Near Abroad

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The term near abroad is used by the Russian Federation to refer to the fourteen Soviet successor states other than Russia. During the Yeltsin era Russia had to cope with the collapse of Communism and the transition to a market economy, and the end of the Cold War and the loss of superpower status. This caused a national identity crisis that engendered key shifts in Russian foreign policy toward what it designates the near abroad. (The fourteen republics do not call themselves "near abroad.") Should Russia assert itself as the dominant power throughout the territories of the ex-USSR in its desire to protect Russians living abroad? Or alternatively, now that the Cold War was over, should Russia adopt a position enabling reduced prospects of nuclear war and the possibility of the expansion of NATO to include the near abroad countries? This uncertainty, compounded by widespread economic, social, and political instability, affected Russian objectives toward the near abroad. Three different approaches emerged. First, the integrationalists and reformers (such as Andrei Kozyrev) argued that Russia's expansionist days were over and that it must therefore identify more closely with the West, promote Russia's integration into world economy, and ensure that the European security system includes Russia. This means taking a soft, noninterventionist stance on the near abroad. Second, Centrists and Eurasianists (including Victor Chernomyrdin and Yevgeny Primakov) stressed the need to take into account Russia's history, culture, and geography and to ensure that Russia's national interest is protected. They sought to gain access to the military resources of the successor states, seal unprotected borders, and contain external threats, namely Islamic fundamentalism in Central Asia. For these reasons Centrists and Eurasianists wanted to forge links or build bridges between Russia and Asia (namely Turkey, Iran, Afghanistan, and China). Finally, the traditionalists and nationalists (such as Vladimir Zhirinovsky and Gennady Zyuganov) are anti-Western and pro-Russian/Slavophile. They advocate a neo-imperialist Russian policy that seeks to restore the old USSR (Zyuganov) or at least build stronger links between Russia and other Slavic nations (Zhirinovsky). Such politicians have frequently made reference to alleged abuses of the rights of ethnic Russian or Russian-speaking populations in near abroad countries to justify such a stance.

Throughout the 1990s, reactions to key issues relating to the near abroad varied considerably. Thus nationalists tended to oppose NATO enlargement, criticize Western policy toward the Balkans and Iraq, and be concerned about the fate of Russians abroad, whereas liberals favored growing Western involvement in the ex-USSR and a moderate stance on the near abroad. Russians in general were concerned about the nuclear weapons left in successor states (i.e., Ukraine), with the role of ex-USSR armed forces, and with the possibility that conflicts in successor states (including Tajikistan, Georgia, Moldova, and Azerbaijan) may spread to Russia. Despite the West's initial fears and Russian criticism of NATO's Eastern enlargement, it still went ahead, because Yeltsin preferred to mend fences with Ukraine and improve relations with China and Japan. Also some of his government colleagues (e.g., Primakov) preferred closer relations with Belarus, while others such as Anatoly Chubais wanted closer relations with the West (via IMF, etc.). Furthermore, Yeltsin wanted to retain Western support for Russia's drive toward market and liberal democracy, so he was willing to sacrifice old "spheres of influence" and adopt a less aggressive stance on the near abroad. Yeltsin realized that Russia, weakened by the loss of its superpower status, was no longer able to police the ex-USSR. As a consequence, Yeltsin largely ignored the near abroad in favor of alliances with other powers resentful of American supremacy (e.g., China, India). Throughout the 1990s, Yeltsin pursued a Gorbachev-style policy concerning the West and continued to cut ties with the East while maintaining a watchful eye over the near abroad, a new area of concern, given the presence of up to 30 million ethnic Russians in these countries. Wherever possible Yeltsin sought to maximize Russian influence over the other former Soviet republics. Vladimir Putin has continued to walk the tightrope between assertiveness and integration, taking into account the nature of the new world order of the twenty-first century.

See also: chernomyrdin, viktor stepanovich; kozyrev, andrei vladimirovich; primakov, yevgeny maximovich; yeltsin, boris nikolayevich


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Trofimenko, Henry. (1999). Russian National Interests and the Current Crisis in Russia. Aldershot, UK: Ashgate.

Williams, Christopher. (2000). "The New Russia: From Cold War Strength to Post-Communist Weakness and Beyond." In New Europe in Transition, ed. Peter J. Anderson, Georg Wiessala, and Christopher Williams. London: Continuum.

Williams, Christopher, and Sfikas, Thanasis D. (1999). Ethnicity and Nationalism in Russia, the CIS, and the Baltic States. Aldershot, UK: Ashgate.

Christopher Williams