ISSUE 3-2009
Lubos Vesely
Сергей Дубавец Георгий Касьянов Ярослав Шимов
Виктор Замятин
Владимир Воронов
Павел Витек
Олександр Ленгауер

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in the articles and/or discussions are those of the respective authors and do not necessarily reflect the official views or positions of the publisher.

By Lubos Vesely | Researcher in Politics, the Czech Republic | Issue 3, 2009

Why do you think is the break-up of the Soviet Union after more than 15 years still considered by Russian politicians and most of its citizens to be a tragedy?

This is a result of the fact that since the collapse of the USSR, Russia has lacked a clear, comprehensible and historically articulated concept of nationhood. Some time ago, then-President Boris Yeltsin went so far as to announce a sort of open competition for a national idea. Naturally, nothing worthwhile came of this proposal. The sole state idea, as cultivated in the former Soviet era, was based in a peculiar mixture of the perennial Russian sense of messianism, a centralized power structure, and a Communist ideology which served to persuade its citizens that Russia was predestined to change or even save the world. This naturally required that the state be as territorially expansive as possible, as well as the most powerful and successful in all respects. There is an old Soviet blatnyak (criminals’ chanson) that makes fun of this, with the lyric “even in the area of ballet / we are far ahead of the rest of the world”. A more earnest, but also more dangerous version of this discourse is one derived from the notion that “WE” have won the war, “WE” suffered the greatest losses, “WE” are the most advanced in science, the territory of our country forms a whole one-sixth of the Earth, and so forth. To put it simply, “WE” are a superpower, it is impossible not to reckon with us, and politically and economically, as well as militarily, we dominate a large part of the world. It should suffice here to recall the past expansion of Communist ideology and power in Eastern and Central Europe, and the rise of totalitarian dictatorships under the baton of Moscow in the so-called Third World. The collapse of the Soviet Union dismantled all of this. Even those who should be grateful to “us”, the Russians, for our help in looking after them – Ukraine, Belarus, the whole of Central Asia, the Caucasus, not to speak about the Baltic states – all of them betrayed us, snubbed us, the thankless lot! The socialist camp, the pride of the Soviets, welcomed the disintegration of the USSR as their own liberation. What ingratitude!

            As we had signed the treaty regarding the demobilization of the military structures of the Warsaw Pact, I recall the former Soviet Defence Minister Yazov, who reproached me that even we Czechs had betrayed the great idea, the alliance with Moscow, which the Pact had represented.

            This sense of injustice for a time seized a rather large part of the former Soviet public (although not the majority of citizens of the post-Soviet republics, as the interviewer believes) which then gave way to despondence and then hatred of those who had caused this injustice. Naturally the man who took the rap was Boris Yeltsin, being seen as responsible for the disintegration, and those connected to his administration, above all the architects and administrators of the economic transformation. Hence also the pejorative label for the new capitalists who got the backwards Russian economic going, transforming it to a market economy, now referred to as “oligarchs”. If it were not for them and their links to political power, the centrally governed post-Soviet economy would never have got back on its feet.

            This peculiar, maudlin, pained and disoriented public mood was exploited by Vladimir Putin after he came into office, when he set as his goal the reinstatement of Russia as a superpower, and through doing so also the restoration of international respect for Russia’s global position. The failure of the democratic part of the world to recognize Putin’s political program and its realization as the reinstatement of Moscow’s influence in the areas once dominated by the Soviet Union can be regarded as the chief danger threatening above all the economic, but eventually also the political sovereignty of the former Soviet colonies, including our country.

            How would you explain the fact that the chances and space of relative freedom after the break-up of the USSR were seized mainly by oligarchs, members of the security services and apparatchiks and not by the “silent minority”?

