Russia kindles the embers of old Empire

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 09 February, 1994, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 09 February, 1994, 12:00am

EXTREMIST Russian nationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky has not come to power in Moscow and may never for that matter. But obviously, what he says publicly millions of Russian think privately. And the Kremlin, heeding the silent majority's mood has set out to reconquer the so-called ''near abroad'' - the newly independent republics which belonged to the Soviet Union.

Russia's foreign minister Andrei Kozyrev has taken a tough stand on the Americans and the West Europeans. In Beijing he said that he was tired of being lectured by them. Then he proceeded to sell China Russia's most advanced fighter-bomber aircraft, the Sukhoi-34. The chairman of the Russian Parliament's foreign affairs commission declared that ''Russia should stop aligning itself to the United States''.

So much for the words. But Russia has started acting upon them as well. Throughout its former empire Russia is backing and arming insurgencies that are fighting their national governments, then offering to mediate and finally force the governments to bowto Russian conditions and to fall back under Russian domination.

Georgia has now lost its independence. The treaty of friendship that was signed between Russia and Georgia allows Russia to operate three military bases in Georgia and to jointly defend Georgia's southern borders with the Georgian army. In the long run this means that the Abkhase minority which managed last year to gain its autonomy will be brought back under Georgian domination.

Russian troops have not yet left Estonia and Latvia. The Ukraine is torn between its 12 million Russian-speaking population which openly demands to be reunited with Russia and its 40 million fiercely independent western Ukrainians who don't want to be placed under Russia's sway. By stopping its oil and gas supply to the Ukraine, Russia can bring Ukraine to heel. Also it holds the Crimea issue over the Ukraine's head.

Crimea was given to Ukraine in 1954 as a present, but its population is mostly Russian and its new president favours Crimea's inclusion in Russia. Crimea controls the fate of Russia's Black Sea fleet.

On March 27, Crimea will hold a referendum regarding its independence from Ukraine and if, as it is expected, the voters turn their back on Ukraine and if Ukraine's President Leonid Kravchuk - again, as expected - rejects the referendum's results, an international crisis may erupt.

Belorussia's new president is also pushing for closer ties with Russia, Its identity is indeed doubtful. Ethnically and politically it is part of Russia and is bound to be reunited with the motherland before long without blood or tears being shed.

Kazakhstan is a big piece of real estate. Tensions between it and Russia have been rising. It sits on enormous oil and gas reserves. Thirty per cent of its population is Russian and Mr Kozyrev said last December that Russia would defend Russians everywhere, even if they settled down in another country.

Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Kyrgystan have recently formed a common market aimed at linking their mineral resources and keeping them outside Russia's grip. Whether together they will be able to resist Russian pressure is doubtful.

Russia conquered Central Asia in the 19th century and still considers these vast lands as its own. It worries about Iran's and Turkey's forays along its soft under-belly not to mention its deep concerns about China's claims to Eastern Siberia. Needless to say, the return of the Northern Territories to Japan is no longer on the agenda.

Poland, Hungary, the Czeck Republic have been put on notice by Moscow that they had better not join NATO. Russia thus still lays claim to Central and Eastern Europe as its sphere of influence.

Opposition from the West is not strong. The United States hopes to be able to prolong with Russia the global condominium they had managed together with the Soviet Union, only this time with a puppet-partner. France and Britain welcome a strong Russia to off-set the unified Germany. The Germans worry about the Russian bear on the rampage, but they keep quiet as they need stability along their eastern borders.

Before long the Russian Empire will be back playing the game of nations and it will not be a Western-style democracy nor a market economy but, if not an enemy, at least a rival and powerful competitor for the West.