Friday, December 02, 2011

Russia: Russia Between Nostalgia and Bitter Reality

By Pilar Bonet*
Courtesy IDN-InDepth NewsViewpoint**

MOSCOW (IDN) - The 20th anniversary of the end of the Soviet Union is an occasion to share some observations about the "perestroika", that revolution which meant the end of a political system and also the end of a State and an Empire, because the USSR was both, a State and an Empire.

My observations are based on a long experience in dealing with the Soviet Union and the post-Soviet space; I happened to be an enthusiastic witness of the perestroika of Mikhail Gorbachev. I saw the end of the Soviet Union in 1991 and since then I have been trying to follow the long and complicated journey of the post-Soviet republics to find a place for themselves in the world and to define-invent-build themselves (call it as you like) as nations. In my opinion those journeys in search of themselves are very complex, have multiple vectors and we might not like the result, either too archaic or too nationalist.

Are the countries of the former Soviet Union better off than in the past? Some are and some are not. In some regards they are better off and in some others they are worse off. I travel a lot and I can see how much nostalgia – in some cases increasing nostalgia – about the former Soviet Union there is in Central Asia, for instance.

There is nostalgia for its system of healthcare and education, nostalgia of the opportunities of education as well as of the possibility of traveling from one republic to another without being humiliated and robbed at the customs or – in the case of Kirgiz or Tazhik shepherds – the possibility of pasturing their cattle without fear of being blown up together with their cows by the mines the Karimov regime has placed on the borders of Uzbekistan.

Mythical images

There is nostalgia for the Soviet Union in Turkmenistan, in Uzbekistan in Kazakhstan and in Russia, to mention a few. To a certain extent, the development of a mythical image of the Soviet Union might be traced to the current difficulties.

There is another dimension. In Russia the idealization of certain elements of the past (sports, science, military and technical achievements) has been encouraged by the authorities to present themselves as the legitimate inheritors of the superpower legacy.

When a transition starts we know the point of departure but nobody can be completely sure of the point of arrival. Just ask Mikhail Gorbachev, who lost control of the process of reforms he had started. Those who replaced him at the Kremlin did not finish those reforms as far as democratization was concerned.

On the contrary, the democratic space was reduced and restricted, especially after Vladimir Putin came to power. There were democratic elections and real politics in the Soviet Union briefly in 1989 and in Russia in 1990. Now, Russia has a system based on the imitation of politics.

Last August, members of the first Yeltsin team met to evaluate the 20 years that have elapsed since revolution. They were unanimous: Russia, as it is today, with its corrupt oligarchs and enormous disparities between rich and poor, is not the cause they fought for. They do not like it and some of them have tried to get closer to Gorbachev.

Several persons, who held high positions in the Kremlin in the time of Yeltsin, acknowledge now that they bear responsibility for the negative development of Russia, either because they participated in irregularities or because they decided to close their eyes to want was happening in the belief that those irregularities were necessary to establish democracy.

Specifically they referred to the possible fraud of the referendum on the constitution of Russia in 1993 and to the money and "administrative resources" invested to get an ailing Yeltsin re-elected in 1996.

The constitution of 1993 is the base of the enormous concentration of powers in the person of the president, and the 1996 elections consolidated the wealth and power of the oligarchs in Russia. On both occasions, in 1993 and 1996, Russian communism was presented as an evil which had to be kept at bay by all means, as it is the case with radical Islam today.

And all those manipulations and tricks which had been employed in 1993 and in 1996 by Yeltsin and his people to remain in power have come back many years later as a boomerang against democracy in Russia.

In the meanwhile Russian communism has been changing. I would not dare to say that they are the Russian equivalent of the "eurocommunists". Not for the moment, but certainly they are not the defenders of totalitarianism and they are not a monolithic configuration.

Paradoxically enough, cultivated Russians, who would feel very comfortable in a Western democracy, intend to vote the Communist Party in December 4 elections or have joined the communists, because they perceive the danger of authoritarianism and political monopoly nowadays as coming much more from the Kremlin and United Russia than from communism.

I am mentioning those Russian experiences because I think it is important to look at events in Arab countries with a wider perspective than the snapshot of revolutions. Revolutions can bring countries and societies into unpredictable situations, they are like tornados; they can push them ahead, take them back to the past or just swallow them. And revolutions do not mean a perfect cut between the past and the future as Alexis de Tocqueville explained so well.

When the Orange Revolution happened in Kiev many thought that Ukraine was leaving behind forever the corrupt practices of its former regimes and the tricky world of administrative resources Russia is still deeply immersed into. But it did not happen that way.

In Russia and in other republics of the former Soviet Union we have to do with the usurpation of power and also with societies which feel rather comfortable with that usurpation, since-due to their historical experience they believe any change in the present situation would be for the worse.

Nevertheless the amount of protests is on the rise and one should not exclude that in a foreseeable future we will be confronted with a new revolution in Russia and I hope that if it happens, the West will think twice before helping anybody over there.

Russia and the 'Arab Spring'

I would like to say a few words on Russia and the Middle East based on my observation of Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and President Dmitri Medvedev's behavior. It is my impression that the Kremlin is allergic to all kinds of revolution by definition.

One of the reasons for that allergy are the simplistic analogies implying that there is a fertile ground in Russia for revolutions, whether they belong to the Ukrainian type, the Kirgiz model, the Georgian, the Egyptian or the Tunisian. Medvedev went as far as to express the fear that such revolution as in Egypt might be tried in the Russian Caucasus.

I consider such analogies very artificial; they are very much linked with Putin's and Medvedev's own awareness of their lack of legitimacy as well as with the fear of their own society and of their mistrust towards the West.

Let us save Europe. This is a new political slogan developing in Russia today in view of the effects of the financial crisis on the EU. The political discussion on this matter has already started with a mixture of arrogance and what is called 'Schadenfreude' in German. In a way, it looks like the reverse of the discussions in the West about how to save Gorbachev at the end of the eighties or how to save Russia at the beginning of the nineties.

Russia does not know how to save Europe and the discussions one can hear on this matter in the Duma corridors have an annoying practical string attached: What to ask Europe in exchange for that help? It seems to me that in a globalized world, and because of long term strategic reasons (if not moral), it is no longer advisable that countries or groups or countries conclude alliances based on their limitations, fears and laziness, without even having tried to do their homework.

In the case of Russia, homework means democratization and the overcoming of the authoritarian patterns of the past. In the case of the West to recover, maybe even recreate, the lost purposes of democracy for a new world.

*Pilar Bonet is the Russia correspondent of the Spanish national daily El Pais.

**This Viewpoint is an abridged version of a paper she presented at the International Conference 'Policymakers' Responsibility in a Changing World. The Mediterranean: The Waves of Change' organized by the New Policy Forum (Gorbachev Forum) on Nov. 24-25, 2011 in Montpellier, France. The full version is available on OtherNews. [IDN-InDepthNews – December 1, 2011]

Image: Pilar Bonet | Credit: