Vienna, May 28 – The view widely held in both Moscow and the West that President Vladimir Putin has been far more successful than his predecessor Boris Yeltsin was in dealing with the other CIS countries is part of “an extremely harmful myth,” according to a leading Russian analyst.
In the current issue of “Druzhba narodov,” Sergei Markedonov, a specialist on ethnic and nationality issues at the Moscow Institute of Political and Military Analysis, argues that Yeltsin achieved three notable successes in this area while Putin has continued his one notable failure (http://magazines.russ.ru/druzhba/2007/5/ma12.html).
Under Yeltsin, Markedonov says, Moscow had three notable achievements, all of which he suggests now tend to be forgotten. First, the Russian government played a major role in stopping if not resolving a series of inter-ethnic conflicts across the region, thus preventing them from spreading.
Moscow played a major role in resolving the Tajik civil war, it secured the return of 70,000 ethnic Georgians to Abkhazia, and it brokered ceasefires in South Osetia and Nagorno-Karabakh. To understand how important each of these was, Markedonov says, it is only necessary to imagine how things might have developed without these accords.
Second, by virtue of Yeltsin’s policies, Russia succeeded in remaining “the only nuclear power on the post-Soviet space,” something the Moscow analyst suggests “was not easy to achieve. And third, other CIS countries viewed Russia in the Yeltsin period as “the most democratic country” in the region, and its voice had real importance.”
“Now,” Markedonov continues, “this is not the case.”
But in addition to his successes, the nationality specialist says, Yeltsin adopted one unfortunate approach that “under Putin has achieved its apogee” – a reliance on individual leaders in office rather than on forces inside the CIS governments or in opposition to them which might be helpful to Russian national interests.
“What do we see as a result?” Markedonov asks rhetorically. A situation in which when “Turkmenbashi dies, we can lose Turkmenistan. If we get into an argument with Lukashenka, Belarus moves away from us. … When Shevardnadze departed, we were surprised [and asked:] from where did the anti-Russian Saakashvili suddenly appear?”
This “legitimist” approach, the Moscow analyst says, resembles the one Russia pursued during the French Revolution, the Napoleonic wars, and the Holy Alliance, “when the Russian Empire was ready to be friendly only with those regimes which had a lawful monarch and not with any ‘usurper’ or republican,” regardless of its interests.
But still worse for Russia’s influence across the region, Markedonov continues, has been Putin’s approach at home, an approach that by itself has alienated many in the former Soviet republics who had long viewed Russia as an entirely natural regional leader behind which their countries could line up.
Despite all the nationalism in the CIS countries in the 1990s, that perspective remained true for most of them during Yeltsin’s time, the Moscow analyst continues, but now things have changed – and they have changed in many respects because of what Putin has done rather than because of what these countries or outside forces have.
“What do our neighbors see in Russia now? The undermining of federalism, the destruction of a free media, the violation of human rights … [elipsis in the original]. Russia has,” Markedonov concludes, “ceased to be first [among these states]; it has become simply one of [their number].”
In explaining the reasons for this development, Markedonov points to the “political nostalgia for the USSR” which he suggests continues to be evident in Russia but nowhere else. In some other countries, there is a kind of “socio-cultural” remorse about what was lost but not a political one.
And because of that, Moscow especially under Putin has reduced the CIS to “a club of graduates of one school,” Markedonov says, of those who grew up in the Soviet past but who now must act in a very different world. When they depart, there will be nothing left -- unless Moscow’s future leaders act more like Yeltsin and less like Putin.