Failed reset?: United States decries “sovietization” of former USSR states

The statement by U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton that Washington will openly oppose Russia’s attempts to re-integrate the post-Soviet countries into a new USSR-type union has caused a stir in the expert world.

Clinton made the statement about this attempt to “re-sovietize” the former USSR space last week at a meeting of the OSCE Ministerial Council in Dublin, Ireland.

“It’s not going to be called that [USSR]. It’s going to be called customs union, it will be called Eurasian Union and all of that,” she said, referring to Russian-led efforts for greater regional integration. “But let’s make no mistake about it. We know what the goal is and we are trying to figure out effective ways to slow down or prevent it.”

Armenia, as one of the allies of Russia that also has made noticeable progress it its relations with the European Union and the West in general, recently, is likely to adjust its foreign policy to this new reality as well.

Following Clinton’s statement, experts began to speak more definitely about the U.S. now reconsidering its 2009 “reset” policy in relations with Russia. The so-called Magnitsky list adopted in Washington also evidences increased U.S. pressure on Russia. According to this legislative act, the United States bans entry to the country to Russian officials who violate human rights.

Russia, meanwhile, retaliated by passing a similar ban, and for greater assurance also introduced a ban on imports of meat from the United States. Washington is now likely to sue Russia at an international court for breaking the rules of the World Trade Organization that Moscow acceded to only this year.

Apparently, the fight for the post-Soviet space between the West and Russia has entered its decisive phase. Everything will depend on 2013, when several former Soviet republics, including Armenia, are expected to sign association agreements and agreements on the establishment of free trade zones with the European Union.

Moscow is trying to entice these republics to the Customs Union (currently comprised of Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan) before such documents are signed. Apparently, this was the main issue raised during the Commonwealth of Independent States summit in Ashgabat, Turkmenistan, last week, which was followed by the top U.S. diplomat’s statement. Officially, no statements were made after the summit, but Russian President Vladimir Putin must have demanded integration in stronger terms than he has done ever before.

While some of the former Soviet states’ leaders were meeting in Ashgabat, U.S. Ambassador to Armenia John Heffern traveled back home to persuade the Armenian-Americans to invest in Armenia. And Prime Minister Tigran Sargsyan went to Germany and then to the United States also for the purpose of soliciting investment.

The U.S. appears to have decided to test the method of so-called “investment expansion” in Armenia. This method implies a large inflow of Western investment which would help not only transform the business culture in Armenia, which Washington appears to be unhappy with, but also prevent the “sovietization” of the South Caucasus country. Russia now is still the leader in terms of investments in Armenia, but this year the volumes of its investments have decreased.

Now it is a guessing game for local analysts as to what President Serzh Sargsyan will decide in this respect. He is unlikely to change his European integration course before the presidential election that has been slated for February 18, as such a change of policy would deprive him not only of key support from the West, but also a weighty argument in the unfolding election campaign. It is not excluded that Sargsyan will build his whole campaign on the idea of European integration, and his main rival, Prosperous Armenia Party led by affluent businessman Gagik Tsarukyan known for his ties with Russia and some autocratic post-Soviet leaders, yields to Sargsyan in this respect.

Andrew Weiss, who served as director for Russian, Ukrainian, and Eurasian Affairs on the National Security Council staff under U.S. President Bill Clinton and now heads the RAND Center for Russia and Eurasia, believes that elites in post-Soviet countries are “not in a rush” to give their sovereignty back to Moscow.

It is obvious that in order to promote its “Eurasian integration” Moscow will use the “stick” because it does not have enough “carrots” even for itself, and especially that the “carrots” in the West taste better. Meanwhile, the West seems to have set itself the task of stopping Moscow from intimidating former Soviet republics into taking action for reintegration. In this context Clinton’s statement means that the West is ready to defend the post-Soviet countries from Russian encroachments.