The next few months could see the emergence of a new and altogether less predictable Russia. Forthcoming Duma and presidential elections will see gains for nationalistic, anti-western politicians. Having abandoned Marxism, the Russian political class may now be on the verge of exchanging liberal democracy for an ancient form of Muscovite statecraft. Bruce Clark assesses the impact of the new Russia on east-west relationsby Bruce Clark / November 20, 1995 / Leave a comment
Most westerners have come to regard the Russian bear as a mangy and enfeebled creature, but its growl can still command respect, and even fear. When Boris Yeltsin recently held forth against the expansion of Nato, he plainly intended to disturb westerners-and impress his own compatriots-by sounding as blood-curdling as he possibly could. He succeeded quite well. He produced some astonishing statements: one move to bring countries such as Poland, Hungary and the Czech republic into the embrace of the western defence system would “cast Europe into the flames of war” and force Russia to form a new, well-armed military alliance of its own.
The implications of what Yeltsin was saying were spelled out in gory detail by Russian officials to any westerner who cared to listen. The relentless march eastwards of the Atlantic alliance would leave the Russian army no choice but to redeploy tactical nuclear weapons as far westwards as its own sphere of influence would permit-certainly in Belorussia, perhaps even in the Baltic states which Russia might just be forced to reoccupy. The nightmare of a limited nuclear exchange in Europe, which appeared to melt away during the late 1980s under the benign influence of Mikhail Gorbachev, would return to haunt the continent. Russia, in short, could still make the atmosphere very unpleasant if anyone dared to build a new security order which ignored Moscow’s interests; and could certainly embarrass western politicians who had cultivated Yeltsin and staked reputations on being able to “manage Russia.”
There was a strong element of bluff in these murky hints. Russia’s leverage over the policies of its neighbours, having risen sharply in 1992-93, has somewhat waned in recent months, making it harder for Moscow to railroad them into an anti-western military alliance. Nor could Russia itself embark on confrontation with the west without incurring heavy costs: its dependence on western goodwill and credits has eased substantially over the past three years, but it is early days in Russian recovery for the Kremlin to throw down the gauntlet.
Yet the president’s words of wrath, artfully backed up by press leaks and sinister messages from middle-ranking officials, still deserve to be taken very seriously: whatever Yeltsin and his entourage are doing, it is more than just tossing a bone to a hungry and disgruntled electorate. The first reason to watch out is that Yeltsin’s temper tantrum forms part of an increasingly tough and effective foreign policy in which psychological pressure can be ratcheted up and down very quickly as the moment demands. Within weeks of the presidential outburst the US had taken significant steps towards reassuring Russia that it was something more than a tiresome, irrelevant nuisance: it was soft-pedalling again on Nato expansion, and seeking terms on which to reincorporate Russia into its Bosnian strategy. In return, Yeltsin toned down his rhetoric and made several concessions that bore some domestic cost: for example, he quietly vetoed moves to opt out unilaterally from sanctions against Serbia. If Russia’s leadership really was beholden to the whims of an irrationally chauvinist public, it would not be able to switch the psychological pressure on and off in such a sure-footed way.
The other reason to take Yeltsin’s angry words seriously is that even if the specific threats he made are illusory, they are a symptom of a tectonic shift in the way Russia’s political class, and ordinary Russians, see the world and their country’s place in it. The liberalism of Mikhail Gorbachev’s “all-human values” is receding further and further into the national memory. As the country’s political and ideological masters cast about for some new discourse that would mobilise the nation, and help Russian citizens make sense of their individual and collective circumstances, they are turning increasingly to doctrines with an anti-western flavour. Ideas which were confined until recently to the nationalist extreme of the political spectrum are moving into the mainstream, and winning the support of powerful figures in the Russian establishment. Old-fashioned schools of geopolitics, which place great emphasis on Eurasia as an unbroken space which Russia is destined to dominate, are regaining currency as Gorbachev’s utopian humanism and Yeltsin’s early flirtation with liberal democracy fade into the background.
