ukraine, a key Russian partner until its democratic revolt late last year, could be invited to join the Western military alliance as early as this week.

"The possibility of Ukraine eventually joining NATO is of great concern to Russia," says Viktor Kremeniuk of the Institute of USA-Canada Studies in Moscow. "That would spell the end of Russian dominance in the post-Soviet sphere. Russia faces isolation."

In an interview with Russian radio Wednesday, Rice said that the US isn't competing in former Soviet republics, nor is it trying to "export democracy," but is merely supporting people "in their right to express their opinions."

Critics say the Kremlin's heavyhanded intervention in neighboring countries has been the chief cause of Russia's declining regional fortunes. Mr. Putin twice visited Ukraine during its presidential elections last year to throw Russia's support behind pro-Moscow candidate Viktor Yanukovich. Ukrainian experts accuse Moscow of channeling as much as $300 million and dispatching top Kremlin "spin doctors" to aid Mr. Yanukovich's campaign.

Russia's support for Moldova's breakaway Transdnestr Republic, where it maintains an army, was a key reason Moldova's Communist Party government has distanced itself from Moscow and appealed to Europe for help. Russia also maintains two Soviet-era military bases in Georgia and continues to aid the rebel republics of Abkhazia and South Ossetia against the central authorities.

"Everyone understands we need a new policy," says Sergei Markov, an analyst who is connected to the Kremlin and who was one of the consultants sent to help Yanukovich last year. "The failure in Ukraine has made it impossible to follow the old approaches."

The chief of the Kremlin's new advisory department on relations with former-Soviet countries, Modest Kolerov, is the former head of a nationalist-leaning news agency that has published articles blaming the West for sponsoring rebel- lions on Russia's doorstep. Mr. Kolerov has denied any "counter revolutionary" purposes but has said: "Russia should defend its interests in the post-Soviet sphere." Kolerov will work directly under Dmitri Medvedev, Putin's chief of staff, who warned earlier this month that growing revolutionary moods in the former USSR threatens crisis. "The breakup of the Soviet Union will look like child's play compared to a government collapse in modern Russia," Medvedev said.

Sociologist Olga Kyrshtanovskaya, who studies Russian elites, says the Kremlin's main concern is to stifle the spread of rebellious moods to Russia's own far-flung, multiethnic population. "All these revolutionary waves around Russia have an impact," she says. "The authorities may try to displace popular discontent by inventing enemies who are besieging Russia. This is the likeliest approach."

Mr. Markov says the Kremlin will actively attempt to identify and assist pro-Russian political forces around the region. For example, he says, polls show that many Ukrainians oppose joining NATO despite President Viktor Yushchenko's championing of the idea as a means of anchoring Ukraine in the Western camp. "For Ukraine, joining NATO would mean undermining Russian-Ukrainian cooperation in key economic spheres, such as military and high-tech industries," says Markov. "Many Ukrainians don't feel this would be in their interests. Russia must do what it can to help those Ukrainians, who don't want to join NATO. This issue could bring Yushchenko down."

Russia's long-dormant policy of seeking reunification with Belarus, the only post-Soviet state that has shown interest in merging with Russia, could be revived as the Kremlin surveys its options. "Russia's sphere of influence is dramatically shrinking, and so a country like Belarus that wants to join our club takes on new importance," says Sergei Strokan, a foreign affairs expert with Kommersant, a liberal newspaper.

Wednesday's meeting with Rice isn't the last Putin will hear from the US. President Bush will visit next month to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the Allied victory in World War II.

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