On 11th September President Evo Morales declared the Ambassador of the United States in La Paz, Philip S. Goldberg, “persona non grata” [1]. Five days later he announced a $ 4.5 million agreement with the Russian national energy giant, Gazprom, and said he regrets not having strengthened ties with Russia years ago [2]. At the end of the month it was the Russian Ambassador who spoke and told the world that the government of Bolivia had purchased five civil defence helicopters as a “first step” of deepening ties [3]. It has been a tough September for the United States in the Andean country. The first Indian president in the history of the country, after almost three years of incendiary anti-Yankees rhetoric, seems to have started putting his words into practice, while Russia is eager to restore its sphere of influence without restraining itself to the so-called ‘near abroad’, as it had initially appeared the case.

The attention of all the observers and policy-makers has of course concentrated on the super-power level and speculations about the vanished American hegemony in Latin America, the mistakes of the United States in the continent since the end of the Cold War are countless. Likewise, analysts are debating on whether or not the current awakening of Russia and its unscrupulous international activism will bring about a new version of the Cold War. I will rather focus in this article on the dynamics that have led a country like Bolivia to take such risky moves. Most of the accounts have hitherto concentrated on idealistic and quasi-personalistic motives, arguing that the political program of Evo Morales and its Movement Towards Socialism (MAS) have led to a necessary confrontation with the United States.

In a word, they believe Morales’ propaganda. However, this is only one, and not even the most important, of the multiple reasons that have brought Bolivia towards Moscow’s orbit. Surely, a President who, during his inaugural ceremony, promises “the end of the colonial and neo-liberal model”, the “depenalisation” of coca cultivation, a land reform and the distribution of the profit of oil and gas exploitation [4] [5] cannot be a candidate to become the darling of the United States, traditional promoter in the region of policies of economic liberalisation and radical eradication of coca. Nevertheless, the Bush administration has shown remarkable and unusual pragmatism in dealing with Morales, adopting a ‘wait and see’ approach after his election and avoiding comments on his frequent anti-American speeches [6]. Even the nationalisation of the energy industry and the creation of the Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas (ALBA) along with Cuba and Venezuela have not been cause of significant retaliations by the United States. Morales itself, as his history of cocalero and union leader witness, is more a man of action rather than a dogmatic ideologue [7]. Both the obsessive focus of the Bush administration on the Middle East and the limited economic and strategic potential of Bolivia had actually provided the Bolivian president with a fair room for manoeuvre and it is likely that a similar pattern could have continued in the medium-term.

Paradoxically enough for a president who has always shown a propensity for international affairs, the very reasons of this shift are to be sought in the internal arena, where Morales is risking a serious setback. In fact, his situation is much more precarious than how it can appear at first sight. Though elected on 18th December 2005 at the first round with the largest margin in the patchy democratic history of the country and recently boosted by a referendum in which he got a 67% rate of approval [8], Morales’ grip on power is seriously threatened. The major issue is the confrontation with the rich Eastern lowlands, which is harming the stability of the country and it is slowly bringing Bolivia to the edge of a civil war. This part of the country, notably the four provinces of Santa Cruz, Tarija, Pando and Beni, is fertile, oil-rich and populated by the white minority that used to manage the state affairs prior to the election of Morales. The roots of the conflict are still controversial. Some political scientists, adopting Paul Collier’s interpretation of civil conflicts as a mere fight for the possession of resources [9], claim that the confrontation is nothing but the attempt of a rich local elite to control the wealth of its territory free from governmental impositions.

The proof of that would be the fact that the East did not ask for autonomy when the major sources of wealth were the tin mines of the highlands [10]. However, it appears clear that the conflict includes a genuine ethnic element – quite understandably in a country of 36 distinct ethnic groups and where over 40 mother-tongues are spoken [11] – which opposes the Bolivians of European descendent of the East to the Aymara and Quechua Indians of the Andes. Nonetheless, debates on which of the two explanations is the most relevant in the understanding of the origins of the conflict little change the substance for Morales, whose position is made more difficult by the fact that the other factor on which his political survival depends is evidently catalysing and exacerbating the confrontation with the lowlands. He has in fact to stick to the policies of emancipation of the natives and of alternative economic development he had promised and announced –some of them, such as the redistribution of a fifth of the land by 2010 are even evidently unrealistic [12] – to maintain his consensus among the Indians and the mestizos.

Though, they contribute, both taking power out of the white minority and tightening the centralised control on natural resources, to increase the rupture with the East. In addition, the economic situation, so far an ace-in-the-hole for Morales, is not as healthy as it is widely assumed. Its 4% annual rate growth [13] is remarkable but still a modest record in the current time of high prices for a nation that bases its economy on the export of raw materials, in particular natural gas. Moreover, the positive trend had started before the election of Morales – the GDP was growing, the commercial balance was positive and the deficit under 2% of the GDP in 2005 [14]. A serious hit to the economy is likely to come soon, as the implementation of the US-Colombia bilateral free trade agreement will flood the Latin American market of cheap government-subsidised American soya, a good which is currently provided in the continent by Bolivian production [17]. Bolivia is still the poorest country in Latin America, where 1.9 of its 9 million citizens live under the poverty line [15], and policies implemented since 2006 little have made to address the structural problems of the country, whose resources are potentially ample but still unexploited for lack of infrastructure and socio-political stability [16]. Given also the failing record of countries which have previously attempted a path of development boosted by natural resources, long-term perspective of sustained high prices of Bolivian export may not be enough to durably improve the welfare of its population.

Then, under these conditions, the shift towards Russia and Gazprom is not to be understood as an act of rebellion of a President strengthened by the oil-revenue who is taking advantage of the vacuum of power left by the deficiencies of US leadership. It is rather a sign of weakness; a last resort, through which Morales tries to limit the power of an opposition which does not have the number to rule the country but which can prevent him from ruling it. It is clear that saying that the Russians are more welcome than other foreign investors [18], Morales hopes to obtain from them the same strong backing the United States is now according to the lowlands. This risky move may also have the boomerang effect of catalysing American support for the East without attracting the same respect of collaboration from Russia. In fact, it seems at least unlikely that Medvedev and Putin will engage Russia beyond a limited point in Latin America and Gazprom likewise will hardly stop exploiting the Bolivian fields, in case they will be controlled by the lowlands’ elite. As the recent case of Saakashvili’s Georgia shows, leaders of weak and little countries should not rely too much on far super-power.

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