Russia’s Bearer of Bad Tidings

Times Staff Writer

If you are one of the world’s dwindling number of Soviet-era leaders, trapped in your villa with the annoying winds of democracy blowing in the streets, there may be worse things than having longtime Russian Foreign Minister Igor S. Ivanov knock on your door.

But not many.

For the record:

12:00 a.m. July 19, 2004 For The Record
Los Angeles Times Monday July 19, 2004 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 36 words Type of Material: Correction
Russian military -- An article in Sunday’s Section A on the diplomatic role of Russia’s former foreign minister, Igor S. Ivanov, stated that his nation maintains military bases in Kyrgyzstan. The Russians have one base there.

Former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic got the Ivanov knock Oct. 6, 2000, right when he was most counting on Russia’s backup against the wave of opposition supporters in the streets proclaiming the victory of his rival, Vojislav Kostunica. Within hours of meeting with Ivanov, the Serbian dictator conceded defeat.

Eduard A. Shevardnadze, the president of Georgia, heard the knock Nov. 23, when Ivanov delivered the news that Russia feared bloodshed could result from Shevardnadze’s standoff with the forces of the “Rose Revolution” unfolding in the streets. Within hours, Shevardnadze bowed to the inevitable and stepped down.


By early May, a standoff was brewing in the Black Sea region of Adzharia in Georgia, where longtime Moscow ally Aslan Abashidze repeatedly proclaimed his intention to never back down in his battle against the new democratically elected Georgian authorities. Then Ivanov darkened his door. Abashidze left on Ivanov’s plane for Moscow that night.

As the aircraft rose through the Georgian darkness, Ivanov poured the now-former leader of Adzharia a glass of whisky. He told him whatever it is that the Russians tell old allies whose relationships have grown inconvenient -- no, impossible -- in a world in which Russia is no longer a superpower.

Ivanov’s role as the Terminator of Russian diplomacy underscores an important shift in the nation’s foreign policy in the last decade, as it has moved from playing the role of global powerbroker to defining and focusing on its own national interests.

Increasingly, Russia has been forced to rethink old relationships, faced with NATO’s expansion into former Soviet republics, with democratic movements springing up in Georgia, Ukraine, Azerbaijan, Armenia and Yugoslavia, and with the U.S. establishing diplomatic and military footholds from Central Asia to the Baltic Sea.

Ivanov, who was foreign minister for five years before being appointed secretary of the Russian Security Council in March, has been a key architect of the nation’s move to focus on its “near abroad” -- the former Soviet republics around its borders whose futures it sees as inextricably linked with its own. He has also championed the move to supplant the confrontational dialogue with the U.S. that characterized the Cold War with an attempt to form global alliances against what he sees as the common threat of terrorism.

In his book “The New Russian Diplomacy,” Ivanov emphasizes the need to pursue foreign policy goals that are far from traditional: creating conditions for sustained economic growth, increasing the standard of living for Russian citizens, protecting national security and defending the rights of Russian citizens abroad. He rejects the “artificial juxtaposition” of East and West.


“We need to proceed from the realities we live in. The 21st century makes an age which is seriously different from the situation at the end of the 20th century,” Ivanov said in a recent interview. “On the one hand, the world stopped being split into two opposing blocs after the end of the Cold War. On the other hand, new threats and challenges emerged which declared themselves in full voice on Sept. 11.

“These threats are not of an ideological character, and they are not aimed against one state or groups of states; they are aimed against all of humanity. These threats bear a global, transborder character, and they should be answered in kind.”

That meant that Shevardnadze, with whom Ivanov worked years ago in Moscow when both served under the same government, had to be held accountable not only to popular democratic forces, but for years of reluctance to crack down on Chechen separatist rebels who had used Georgia’s Pankisi Gorge as a base for attacks on Russia.

It meant recognizing that Milosevic had outlived any usefulness to Russia, said Gleb Pavlovsky of the Effective Policy Fund, a political strategy group with close ties to the Kremlin.