Yeltsin’s recent show of indignation will not be the last rude shock that Moscow delivers to the west this year. Two years ago the world was horrified by the fact that nearly a quarter of Russia’s electorate had voted for Vladimir Zhirinovsky, a fast-talking demagogue who at various times had threatened to subdue the Baltic states by poisoning them with nuclear waste; to subjugate or dismember Iran, Turkey and Afghanistan; and to regain Alaska from the US. In December, the second election to the Duma seems likely to produce an almost equally sensational result, with the revamped Communist Party as the main winner. Under the leadership of a thick-set mathematician from a village deep in central Russia, Gennady Zyuganov, the Party has been toning down the rhetoric of proletarian internationalism and presenting itself as a convert to a form of social democracy. Its power base includes the provincial factory directors who have benefited from Yeltsin’s privatisation programme, the class which Zyuganov would call the national bourgeoisie. These are more interested in protectionist trade policies than in full-blooded socialism. But the party’s conversion to what westerners would consider a more moderate line should not be exaggerated. Zyuganov shares Zhirinovsky’s enthusiasm for the revival of Russia’s relationship with old friends such as Serbia and Iraq; the two politicians are variations on a theme.
Zhirinovsky-whose discourse, once stripped of its wilder rantings, is an accurate rendering of at least one strain of Russian establishment thinking-sees no unbridgeable difference of interest between Russia and the main western powers, so long as each acknowledges the other’s sphere of influence: Russia’s influence in south Asia, America’s hegemony in Latin America, and Europe’s role in Africa.
Zyuganov’s version of communism with a Russian flavour does not propose to restart global confrontation with the west either; but he lays great stress on the deep cultural differences between Russia, with its collectivist tradition, and the cold individualism of the west. Zyuganov’s dream is to reconstitute the Soviet Union-and undo the December 1991 agreement under which the leaders of Ukraine, Belorussia and Russia agreed to go their separate ways; this would be accomplished by working with the communist parties in other republics. Zhirinovsky’s project, by contrast, is to remake something closer to the Russian empire, with administrative divisions known as gubernii; like all the most hard-nosed Russian nationalists, he believes the Bolsheviks made a mistake in giving too much formal power to the Soviet republics, including the constitutional right to secede.
Zyuganov has done a more convincing job than Zhirinovsky of courting sections of the Russian Orthodox church; but both politicians have entertained the theory that Orthodox Christian Russia has more in common, ideologically and culturally, with the traditional, authoritarian cultures of the Muslim and Turkic world than it has with the Protestants, Catholics, Jews and humanists of the west. A state in which either politician played a significant role would be a disturbing prospect for the Nato allies-and highlight the paradoxical truth (especially difficult for Americans to grasp) that a Christian Russia might turn out at least as suspicious of all things western as atheist Russia was. For the ex-communist nations of central Europe which are urging Nato to take them in, Zyuganov might look marginally less threatening than Zhirinovsky-but only marginally.
Zhirinovsky’s personal style-his folksy philistinism, his smutty jokes and his maudlin reminiscences about a poverty-stricken childhood-is a caricature of homo sovieticus, but his political programme belongs to a Tsarist tradition of governance and imperialism. Zyuganov uses the cultural symbols of old-fashioned Slavophile patriotism-the church, the village, the commune, the exploits of the imperial army-while proposing the reconstitution of the Soviet state which ruined Russia’s countryside and wrecked its churches. They are plainly fishing in the same ideological waters, at different bends in the river.
The election of a Russian parliament with Zyuganov’s communists as the biggest single force would not mean that his party had come to supreme power, any more than Zhirinovsky’s electoral success in December 1993 turned his absurdly named Liberal Democrats into Russia’s ruling party. The main result of the December 1993 ballot-and one that was obscured by the blaze of publicity over Zhirinovsky-was the approval of a constitution that leaves the president in firm charge of both domestic and foreign policy.
It is just possible that Zyuganov and other critics of the president might win such an overwhelming parliamentary majority that they could start tinkering with the constitution-and ultimately abolish the office of president, as Zyuganov has pledged to do. Any such move would run into strong opposition from Zhirinovsky, who strongly supported Yeltsin’s efforts to create a powerful presidency, and whose power base has always overlapped-in a curious way- with that of Yeltsin. In any case, a more likely scenario is that Zyuganov, like Zhirinovsky in 1993, will do well enough to shock the world, and ensure that his ideas have some influence over Russian policy, without seriously challenging the power of Yeltsin and his inner circle of mandarins.
