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December 2, 2011

Russia, 20 Years Along

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December marks the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Soviet Union. It’s a fitting time, then, to take stock of what was achieved — and what failed — in Eurasia over the last two decades.

The Obama administration has tried to “reset” U.S. relations with Russia. But the recent threat by the Russian ambassador to NATO, Dmitry Rogozin, to shut down the U.S. supply line to Afghanistan is a reminder of just how deep go the roots of anti-Americanism, and how Russia is increasingly looking away from the West.

It didn’t have to be that way. The multi-faceted collapse of the Soviet empire and its communist ideology was quick by historic yardsticks. From economic meltdown to “velvet revolutions” in the Eastern European satellites and to the break-away of independent republics was a matter of only a few years — 1989-1991.

The sad news is that the Soviet collapse did not bring a “bright future” to its people as many hoped at the time, East and West. Too many communist apparatchiks remained in power. The extirpation of faith, the corroded ethics and rising criminality prevented the rise of a state that serves its citizenry and is fully accountable to it.

U.S. assistance failed to secure transparent, participatory governance based on the rule of law. To paraphrase a contemporary joke, building an autocracy out of a democracy is making a fish soup out of an aquarium, but constructing a democracy on the foundation of an autocracy is making an aquarium out of fish soup.

Today, not one of the former Soviet republics, with the exception of the Baltic states and possibly Georgia, is a full-fledged democracy. In Ukraine, the two leaders of opposition parties — former interior minister Yuri Lutsenko and former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko — are both in jail.

In Russia, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin recently alleged at the Valdai Club dinner that “some political experts claim that the multiparty model outlived its usefulness.” With his nomination to run for president, Putin is poised to become one of the longest-reigning leaders in Russian history, on par with Peter the Great, Catherine the Great, Nicholas I and Stalin.

To be sure, Russia is no longer communist, but neither is it a democracy. It appears to be a criminalized, paternalistic autocracy. To quote former Defense Secretary and C.I.A. chief Robert Gates, Russia is “an oligarchy run by the secret services.”

An unhappy place, it suffers from some of the world’s highest rates for drug use, corruption and suicide.

In addition, it is run by a party — United Russia — intent on maintaining its influence. The speaker of the Duma, Boris Gryzlov, who is also a United Party leader, recently declared that winning anything less than a constitutional majority (300 out of 450 seats) in this Sunday’s Duma elections would be considered a defeat. And, he added ominously, “defeat is not an option.” Polls suggest about 52 percent for United Russia — less than the coveted constitutional majority.

Putin’s external agenda is no less grandiose. He has declared that he intends to push for a Eurasian Union, which would stretch from the Polish border to the Pamir mountains. It would include Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, bringing Russian soldiers back to the Afghan border, and Moscow will undoubtedly try to bring Armenia and Ukraine into the bloc. The man who called the collapse of the U.S.S.R. “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century” seems intent on correcting that alleged wrong.

Twenty years after the Soviet dissolution, Russian leaders are using intriguing rhetoric. Gryzlov insists on calling the expansion project “bolshaya strana,” or “large country” a calque of “Grossraum” as promoted by Carl Schmitt and other German ideologues in the first part of the last century.

Russian nationalism is growing stronger. In public opinion polls, the slogan “Russia for (ethnic) Russians” is gaining popularity. Stalin, a hero for the Communist Party (still the second largest political force in the country), consistently ranks among the nation’s favorite historical leaders. And nasty nationalists keep gaining followers.

At the same time, senior officials and tycoons vacation, bank and educate their offspring in Europe rather than Eurasia. As the nationalists say, “The Chinese and the Muslims can come and take our territory, but they cannot take our souls — the Westerners can.”

At the United Russia Party congress where he received his nomination, Putin attacked the “Judases” in non-government organizations who dare to take Western money to promote democracy. Immediately, three Duma members wrote an article demanding tax and prosecutorial investigations into Golos, the only independent election-monitoring organization left in Russia. This bodes ill for liberties of the Russians.

Some U.S. democracy activists and government officials claim that the advent of new information technology and social networks can bring democracy to places like Russia, Central Asia or the Middle East. They talk in terms of the “TV Party” — people who watch state-controlled TV — and the Internet Party — those who are more critical and worldly.

But technology is value-neutral, and content is king. In Eurasia, cyberspace reflects the society — just as it does in the Middle East, where Salafists and the Muslim Brotherhood get more hits and page views than liberals. All manner of Kremlin “trolls” and Slavic ultra-nationalists are tremendously effective at using cyberspace for propaganda and worse. In Russia, cyberspace also reflects growing ethnic and religious tensions and the rise of anti-Americanism.

Twenty years after the Soviet collapse, challenges to democracy, free markets and the rule of law still abound. The ghosts haunting post-Soviet space make it more difficult for the U.S. and the West to deal with those who rule the largest country on earth and the neighborhood it controls.

Ariel Cohen is senior research fellow in Russian and Eurasian studies and international energy policy at The Heritage Foundation.  

First appeared in The New York Times

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