The Policy World Meets Academia: Designing U.S. Policy toward Russia

Chapter 6: Conditional Property and Regional Political Cultures: Challenges for U.S. Foreign Policy in the Post-Soviet Space

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Timothy J. Colton, Timothy Frye, and Robert Legvold
U.S. Policy Toward Russia

Keith A. Darden

For the past decade, the international political environment of the post-Soviet territories has been somewhat akin to the early Cold War. The United States and Russia are often depicted as competing for influence in Ukraine, Georgia, Kyrgyzstan, and Uzbekistan in a way similar to the competition once seen for control of Greece, Italy, Yugoslavia, and Germany. In the contemporary contest, the United States promotes freer markets, private control over key economic assets, the victory of pro-Western (and anti-Russian) parties and candidates in competitive elections, and cooperation with the NATO military alliance. Russia, in this view, is often cast in the role of a spoiler: giving counsel and countenance to authoritarian regimes, undermining efforts to incorporate post-Soviet states into the alliances and institutions that are central to U.S. policy, and seeking to preserve opaque and personalistic control over key economic resources (oil, gas, and metals, for example) in order to limit Western access and enhance Russian influence.

Russia, however, does not always play the spoiler to U.S. policy goals; there are many areas in which U.S. and Russian interests align in the region. There has been and will continue to be regional cooperation between the United States and Russia on a number of technical fronts, on counterterrorism, and on nuclear proliferation. It is also evident that while Russia has often played the rhetorical spoiler by decrying U.S. involvement and intervention in the region, in practice Russia has been relatively restrained. An aggressive Russian policy toward its neighbors could have been successful in fomenting the secession of northern Kazakhstan, Crimea, and much of southern and eastern Ukraine, and certainly would have presented a greater obstacle to U.S. efforts in Central Asia and Iran. In addition, the stakes are not as high now for either Russia or the United States as they were in the Cold War; the struggle for influence in the post-Soviet region is not a top priority for either country. Nonetheless, the view that the United States and Russia are competing for influence over the states in the region—however one characterizes the intentions of either side—is reasonably accurate. Moreover, this assessment underpins much of the contemporary thinking about U.S.-Russia policy toward former Soviet territories, in both Moscow and Washington.

In this essay, I draw attention to two structural challenges within the post-Soviet states that significantly influence how this struggle plays out and that have been underappreciated in U.S. policy development to date. The two challenges are: 1) the fusion of political and economic power and the persistence of an economy based on “conditional property” instead of private property; and 2) the deep cultural cleavages in key countries in the region, most notably Ukraine, that consistently lead to political divides and have the potential to lead to secession and war. Neither of these conditions can be altered through U.S. policy in the short term. But regardless of whether the underlying conditions can be altered, policy crafted with an awareness of these challenges may be more effective than policies crafted without. We must think of ways to manage the U.S.-Russia relationship that will not lead to direct conflict or significant harm to major U.S. policy objectives in the region, paying attention to the short term as well as the long term.

This essay briefly discusses how the two challenges might be managed more effectively in U.S. policy toward Russia and the Soviet successor states. I put forth policy suggestions that simultaneously avoid conflict and advance U.S. goals in the region. My broader argument emphasizes that effective U.S. foreign policy depends on attentiveness to the peculiarities of the local post-Communist environment. I suggest that by accommodating rather than aggravating the Russophile cultural attachments across the region and by applying international pressure to limit the economic expropriation that accompanies political change, we can forge closer ties to the countries in the region while promoting democracy and bolstering territorial integrity.


The peculiar political economy of the region is based on “conditional” rather than “private” property. What is conditional property, and how does it impact U.S.-Russia relations in the region? How might U.S. policy be altered or improved by taking it into account? The term “conditional property” implies that one’s right to control and determine the use of an asset is conditional on one’s political influence. In this system, rights, particularly property rights, are not guaranteed generally. One has the right to use an asset only insofar as one has the personal political clout to preserve it. Anyone who wishes to engage in economic activity of his own design must have or establish a network of political and administrative patrons to protect his property.