This could set the scene for some high political drama during the first half of next year, in the run-up to presidential elections which are supposed to take place in June. On current indications, it is very hard to imagine Yeltsin winning a fair electoral fight. The polls suggest that he would be trounced by General Aleksandr Lebed, a charismatic paratrooper who sided (conditionally) with the new Russian democracy during the August 1991 events, but has since described Yeltsin as a “minus” and surpassed the president in his choice of extravagant metaphors to describe the consequences of enlarging Nato. (The western allies’ bombing raids in Bosnia have caught Russia “with its pants down”-and any move to incorporate Poland into the western bloc would be the trigger for World War Three, the general has declared.)
But in spite of Yeltsin’s low popularity rating, the ever-expanding presidential apparatus has such a tight grip on the reins of power-and such a strong vested interest in the incumbent remaining in office, by hook or by crook-that it is becoming harder and harder to imagine anything except nature’s course dislodging the present occupant from the Kremlin.
That leaves the president’s men two alternatives: either some way must be found to avoid elections and prolong the president’s authority, or some stratagem must be devised to ensure that he wins a more-or-less fair electoral contest. The first object could only be achieved by engineering a political crisis; some turn of events which makes it appear that the suspension of the Duma, and/or the extension of Yeltsin’s powers, is the only alternative to something much worse. In setting this up, a Duma packed out with communists would be no harm at all-although a parliament dominated by Zhirinovsky’s LDP, which has come to the president’s aid at all the most critical moments over the last three years, would be even better.
If the Kremlin decides that some constitutional trick is needed to justify the suspension of parliament, the recent experience of other ex-Soviet republics suggests a rich variety of alternatives. Belorussia managed without a parliament for many months, because all legislative elections were declared invalid unless a high quorum of registered voters took part-a condition that was hard to fulfil in conditions of post-Soviet apathy. The parliament of Kazakhstan was dissolved after a court conveniently found irregularities in the elections of a year earlier. In three central Asian republics, the presidents have extended their power to the end of the century by popular plebiscites in which the “yes” vote was predictably close to 99 per cent: these ballots were, of course, judged to be perfectly regular. The latter stratagem might be a little bit too crude for a Russia which is still, on balance, keen to preserve a minimum of democratic credibility in the eyes of the west. But there are certainly plenty of tactics to choose from.
There are some observers of Russia who believe that the presidential entourage has even considered restoring the monarchy-in the person of Georgy Mikhailovich Romanov, a teenage prince who grew up in France and Spain-with Yeltsin as regent. The reburial in St Petersburg next February of the remains of Tsar Nicholas and the slain imperial family will certainly provide the authorities with plenty of opportunity for playing on royalist nostalgia and ascertaining how deep a chord that sentiment can still strike.
It is more likely, however, that Yeltsin or-just conceivably-some other representative of the current ruling circle-will resolve to fight and win presidential elections by stealing some of the ideological clothes worn by Zyuganov, Lebed and all the other politicians who blame the president for toadying to the west and breaking up the Soviet Union. Under one possible outcome, votes in the first round of the presidential election will be scattered between half a dozen candidates, with Zhirinovsky and Yeltsin topping the poll and passing through to a runoff, in which-after some hectic horse-trading-most of the defeated candidates would bequeath their supporter’s votes to Yeltsin.
the policies now associated with Yeltsin are no guide to the ones he would follow during a second term, if only because in Russian politics, personalities and policies are rarely correlated in a simple way. Before embarking on his crash programme of industrialisation and collectivisation, Stalin took the precautionary step of neutralising all his associates who had previously favoured that course of action: he wanted that political corner to himself. The coming political showdown is unlikely to be so bloody or dramatic; but it is entirely possible that Yeltsin (or someone else) will simultaneously defeat Zyuganov and his party and adopt a large part of his programme.
In the opposition’s platform there are several themes which look likely to be adopted next year, whether the opposition itself succeeds or fails. One is the introduction of policies which explicitly promote the welfare of ethnic Russians, both inside and outside the Russian Federation; and the official acceptance of the principle that the break-up of the Soviet Union has left the (ethnic) Russians a divided nation, in the same way that Germany was divided in the aftermath of the Nazi defeat. It would follow from this that Russians within their own state had a sacred imperative to break down the barriers that divide them from their 25m compatriots living in other ex-Soviet republics-an imperative no less urgent than the German quest for reunification.
