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Published: Saturday, 4/5/2003

Kremlin appears heading back to empire-building

“Protiv kavo druzhite?” or “Who are you being buddy-buddy against?” goes a fashionable Russian phrase.

It appears that the Kremlin is prepared to be “buddy-buddy” with just about anybody as long as it is against the United States.

Much like the United Nations and NATO, the ex-Soviet Commonwealth of Independent States is split over the U.S.-led war in Iraq. Some countries such as Uzbekistan, Georgia, and Ukraine are supporting the United States. Others such as Russia and Byelorussia are opposed.

Reluctant to ignore the self-righteous rage of Russian nationals in the face of upcoming parliamentary and presidential elections, the Kremlin appears to be moving back toward empire building.

Never mind that the Russian president assured the United States last week that Russia would continue to cooperate with the United States. The Kremlin is vehemently opposed to the war. Moreover, more than half of Russians want Iraq to win the war, according to a poll by Russia's Public Opinion Foundation.

There is no doubt that Kremlin-inspired anti-American war coverage in the Russian media has a lot to do with it.

What really makes Russian diehards see red is America's post-Sept. 11 policy of preventive strike.

"Today it is Saddam in Iraq. Tomorrow it is anyone, anywhere,” they preach.

The Kremlin is wise enough not to annoy Washington by overt support of the Iraqi regime. Instead, it launched a massive PR campaign rallying some of its former vassals to form a new political and military alliance.

It may be preaching to the choir. Byelorussia, a neighboring state of fellow-Slavs, and the largely Muslim ex-Soviet “stans” in Central Asia are afraid of becoming targets of America's preventive strike policy. Never mind that Uzbekistan and Tajikistan each hosted a U.S. military base at the outbreak of the Afghanistan campaign.

Getting the drift from the Kremlin, Russian self-styled “geo-strategy experts” are exploiting their insecurity.

These “experts” simply paint a bleak picture with a very broad brush. First, they declare the U.S.-led war on Saddam Hussein an aggression against a sovereign state. Then they “conclude” that the United States is a threat to any sovereign state.

Here is a sample from a recent Moscow radio station broadcast:

“We have already tried to oppose America single-handedly and failed,” Alexander Dugin, the head of the Center for Geo-Political Expertise, leader of the Eurasia party, told the Ekho Moskvy radio.

“Only one conclusion follows: Not a bipolar world, not Russia against America - it's a lost battle - but the whole world against America, Russia included.”

The radio report said an estimated 50 percent of the station's listeners are ready to boycott U.S. imports as a protest against the war, according to the station's recent poll.

Now, that is really troubling because this particular radio station is actually known in Russia as liberal and pro-American.

Apparently, a lot has changed in Russia since then. And the change is not encouraging.

Given Europe's reluctance to get chummy with Moscow, the Kremlin is looking for allies closer to home.

One such alliance has been long in the making: the one with Byelorussia. Until recently, the Kremlin had been stalling the Russia-Byelorussia union for a simple reason that Byelorussia is dirt poor and its human rights records is too atrocious even for Russia to ignore.

Now that parliamentary and presidential elections are coming up, the anti-American empire-building noise in the Russian media may mean that the Kremlin is jumping on the nationalistic bandwagon and is ready to change its tune again.

The political pressure from the poor chauvinistic masses has jumpstarted the presidential campaign in the media.

And this is another reason why the Kremlin is more likely to strike a deal with Byelorussia which - much like North Korea - is vying for a nuclear umbrella against perceived threat of a forced regime change.

As to Byelorussia, it gets no U.S. imports and stands to lose nothing from scuttling under Russia's nuclear wing.

Should the two states unite, the reconstruction of the former Soviet empire may not stop there.



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