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Russia is ringed by its former colonies, across which it is has spread an alphabet soup of international organisations. There is the political Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), the military Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO), and even the still hypothetical union state with Belarus. None of these is a genuine organisation. In this sphere, the Kremlin backs its influence with threats. It turns off the gas to Ukraine, blocks milk imports from Belarus, builds military bases in Kyrgyzstan and even sent its armies deep into Georgia. President Medvedev has stated that this is to be expected, as for Russia this constitutes "a privileged sphere of influence." Sitting in the Tbilisi Marriott Hotel during the Georgian War, a senior European diplomatic source put it this way: "In this war, they are laying claim to what they call the near abroad." 

Since then, the Kremlin has had some setbacks. Kyrgyzstan allowed the US to reopen its military base at Manas. The Tadjiks threatened to scrap Russian as an official language. An informal CIS leadership summit in Moscow saw four no-shows. Uzbekistan has stalled Russia's attempts to create a CSTO rapid-reaction force, Belarus has joined the European Union's Eastern Partnership and not one of Moscow's allies has recognised Abkhazia or South Ossetia. 

The only political battle that really matters for the Kremlin is Ukraine. If its flag flies once more over Kiev, Russia will be a superpower again. The Russian Patriarch Kirill visits to affirm a spiritual claim as the state meddles in domestic politics. Analysts and journalists trade rumours that the Crimea is about to turn hot. On Yalta beach, the young in this almost entirely Russian province have mixed views. Some think it is going to happen. "This will be Chechnya in reverse. Have you seen how many Russian chauvinist biker gangs there are?" However, others suggest, "There are more important things than this for leaders to worry about." Almost 14 per cent of the population here are Muslim Tatar, closely aligned to Kiev and hostile to Russian power. Their leader and member of the Ukrainian Parliament, Mustafa Jemeliouk, is scathing about Russia's intentions. "Putin is trying to build a new kind of empire. We are not sure what it is, some form of Slavic union has been talked about. One thing is certain: if Russia tries to annex Crimea there will be civil war and we will fight on the side of Kiev."

After hours in the bars of Kiev, young Ukrainians explain their feelings to me about their powerful neighbour. Anna's views are typical: "We do not hate Russia. We share a history and much of a culture. We speak their language. But we want a democratic and prosperous future. They don't offer that. If they could and would treat us as equals, things could be very different." 

But the great game is in Central Asia. In Bishkek, the capital of Kyrgyzstan, a Soviet Milton Keynes in decay, the atmosphere is sour as the country slides into authoritarianism. Opposition leader Bakyt Beshimov blames Moscow: "The influence of Russia is becoming worse as Putin is trying to impose his model of  ‘managed democracy'. Moscow finances pro-Kremlin politicians and then strengthens pro-Russian media outlets in Central Asia. Russia is trying to impose a new postmodern empire through financial clout, lobbyists, military bases and Gazprom pipelines. They want to control us."

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Bill Corr
October 6th, 2009
10:10 AM
The dismemberment of the Soviet Empire caused tragic suffering http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sukhumi_massacre ... even the remaining Pontic Greeks were involved as victimes

Anonymous
September 29th, 2009
3:09 PM
The "harsh consonant" "D"? Idiotic.

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