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February 20, 2008 (the date of publication in Russian)

Yaroslav Butakov

THE ISTHMUS OF COLLIDING IDENTITIES

The Russian factor as a historical landmark for the Baltic-Black Sea geopolitical system

THE ILLUSION AND PERSPECTIVE OF THE BALTIC-BLACK SEA ALLIANCE

Zbigniew Brzezinski's 1991 design of a buffer zone, destined to separate Russia from Europe, involved the project of the Baltic-Black Sea alliance of newly independent states. Originally discussed in liberal Russian circles, it was later advertised by the Byelorussian Popular Front, the leading nationalist party of Belarus, in accord with Ukraine's Republican Party and interested political circles of the Baltic States.

Despite heavy support from globalistic structures, the project failed. Its supposed members were too culturally and politically unequal. The Baltic States hurried to integrate in the West independently, eventually being accepted to EU and NATO. In Ukraine and Moldova, the inertial resistance of the population's majority, as well as political and social instability, prevented a similar speed of transformation which actually stuck in its initial phase.

The most significant role in the failure of Brzezinski's project was played by Belarus after the 1994 ascent of Alexander Lukashenko, whose strong resistance to Euroatlanticist policies disrupted the projected chain of raw export transit from the Caspian Sea to Lithuania that was supposed to involve Belarusian oil refineries. Refusing to privatize the refineries, Lukashenko also expressed firm commitment for political and military-strategic partnership with Russia. That is why he became the object of furious ostracism from both the United States and the European community – which only instigated his non-Western orientation.

The necessity to bypass Belarus forced Western strategists to develop new designs, and to concentrate its efforts on a Polish-Ukrainian alliance, facilitating transit of Caspian oil from Odessa via Brody to Gdansk. However, by the time when the Odessa-Brody pipeline was built, the corporate community preferred to accept the proposal from Ankara to implement the Baku-Ceyhan project.

In a reduced version, the idea of the Baltic-Black Sea alliance was revived only after the "orange revolution" in Ukraine, when the "club of resentful nations", dubbed GUAM (Georgia, Ukraine, Azerbaijan and Moldova), was reinforced with Lithuania and Poland in the framework of the Community for Democratic Choice.

Actually, the belt of smaller nations, connecting the Baltic and the Black Sea, has never comprised an integral geopolitical and civilizational unity. This area had been a permanent field of rivalry of the larger players, or was almost wholly integrated into an imperial system. From the civilizational standpoint, the Baltic-Black Sea system, according to the definition of political scientist Mikhail Ilyin, represents a limitrophe of two great civilizations Ц Russia and the West, the two identities amalgamating but never ousting one another completely.

Therefore, the project of the Baltic-Black Sea Alliance could be successful only in the form of a gradual and cautious assimilation of the border areas of the Russian Federation by Europe. Instead, the West chose the option of accelerated integration of particular nations into its institutions. Still, in case the present strategy encounters some strong obstacles, preferably of ethnic and cultural origin, the earlier design of the specific Black Sea-Baltic Alliance may be introduced again.

 

THE EVERLASTING LIMITROPHE

According to the definition proposed by Vadim Cymburski, the Baltic-Black Sea geopolitical system represents "the isthmus that separates the peninsula of Europe from the continent of Eurasia". This geographic position determines enduring geopolitical significance of this territory.

The shortest line, connecting the two seas, crosses the western areas of both historically and presently existing countries of the "isthmus". However, the line of civilizational collision had moved in western and eastern directions in various period of history, reflecting the extent of assimilation of territories by one of the civilizational centers.

In its general features, the Baltic-Black Sea Alliance reproduces on every stage of European history, each time including a relatively consolidated nucleus and a number of peripheral littoral territories that tend to become a subject of rivalry. Only in the period of X-XIII centuries, the "isthmus" was relatively culturally homogenous. However, the Kiev Rus did not reach both of the two littoral territories; since the XII century, the political center of Rus moved far eastward.

