Staunton, June 11 – Unlike Spain which turned to economic modernization only seven years after the beginning of political modernization, a pattern that prevented the recrudescent of the past, Russia’s leaders chose the reverse, enriching themselves but opening the way for a return to support for Soviet-style imperialism, according to Emil Pain.
And it is that imperialism rather than Russian nationalism, the Moscow expert on inter-ethnic relations says, which animates some ethnic Russians in Donetsk, Luhansk and Transdniestria and increasingly infects public discourse and policy choices in Moscow.
In the latest of his series of articles on identity and politics in Eurasia, Pain focuses on “the process of the construing of tradition or more precisely on imperial traditionalism as a militant ideology.” He does so by considering how Russians and especially Russian leaders reacted to the consequences of the disintegration of the USSR.
Almost immediately after the collapse, a small number of Russian politicians talked about the need for restoring the empire. Gennady Zyuganov, the head of the Communist Party of the Russian Federation (KPRF), for example, declared that “without the reunification of the now-divided Russian people, our state will not be able to rise from its knees.”
But at the time, such appeals received little support, Pain notes. “Only 9.3 percent of ethnic Russians and only 12.9 percent of representatives of other nationalities said that they felt ‘a sense of community with the peoples and histories” of the union republics that had become independent. And they showed that they had very little interest in these places.
In 1993, the Congress of Russian Communities (KRO) was set up and sought to transform the ethnic Russians in the former Soviet Republics “into a powerful force and a weapon for Russian irredentism, that is, for the unification of the Russian world around Russia.” But nothing serious arose from this.
Pain argues that “until the mid-1990s,” statists and extreme nationalists regularly claimed they had popular support for the reunification of the USSR “without the slightest basis” for such claims. “That was a time when not the liberals as now but the representatives of the so-called national patriotic forces called television a zombie maker.”
But the difficulties Russia faced in making reforms and especially its pursuit of economic reforms in advance of political ones, the Moscow scholar continues, had the effect of making ever more Russians tired and angry about what they were going through and thus led some of them to conclude that the socialism of the past “was not so bad; what was bad was its leaders.”
That shift in public attitudes about socialism and the Soviet Union, he continues, rapidly affected ideas about who is the enemy of Russia. In Soviet times, he notes, “the West was considered not only a geopolitical opponent but also a class enemy, with which it as impossible to reach a compromise.”
“The only time when the political elite of the USSR and then of Russia proclaimed as its slogan a return to ‘the family of civilized peoples’ and ‘to Europe’ was in the period from the end of the 1980s to the beginning of the 1990s.”
As that attitude lost ground, ever more often Russians in the Russian Federation and Russians outside it began to talk about Russophobia. Indeed, Pain says, it became the dominant motif in the thinking of the leaders of the self-proclaimed Transdniestr Republic “and in the movements which call themselves the Donetsk and Luhansk republics.”
In them, the scholar continues, “the consolidation of these communities lies not with a Russian ethnic idea but with a Soviet political one.”
During the 1990s, he says, “Soviet consciousness returned and then after this step by step the idea of empire was rehabilitated.” “Empire” and its derivatives became a term of praise rather than of abuse in various business activities. For example, he notes, “the most popular kinds of Russian vodka in many regions of Russia are called ‘Empire’ or ‘Imperial.’”
Many analysts point to “the phenomenon of empire” as the reason for the lack of success in Russia of the democratic transformation, with some stressing its current manifestations and others pointing to the burden of the past. But Pain insists that the influence of this factor was self-consciously boosted by Russian leaders on the basis of their view of the past and present.
Promoting such a traditionalist value allowed them to contain and redirect popular anger over the difficulties of economic reforms and to keep them under control, something it has been far easier to do if they are in thrall to “fears and phobias.” Unfortunately, “both imperial stereotypes and phobias, are easy to set in flame but difficult to extinguish.”
Pain cites with approval Dominique Lieven’s argument that “an empire by definition is the antithesis of democracy, popular sovereignty, and national self-determination.” It is about “the sovereignty of the ruler” not “the sovereignty of the people.” And he notes that Vladimir Putin clearly views empire as a positive reason for precisely that reason.
Unlike in Spain where all political parties committed themselves to political reforms before economic one and thus ensured that democratization would be irreversible, “in Russia the elite which directed the political process pursued totally different goals: it would to become as rapidly as possible a class of major property owners and enter the global ratings as among the richest people of the world.”
Given that, Pain continues, “democratization in a well-known sense could become a threat to the dominating role of oligarchic Russian capitalism which rapidly lost its reformist impulse and became a defender of conservative political traditions,” including authoritarianism and imperialism.
The Moscow analyst writes that “a movement to democracy and modernization is possible only if society does not make concessions to political fundamentalism” which is being used to block such a movement. So far, Russia has once again been an example of how not to proceed, something unintentionally acknowledged by its leaders when they talk about “a special path.”
Despite where the Russian elite is, he concludes, there is some basis for optimism. According to a March 2014 Levada Center poll, nearly 40 percent of Russians and more than 50 percent of Muscovites want Russia to follow a European rather than Eurasian course, despite all the anti-Western “hysteria” in the media.