An interview with political analyst Alexei Arbatov

The parade of “color revolutions” in the CIS raises the question of whether Russia is capable of preventing them. How legitimate would it be for Russia to use its military to fight radical opposition forces at home or in neighboring states?

The parade of “color revolutions” in the CIS raises the question of whether Russia is capable of preventing them. How legitimate would it be for Russia to use its military to fight radical opposition forces at home or in neighboring states? We put this question to Alexei Georgievich Arbatov, head of the International Security Center at the International Economy and International Relations Institute (IMEMO) of the Russian Academy of Sciences.

Question: In which part of the former Soviet Union might we expect to see more color revolutions in the near future?

Alexei Arbatov: In some Central Asian republics, for example in Uzbekistan and, possibly in Kazakhstan. Of course, they may be expressed in a different form. Somewhere territorial clans will struggle against each other. In some other countries this will happen on a different basis. Recall the civil war in Tajikistan: there are very serious contradictions there between the north and the south, among clans and groups traditionally controlling different regions and expressed inequality of economic, political and social development. There is, of course, also instigation from abroad. It is clear that Central Asia is a tasty morsel for most diverse radical Islamist movements and for the underground terrorist movement. Raids to Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan were organized frequently and in Tajikistan this was a real war in which over 100,000 people died in 1992. Thus, this area is very restless.

Question: Where a revolution will take place first of all, where authorities are weak or in circumstances of a stringent totalitarian regime?

Alexei Arbatov: In Central Asia both the states based on a very stringent dictatorship and the states where authorities are moderately authoritarian are vulnerable, although in a different way. For example, Kyrgyzstan had the most liberal political system in the region. In Uzbekistan and Tajikistan there is an absolutely stringent dictatorship, where no opposition and no dissident movement was allowed. And everything exploded there. Kazakhstan is somewhere in-between. Experience shows that where there is the most stringent dictatorship authorities can retain power the longest but explosion will be bloodier accompanied with all kinds of calamities. After all, explosive potential is being accumulated anyway and does not find any peaceful outlet. I remind that there is also intervention from abroad. Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan operating from the territory of Afghanistan is struggling against Uzbekistan. In countries with softer regime this may happen faster but in milder forms without much bloodshed, like in Kyrgyzstan.

Question: Which of these scenarios may be implemented in Belarus?

Alexei Arbatov: If we look at the European part of the former Soviet Union, of course, Belarus is a direct candidate for events of this kind. This may be very dangerous. Russia, having failed in Ukraine where not the candidate that Russia supported finally won, would draw conclusions for the future. In Belarus Russia will try to prevent such a turn of events. Meanwhile, the West has decided that this model is working well. Because it has worked in Georgia and Ukraine, Belarus is the next in line. Western politicians are now stating clearly that Belarus should get rid of what is called the “last dictatorship” in the region. I am very much afraid that the opposition between Russia and the West in this region may lead to a head-in collision. Lukashenko is not Kuchma and he will suppress any manifestations of protest, especially if the matter is about the youth. The West can intervene. It will provide comprehensive support to the opposition and Lukashenko will turn for assistance to Russia. It will be very difficult for us to decline his request. After the defeat in Ukraine Belarus became much more important for us from the standpoint of communications, defense and access to the exclave of Kaliningrad. It became nearly the last ally of Russia in the former Soviet Union, no matter what was our attitude to Lukashenko. Most of Russia’s citizens, ruling elite, and parliament think of Lukashenko according to the formula coined by President Johnson: he may be a son of a bitch, but he’s our son of a bitch.

Question: What form might our intervention take if Russia does respond to Lukashenko’s call for aid?

Alexei Arbatov: The military would not be used openly. However, there are also the special forces and the Internal Troops. We can intervene if Lukashenko cries for help and it is clear that should he fall Belarus will set its foot on the path of entrance into NATO after Ukraine without Russia. In this case there will be NATO member states along our entire border and condition of Kaliningrad exclave will grow much worse. In this case pressure on Putin will be terrible. He will have to take care that stability in Russia was not undermined. For Putin acceptance of loss of Belarus after Ukraine would mean a new blow on authority inside of the country.