In the XIV-XV centuries, the "isthmus" was consolidated around the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, or Western Rus. However, this state failed to establish a civilizational identity. Originally emerging as a cultural and political heir of Kiev Rus, the Grand Duchy found itself in the crossroads of influences from the West European Catholic civilizational center, with its bulwark in Poland, and the newly-emerged Great Russian, Orthodox center. At first, the Western side was more successful, subordinating the Grand Duchy politically through the Union of Lublin agreements of 1569. The religious and cultural assimilation was more complicated, and the later Union of Brest-Litovsk (1596) was not sufficient to guarantee success. On the contrary, the pressure, imposed by the Catholic Church after the 1596 Union, shifted the geopolitical pendulum eastward.

The "isthmus" was never wholly dominated by a particular geopolitical subject Ц neither in the times of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania nor in the period of Rzeczpospolita. The southern littoral area was run by the Islamized remains of the Horde, overtaken in the XV-XVI centuries by the Ottomans, while the northern area was under control of the Teutonian and Livonian orders, and later by Sweden (after Russia's unsuccessful attempt to move into this area in the XVI century).

The motto of the Polish expansionist elite of the times of Josef Pilsudski in 1920s was "Polska ot brzega do brzega" Ц "Poland from sea to sea". This dream was historically nonsensical, as the Black Sea was not more accessible for Poland than the Indian Ocean for Russia.

The first country that eventually managed to gain control over the whole of the "isthmus" was Russia. This period lasted for almost two centuries Ц between 1795 and 1991 with a temporary withdrawal between 1918 and World War II.

Complete control over the "isthmus" enabled the Russian Empire to guarantee lengthy periods of peace at the Western border. At the same time, the XIX-XX centuries were marked with most devastating military conflicts between Russia and the West, in which the contest for this area was a most sensitive issue. In fact, Russia's influence along with Baltic-Black Sea corridor significantly determined the subject of the two world wars. In fact, control of this territory made Russia a European power.

One more lesson of this period of two centuries was the fatal insufficiency of means with which Russia was trying to guarantee its control over this territory. The imperial reign did not manage to overcome the peripheral properties of the littoral zones. The efforts of the Russian Empire and later the USSR to assimilate the Baltic region turned a failure. On the contrary, this region extended a specific assimilative effect on the imperial power, particularly due to Moscow's orientation towards Germanic culture since the XVIII century. The Ostsee elite, integrated into the Russian Empire, sometimes exerted a so powerful influence on Russia (especially under Anne I, Peter III and Nicholas I) that created an impression of Germanic domination over Russia.

Thus, despite formal integration into Russia, the Baltic region served as a stronghold of the Germanic civilization, jutting out into Russia and preventing it to assert its own identity along the Baltic-Black Sea corridor. In case Russia had managed to retain control over Eastern Prussia after the Seven-Year War (1756-1763), the impact of "domestic Germanism" on the empire could have become fatal.

In fact, the Russian civilizational identity was faintly expressed in the imperial policy in the western lands. The Soviet power, with its internationalist ideology, also failed to introduce any essential change. Looking back at that era, we just wonder how Russia managed to keep its political domination there for almost two centuries without any intentional effort of assimilation.

Today, after USSR's disintegration, the Baltic-Black Sea belt reproduces the features typical for the period of rivalry of European empires for these lands. Its territorial nucleus, Belarus, rather plays the role of a Russian bulwark intruding between the debated peripheries. In the Baltic States, the Russian community may prevent complete assimilation by the Western identity, thus playing the same role that the Ostsee elite once played in Russia. In Ukraine and Moldova, the outcome of the contest for identity is not yet visible.

Under these conditions, Russia has got a perspective of a successful intervention in reformatting of the limitrophes. After all, the heritage of Russia's two-century domination in the "isthmus" is more influential in the civilizational code of the Baltic Ц Black Sea region than the amorphousness of the latest 17 years or the distant times of Rzeczpospolita.


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