Prof Howard Schweber is a Fulbright scholar at Flinders University. In 2011, he spent six months as a Visiting Professor of Political Science at Nazarbayev University in Astana, Kazakhstan.

My earlier post described the Russian strategy of bringing states in its 'near abroad' into a tight embrace through measures such as the Eurasian Economic Commission (EEC). The other enormous significance of the new EEC is that it provides, in the words of one commentator, 'an economic shield to protect its members against Chinese expansions.'

The commentator was Nikita Krichevsky, chairman of the Russian Organization for Small and Medium Entrepreneurship and widely perceived to be a spokesman for the government line. His explanation stands in tension with the fact that, with no more border checkpoints and trade restrictions among the EEC nations, Chinese goods entering Kazakhstan will now have access to the entire EEC market.

Russia, unsurprisingly, is putting pressure on Kazakhstan to allow a Russian presence at the border-crossing at Khorgos, where the bulk of goods will cross over. A lengthy history of black market trading is likely only part of the reason for Russia's concern; the crossing at Khorgos is a pipeline, and Russia will make sure it has sufficient control over that pipeline to secure its interests.

Then there is the military picture. Here, the concern is also China. 2002 saw the creation of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) comprising Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgystan, Tajikistan, Armenia, Uzbekistan and Belarus. Last year, the CSTO conducted war games called 'Centre 2011' to demonstrate the capacity of its Collective Rapid Reaction Task Force. 

The putative justification was to be prepared to fight terrorism, possibly sponsored by Iran. There was also another explanation floated by CSTO head Nikolai Bordynzha and Russian Chief of General Staff Nikolai Makarov, both of whom spoke of the rapid reaction force as an international force to put down anything like an Arab Spring in Central Asia; 'events in North Africa have opened our eyes', was Bordyzha's comment.

Belarussian President Aleksander Lukashenko, whose country currently heads the CSTO, put it this way: 'The matter is not only the use of the rapid reaction force in the event of interference from states outside (the CSTO), but also interference from other states within the organization...No one will unleash a war on us, but many are itching to stage a constitutional coup.'

All of that is alarming enough as an indication of Putin's commitment to using force to maintain a network (an Iron Web, if you will) of pro-Russian dictators in the post-Soviet states of Central Asia. But the games themselves involved exercises in repelling large-scale air and amphibious attacks, which does not sound quite like either of the proffered explanations. Instead, the image is much more of a Eurasian military union ready and willing to fend off any moves from China.

The outlook for Russia's imperial ambitions, as I have parsed them in these two posts, is complex. But what is most clear and most depressing about all this is the conclusion that the outlook for democracy is grim.

There are plenty of possible complications. In Ukraine, Yanukovich has approval ratings down around 15%, though there is no organised opposition around whom Ukrainians could rally even if they wanted to, especially with the most prominent leaders of 2005 in prison. Hungary is voluntarily hurtling toward right-wing dictatorship, joining a host of other post-Soviet states in choosing that particularly revanchiste form of rule. The colour revolutions look more like a passing moment than a turn in the road. If you prefer cyclical metaphors, let's just say that there are no signs of the wheel of history turning toward liberal democracy in the Russian sphere any time soon, despite the high hopes of five years ago.

As for Russia itself, despite demonstrations and some significant opposition to Putin's rule, there are few signs to suggest that he is at risk of being defeated at this weekend's election; the main opposition parties, starting with the Communists, are not likely to embrace European-style liberalism in dealing with their traditional client states regardless of how restive they may be about matters of internal governance.

And the West? Between cozying up to Kyrgystan and Uzbekistan and lately saying nice things about Yanukovych, America is simply too distracted to care. Europe is in the midst of an economic meltdown, and besides, all the EU can offer is economic development, democratisation and open relations with the world. Russia offers fear. As the man said, fear trumps love any day of the week.

Photo by Flickr user peretzp.