“What kind of guarantor was he of Russia’s national interests?” Pavlovsky said. “Russia’s historical clout in the Balkans was being sacrificed [by Milosevic] for the sake of the interests of a number of shadow-economy corporations that traded in weapons, cigarettes and gasoline.... Milosevic failed to become a donor in Russia-Yugoslav relations.”

In a recent Moscow Times commentary, the Oriel College-Oxford lecturer Mark Almond described Ivanov’s role as “an angel of political death” called on to deliver “the political version of euthanasia.” That role underscores what he called “Russia’s retreat


As the U.S. opens military bases near the Caspian Sea and eases in friendly leaders along a key oil pipeline route in Georgia, “Russia’s own energy resources are falling under the shadow of U.S. power, and the routes to export Russian oil or gas, independent of Washington’s sphere of influence, are narrowing,” Almond said.

The “Ivanov retreat” in Georgia and Adzharia allowed Moscow to address a source of instability directly on its southern border. A failed state in Georgia, or a civil war between the Georgian capital, Tbilisi, and a rebellious republic like Adzharia, could easily spill into Russia’s troubled southern republics. A new Georgian government hostile to Moscow likewise could foment trouble there.

Ivanov no doubt is mindful of this. He said the U.S. would be well advised to remember that Russia enjoyed a unique historic relationship with the republics on its borders. “In these countries, all the generations lived in the same state. We had common culture, common education, we worked together, developed our economies together and so on. If you please, common thinking was formed. Naturally, these are not some artificial ties,” he said.

Although it is “a normal reality” that these nations pursue their own expanded relations with the U.S., he said, “at the same time, we would consider it wrong and contradictory to our interests to ... start pushing Russia away from this space. If the United States thinks that it is correct to declare the zone of the Caspian Sea as a zone of their vital interest, then I do not need to explain that Russia has many more grounds to claim the entire ... [region] as the zone of our vital interest.”

Russia has kept many of its former republics dependent by becoming a key supplier of oil and natural gas, literally capable of keeping the heat turned on in satellite nations like Belarus. Russia has established military bases in the Central Asian nation of Kyrgyzstan and has hinted that its considerable remaining nuclear arsenal remains on standby if NATO should move into an “aggressive” posture on Russia’s borders.

At the same time, Ivanov said, Russia had no hesitation about approving U.S. plans to open military bases in Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan to launch the first front of the war on terrorism in Afghanistan, because the Taliban had posed a similar threat to Russia.


“There exists a point of view that the U.S. could take advantage of this and, under the pretext of the operation in Afghanistan, could strengthen their military presence in Central Asia,” he said. “We hope that the American leadership will act on this issue in accordance with the promises made: that this military presence will be tied with the anti-terrorist operation in Afghanistan. And when this threat is liquidated, the necessity of the U.S. military presence in Central Asia will be no more.”

As for his role as the undertaker of Russian diplomacy, Ivanov is dismissive. “Maybe someone would like to pose me as a hero, but I do not assign this role to myself,” he said.

With Shevardnadze, he said, he never tried to force the Georgian president to step down. “The term ‘resignation’ was never featured in my consultations with Shevardnadze or with the opposition leaders. I did not persuade Shevardnadze to resign,” he said.

In Adzharia, the oil-rich region of Georgia that maintained close ties to Russia even after Georgian independence, Ivanov said he made it clear to Abashidze that a crisis was possible if he did not come to terms with Georgia’s newly elected leader, Mikheil Saakashvili.

“Lots of armed people were out in the streets. There was sporadic shooting. And the atmosphere was aggravating very rapidly,” Ivanov said. “We spoke for about three hours.... He knew that I came not with some bad plans but with good intentions.”

The real issue for Russian diplomacy, some analysts suggest, may be whether it manages to go the next step -- from easing out the old dictators, a role in which Moscow now seems quite adept, to actually forming strategic alliances with the pro-democracy movements that are angling to take their place.


In countries like Ukraine and Belarus, said Andrei Kortunov of the Eurasia Foundation in Moscow, “the question is: At what point is Russia ready to revise its position and take risks by supporting the more radical, more progressive and more flamboyant candidates?

“Probably, for something like this, you need someone who will be more willing to take risks than Ivanov, someone ready to step down to a new generation of leaders.”