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From Moscow with charm

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Robin Lustig | 11:37 UK time, Friday, 30 April 2010

I imagine you've had better things to do over the past few days than keep a beady eye on what Russsia has been up to. After all, that's what I'm here for.

(And if you promise to read to the end, I'll tell you what I think is going to happen in the UK general election next Thursday.)

But first Russia - which may be but a shadow of its former self, but is still a major power, one of the world's biggest energy suppliers, nuclear-armed, and with a clear determination not to be taken for granted.

So here are three recent developments which I think are worth bearing in mind.

First, Kyrgyzstan. You'll remember I wrote about it a couple of weeks ago. Small, poor, but strategically important ex-Soviet republic in central Asia, where the autocratic president was overthrown and driven into exile by an uprising/revolution/coup d'etat (delete according to taste).

I suggested two weeks ago that super-power rivalry may have played a part in events there. Certainly, both the US and Russia have a close interest in what happens - and it is now becoming increasingly clear that the new regime in Bishkek is much more to Moscow's liking than its ousted predecessor. Some analysts in Washington believe Russia has scored a significant diplomatic coup, leaving US influence in the region markedly weaker.

Second, Ukraine. You may have seen some extraordinary scenes on TV earlier in the week, when members of the Ukrainian parliament came to blows. According to The Economist: "Eggs flew at the speaker, who sheltered under umbrellas. Flares filled the chamber with stinking smoke. Fisticuffs broke out beside a giant national flag stretched over the seats."

What had upset some opposition MPs was a deal negotiated with Moscow by the newly elected president, Viktor Yanukovich, under which Ukraine agreed to allow the Russian navy to retain its Black Sea fleet base in the Crimea until 2042, in return for a 30 per cent discount on Russian gas prices.

It means, of course, that Russia retains its military presence in Ukraine. It also means, by extension, that Ukraine will not be joining NATO any time soon. So, you could argue, another success for Moscow in its continuing power game with Washington.

Alternatively, you could say Ukraine is simply buying itself a bit more time to learn to live with less Russian gas. Either way, the Russian navy stays in its Black Sea base, which matters to Moscow.

The third development to which I would draw your attention arises out of the death in a plane crash on 10 April of the Polish president Lech Kaczynski on his way to mark the 70th anniversary of the murders of 22,000 Polish officers by the Soviets in Katyn in 1940.

For decades, Moscow denied that the massacre had anything to do with them. More recently it has owned up, and two days ago, it posted official documents about the murders on a government website. One Polish historian was quoted as saying the decision was a "breakthough" in relations between the two countries.

So, what does this all add up to? Three countries, all of them of substantial interest to Washington and its allies, all now on the receiving end of what could be seen as a Russian charm offensive. Nothing wrong with charm, of course, which is certainly preferable to the deployment of columns of tanks, which used to be Moscow's favoured way of exerting influence on its neighbours.

Nor would I suggest that we're witnessing a return to the bad old days of the Cold War. What we may be witnessing, however, is evidence that Moscow has learned how to make friends and influence people by using carrots rather than sticks. And that it is perfectly prepared to distribute those carrots wherever it seems to be in the Russian national interest.

It's not the only country that does this, of course. China, for example, is using trade and investment as a way of winning new friends - and Western nations have been doing much the same for aeons.

Does it matter? I think it does - remember how we saw at the climate change conference in Copenhagen last December that newly-emerging power blocs can play a major role in international diplomacy. That's why I thought it was worth bringing to your attention.

Ah yes, the election. After last night's final leaders' debate, my forecast is that the Conservatives will win next week with a small overall majority. Which just happens to be exactly what I forecast in my New Year predictions on 1 January: "The UK general election will be on 6 May; Gordon Brown will still be Prime Minister; the entire campaign will be dominated by discussion and dissection of the TV leaders' debates, which in the end will make little difference to the outcome: a Conservative victory with a slim Commons majority of 15-30."

If I was wrong then, I'm wrong again now. By this time next week, we should know.

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