How does this fusion of political power and economic control influence the politics of the region and U.S. policy goals? First, the persistence of conditional property arrangements makes elections dangerous, high-stakes events that many of the most powerful actors in the region would prefer to avoid. The fate of one’s economic assets is determined by the fate of one’s political patrons (or political-administrative agents: it is not always clear who is working for whom in these relationships). As a result, competitive elections are avoided entirely in some cases, and the losers in elections (legitimately or not) invest heavily in street mobilization to question, invalidate, and overturn the results. Even in nondemocratic countries in the region, the uncertainty associated with political succession carries enormous risks. If property were private and secure and the state simply made policy, the costs of losing an election would be tolerable. When property is contingent on political control, winners really can take all.

The support for authoritarianism (“managed democracy”) among post Soviet elites stems from a natural desire for continuity, security, and predict ability when the losses associated with change could be significant. The demand for authoritarianism is really a demand for secure property. A long-term U.S. policy goal should be to ensure that the continuity and security these elites seek can be provided by a stable and genuine private property regime rather than a nondemocratic political regime in which the same people remain in power. Until we substitute private property for conditional property, there will be only a false stability and repeated crises of succession in nondemocratic regimes. Russia initiated a novel and perhaps workable solution to the problem of succession: a partial succession, whereby the incumbent yielded the presidency but did not yield all the reins of power. It remains to be seen whether this form of gradual, partial succession is stable over the long term.

The persistence of conditional property regimes in virtually all post-Soviet states significantly influences international affairs in the region because of the involvement of Russian companies in neighboring countries and the importance of regional trade. Russia and Russian companies have natural interests in their former Soviet neighbors. Trade between neighboring countries is mutually beneficial. Markets for the region’s consumer goods are regional. Even twenty years after the collapse of Communism, quality goods produced in the region are typically known only within the region. It is often Russian investors who have the language, cultural skills, and know-how to turn a profit in the peculiar environment. Their combination of political influence and economic resources is a more compatible form of corporate governance for companies in the region. In short, Russian economic involvement in the post-Soviet states is both inevitable and welcome.

Because of the peculiar fusion of economic and political power associated with the conditional property regime, Russian economic activity necessitates a certain degree of Russian involvement in the domestic politics of its neighbors. So long as the control and ownership of assets require local political influence, and Russian companies have an economic stake in their neighbors, Russia has no choice but to be involved deeply in its neighbors’ political affairs. To the extent that U.S. policy goals seek to elect new leaders and new parties and to preserve electoral competition in the absence of guarantees for existing stakeholders, the United States will face a coalition of local elites and external Russian patrons who have an interest in preserving stability and continuity. These “spoiler coalitions” are often effective in undermining U.S. policy goals.

U.S. support for regime change, economic reform, and electoral competition would be more effective when taking the real political economy of these countries into account. Confronting the spoiler coalitions directly with our own international-local coalition (along the lines of the Orange Revolution in Ukraine) is not necessary, would likely be ineffective, and, if successful, would be unlikely to endure. If democracy is equated with disenfranchisement and appropriation of assets, it is not likely to persist. If Russian companies and Russian assets are expropriated as a result of electoral competition, the demand by both Russian and local elites for authoritarianism is likely to undermine U.S. efforts to promote democracy. In games where winners take all, those with an investment try to head off any competition. To succeed and avoid the development of a powerful internal-external (local-Russian) spoiler coalition in U.S. democratization and other policy efforts, U.S. policy might be geared toward:

