Half a decade after a series of “colored revolutions” toppled Moscow-backed rulers across the former Soviet Union and replaced them with pro-Western ones, the Kremlin seems to be finally getting its payback. Already this year Russia can count two scalps—Ukraine’s Viktor Yushchenko and Kyrgyzstan’s Kurmanbek Bakiyev, both ousted by challengers friendlier to Moscow. While it would be a stretch to say that Russia was the sole architect and puppet master of Ukraine’s February presidential election and Kyrgyzstan’s messy coup in April, the country certainly played a key role. It sheltered and supported Kyrgyz opposition leaders and made it clear to Ukrainian voters that a victory for Viktor Yanukovych would usher in a new era of cheap gas and increased trade. Moreover, this year’s strategic victories have inspired the Kremlin to encourage further regime change in what Russians still call their “near abroad.”
Target No. 1 is Georgia and its fervently pro-NATO president, Mikheil Saakashvili. Pro-Kremlin Duma deputy Sergei Markov says that Saakshvili "is a stone on the path to normal Russia-Georgian relations" and says that Moscow "will be happy if his opposition removes that stone." Since last year Kremlin leaders have made a point of publicly meeting with top Georgian opposition figures. On May 9, Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin stood side by side with former Georgian parliamentary speaker turned opposition leader Nino Burjanadze at ceremonies to commemorate the 65th anniversary of Victory Day. Putin, Burjanadze, and Moscow's Mayor Yuri Luzhkov also laid the foundation stone for a war memorial in Moscow identical to one in the Georgian city of Kutaisi that was demolished by Saakashvili last year. Hedging its bets, the Kremlin has also invited other Georgian opposition leaders—notably former prime minister Zurab Nogaideli and former Saakashvili aide Irakli Alasania—to Moscow for talks on how to topple the current Tbilisi government.
A key test for Saakashvili’s administration will be the mayoral elections for Tbilisi at the end of May, when Alasania will stand against a pro-government incumbent—and the opposition is ready for a fight. “[Saakashvili] and his administration are doing everything in their power to falsify the vote,” says Nogaideli, in Moscow for the seventh time in as many months last week. “If he does, he will regret it. We will riot. The government are writing the scenario for a repeat of the Bishkek revolution themselves.”
Russia, for its part, has been doing all it can to boost Saakashvili’s opponents. Last winter Nogaideli negotiated the release of three Georgian schoolboys detained by local militias in North Ossetia, and took credit for negotiating the resumption of direct charter flights between Moscow and Tbilisi. “By making peace with Russia, Georgians want to solve their practical economic problems—they want to be able to fly to Moscow and see their relatives, they want to export goods to Russia, go back home to occupied regions, and most importantly, have a guarantee that there will never be another war with Russia,” says Nogaideli.
But publicly palling with Moscow may be a dangerous strategy. True, a recent poll by the International Republican Institute shows that 52 percent of respondents disapprove of the Georgian government’s current policy toward Russia, and more than 80 percent want scheduled flights to be allowed. But at the same time, 38 percent of respondents said they disapproved of Alasania’s meetings with Russian officials, with only 22 percent in favor. Nogaideli’s own support hovers around 4 percent.
Saakashvili and much of the Georgian media have branded politicians friendly to Moscow “traitors” and “troublemakers.” And a delegation of Russian activists from the Kremlin-created United Russia party were attacked in Tbilisi earlier this month when they tried to hand out presents to World War II veterans.
Despite such mishaps, though, the Kremlin is sticking to its strategy: to befriend and empower groups that oppose Moscow’s enemies. Belarus’s mercurial President Alexander Lukashenko could soon be on the Kremlin’s target list after demanding rent for Russian military bases and sheltering the ousted Kyrgyz president. “Russia is terribly tired of Lukashenko and is looking for a decent leader to replace him,” says Igor Bunin of Moscow’s Center of Political Technologies. Moscow’s candidate of choice could well be Andrei Sannikov, a veteran Belarussian opposition leader who is not too close to the West and has declared that he is “ready to embrace Russian help if it comes from the right people.” Lukashenko, he says, “has been scared lately after he saw how Russia can support a revolution in former Soviet countries.”
The silver lining in Russia’s new strategy is that it could actually mark an end of Putin-era bullying tactics and the beginning of something more approaching real diplomacy. Instead of invading—as it did with Georgia in 2008—or cutting off gas supplies, as it has done to Ukraine in the past, the Kremlin is starting to cultivate relationships with regional opposition leaders not just on Russia’s terms but on the basis of mutual interest. “We have been telling the Kremlin that if they do not stop treating neighbors like enemies, somebody else will come and win their hearts,” says Alexei Malashenko of the Moscow Carnegie Center. “Moscow’s new approach means, I hope, that they will start listening to different opinions with more respect.” That may not sound as dramatic as orchestrating revolutions. But it could be the start of making the post-Soviet space a community, rather than a battleground.
In an earlier version of this story we misquoted Sergei Markov as saying that there would soon be "a second Bishkek" in Tbilisi. In fact this quote was from Opposition leader Zurab Nogaideli.