In practice, this could mean either forcing the neighbouring republics in question to enter much closer relations with Russia, or at the very least to acknowledge Moscow’s role as a protector of ethnic Russians living on their soil. It could also mean the advancement of territorial claims over areas adjacent to Russia-such as northern Kazakhstan or eastern Ukraine-whose population is predominantly of Russian origin.
In fact, this twin-track policy-which might be crudely summarised as “come closer to us or we will break up your territory”-has been practised with some success by the Yeltsin administration, in its dealings with Georgia and Moldova. The governments of both those republics have been forced-by dint of bloody local wars involving Russian and pro-Russian minorities-to accept that they have little hope of regaining control over their territory unless they deal cautiously with Moscow.
General Lebed, as deputy chairman of a Congress of Russian Communities (CRC) which claims 80 branches in Russia and over 40 in other republics, has pledged to help his kinsmen in other republics “to return to the homeland” if they wish, and “to create worthy living conditions for those who prefer to remain outside Russia.”
“All means to that end are good,” says the general, in a formula which contains a hint of Leninist ruthlessness. As commander of the garrison in Moldova, he was one of the first representatives of Yeltsin’s state to say openly that legal niceties-such as the boundaries and sovereignty of internationally recognised states-were less important to him than the higher cause of saving Russian nationhood.
Any explicit proclamation that the Russian Federation belongs first and foremost to its ethnic Russian residents would mark an abrupt change from the principles which were proclaimed by Boris Yeltsin when he nursed the post-Soviet state into existence. He self-consciously rediscovered and redefined an old word-Rossiane-to describe citizens of the Russian Federation regardless of the “nationality” listed on their Soviet identity cards, which might be Jewish, Chechen, Tatar or Yakut. He appeared to be ushering into existence the first modern Russian state-with the possible exception of the provisional government of 1917-which made no distinction between its subjects on grounds of ethnic origin. The Tsarist system -and so far as anyone can tell, the system envisaged by General Lebed-allows and indeed welcomes the presence of non-Russian minorities on the motherland’s soil; but they would in some sense be “guests” of the ethnic Russian people, from whom hospitality might be withdrawn abruptly if they misbehaved.
Yuri Skokov, the shadowy technocrat who founded the CRC and recruited General Lebed as its brightest star, has laid out the new principle of “ethnic Russians first” in the following cold-blooded way. In Soviet times, the state was held together by the Marxist principle of proletarian internationalism, and an integrated economy was organised around the needs of heavy, defence-related industries. Now Marxism is dead and heavy industry is in decline; hence there is a vital need for some other glue to hold the state together, some other basis on which to rebuild a mighty state.
“It is obvious that only the (ethnic) Russian people can provide this basis,” Skokov believes. “We (therefore) face the need to arouse the national, political and civic consciousness of the ethnic Russians who make up 80 per cent of the population of this country.” Skokov describes the ethnic Russians, inside and outside the Russian Federation’s current boundaries, as the “state-forming ethnos” who will bind all the other peoples of the post-Soviet space together by their unique culture and sense of historical mission. His use of the word ethnos reflects the influence-possibly unconscious but more likely deliberate-of the Russian philosopher Lev Gumilyov, whose grand, all-embracing theory of history-an intellectual project as ambitious as that of Nietzche or Hegel-has become a kind of semi-secret cult in the upper echelons of the Russian establishment.
Gumilyov-the son of the poet Anna Akhmatova who died in 1992 after spending half his adult life in labour camps-viewed the ethnos or historically established nation as the principal motor of human development. He believed that the eastern Slavs and their Tatar and Mongol “oppressors”-who were really Russia’s saviours from a greedy west-had fused to form a “super-ethnos” which was radically different from the older, declining super-ethnos formed by Latins and Teutons. Some of his ideas-in particular the notion of “parasite nations” and “chimera states” which leech off the energy of older, more established civilisations-can easily be read in a spirit of anti-Americanism and anti-Semitism.
Among Gumilyov’s most passionate devotees are Anatoly Lukyanov, the Soviet parliamentary chairman who in August 1991 betrayed his old friend Mikhail Gorbachev. His influence is clearly discernible in the thinking of Zyuganov and the neo-communists. Recently, Gumilyov has gained adherents in the political mainstream. A small political party headed by Sergei Shakhrai, a deputy prime minister and adviser to Yeltsin on ethnic and legal affairs, is in the process of publishing Gumilyov’s complete works.
When a shrewd, cautious mandarin like Skokov proclaims that Russia is a “state-forming ethnos,” what is striking is not his emotional engagement, but his detachment; his decision to play the ethnic Russian card has the feel of something no less studied and deliberate than the leaks to the Russian press which warn of a fresh nuclear stand-off if Nato expands. Skokov and his kind are exponents of Muscovite statecraft in its purest and most ancient form: a tradition which regards no ideology-neither socialism, nationalism, internationalism, religion, atheism nor anything else-as set in stone, and judges every technique or principle by the same litmus: does it help or hurt the cause of Greater Russian statehood?
Throughout the communist period, pure Marxist ideology competed for influence with this older sort of statecraft, whose principle guardian within the Soviet state was the agency variously known as the Cheka, the GPU, the NKVD and the KGB. To see the contrast between these two founts of power, it is only necessary to examine an issue which they approached in radically different ways. For the pure Marxist it is axiomatic that religion should be abolished as soon as possible; to the practitioner of statecraft, the church can be-and in Stalin’s time, was-harnessed to the needs of the state, such as galvanising the nation to fight Germany, and “Russifying” Ukraine. The competition between these two traditions-pure Marxism and statecraft-helps to make comprehensible some of the stranger twists and turns of Soviet policy; why, for example, Khrushchev-who revived the Party’s influence at the expense of the political police-mounted a furious attack on the church and revived the Marxist notion of “revolutionary justice.”
The existence of a tradition whose only guiding principle is infinite flexibility in the service of the state also helps to explain the bewildering pace at which the cleverest representatives of Russia’s political class have managed to adapt themselves to the changing requirements of expediency over the past decade: metamorphosing from jaded standard-bearers of an outworn Marxist creed into passionate pro-western idealists, then into caricatures of the grasping western capitalist; and tomorrow perhaps into racially conscious chauvinists with a deep grudge against the west.
Yeltsin himself is too much of a maverick to be a typical exponent of the Russian statecraft tradition, but many of his advisors belong to it, and he has an exceptionally well-tuned grasp of the realities of power, in whatever currency it happens to be defined. In some intuitive way he sensed in 1990-before most of his politburo colleagues-that the sort of power offered by the Soviet Communist party was a dead letter; that Russia’s most urgent need was to disengage from unprofitable commitments to allies such as North Korea and Iraq, and to draw on western expertise to rebuild the economy. But there was never anything immutable about his commitment to liberal democracy or western ideals such as equality before the law.
It is entirely possible, therefore, that he will now play the nationalism card, if that is what expediency now demands; and that he will align himself with the policies-with or without the personalities of Skokov and his kind. Skokov’s background as the director of a high-technology defence laboratory is in the heart of the Soviet establishment; he has already held high office under Yeltsin and may yet do so again-waving whichever flag is called for by the requirements of the moment.
For all the apparent passion and whimsy of Russian policy in recent years, its hard core has been characterised by hard, unsentimental pragmatism. If Lebed or even Zhirinovsky comes close to real power in Russia-either directly or by proxy-that will not necessarily mean that Russia’s foreign policy will be in the grip of the wild uncontrollable hysteria that seems to mark the rhetoric of such politicians. On the contrary, Russia’s partners could again find themselves participating in a tough, cleverly played game in which the Kremlin uses every trick at its disposal (including carefully staged displays of wrath) to frighten and cajole its adversaries.
Whatever happens to the old “superpower” relationship in the next few months, the medium-term prognosis for Russia’s ties with the US remains murky. If the two countries succeed in amicably co-managing the end of their nuclear stand-off-and it is not yet certain that they will-the relationship looks all too likely to be overshadowed by bitter commercial and geopolitical rivalry in the areas where they developed expertise during the cold war: civil nuclear technology; space; the conventional arms market. The fact that both parties in the nuclear arms race have slashed the amount of hardware they deploy against one another has made their respective arms industries more desperate than ever to sell their wares to third parties, from eastern Europe to the Indian subcontinent.
