A Cold War Revival?


At the time, it seemed as important for the preservation of world peace as the Munich Agreement did in 1938, and the Versailles Treaty in 1919.

Almost 20 years ago to the day, on 8 December 1991, the leaders of the then Soviet Republics of Belarus, Ukraine and Russia formalised the break up of the Soviet Union. The Belavezha Accords, signed in the Belarusian forest near the Polish border, declared the Soviet Union dissolved.

The agreement showed what had been clear for months: the Soviet Union was doomed. That’s because the central actors in the Moscow Politburo mostly came from the three largest European republics.

And — as the opposition-aligned Belarusian website Charter ’97 recalled in 2005 — the three republics had been the founders of the Soviet Union in 1922, along with the defunct Transcaucsian Soviet Republic.

Two weeks later, the legality of the Belavezha Accords was confirmed, when almost all of the other Soviet states seceded from the Union at another meeting in Kazakhstan.

The end of the Soviet Union presaged the beginning of an era when Russia experienced wild free-market capitalism and geopolitical weakness. The 1990s and early 2000s were the nadir of modern Russian geopolitical power.

The former giant fought two wars in Chechnya to prevent the Russian state from dissolving, faced other separatist struggles in the Caucuses and saw its influence in Eastern Europe wane further, as the European Union and the United States dominated the region.

And its economic troubles during the 1990s were as notorious as those of Greece today. The abolition of price controls by post-Soviet Russia led to an astonishing inflation rate of 1528.7 per cent in 1992. Just six years later, as Russia vainly tried to stop foreign investors dumping its bonds, it offered to pay 150 per cent on its government loans.

That didn’t help, and the state went bankrupt in 1998. But only after having accepted a US$22.5 billion loan from the IMF and the World Bank to try to further encourage liberal economic reforms and keep the state solvent.

Months later, with Russia officially broke and the Russian population having suffered "an estimated 25 per cent fall in their standard of living", much of that aid hadn’t made it. It emerged that $4 billion of the amount lent by the IMF had been simply stolen.

As the French communist paper L’Humanité reported at the time, the cash was transferred from the Russian central bank into open bank accounts held at the Bank of New York. From there, it disappeared without a trace.

That 1998 crisis marked the beginning of the end for the first post-Soviet Russian president Boris Yeltsin. He ceded power to Vladimir Putin a year later.

Just over a decade later, in what can only be described as one of history’s ironies, Russia’s traditional European rivals are accepting IMF loans. And the resource-rich power is doing better than it has since the Soviet epoch. Most of the important European economies are struggling to register any growth at all but Russia is forecasting a growth-rate of nearly 6 per cent for next year, and 9 per cent for 2013.

Symbolising that recovery, Russia will next week become the "last major power" to enter the World Trade Organisation, reports Italian independent online newspaper Lettera 43. The paper says Russia’s WTO membership had been blocked by Georgia, still smarting from the 2008 Russia-Georgia conflict. The Caucasian nation wanted "the international status of the two break-away Republics of South Ossetia and Abkhazia clarified," according to Lettera 43.

Russia made those two republics de facto protectorates after the 2008 war. And Georgia took revenge by blocking Russia’s ascent into the WTO. But — after "stalling for three years" — the tiny Eastern European country was forced to "soften its position" by Brussels, says Lettera 43. While it’s not clear what motivated the European pressure, for its part, Moscow wants to enter the WTO because it feels that "in the era of globalisation, protectionist barriers don’t deliver much value," concludes Lettera 43.

That entry into the WTO will take effect on the 30th anniversary of the Belavezha Accords. But if you think that Russia and the EU’s trade rapproachment means the relationship is improving, think again. Russia made its anger clear last week after the US announced it was to deploy scud missiles in Poland, reports Spanish state broadcaster RTVE.

President Dmitri Medvédev announced the "immediate deployment" of an "early warning radar station" in the strategic Russian enclave of Kaliningrad, RTVE reports. That came in response to US hints that it’s about to place scud missiles in Poland and Romania to stop Iran attacking Europe. Quoting "Russian sources", RTVE claims that Moscow perceives that the "deployment could weaken the Russian nuclear arsenal".

The current decision to set up an anti-radar warning system could be followed by a decision to place nuclear missiles in Kaliningrad, claims Italian paper Corriere della Sera.

The afternoon daily says there’s talk in Moscow that "short range Iskander missiles could be placed in Kaliningrad". If Russia were to do this, it would mean that any new Russian/US START Agreement on arms reduction would no longer be on the table, according to Corriere della Sera. Meaning that "Russia could strike the US directly and vice-versa."

But the paper ends by asking whether Medvédev is really serious, or whether he’s just campaigning ahead of legislative elections planned for 4 December. "Now that Putin’s decided to return to playing president … if the pro-Kremlin Party that Medvédev leads goes badly … Putin will sack him," opines Corriera della Sera.

Yet regardless of whether Medvédev was electioneering or not when he made his threats last week, the renewed tension in Eastern Europe raised the question, 20 years later, as to whether the Cold War really ended. Or did the Belavezha Accords just mark the start of an intermission?

ABOUT BEST OF THE REST: It’s a big world out there and plenty of commentators and journalists are writing about it — but not always in English. And not surprisingly, ideas about big events of the day shift when you move away from the Anglosphere. Best of the Rest is a fortnightly NM feature by Berlin-based journalist Charles McPhedran. Charles reads the news in French, German, Spanish and Portuguese and reports on what the rest of the world is saying about the big stories.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.