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Russia moves to consolidate its influence globally

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

A protracted battle over perceived Russian influence is playing out in the former Soviet Republic of Georgia. Today, a parliament committee rejected a presidential veto of a Russian-style foreign agent bill. The full legislature could follow suit as early as tomorrow, and it is expected to have enough votes to allow the measure to prevail.

Critics say the bill would limit media freedom in a sign of Russian influence in Georgia that could derail the country's plans to join the European Union. The legislation has ignited protests in Tbilisi and prompted the State Department to announce visa restrictions against Georgian politicians linked to the bill. U.S. senators are also weighing sanctions.

So how influential is Russia now as its invasion of Ukraine continues? My co-host Leila Fadel spoke earlier with Alexander Gabuev, director of the Carnegie Russia Eurasia Center.

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

I want to start with Georgia. This so-called foreign agent bill that has people protesting there - it would require media organizations and NGOs that get more than 20% of their funding from abroad to register as foreign agents. It's very similar to the law in Russia that's been used to jail journalists. Is there any evidence, as critics say, that this legislation is a direct result of Russian influence?

ALEXANDER GABUEV: We don't know that. We don't have any evidence. But it's clear that Ivanishvili, who is a de facto ruler of Georgia - the oligarch who stands behind the ruling party, appoints the prime minister and has vast control over the country - is an autocrat. He models his rule in Georgia after Vladimir Putin, and he takes a lot of hints and best practices from the neighboring regime. And at the same time, he wants to distance his country from the West and maintain control, being more friendly to Russia than many of their predecessors, including government of President Mikheil Saakashvili.

FADEL: Now, it's been met with a lot of opposition. Georgia's president vetoed the bill, saying it threatens the country's path toward joining the EU. Is that the case, and how does this moment benefit Moscow?

GABUEV: It is indeed the case. The U.S. has announced that it will sanction members of the ruling party and members of the Georgian government who are involved in passing of this legislation, including their family members. There is a very strong opposition, and there is a very clear case that this legislation will take Georgia away from path of deeper integration into European and trans-Atlantic family and closer to Russia. Russia definitely is interested in that.

FADEL: Now, Georgia is one place, one example. But is this indicative of a larger Russian strategy to consolidate power as the U.S. and the European Union continue to try to isolate Russia over its war in Ukraine?

GABUEV: What we are talking about in Russia's neighborhood, where Georgia is...

FADEL: Right.

GABUEV: ...Located, is that Russia has a lot of staying power. It has multiple tools to inflict pain on the countries that want to distance themselves. The extreme case is Russia's invasion of Ukraine. But Georgia is sandwiched between Turkey and Russia, and despite Russia's occupation of 20% of Georgian territory and very strong anti-Russian feeling, Russia still has a lot of tools to inflict pain, and that's where Ivanishvili navigates. And that's true also for Central Asia, for many other countries like Armenia, Azerbaijan and also Moldova.

Globally, I think that Vladimir Putin really instrumentalizes divisions between countries in the Global South, their dissatisfaction with the West, current war in Gaza, in order to move out of this isolation and build as many partnerships outside of the coalition that supports Ukraine - fight for its independence.

FADEL: Is it working?

GABUEV: It is working. We seeing that a lot of countries have voted in the U.N. to criticize Russia's annexation of Ukrainian regions, but at the same time, they maintain ties with Russia. They trade with Russia. They helped Russia to circumvent sanctions. And that's not only authoritarian countries like Iran, North Korea or China, but also the largest democracy in the world, India, or countries like Brazil.

FADEL: Now, the West sees any Russian expansion - ideologically, geographically - as a threat. What is the endgame for Russia, though?

GABUEV: I think that Russia wants to steer divisions between the West and many countries in the Global South and non-West in order to create more maneuvering space and ultimately undermine the U.S.-led international order.

FADEL: Alexander Gabuev - he's director of the Carnegie Russia Eurasia Center. Thank you so much for your time.

GABUEV: Thank you so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Leila Fadel is a national correspondent for NPR based in Los Angeles, covering issues of culture, diversity, and race.
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