The brutal war in Chechnya was widely described in the west as not only immoral but irrational-the behaviour of a state which wilfully ignores its own best interests. There are, however, signs that Russia is already capitalising on its precarious control of the Chechen flatlands in a way that presents a direct challenge to the US. It became clear this month that most of the initial output from the oilfields under the Caspian Sea will pass through the heart of Chechyna-despite the ongoing efforts of the US to ensure that its ally Turkey provides the main route for the incipient bonanza.
Furthermore, the medium-term prospects for “decoupling” western Europe from the US-an aim which the Soviet Union pursued relentlessly but with no success during the cold war-now look moderately favourable. Russia’s position as an energy supplier to western Europe is growing steadily as the gas pipeline from Siberia puts out more tentacles, and Germany rediscovers its historic role as a supplier of technology and capital to the Russian power industry. This means that if the US ever slides back into confrontation with Russia, it is by no means certain that western Europe would readily follow its American leader.
Already, Russian officials can take satisfaction in the way they have manoeuvred the western nations into forgiving behaviour which they would scarcely condone from anyone else. Russia’s meddling in the affairs of its southern neighbours, particularly in the violence-ridden republics of Transcaucasia, has been overlooked. Nato, after some initial grumbling, has devoted much energy to adjusting the treaty on Conventional Forces in Europe in accordance with Russia’s latest demands. Most striking of all, the main elements of the Russian-western relationship remained intact despite a war in Chechnya which cost up to 20,000 lives. When Gorbachev’s regime had tried to crack down on Lithuania and Latvia in early 1991, claiming about 20 lives, it immediately faced the suspension of credits from the European Community worth more than $400m; Yeltsin’s far bloodier campaign, launched in the northern Caucasus last December, did not prevent the International Monetary Fund from granting Russia one of the biggest credits in IMF history, amounting to more than $6bn, in March.
The worst punishment Russia faced because of the Chechnya campaign was the suspension, for about six months, of a trade accord with the European Union; for Moscow, this was a price well worth paying when set against the strategic and economic importance of controlling the pipeline.
By throwing off the shackles of dogmatic communism, with its tiresome insistence on seeing international relations in class terms, and shoring up fraternal parties in distant places where Russia had no real strategic interest, Russian officialdom has been able to refine its prowess in the arts of statecraft and sheer expediency. It has relearned the use of a whole range of instruments through which an objectively weak state can maximise its influence: moral blackmail, furious displays of anger, artificially provoked crises, and the presentation of an enticing image of a Russia where-in return for this or that concession -all would be sweetness and light.
Instead of condescending to Russia, or treating it as a delinquent, half-witted child which requires nothing but feeding and elementary instruction, the western nations will soon need to be honing their own diplomatic skills in the art of seeing through bluff, facing down threats and distinguishing the real from the false. They are dealing with a country whose style of leadership seems at times to have no middle way between doddering incompetence and brilliantly conducted games of make-believe and brinkmanship.
The western policy-makers who thought they could incorporate Moscow’s former satellites into Nato, without alienating Russia, have underestimated the bear’s intelligence, just as they sometimes overestimate its objective strength. Like it or not, the west faces a hard choice. Should it consolidate its influence in central and eastern Europe by broadening the Atlantic alliance? That would run the risk of accelerating Russia’s slide into self-assertive nationalism. It could also plunge those countries excluded from the first wave of Nato expansion into a de facto Russian sphere of influence. Alternatively, should it concentrate on maintaining cordial relations with Russia, in the knowledge that Moscow will exact a higher and higher price? The first course would be a logical one if the west concludes that Moscow itself has opted so firmly for a nationalist, anti-western course that there is no longer any reason to soft-soap the Kremlin in the hope of a coaxing a “good Russia” into existence. But on past form, Russia will never make the mistake of sending such an unequivocal signal; it will do everything in its power to confuse the west and make the risks as difficult as possible to judge. Moscow will keep the west guessing by hinting that if the desired adjustments are made in its strategy, the bear will immediately stop disturbing the forest and revert to a docile, purring slumber.