June 17, 1997

By General Oleg Kalugin (Retired)

Russia is fast approaching another historic crossroad, teetering again on the edge, pulled in opposite directions by conflicting traditions, interests and expectations.

In one direction reside the evolving values of democracy, rule of law, economic opportunity, civility and collaborative foreign policy. In the other – nostalgia for the lost Empire and iron-fisted despotism, suspiciousness, xenophobia and militarism.

The glaring contradictions of Russia as a nation are incarnated in her current president Boris Yeltsin, described in the memoirs of his former press-secretary Vyacheslav Kostikov as “capricious, willful, fond of drinking, pitiless, authoritarian, kind, courteous, polite, democratic” individual.

When the communist system collapsed in 1991 and Yeltsin took over the reigns of government there was a general sigh of relief that the long East-West confrontation finally came to an end. Many hoped that a new era was opening up in world affairs.

Yet the victory march of liberal ideas in New Russia, after a shortlived, heady, period following the abortive communist coup, never got off the ground. The mood of the country was a far cry from the euphoria in the West. Russia felt neither vanished nor liberated. The ingrained mentality of her people, who never experienced freedom, the limited vision of her leaders rooted in the bureaucratic mires of the party nomenclature, the weakness and disunity of her democratic forces, provided the psychological background for Russia’s inability to face realities of her new position in the world. Compounded by clumsy half-hearted economic reforms, the tension within the Russian society has reached a dangerous level. Inevitably it resulted in the revival of the communist sympathies and the emergence of hitherto dormant chauvinism.

Although communists and nationalists differ in their denunciation of Yeltsin reforms they are both in agreement in interpreting the developments of the last decade as a national disgrace and humiliation. They fuel the popular discontent with moth-eaten stories about foreign conspiracies, agents of influence, Jewish penetration of the government, Caucasian domination on the market.

Incapable of countering their opponent’s ideological assault with any constructive ideas the Yeltsin government has started picking up the slogans of the opposition in the hope to ride out the storm. The emphasis on Russia’s greatness and uniqueness of her historic destiny borrowed from the vocabulary of the communist-nationalist alliance has not been augmented by a blueprint of a better future, based on economic diversity, rule of law, respect for human rights.

In the same vein in its foreign policies the present Russian leadership has been reanimating the old image of omnipotent invincible Russia instead of demonstrating, in words and in deeds, to the world and particularly to its neighbors that new Russia has abandoned for good her imperial designs.

From the very beginning of Yeltsin rule, his treatment of the outside world reflected the old Soviet thinking the Russian leaders never concealed their growing desire to reestablish closer ties with the former Soviet territories, but they were checked in their practical moves by Yeltsin’s earlier declarations that the former Soviet republics may “have as much sovereignty as they can swallow.”

Yeltsin magnanimous gesture did not stand the test of time. The Baltic states which always felt trapped by the Soviets, were completely alienated by Moscow’s crude treatment of their independence and surged forward to cement their long-craved-for bonds with the West. Ukraine, the closest to Russia in blood, language and culture has been treated like a stray sheep. But to Moscow’s amazement Ukraine has displayed no docility torward Russian coercive tactics and encroachment on the Crimea. It stood firm  in the negotiations over the Black Sea fleet, and as Russian pressure grow she started looking for allies in the Baltics, the Caucasus and across the Atlantic.

Classic imperialist policy, 19th century style, has led Russia to a near disaster in the Transcaucasia and Chechnya. The conflict over Karabakh destroyed a delicate equilibrium in the area in the early years of Gorbachev’s perestroika, when Armenia and Azerbaijan were deliberately pitted against each other in the hope to preserve Moscow’s control over the republics. The new Russian leaders did nothing to undo the conflict. They poured arms to Armenia and secretly courted Baku. They did the same in Georgia publicly expressing support for her territorial integrity, simultaneously arming and inciting the Abkhas separatists. The Kremlin’s imperial intolerance of dissent, failure to comprehend the post-Soviet realities culminated in the tragedy of Chechnya. The small proud nation was subjected to most barbarous treatment just because it wanted a measure of independence from Russia.

However this time the arrogance of power has backfired. It revealed  more than ruthlessness of Yeltsin and his cohorts – that trait was witnessed by million of people throughout the world in 1993 when the Russian parliament was set on fire by tanks. The Chechen conflict demonstrated the essential weakness of the new regime, its insecurity and failure to draw into its orbit other people and nations by setting a shining example of economic prowess and advances in democratic reforms. Perhaps, Russia’s poor economic performance has produced the most devastating effect on her former possessions. Having survived the initial shock of separation, and in their search for identity and new supports they finally realized that they can make it independently, without Russia. While the Transcaucasian region especially Georgia and Armenia have been grappling with problems of self-preservation and survival relying partly on Russian props, the Central Asian republics have been steadily sliding away, bolstered by the promise of their natural wealth. The oil producing states in that area as well as Azerbaijan have been deemed the new oil emirates of the next century.