  1. Providing economic guarantees to potential electoral losers, including, but not limited to, broad amnesty for ill-gotten gains and corruption during the previous terms of office;
  2. Limiting the expropriation that traditionally follows changes in power (often under the guise of “reform”), even and perhaps especially in cases where U.S.-favored candidates are the victors; and
  3. Engineering a shift from conditional property to private property over the long term through:
  1. Greater publicity around instances of property expropriation. The vast majority of cases of expropriation is unnoticed by the international community. Only a few high-profile cases (Khodorkovsky, for example) gain international attention. Establishing a network of NGOs that tracks these phenomena at the oblast level, engages in advocacy, and compiles data nationally would be an essential first step.
  2. Diplomatic pressure to prevent the expropriation of assets that is similar to international pressure to protect dissidents and human rights.
  3. A recognition that efforts to “fight corruption” in these societies tend to be thinly veiled efforts to expropriate and re-allocate the assets of those who have lost their political influence. Corruption will be uprooted as noncorrupt practices come to be profitable and standardized and as the elite cooperates to make a collective shift to different business practices. It will not be defeated by individual prosecutions of the corrupt.


One of the key problems we confront in post-Soviet states is the prospect that cultural cleavages within these countries will be politicized and lead to conflicts that will bring Russian involvement and/or the involvement of the United States or its allies. Many U.S. policies activate and exacerbate these cleavages in ways that can threaten the integrity of our intended partners.

The potential for U.S.-Russian conflict associated with these cultural cleavages was highlighted most recently in South Ossetia and has been a persistent issue in politics in Ukraine. Nearly all states in the region have sharp cleavages in political culture stemming from the complex imperial history of Eurasia. In the past twenty years, these cleavages have presented the most significant threats within the region. The activation of regional divisions led to bloody civil wars in Azerbaijan, Tajikistan, Moldova, and Russia. Kyrgyzstan experiences persistent tensions between its north and south, involving both Russia and Uzbekistan. Ukraine is a deeply divided society; its divisions have only increased and become more politicized, raising the specter of secession and violence.

The nature of these cultural cleavages has often been misunderstood. They are not, for the most part, based on language or ethnicity. Rather, they are differences in popular attitudes and loyalties; understanding them requires a good bit of local knowledge. The divide in Ukraine, for example, is not between Russians and Ukrainians. Nor is it between Russian-speakers and Ukrainian-speakers, agricultural regions and industrial regions, Eastern and Western Christianity, or East and West. Instead, it arises from distinctive cultural “regions” in the country stemming from different imperial legacies. How regions within these countries configure on different salient issues, or how they break out in support of different political parties and presidential candidates, is essential for understanding the politics of these countries.

Ukrainian politics in particular cannot be understood without an appreciation of these cultural cleavages. Taking cleavages into account, the politics becomes highly predictable. The prospect of NATO membership, for example, cleaves the country along a predictable divide. Broad support exists only in the three former territories of Habsburg Galicia, and this reality is unlikely to change so long as NATO is perceived as an anti-Russia and U.S.-dominated alliance. In contrast, support within the country cleaves along entirely different lines on matters of Russian language and cultural policy. The electoral salience of these issues has led to the Orange-Blue partisan divide in contemporary Ukrainian electoral politics and to deep, durable support for a Russophile party, such as the Party of Regions. Ukraine is not unique in this respect. Most countries in the region face significant regional divisions of one form or another, and the political salience of certain issues can cleave these countries in fairly short order as well.

These kinds of cultural divides are typical of post-Communist states more generally. Romania is sharply divided politically between the former Ottoman and Habsburg territories. Poland is still split along its old imperial partition boundaries: Poles living in the Prussian partition consistently elect more liberal politicians even though ninety years have passed since the unification of Poland. The correlation between imperial boundaries and contemporary voting is so close that the best predictor of which party would win an electoral district in the 2007 legislative elections in Poland was whether that district fell within the Prussian partition prior to 1918. The same was true for the most recent Romanian elections, which were dominated by a distinction between formerly Habsburg and formerly Ottoman (Moldavia, Walachia, Dobrogea) sections of the country. Although Ukraine’s imperial legacies are more varied and complex than any other country in Eurasia, Ukrainian elections are increasingly divided between the former eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Russian imperial province of Novorossija, or “New Russia” (in the south and east of the country, where the pro-Russian Party of Regions is dominant), and the “Orange” center and west. For the policy-maker, these cultural divisions are received as fixed conditions. Nothing can be done to alter them in the short term, and potentially little can be done over the long term. Moreover, as the electoral systems mature, the regional voting patterns appear to be solidifying and getting closer to the boundaries of the empires out of which these countries were constructed at the beginning of the twentieth century.