Question: How will this be reflected on the domestic political situation? Can authoritarian trends grow in Russia?

Alexei Arbatov: Of course. If Belarus falls away or if events there lead to a confrontation between Russia and the West, this would have an immediate impact on the situation in Russia. We will be unable to develop marketing economy and democracy being in confrontation with the West. Most likely, the West will not intervene and Belarus remains with us, but in this case the West will compensate for this in Ukraine, Baltic republics and in Georgia, will attract Azerbaijan and Armenia to its side and we together with Belarus will remain totally surrendered by NATO, which will be a hostile bloc then. Now NATO is not an enemy or a friend for us but a partner. Along with contradictions we have many areas of interaction. We will have to forget about such interaction for a long time if events of the aforementioned kind occur in Belarus.

Question: What will be development of events like if Russia gives up intervention? How it would be possible to avoid it?

Alexei Arbatov: If Russia starts establishing relations with the opposition leaders beforehand (some of them are outside of Belarus now) the dilemma will not necessarily be like it is now: either Belarus with Lukashenko together with Russia or Belarus without Lukashenko and without Russia. At any rate, this is a very difficult and delicate line because Lukashenko has virtually made his opposition illegal. For us establishment of contacts with Belarussian opposition, unlike Ukrainian opposition, means to act against Lukashenko as acting president. This is not easy. We also cannot be sure that NATO will treat these issues with understanding. Probably we need to start negotiating with NATO: if some events occur in Belarus, let us not intervene. But can we count on positive outcome of such agreement? NATO is very skilled at using methods of indirect intervention via public organizations, publicity, and political opposition parties. We aren’t very good at using these methods. We find it easier to resort to military force to solve any problem, as we did in 1993 in Moscow or in the first and second war in Chechnya. That is why even if we reach an agreement with NATO that nobody would intervene, they can do much more by non-violent methods than we can. Besides, it is difficult not to intervene if Lukashenko starts arranging repetition of Tiananmen events in Belarus and entire European and international public raises noise. Do you remember how everything has started in Kosovo? Nobody wanted to make war because of Kosovo at first.

Question: How great is the role played by foreign foundations (non-government organizations) in organizing color revolutions?

Alexei Arbatov: I cannot say that it is decisive. Revolutions won’t happen in stable countries, no matter how many foundations operate there. For a revolution to take place, event such bloodless revolutions like the recent color ones, ground is needed. Incapable and unpopular regime that does not enjoy support of the overwhelming majority of the population is needed. For example, by the moment of orange revolution Ukraine was actually split. If one half of the population does not support the regime this is already an alarm signal. Only in this case activities of external forces may have an influence. In Russia it is possible to have one hundred times more foundations but if the major part of the population and political elite (according to polls) is, so to speak, standing more to the left and is inclined to a more statehood stance than the President, no liberal revolution simply will not pass. More likely, the nationalists and radical leftists will go out into the streets. Besides, history is history: in the 1990s, our right-wing liberals held important positions in government, and screwed up all the reforms. The people still hold that against them. This did not happen in Ukraine, Belarus or Kyrgyzstan.

Question: Do we have mechanisms for use of military force inside of the country for suppression of color revolutions? To which extent do you think the government is prepared for a forceful solution of the problem?

Alexei Arbatov: Everything has already been worked out. All amendments have been passed, there is a law on state of emergency, which allows use of even army for this purpose, leaving apart interior forces the use of which has been always allowed. There is also the law on combating terrorism. It is always possible to accuse a movement going from under control of terrorist activities and to block its legal political opportunities. There are all mechanisms, institutional and legislative ones. Thus, we need not worry about this. This is just another question if a political decision is made. So far this is not the youth or liberals who protest in our country. Liberals organize their small-time events but the authorities are absolutely not afraid of them. When pensioners or, god forbid, resigned military closely connected with officers in active service by personal and psychological ties go out into the streets, the authorities will be worried definitely. Overall, up to 200,000 people participated in the protest rallies of January. This is not very much for Russia but for the authorities this has been a serious signal. It seems to me that the message of President Putin is to a big extent a reaction to these events. Putin obviously addressed those who were offended, promising care of the state to them and criticizing bureaucracy because it did not look at the citizens as people, privatizing state power.