Russia has been jealously and grudgingly watching the process of negotiations on “the deal of the century” –  Caspian Sea oil development project, trying to get what she perceives as her fair share of the pie. But it was not the Kremlin, but the US White House who convinced Azeri president Geidar ALIYEV to use the multiple routing option through Russia and Georgia) for the export of early oil. By the end of last year as Yeltsin was recovering from his heart surgery, Russia has become largely isolated from her neighbors. Her grandeur turned into a catchword with empty purse, faltering economy, demoralized army and rampant crime behind the facade. There was no clear-cut policy, no innovations, no fresh approaches, no vision. “Russia is fencing off the CIS,” commented Kazakhstan president Nursultan Nazarbaev, an early and ardent supporter of now barely kicking Commonwealth of the Independent states.

As Yeltsin looked around searching for allies in the face of advancing NATO he found only Belarussian president Alexander LUKASHENKO willing to join him in his anti-NATO stance. A desperate attempt to draw China into the Kremlin scheme brought about only high-worded declaration of unbreakable friendship but no specific pledge to stand up to NATO’s expansion.

Surprisingly, it was the rudely interrupted romance with the Belorussian ruler that exposed a deep cleavage among the Russian political elite on the issue of further integration with some of the former republics. It has also focused attention on the underlying and growing discussions within the Russian leadership on the future course of the country’s foreign policy. These discussions have obviously grown more productive as the younger breed of Russian politicians entered the government. Their voice has been heard lately in a number of ways indicating that Russia is gradually turning away from the old  myths and paranoid fantasies, tilting toward a more benign and sober assessment of the world.

The first move in the right direction was made by no less a person than Yeltsin himself. It finally dawned on him that Russia ought to look for other solutions of the Chechen conflict rather than to go on with brutal and indiscriminate bombardment of Chechen towns and villages. Despite fierce resistance of his military and security aides, defying slashing attacks from the communist and nationals opposition, Yeltsin acted swiftly to reach an accord with the leaders of “the band formations.” Initially he used the services of General Alexander LEBED, his erstwhile rival and, briefly, a political ally, to negotiate a truce. But he went even further by withdrawing Russian troops from Chechnya and granting a semblance of independence to the rebellious republic.

To believe that Yeltsin has suddenly turned peaceloving because of the pricks of conscience would be highly misleading. Yeltsin and his new advisers feared that the flow of oil from the Caspian sea may bypass Russian territory and will gradually eliminate Russia’s economic and political presence in the area.

The paradox of the current situation is that the threat of NATO’s eastward expansion has compelled the Russian leadership to speed up the review of its foreign policy. Some of the most hawkish Yeltsin’s aided have been booted out of policy-making positions and that intensified rumors about Foreign Minister Eugene Primakov’s future. Yeltsin is signing a long-delayed friendship treaty with Ukraine is the latest in a series of agreements with the so called “near abroad.” The Russian media now admits that a five-year long confrontation with Ukraine has been absurd. The improved relations with Moldova are treated in a similar spirit.

Of course, economic considerations have been playing an ever growing role and it’s they that made the shift possible just as they made it impossible for the time being to merge with Belarus. It would be premature, however, to celebrate the victory of common sense. Trumpeting the great success of Russian diplomacy in signing a treaty with NATO Yeltsin warned that Russia ”will quickly rethink its relations” with the alliance if the latter dares to move on the admission to NATO of former Soviet republics. A Russian foreign ministry official was more explicit in his comments on the Paris accord for “Itogi” TV program; “the territory of the former USSR is the zone of our interest, and we do not intend to cede it,” he said. The old mindset and habits persist.

Unless a coherent policy is worked out in Moscow’s relations with its former republics tying them to Russia in a natural way – through economy – all attempts to intimidate or blackmail them will most likely fail. In fact, they will lead to more estrangement, if not outright hostility with the neighbors. (A typical Soviet dilemma born out of the communal living where sharing the same kitchen and bath was proclaimed as the future of mankind.)

Furthermore, the intransigence in dealing with the neighbors will inexorably and adversely affect Russia’s improving relations with the West and at some point may strike even at the very foundation of Russia as a federated state. Separatist moods are on the rise in multinational Russia and it’s not only Moslem fundamentalists and admirers of secular Turkey who may pose threat to Russia’s integrity. It’s the unhappy regions of Russia¾the Far East and Siberia with China lurking in the background; it’s Karelia and former Eastern Prussia; it’s the vast stretches of arable lands from the Black to the Caspian seas it’s the region a few hundred miles east of Moscow, especially Tatarstan, with its unpredictable president Montimer Shaimiev. What will then remain of Great Russia? Moscovia?

It’s not too late to rectify the situation. The new team in the Kremlin as made a fresh start. Let’s hope they will not let us down this time.

Oleg D. Kalugin
Major General
Former People’s Deputy of the USSR

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect that of the Daily Report on Russia and the Former Soviet Republics.

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