Aftermath of the Balkan War, the Rise of Anti-Americanism, and the End of Democracy in Russia

Article excerpt

Vladimir Shlapentokh is professor of history at Michigan State University. The author wishes to thank Joshua Woods for his editorial contribution to this article.

Whatever the final appraisal of the Balkan war and its place in history, clearly this conflict delivered a sensitive blow to Russian democracy and Russian-Western relations, especially with respect to the United States. Anti-Americanism became a visible element of political life and will likely have a significant impact on Russian foreign and domestic policy for years to come. Before examining the wave of anti- Americanism that crashed down in Russia on March 24, 1999, with NATO's initial air attacks against Slobodan Milosevic, it should be made clear that the maturation of these sentiments began around 1996.

Fueled by growing economic frustrations and the escalation of crime and corruption, three years ago the people began looking for a scapegoat. Blame was placed on the United States as well as Jewish oligarchs and Chechen and Azerbaijani mafias operating inside Russia. In the eyes of many Russians, including liberals, the United States failed to make good on its promises to help rebuild the country. Moreover, in the last years, many have become convinced that the United States perceives Russia as an economic rival and tries to stifle its economic growth with sanctions against its enterprises.

The feelings of anger and betrayal were compounded by the country's forced recognition of its own backwardness and declining international status. With the resurrection of Russia's inferiority complex, the wealth and military strength of the United States became a fountain of envy. Only ten years ago, Russia could boast of its military parity with any nation in the world.

At the same time, anti-Americanism prior to the Balkan war never dominated Russian public opinion. Though relevant to the political scene, these feelings were not yet strong enough to be used as an oppositional weapon against the liberal establishment. In April 1996, the All Russian Center of Public Opinion Studies asked the question: "If they exist, who are the enemies of Russia?" Only 9 percent responded "the West as a whole," 7 percent pointed directly to the United States, and 16 percent said Chechnya.1 In another poll, 72 percent maintained either a "very favorable" or "somewhat favorable" opinion of the United States and Americans; no more than 20 percent of the respondents were concerned about "the Americanization of Russian life."2 Even after the financial catastrophe in August 1998, with its noticeable effect on the standard of living, the Russians remained benign with regard to the United States. A poll conducted last December by the All Russian Center of Public Opinion Studies found that 68 percent of the Russians had a positive attitude toward America.3

After the bombing of Yugoslavia began, the situation changed dramatically.4 The media and most politicians spurred an anti-NATO, propagandistic campaign. At the same time, NATO was identified as almost completely composed of the United States. So in April, according to the Fund of Public Opinion, 72 percent of Russians described themselves as "hostile toward the USA."5 The Balkan war escalated many Russians' hatred to the level of hysteria. The protest demonstration before the U.S. Embassy in Moscow at the end of March was quite indicative of the mood in the country. A youthful crowd showered the building with eggs, stones, and ink-filled glass bottles. Although Russian TV did not play down the ruffian-style character of the protest, a Fund of Public Opinion survey reported that 69 percent of the respondents acknowledged their "solidarity with the protest actions."6 The anti-American mood was reflected in advertisements declaring "Russian made," not "made in America."7 Even the liberal Boris Nemtsov called for a boycott of American goods.8 In all of Russian history, it is not easy to find such a radical shift in public opinion in such a short period of time. …