Question: Might Russia send its troops to Central Asia?

Alexei Arbatov: I think it cannot. Even when well-known events happened in Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan and when terrorists invaded there annually, we did not send out troops. However, our troops participated in stopping of violence and bloodshed in Tajikistan. Our division remains there still. Of course, we were not going to extinguish fires in neighboring republics: we were afraid that our intervention would only kindle the conflicts. In Belarus there is no Islam but in Central Asia everything instantaneously acquires an Islamic shade, religious and national one, targeted against the Russians and against the Christians in general. Any forceful intervention will immediately unite all opposition forces sending them to under flags of Islam. As we know from example of guerilla wars in various regions, Islam is a big force. Although America is a very powerful state (American army is stronger than all armies of the world taken together, probably except for Russia) but cannot stabilize the situation in Iraq. When Islam relies on support of local population and is waging a guerilla terrorist war, this is a horrible force with which it is difficult to cope.

Question: How great is the threat of Islamization of revolutionary processes in Central Asia at present?

Alexei Arbatov: It has expanded. After the war in Iraq, where Americans have obviously got stuck deep and for a long time, radical Islam and international terrorism using Islamic forces extensively, has risen the head. It is not only actively operating in Iraq, it is also on the rise in Afghanistan. Of course, it will not remain in these borders, will go to the north again and after the events in Kyrgyzstan it will try to penetrate into Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan and Russia again.

Question: And we would eventually find ourselves surrounded by fronts, with NATO in the west and the Islamists in the south.

Alexei Arbatov: And in the east we will face China, which may restate claims for our territories. Unfortunately, there is such prospect and Russia needs to decide with who it is. It is clear that we have different ways with the radical Islamic fundamentalism that hates us like it hates Americans and Europeans and we will never come to agreement with them, if only we do not accept Islam, introduce Shariah law and make all women wear the veil. We do not wish to do this. With China we maintain good relations but there cannot be any military political alliance. This would be an alliance of Russia as a junior brother with China as a senior brother. Russia has many things that the senior brother would like to have: huge territory and enormous mineral resources along with too small population of the Far East. Historic claims that remain despite the demarcation of borders are pit aside but they do remain and China has not forgotten about them. It turns out that if we continue the course of the so-called self-sufficiency and maneuver among these three largest centers of force (two of them established, namely the West and China, and the third being simply a hue force of instability that is expressed in radical terrorist movements), we will finally find ourselves among the three fires. We will not have a friendly alliance in the West and it will not help us creating certain problems and distracting a part of our forces there. We cannot withdraw forces from Europe whereas our entire Western border faces NATO with an army being a few times stronger than ours! Simultaneously, the south will carry out subversion activities against us, China will pressurize us from the East and gradually lay hands on our treasures in Siberia and in the Far East, directly or indirectly. Not to find ourselves in such position we need to make up our mind. I do not see any other way for Russia except for cooperation with the West, first of all, with Big Europe, and development of our relations with NATO so much to make entrance of the nearest neighbors into this organization not dangerous for us. In this case NATO will not be an organization hostile to us. Incidentally, this depends both on NATO and on Russia. Existing cooperation develops too slowly mostly due to inactiveness of our ministries including the Defense Ministry but also due to uncertain attitude of the West to Russia. The West does not wish to formulate clear and long-term prospects for relations of NATO and European Union with Russia. More, deeper and better is not the goal but a process. However, a process should have a goal, otherwise current policy will be confined to tactical steps overshadowing the strategy.