            Already in my previous answer I have tried to give the term “Russian oligarchs” a different reading than usual. These were former Soviet managers, or former members of the Komsomol (Communist Union of Youth), such as for instance Khodorkovsky, people with experience in positions of management who had a decent education and access to information, and who thus quickly found their bearings. The same was true of those who had access to information about the true state of the society and the economic situation, and the position of the disintegrating Soviet colossus, such as high-ranking officers of the former KGB, now the FSB, and party functionaries. All of these quickly occupied key posts in the newly emerging power structure. The “silent majority” was naturally rather disoriented, discontented and taken aback at the disintegration of the functionality of the old regime, aggrieved in their notions of social equality in the sense of consumerism, and ill able to grasp quickly enough the insufficiently legally-regulated process of the transformation of a totalitarian regime into something different, which was meant in the future to attain (but unfortunately never attained) the features of a nascent democracy. The transformation both of the economy and of the state system was naturally accompanied by a number of extremely negative phenomena. This caused the “silent majority” to feel a sense of loss of security, not only social security, but even basic security in the physical sense. There occurred an extreme rise in crime rates.

The new democratic institutions which Yeltsin made it possible to create were weak in all respects, and initially the society had little understanding of their meaning. Anything new was received with great difficulty. This drove the representatives of economic and political power even further into isolation. The general public, i.e., what socialists call “the people” felt no enthusiasm for this whatsoever. Instead, there was a fear of chaos, which often developed into nostalgia for the former and comprehensible system of power, which required no personal responsibility for one’s life. Although perhaps to a lesser degree, we are no doubt familiar with this in the Czech Republic.

 Would you agree that the West has given Russia and other former Soviet republics great opportunities in the form of material and moral support, which however were wasted?

I do not believe that the West gave the New Russia a chance, so to speak. The West above all did not understand clearly enough what was going on in Russia. And they could in fact hardly understand it. The West had no experience of the prevailing conditions in the Soviet Union. Dangerously, democratic politicians came to terms rather too quickly with the notion that Russia had lost its power, that it had ceased to be a military threat, that it was economically weak, and therefore it would be possible to start dealing with it as with someone who would feel grateful for any sort of help or advice. I remember a number of negotiations that I took part in, first as Deputy Foreign Minister and later as Minister of Defence; there was a sense of euphoria that at long last the unbearable fear of the possibility of the Cold War turning hot was a thing of the past. That was a mistake. Hot war was naturally no longer a real threat, but the efforts at reinstating Moscow’s influence, no matter how weakened at the moment, as it were even forgotten, were renewed with Putin’s arrival, though this effort would mostly employ other than military means.

Western investors and businessmen saw Russia as a huge market, and I believe that their entrance to this newly-opened market was not motivated in the least by any effort to help Russia, but rather by the dream of instant profits. And to be damn sure, this did not really pay off. Now, under Putin’s policies, defined by the ever-present threat of nationalization, every investment in Russia is in danger, and those who made these investments beg the foreign ministers of their countries to be as cautious with Moscow as possible, as in the case of a firmer stance towards Moscow they could lose their fortunes. The influence Moscow is gaining as a result of Europe’s dependence on Russian energy resources is somehow indirectly enhanced also by the influence of our own businessmen who have established themselves in the Russian market.

 How would you comment the opinion that Russia was humiliated and cornered by the approach of the US and the West after 1991 and that the current Russian expansive foreign policy is the outcome of this?

I think in some sense the case was the very opposite. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the West has done nothing which could be objectively interpreted as an act of humiliation. Naturally a certain part of the Russian society did feel a sense of injustice, and it is difficult to admit one’s own responsibility for any sort of failure, let alone such a cardinal failure as I have tried to describe above. Thus it became necessary to look for a culprit outside of Russia. And this was exactly what happened after the demise of Boris Yeltsin. Vladimir Putin interpreted the West’s accommodating attitude towards Moscow quite pragmatically, i.e., to his own advantage, as weakness on the part of the West. And when looking for an argument which would plausibly renew belief in the power of the Kremlin, an argument which would unify the public and give it a new hope of the revival of “national pride”, he found a target for his attack. The West: the US, NATO, and all who were guilty, in the simple ideology Putin created, of the humiliation of Russia by causing it to lose its status as superpower. It was easy – all one had to do was to follow up on the long years of Soviet propaganda. Together with a clampdown on the so-called oligarchs, and the renewal of the ruthless, and at some stages even genocidal war against Chechen separatists, he became the symbol of Russia’s new strength as a superpower. The West was made the scapegoat of a well-used trick. Declared a foreign enemy, the West was offered to the public as the culprit of all Russian distress to date. The West did not humiliate Russia. On the contrary, the West has in fact humiliated and in some sense continues to humiliate itself. For instance, it has not condemned the war in Chechnya, which boosted Putin as the victorious leader; through relentless offers of good will the West succeeded only in creating an impression, reinforced by the Kremlin, that these offers of mutual understanding are nothing but a demonstration of the weakness of the West.

