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Friday, March 16, 2007

Who Lost Russia?

Below, Washington Post columnist Fred Hiatt asks who is responsible for the rise of the Neo-Soviet Union. But first, what about you, dear reader? Who do you think is most responsible for this catastrophe? Vote now:

Who is most responsible for the rise of dictatorship in Russia?
Free polls from Pollhost.com

Who lost Russia? As the world's biggest country backslides ever more quickly into authoritarianism, the answer you hear increasingly is: the United States.

Curiously, you hear it both from Russians, who simultaneously deny that anything bad has happened and blame America for it; and from Americans, who assume that a few tweaks of policy could have made everything come out differently in Moscow.

One version blames America for backing Boris Yeltsin, who presided imperfectly over Russian democracy in the 1990s and so, the story goes, soured Russians on the very idea of freedom. Another blames America for allowing former Soviet satellites to join NATO, hurting Russians' feelings and promoting a nationalist backlash.

As readings of history, these theories mix elements of truth with great dollops of illogic. It's true that Russians endured trying times after communism crumbled. Prices rose, promised pensions vanished and unsavory characters became millionaires.

But the same was true in Estonia, Ukraine, Poland and many other countries. Democratization wasn't pretty anywhere. The question is why those countries managed to weather the transition and come through, with varying degrees of success, to the other side, while Russia was left looking for scapegoats.

As to NATO: On the one hand, you have, say, Estonia, a democracy of 1.3 million people, freely joining in 2004 an alliance of like-minded democracies. On the other hand, you have Vladimir Putin abolishing local and provincial elections, muzzling the press and imprisoning his political enemies. If you fail to see the connection, it's because there is none.

A Russia developing in a healthy way would be happy to see its smaller neighbors democratize, improve ties with the West and prosper, all of which could redound to Russia's benefit. Russia's leaders know perfectly well that there is no military threat from Estonia and never will be. But because they continue to define greatness in terms of state ownership and control, they prefer an impoverished and dependent Belarus to a thriving and autonomous Poland.

So what can explain Russia's de-democratization? Russians often blame their own "serf" mentality, a cultural tradition arising from centuries of autocracy that left them supposedly unsuited for self-rule. A more refined version points out that communism lasted a generation longer in Russia than in Central Europe, which at least emerged with faint memories of between-war civil society.

Then there is Russia's misfortune to be rich in oil, gas, diamonds and other resources. Latvia and Slovenia understood that they needed predictable laws and respect for private property to attract foreign investment; Russia knew the oil multinationals would come fawning even to a regime that expropriated when convenient. Estonia viewed government's role as enabling its citizens to create wealth; Russians used government to grab the wealth that nature had provided.

Being at the center of an empire might also be a misfortune. Other countries could blame Russia for their lost decades; Russia, having no one to blame, couldn't face its history. And since even the diminished, post-Soviet Russia contained nations of non-Russians, from Chechnya in the south to Tatarstan in the middle to Sakha in Siberia, the new Russia could not build itself on ethnic Russian nationalism and had trouble finding any other source of national identity.

All of these factors may play some role. But Michael McFaul, an expert on democratization at Stanford University and the Hoover Institution, cautions that "the structural explanations -- culture, history of communism, oil and gas -- can be easily overplayed, while the actual decisions and mistakes of individual leaders can be forgotten or excused."

That's true of U.S. mistakes, too. The United States doesn't determine Russia's fate, but it has influence at the edges. It could speak straightforwardly with Russia's leaders and search for areas of common interest, while defending the rights of Russia's neighbors to chart their own course and of Russia's citizens to live in freedom.

Instead, U.S. officials too often treat Russia like a touchy adolescent that shouldn't be provoked. Last week Rep. Tom Lantos (D-Calif.), chairman of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, complained that for the fourth year in a row the administration has proposed "devastating cutbacks" in programs to assist democratic and civil society groups in Russia.

That's something for which the United States should be blamed. Or, as Lantos said: "At a time when supporters of democratic reform, the rule of law, and human rights are being assassinated or carted off to the gulags of Siberia, we should not be starving these groups of vital support."

1 comment:

Dan said...

I'm not a great fan of the externals theory of history that subsumes human choice into a vast sea of inevitable forces, but in the case of Russia and having known many Russians who emigrated to the US in the mid-90s - from Moscow and St. Petersburg in Russia itself and from Belarus, Kazakhstan and Tajikistan among the former immediate Soviet satellites - it is hard to know what to make of their predominantly Asiatic point of view without reference to some great mass conformity to a collection of cultural/ psychological imperatives - mostly this bizarre misplaced triumphalism - that does seem to blur out individuality to an unusual degree. Several other factors contribute to this phenomemon in these people I knew - emigration, fall of Soviet power, the fact that the implosion of Russian society resulted in general moral degeneration from which they were moral refugees (but aspects of which degeneracy they exhibited beyond the increasing degerdation of American popular culture), the re-emergence of the stifling Orthodox church, and so on. In many ways the Russians I knew behaved like Muslim Arabs I've known (less well), but with a different aesthetic and different ethnic background. Reviewing Russian history, as I did during this period, among authors such as Richard Pipes, Orlando Figes, Alphonse Custine, and a few others I can't remember, it seems like unless the authorial bias is hardcore Communism or Western fellow-traveller, Russian history clearly evinces these exact traits seen in my acquaintances, and particularly clearly when attending Sunday mass and its after-feast as the sole non-Russian (actually my mother's mother was from Kiev). Hanging out with the notables of this community and 5 or 6 Russian Orthodox priests getting absolutely loaded on vodka and cognac and having loud arguments about Origen and Plato and then seeing an old bearded priest later drunkenly groping an exquisitely hot 17 yeard old daughter of one of these notables as the father looks on hilariously is one bizarre goddamn thing to do. All of which is just to say that, in my admittedly small experience, I do think some cultures submit more than others to the analysis that general cultural tendencies manifest themselves in curiously uniform and consistent ways over long periods of time through a society's individuals, and Russian and Arab culture seem to share this to a significant degree. The leadership's errors and crimes that you point out in the post-Soviet transition just seem what one would expect from Russia, given its history. Like the KGB/Cheka/secret police that Pipes and even Custine document so well, for example. And the Russians I knew virtually policed eachother. Bizarre.