"Great Projects" Politics in Russia: History's Hardly Victorious End
Reshetnikov, Anatoly, Demokratizatsiya
Abstract: The article addresses the problem of political identity in contemporary Russia by engaging with and extending the temporal scope of the constructivist analysis conducted by constructivist Ted Hopf. It suggests that the "great projects" politics of contemporary Russia, which are linked to the specificity of the country's political identity and seem to be similar to that of the late-Soviet period, can in fact be better understood when Hopf's approach is complemented by the post-structuralist analysis of Sergei Prozorov. The former, while providing a valuable theoretical framework and linking the state's identity to its status as a great power, cannot account for the digression that is revealed in the discourse analysis of contemporary "great projects" politics. The latter, while being able to interpret these oddities, is limited within the domestic realm and fails to address the idea of great power, which Hopf believes to be an integral part of Russian political discourse and which is possible to interpret, only if the analysis extends beyond national borders. The article incorporates Prozorov's theoretical contribution into the framework of Hopf, thus merging the two approaches and making them applicable to the contemporary Russian condition, both domestically and within the field of international relations.
Keywords: end of history, great power, political identity, Russia's revival, social constructivism
Today, an international relations scholar encounters the claim that "Russia is back to the world stage" (1) with increasing frequency. Indeed, the vision of Russia as a resurgent power is, no doubt, present in political discourse, "[i]rrespective of whether one refers to the recovery of Russia's economy or its assertive foreign policy, the success of its sporting teams or the wealth of its oligarchy ..." (2) On the international level, this vision is reflected in a number of works that address the problem of Russia's revival. When in 2008 Edward Lucas published his New Cold War: How the Kremlin Menaces both Russia and the West, the book enjoyed unprecedentedly wide popularity and received a considerable number of positive reviews. (3) In Lucas's view, Russia is reinventing herself as a milder version of the Soviet Union, and hence should be seen as a serious threat to the West.
Such a comparison could also be found earlier in the Steven Rosefielde's Russia in the 21st Century: The Prodigal Superpower. The author emphasizes the similarity between contemporary Russian policies and those of the USSR, thus virtually equating the two and prophesying the comeback of history unless the Russian Federation manages to alter its path by taking the route of genuine Westernization. (4)
Moreover, during the last couple of years, some IR scholars yet again began using the term "empire" to refer to the contemporary Russian state. (5) This once almost forgotten practice explicitly shows the concern that renowned scholars and policymakers have regarding Russia's current status in the international arena and the prospects of its political development.
The domestic dimension of the above-mentioned revival is not only characterized by the seeming stability of Putin's presidency (and his premiership), but is also reflected in the realization of various "great projects" that are either closely intertwined with the commemoration of Russia's glorious history or aimed at modernization and economic growth. Excessive glorification of the victory in the Great Patriotic War, construction of huge cathedrals, (6) canonization of state's former rulers, (7) accomplishment of expensive modernizing projects in business (8) and social spheres, (9) restoration of Soviet symbols and rehabilitation of Joseph Stalin--all of these policies, indeed, look similar (at least in scope) to the forceful urbanization and ideological propaganda of the Soviet empire. Yet, if the ideological undertone of the Soviet "great projects" was rather explicit, the current ones seem to be anything but ideologically coherent. This inconsistency is apparent most obviously every January 7th at midnight, when one hears the music of Soviet anthem on the radio (10) and sees the President attending the Christmas service on all national channels at the same time. (11) Hence, before taking Lucas and Rosefielde's side in declaring the comeback of history, perhaps, one should compare attentively the great power policies of the two 'successive' (I use this term in purely geographical sense) political bodies.
To accomplish the latter, I will certainly have to answer the question whether or not the comparison that Lucas and Rosefielde make is valid logically--i.e, whether or not the present realities have similar grounds to those of the past. However, before doing so, we must establish which theoretical tool is actually capable of analyzing these processes. In other words, we must see which theoretical approach could better account for what is happening in Russia today, and, having defined this, to explore how can the evidence of Russia's comeback be interpreted within the international relations field.
It is certainly tempting to fit the fact of Russia's revival into the realist paradigm, as it seems to be a mere correction of the end of the Cold War and the subsequent collapse of the Soviet Union. (12) One could, together with John Mearsheimer, argue that the bipolarity of world politics was, paradoxically, ensuring peace and stability on the European continent, and that "the demise of the Cold War order [was] likely to increase the chances that war and major crises [would] occur." (13) Hence, states, being rational actors, who are aware of their external environment, try to ensure their safe survival and pursue strategies that more effectively maintain the existing international balance. (14) However, just as Mearsheimer would have difficulties with explaining the drastic reorientation of the Russian state in 1991, when "the fate of the Cold War ... was mainly in [its] hands" (15) and it was more beneficial for it to maintain the balance, so he would also be unable to account for the fact that, despite this reorientation, Russian political elites never stopped seeing the country as a great power; since even during the hardest years of transition, Boris Yeltsin insisted that Russia "always was and remains a great world power." (16) Even today, when "[Russian] consumers still aren't economically sovereign, its government isn't democratically responsive to the electorate, and Russian society is blatantly unjust," (17) the country, for some reason, is characterized as "a colossus with feet of clay" [emphasis added]. (18) Why is it that after ten years of disintegration and economic decay, after sanguinary internal conflicts and political confusion within the ruling elite, Russia necessarily has to be seen not simply as a recovered state, but as a not yet fully recovered great power? It seems that simply remaining within the realist paradigm it is problematic to account for categories that depend more on self-perception and identification than on the objective historical circumstances. Hence, in order to explain the meaning of Russia's great power politics, it is necessary to engage with IR approaches that are able to explain the construction of state's identity.