 Was the break-up of the Soviet Union also a chance for Russia to change its age-old policy of territorial expansion? If yes, why it was not utilized?

No. As I have outlined above, the collapse of the USSR resulted firstly in societal chaos, and secondly created a sense of having been wronged, as I mentioned above. If the notion of grandeur, including that of territorial space, continues to be one of the elements which feed the Russian national raison d'être, than what your question presumes could hardly have happened. On the contrary, the renewal of national pride is linked with the renewal of power in the former territory of Soviet influence. In fact, this is one of the priorities of Putin’s politics.

 Did Ukraine, Belarus and Moldova have any chance to follow the path of the Baltic States and transform themselves and integrate into western structures?

Not one of these countries, no matter how different they are in all different aspects, was ready for the fundamental changes in the political and economic system which would enable them to an earlier integration in European political, economic or defence structures. Neither Ukraine nor Belarus, unlike the Baltic States, had any sort of viable historical experience with a system other than the Soviet one. Moldova is under Moscow’s influence to such a degree that one can hardly speak of its sovereignty. Ukraine, after all, is so an inhomogeneous country in terms of its culture, religion, economy, even being divided in terms of language, that it will take a long time for it to even make up its mind as to how to come to terms with its lack of unity. Add to this the doubts as to how natural or unnatural are the claims of Crimea being part of Ukrainian territory, doubts that fuel the ruthless power struggle among Ukrainian politicians, who can in some sense be categorized as either pro-Russian or anti-Russian. Belarus is suffering under the Lukashenko dictatorship, and it appears that unlike a minority of dissidents, the general public finds this dictatorship quite bearable, with all its undemocratic features. The dependence of all three of the above-mentioned countries on the goodwill or lack thereof of the Kremlin is very strong. Both Ukraine and Belarus are Moscow’s energy hostages. Their democratic institutions are either barely efficient or utterly inefficient.

 Will Russia’s destiny in the 21. Century remain to be a third world country with the A-Bomb despite all its natural resources and intellectual and culture potential, a country scourged by widespread corruption, alcoholism and chaos not to mention the disrespect to the individual, human life and law?

But Russia is not a “Third World country”. In terms of its political and economic system it is naturally very little democratic, according to the Euro-American notion of democracy, but nonetheless the basic institutions which define democracy are present there.

The formal division of power between the Parliament, the government and the judicial system exists constitutionally, although to a rather limited degree. The meaning of the term invented by the Kremlin ideologist Vladyslav Surkov, namely sovereign democracy, brings the Russian concept of a social system strikingly close to centralism, which is again close to both the Tsarist and Soviet traditions. (Formally, presidential centralism is to a strong degree anchored in the Constitution of the Russian Federation, which was created to fit the immediate needs at the time of President Boris Yeltsin. The reinforcement of presidential centralism was designed to weaken the political influence of the Communists. The Constitution and its undemocratic features had survived the sometimes acute need of centralism, but Vladimir Putin exploited these when in office in order to pursue a strong renewal of Kremlin centralism, which he termed as the strengthening of “vertical power”).

