Academic journal article Policy Review

Russian Power Russian, Weakness

Academic journal article Policy Review

Russian Power Russian, Weakness

Article excerpt

JWENTY YEARS AGO, in February 1992, I crossed the threshold of office number 42.6 on the fourth floor of the Izvestia daily building in central Moscow. I was 28 years old and invited to join the staff of Russia's most widely read and prestigious newspaper. I took over the newly created position of diplomatic correspondent. This was a hectic and exciting time of enormous expectations and momentous change. The Soviet Union had passed into history only several weeks before. A young, urbane, and Western-minded foreign minister, Andrei Kozyrev, was trying to shake the rigid and obsolete foundations of the country's foreign policy by reaching out towards the West. He was trying to make Moscow a true ally of the United States and Western Europe on such issues as Iraq, the Balkans, and the Middle East peace process. Accompanying the minister to far-flung lands on his mission to establish Russia as a new global player and reliable partner, I felt I was not only witnessing but living and to some extent even shaping (by my writing) a unique period in history.

The period of 1991-94 remains in my mind as the time of highest hopes for my native country-- hopes which were dashed and seemingly buried for nearly two decades after that. As expectations (and anxiety) rise in the wake of the recent wave of anti-government protests in Russia, it is worth casting a glance at all these years since the collapse of the ussr to try to find answers to difficult but inescapable questions. Why does this time seem to have been wasted? What kind of power do the Russians and their leaders worship? What type of weaknesses do they fear? And, finally, is there a way forward for Russia or is it condemned to gradual but irreversible decline?

To this last question most Westerners give a resigned and generally indifferent answer: plus ca change, plus c'est la meme chose. They are hardly to blame for this because despite its P-5 status, nuclear weapons, and enormous reserves of oil and gas, Russia often seems to be provincial in its thinking, inconsistent in its actions, and ultimately, increasingly irrelevant in global affairs.

Russian politicians, top-level civil servants, journalists, and academics themselves suffer a sort of cognitive dissonance. When they participate in Russia-themed conferences and seminars they can be forgiven for thinking that the world revolves around their country. But once they branch out into broader and more diverse international fora, the picture changes. Russia barely registers in comparison with such themes as the rise of China and India, climate change, or global financial and economic turmoil. Even on issues like the Iranian nuclear program or Middle East turbulence, Moscow, although a player at first glance, can only influence events by using its "nuisance factor"-- for example, by playing international advocate to the outcast regimes.

Russia's inability to connect with the "Western world on the plane of ideas seems to me a product of the unfinished, peaceful, anti-Communist revolution of t989-91. It failed to make a clean break with the past as Poland, the Baltic States, or even the post-Ceausescu Romania did. Looking back at our hopes and expectations in the early 1990s, I realize that they were unrealistic. Never in history had a state, a society, and a people had to undergo such a massive, complex, and painful transformation. For twenty years-- and still counting-- Russia has tried to achieve multiple transitions under enormous time pressure: from being the world's last great land empire to a modern nation-state; from authoritarianism to democracy; from state omnipotency and arbitrariness to the rule of law; and, finally, from a state-controlled, planned economy to the market.

With certain qualifications, only the last of these goals can be considered achieved. The first one-- making a shift from an empire to a "normal" state-- seems to me to be the most important, by far the most difficult, and still the least accomplished. …

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