Since the "great power" identity is dependent on international recognition and hierarchical identity structures, (19) perhaps one can look for explanation within the realm of systemic constructivism. However, it is important to remember that as a rule, systemic constructivists--Alexander Wendt being a deserving representative--treat identification as "a continuum from negative to positive--from conceiving another as anathema to the self to conceiving it as an extension of the self." (20) Consequently, such an approach can dangerously oversimplify the situation, excluding the possible existence of, say, a great power that is backward at the same time (the way Russia is frequently labeled today), or an enemy that has a similar ideology. What is more, those who believe in purely systemic construction of the great power status will face difficulties explaining why in the beginning of the 1990-s Russian leaders were happy to follow the West and were eagerly accepting the Western assistance--which appeared to be unexpectedly insufficient--and, at the same time, those leaders never agreed to accept the country's secondary status. It is also unlikely that they will give a sound explanation of why Vladimir Putin was widely misunderstood by the population, when during his first rather successful years in Kremlin he started comparing Russia with tiny Portugal, emphasizing that the former had to work hard in order to reach the latter's level of economic development. (21) Therefore, one has to grant this a more careful investigation, as apparently the idea of the great power status is not rooted exclusively within the aspirations of a ruling elite or the international system as such. It seems to go deeper than this. In this light, the black box of the state has to be opened and the answer should be sought for on the level of popular discourse.
Precisely the latter was attempted by Ted Hopf in his book Social Construction of International Politics: Identities and Foreign Policies, Moscow, 1955 and 1999. Hopf, attempting to be as inductive as possible, develops a theory of social identity and traces the implications of competing identities on Soviet and Russian foreign policy-making in the critical years of the country's development. While analyzing social discourse, he singles out eight distinct identifies "that were distributed most broadly and deeply across and within the most texts [that he chose to deal with]" (22)--four for each period studied. Then, Hopf follows their interaction and tries to explain certain foreign policy moves through the corresponding domination of this or another identity in a given case. In other words, through interpreting these domestic social identities he shows "how they made possible Soviet and Russian understandings of Others in world politics [and how the] constructivism [could] work all the way down, rather than having [to] stop at the level of interstate interactions." (23)
It becomes apparent in Hopf that both in 1955 and 1999 the idea of "great power" was essential for every identity that he believed to be distinct, and was indeed rooted on the level of popular discourse. During both historical periods there was a clear discursive demand for Russia's great power status; the alternative of losing this status was altogether unthinkable for the population. Thus, Hopf showed that not only the decisionmakers were, as Thomas Ambrosio put it, "obsessed" (24) with the great power status, but that such a vision was also embedded into the social discourse, and the powers that be could not help but comply with what was expected from them.
However, Hopf also understood that in spite of internal roots of the "great power" identity, as well as its partially self-ascribing nature, it is impossible to analyze it, focusing exclusively on the domestic level. A great power would never become one without any international recognition of its status. Therefore, he emphasizes its dual character by giving credit to the systemic and normative constructivisms in what concerns the great power recognition.
Since the recent revival is mostly described in great power terms, for its interpretation we will firstly need to project Hopf's paradigm into the present day. Following in the footsteps of this author, we will look at the contemporary discourse and try to find occasions, when the idea of being a great power is present, the measures directed at making contemporary Russia a great state are justified, and international recognition is longed for. Thus, we will test the importance of great power status for Russian citizens today, and will explore how the previously mentioned status is understood--and what has to be done, in the opinion of the Russian people, in order to achieve it. Such an analysis seems necessary, as, firstly, the late-Yeltsinite Russia that Hopf looked at is, no doubt, different from the Russia that is being steered by Medvedev-Putin ruling tandem; and secondly, the comparison of identity features during these periods can only become valid when performed on the common base.
In today's Russia, two main discursive areas that reflect the country's aspirations to the great power status are historical politics and contemporary "great projects." However, when one tries to account for the second dimension of the great power status (that of international recognition), it becomes evident that the discourse related to historical politics (the Great Patriotic War, Soviet symbols, Orthodoxy, and so on) cannot serve as a satisfying example for analysis, since it fails to escape the non-directional past orientation of historic narrative and is unhelpful for the determination of forthcoming political development. Despite the fact that the normative (or moral) component--so necessary for achieving the international recognition (25)--is articulated in historical discourse quite explicitly, it appears to be meaningless, since, as we will see later, it does not have any legitimizing function, but simply refers to certain historic periods during which the country's "great power" status was unquestionable. Therefore, we will address the discourse surrounding these projects. On the one hand, these projects are closely related to the great power identity, while on the other hand, they need to be justified through the vision of Russia's future international role; due to their great scale and the enormous investments involved therein, pure domestic practicality …
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Publication information: Article title: "Great Projects" Politics in Russia: History's Hardly Victorious End. Contributors: Reshetnikov, Anatoly - Author. Journal title: Demokratizatsiya. Volume: 19. Issue: 2 Publication date: Spring 2011. Page number: 151+. © 1998 Heldref Publications. COPYRIGHT 2011 Gale Group.
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