Why are these cleavages relevant to U.S. policy? Because in most of these countries, there exist one or more substantial regions with a strong cultural bond to Russia, or “Russophile regions.” Support for close relations with Russia, for the persistence of Russian culture, and, in some cases, for political integration with Russia runs very high in these regions. To the extent that U.S. policy is perceived as a threat to Russian interests or to Russian dignity or an honored and revered Soviet past, or to the extent that the U.S. government is seen to ally itself with domestic political forces that promote the eradication of Russian cultural influences, these regional blocs can become powerful centrifugal movements leading to threats to territorial integrity. U.S. policy that raises the salience of issues located along lines of cultural cleavage will cause internal divisions that bring Russian involvement, the potential collapse of the state, and (in the case of South Ossetia) international conflict. NATO expansion is one such issue for these countries.

Although these political-cultural cleavages are relatively fixed, they can be managed or manipulated in ways that substantially impact U.S. interests in the region and our relationship with Russia. As in the case with political-economic and property issues, there are often international-local spoiler coalitions that form along cultural lines and that present a challenge to U.S. policy. Very often the two groups are combined. In Ukraine, for example, industrialists seeking to preserve their holdings in the south and east of Ukraine in the face of threats posed by Tymoshenko and the Orange coalition also find deep popular support for an agenda to counter NATO membership and sustain deep cultural ties with and affinities for Russia. Similarly, bonds between Russia and South Ossetia, Abkhazia, and Transdniester are genuine. In these cases, Russophilia and a strong attachment to a Soviet past are driving secession and preventing integration as significantly as are Russian security interests and the presence of Russian forces and aid. Inattention to these cultural attachments and the genuine bonds that exist between local Russophiles, Russian military forces, and the Russian government have exacerbated these conflicts, led to an under estimation of both Russian and local resolve, and made the sides significantly more difficult to reconcile. The deep and durable ties to Russia and the Soviet Union among populations in neighboring states, and among non-Russians, have not been sufficiently incorporated in U.S. strategies over the past decade.

There are, however, clear cases in which U.S. policy has been effective and spoiler coalitions have not undermined U.S. policy. Relations have been effectively managed in Kazakhstan, where there is openness to both U.S. investment and cooperative relations with Russia. The Caspian Pipeline Consortium (CPC) continues to expand and has been a model of successful Russian-Western-Kazakh joint investment. Close Russian involvement with the country has not been to the exclusion of U.S. interests, and U.S. policy has never presented itself as a challenge to Russia.

Contrast this example with the policies of the Georgian government, or of the Moldovan government in the early 1990s, or the policies of the Orange coalition in Ukraine. In all three cases, there have been efforts to impose a particular notion of national unity on a diverse population, ultimately leading to different degrees of countermobilization with external Russian involvement. In Georgia, the decision to use violence to incorporate South Ossetia led to Russian invasion and undermined the potential for NATO expansion for the foreseeable future. In Moldova, a nationalist central government led to the rapid emergence of an alliance between the 14th Army, the Russian government, and the local administration in Transdniester that has persisted in undermining Moldovan territorial integrity. Yushchenko’s advocacy of NATO membership was polarizing and unpopular outside of Galicia. His pressure to recognize the Ukrainian Resistance Army (UPA) and to offer their soldiers veterans’ benefits was somewhat popular in Galicia and Volhynia, but was incomprehensible and offensive to large swaths of the country. Efforts in the past year to impose Ukrainian language in public life and culture in the Russian-speaking areas of the south and east have succeeded only in mobilizing deep feelings of resentment. In general, the so-called nation-building policies, often implemented with endorsement and encouragement from Western governments, have had the opposite effect of what was desired. They deeply alienate their target populations and lead them to mobilize politically around a divisive cultural agenda. Far from bringing cohesion, the policies drive these regions to seek Russian patronage.