The economic system, no matter how strongly influenced, or even curbed, by state interference is relatively functional, and enables a marked rise in the material standard of living of the population. Despite all the shortcomings in the area of human rights, despite considerable restrictions on freedom of expression, despite the Judiciary being subservient to Kremlin aims, despite the activities of the hypertrophied police infringing on civic rights, the degree of civic liberties in Russia has nonetheless risen considerably in comparison to the Soviet era. Though its economic is significantly, even dangerously, dependent on the extraction and export of raw energy materials, still – at least for now – it also allows for the growth of industry, particularly its defence sector. The export of its products, armament systems, in particular aircraft and anti-missile defence systems, forms a rather considerable contribution to the state budget.

The current Russian authoritative regime, headed by President and Prime Minister, in this case Vladimir Putin together with Dmitri Medvedev, is regarded by a vast majority of the public as a functional one, as a system which has introduced “order” again. The arbitrariness of power institutions is relatively well masked by a formal division of power. Nowhere is there an imminent threat of hunger, and serious violence such as is perpetrated in the Caucasus is perceived by the Russian public as an expression of anti-Russian enmity, and not as the result of the failure of Russia’s political system. There is a notable growth of xenophobia, particularly against people from the Caucasus and Central Asia; there is a marked rise in the activities of extremist groups, both of leftist and neo-Nazi orientation. Russian nationalism, disguised as “patriotism”, is indirectly supported by the Kremlin, i.e., by both of the highest political representatives.

Thus Russia certainly is not a “Third World country” in the common understanding of this notion. It is a relatively well-functioning authoritative regime with a number of democratic institutions which are undermined by Putin’s centralist “vertical power”, which curbs democracy more or less, depending on current political or economic requirements of the current establishment. Whether this is here to stay, or whether the hitherto fragmented political opposition will succeed in becoming more of a player on the political arena will, I believe, depend on a number of circumstances. Among these is the possibility of a sharper stance of the West regarding the Kremlin’s undemocratic practices, which could contribute to reformation. However, at the moment things seem to be going in exactly the opposite way. The US President, the same as the President of France or the Italian Prime Minister, seem to perceive Russia in a radically different manner than the Czech Republic, which perceives it based on our experience of the Kremlin during the Soviet Era.

 Is there any chance for former Soviet republics to free themselves from the Russian influence? Sometimes it seems that even the ruling elites of those countries are not really striving for that.

In many of the countries you mention in your question, one indeed suspects a lack of interest in shaking off the influence of Moscow. I have already cited Moldova, for instance. The Central Asian republics, too, have a pragmatic friendly attitude towards Moscow; there are always more reasons for this involved, with different degrees of priority depending on each country. Lesser or greater economic dependence on Russia plays a role in all of the former republics, including Ukraine and Belarus. And it is not only gas and oil that are at stake.

Hedging one’s bets, being both pro-Russian and pro-American or pro-EU, is a game that seems to be profitable in many respects for most of the political leaders of the former states of the USSR. I do not believe it is likely that any of these republics would ever take the plunge of radical separation from Moscow. This is to some degree true even of Ukraine, whose political representation is divided precisely into the two groups, pro-Russian and pro-Western. Neither, however, has enough clout, or enough public support, to decide this ancient conflict in their favour.

I do not believe that in this respect we may expect any major surprises. This situation will last as long until the West also finally ventures to clearly articulate its attitude to the Russian political system. In other words, for as long as it tolerates Russia’s foreign policy and its verbal as well as actual aggression and arrogance, as well as economic expansion motivated by the renewal of not only economic, but also political influence in Central and Eastern Europe. As long as German Chancellors turn into well-paid employees of the Kremlin, as long as European presidents and prime ministers feel honoured by the friendship of Vladimir Putin or Dmitri Medvedev, as long as the leaders of opposition parties look to the Kremlin for support, as did Jiří Paroubek, we may hardly expect the change of attitude of the government of Moldova, for example.

 Mr. Luboš Dobrovský is former dissident, Minister of defence (1990-1992), Director of the Office of the Czech President (1993-1996) and Ambassador to the Russian Federation (1996-2000).



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