Still hugged by the Russian bear: Jonathan Eyal accuses the West of betraying the former Soviet republics

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UKRAINE'S parliament is this week debating a plan to place the republic's trade with its neighbours on a full commercial basis. If implemented, this can only exacerbate Ukraine's already cool relations with Russia. And it would shatter any remaining illusions that the Commonwealth of Independent States could act as a viable replacement for the defunct Soviet empire.

A durable alliance is one formed from below by people sharing common values, interests or fears. And it usually works best between states that are either equal in strengths or compatible in weaknesses. The CIS represents none of these things. Far from stabilising a huge landmass straddling two continents, the perpetuation of the CIS dream would ultimately provide no security for either Russia or its neighbours, and may yet turn out to be the West's biggest post-Cold War folly.

Despite pious talk about a 'community' of free states, Western governments never wanted and are still not prepared to accept that the collapse of the Soviet empire is irrevocable.

There is little doubt that for Moscow the end of Communism was a calamity: Russia lost not only the buffer zone provided by the Warsaw Pact, but was practically pushed out of Europe altogether. Assuring Moscow that nobody wished to benefit from its predicament was clearly the right policy. But this should have involved a strategy of weaning Russia off its imperial obsession by taking into account the interests of all successor states. Instead the West persists in a policy that merely fuels the imperial addiction of some leaders in the Kremlin.

Every Western government bemoans the costs involved in establishing new embassies; every Western diplomat treats envoys from the successor states as, at best, errant children. Most of the Western media still report events in the republics as seen from Moscow, courtesy of the Tass news agency. And the images flashed on Western screens about violence in the former Soviet Union are invariably provided by Russian networks.

From the beginning, the West committed a fundamental error in never seriously contesting Moscow's aspirations to be recognised as the empire's true heir. After futile efforts to hold all republics 'jointly and severally' responsible for servicing the Soviet Union's foreign debt, Western bankers were relieved when, in return for forgoing any claim to joint assets, most republics allowed Moscow to service the Soviet Union's entire debt. Everyone knew that, like Tsarist bonds, the Soviet debt certificates are collectors' items suitable for framing, not redemption. Russia acquired liabilities it knew would never be honoured, but retained assets to which other republics contributed over many decades. Nobody seemed to care.

The West argued that, given their economic interdependence, the republics should strive to maintain one joint currency and trading zone. True, but hardly relevant. Russia's central bank turned printing worthless rouble notes into an art, thereby exporting inflation to all its neighbours and practically reducing economic transactions to a primitive barter.

Furthermore, it is foolish to assume that economic dependence carries no political implications. Moscow has used the republics' dependence on Russian energy products as a weapon to ensure political compliance. If the West was serious about helping the new states, the maintenance of the Soviet trading zone should have been coupled with evenly spread assistance for economic reform. Instead the West still talks about 'grand bargains' for Russia, but does nothing for other successor states. Apprehensive about their independence, republics are now rushing to sever their trade contacts with Russia - precisely the opposite of what Western governments originally desired.

More serious is the West's studied silence about Russia's declared intentions towards many surrounding republics. Every government now asserts that the protection of ethnic minorities is an international matter which cannot be left to the responsibility of any one state. Somehow, however, Russia's claims to defend ethnic Russians in other republics (many of them, incidentally, the product of previous 'ethnic cleansing') are considered 'legitimate'.

These Russians clearly need to be treated as equal citizens in their new states. But for this to be achieved, the fate of ethnic minorities must be separated from territorial problems: Latvia and Estonia should negotiate the status of their Russian minorities with European institutions, not with the Kremlin. By allowing Moscow to take the lead on this issue, Western governments are reinforcing precisely what they want to discourage: a suspicion among neighbouring states that Moscow's real aim is to reverse the empire's demise.

A cacophony of veiled threats now descends on Russia's neighbours. Late last year President Boris Yeltsin announced the suspension of troop withdrawals from the Baltic states, supposedly in order to defend local Russians. In Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan and Tajikistan, violent secessionist movements have started, supposedly by disaffected minorities. All have the same common feature: although they do not involve a Russian minority, Moscow claims to have a vital interest in each of them. Inexplicably, each of these secessionist movements happens to be better armed than the government it confronts, all advance territorial claims and, in all cases, Moscow steps in to ensure peace.

Despite ample evidence that none other than Russia sponsors many of these secessionist movements, every Western government keeps its silence. Indeed, in the last few months Russia has come into the open with its long-term intention: Mr Yeltsin has asked the UN to accept Russia's role as a 'peace-keeper' in the former Soviet territory. Cloaked in the fashionable language of today, the claim is nothing but a bid for regional hegemony and represents a lie within a lie: Russian troops have neither the credibility nor the impartiality required for the job.

Above everything else, most Western politicians still assume that aspirations for recreating the old empire belong only to the 'hardliners' in the Kremlin. They do not: the only difference between the reformists such as Andrei Kozyrev, the Foreign Minister, and the crusty old generals is one of degree. Kozyrev believes in the creation of a 'loose confederation' while the generals believe in the iron fist. But all shades of Russian opinion instinctively assume that the present separation between republics is a temporary phase.

By maintaining its indifference, the West encourages the belief that a Pax Russica can be established. Indeed, some members of the Clinton Administration regard this prospect with equanimity.

Yet the problems created by the demise of the Soviet Union cannot be quarantined with any more success than those of the Balkans were. Ukraine will not give up its nuclear weapons as long as as the former Soviet republics are left in a strategic void. Kiev is creating new regional alliances which are already drawing in Hungary, Poland and Romania, while in the Trans-Caucasus Turkey and Iran are fighting for influence.

Treating successor states seriously and encouraging regional co-operation between republics are measures that are now urgent. Moscow should be told that a new national identity begins at home, not through recycling old ideas about a 'manifest destiny'. And the West should make it clear that the age of empires is now truly over. Bottling up the Russian empire's problems has not worked in the past, and will not work today.

The author is Director of Studies at the Royal United Services Institute in London.

(Photograph omitted)