The risks of disintegration in Ukraine and other countries in the region are quite real, but they are also avoidable with an effective and insistent U.S. policy. With hindsight, one can see how U.S. policy could have avoided the fragmentation of Georgia and Moldova. The goal of U.S. policy should be:

  1. To reduce the salience of issues that activate cultural cleavages, not to support nation-building policies in a vain attempt to overcome or eradicate cultural divides. This goal can be pursued by adhering to these guidelines:
  1. Discussion of NATO expansion in countries where Russophile sentiments are regionally concentrated should be discouraged. Official discussions regarding NATO expansion should take place only after survey data reveal that support for NATO membership is widespread.
  2. Given the strong negative association with NATO in some regions, alternative security arrangements should be developed for the incorporation of these countries into an alliance with the United States.
  3. Language and cultural policies that limit the use of Russian or non-titular languages should be abandoned. Rather than eradicating Russian influence, these policies lead to increased disaffection and a turn toward Russia in Russophile regions. When combined with economic coalitions, these are remarkably potent bulwarks against U.S. policy interests in the region.
  1. To appropriate the Soviet legacy and Soviet nostalgia in advancing U.S. goals. Given the centrality of World War II in Soviet mythology and in the cultural attachments of many regions, the United States should promote the history of U.S.-Soviet partnership during the War rather than highlight Soviet atrocities. This promotion includes participation in Victory Day celebrations and funding for the protection and preservation of Soviet war monuments (such that U.S. funding is made clear). These gestures are simple and low-cost but have remarkable cultural significance. We can perhaps more effectively undermine the legacy of Soviet-era institutions under the mantle of Soviet nostalgia. At a minimum, such efforts will deny anti-U.S. coalitions the exclusive use of these powerful symbols. Without such symbolic acceptance of the Soviet past, we greatly weaken our potential for influence in territories where that past is revered, even among younger generations.

In summary, the goal of U.S. policy should be to appropriate powerful symbols that resonate with the population rather than to undermine and replace pro-Soviet and largely pro-Russian culture and symbolism. The latter has failed to produce positive results except in those few countries (the Baltics) where anti-Soviet and anti-Russian sentiment was already pervasive.


The intent of U.S. policy should be to advance the spread of competitive elections, military alliance, and economic reform without generating the powerful anti-U.S. coalitions or state fragmentation that have marked the response to many of our policy initiatives to date. In an environment where political and economic power are fused, and where the ability to own and maintain control of an asset is dependent on preserving one’s political influence, efforts to foster competitive elections and the genuine rotation of power must initially involve guarantees to current stakeholders. Otherwise, they will form coalitions to block U.S. policy goals and will undermine efforts at political liberalization that they deem threatening.

In an environment marked by states with deep cultural cleavages, policies need to be designed and presented in such a way that they do not activate these cleavages or attempt to elide them. In particular, in countries where attachments to Russia and the Soviet past are strong and concentrated regionally, policy needs to be framed in a way that prevents Russia and potential rivals from drawing on symbols to heighten cleavages, foment secession, and fuse coalitions that would provide a bulwark against U.S. policy aims. Ultimately, it is the success of U.S. foreign policy in forging effective linkages in this distinctive political environment that will prevent or diminish the successful development of Russian-allied spoiler coalitions and that will lead to the effective implementation and durability of our policy goals. If pursued to their logical ends, efforts to reduce the salience of divisive cultural cleavages, to secure property, and to limit the stakes of democratic change could also generate more effective linkages with Russia itself. A warming of ties between the two countries could be effective in promoting U.S. security and economic interests well beyond the post-Soviet region.