Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Window on Eurasia: What’s Changed in Russia and What’s Not

Paul Goble

Vienna, May 15 – Even as Condoleezza Rice was denying Moscow’s suggestion that the West has launched “a new cold war” -- a charge Russians have long used to put the West on the defensive -- three articles in the Russian media call attention to how much has changed in Russia since 1991 and, at the same time, how little.
First, in an interview published in today’s “Novyye izvestiya,” Lyudmila Alekseyeva, the former Soviet dissident and longtime head of the Moscow Helsinki Group, was explicitly asked to compare the actions of the security organs in Soviet times with the actions of the same bodies now (http://www.newizv.ru/print/69155).
“The actions of the law enforcement organs are just the same as they were under Soviet power,” she says. “But what is noteworthy is that [Russia’s] citizens have changed. In Soviet times, it would have been impossible even to imagine that thousands of people would take part in a march not sanctioned by the authorities.”
“That is not because then the law enforcement officers acted more harshly – they acted exactly the same way,” Alekseyeva said. “But because the people were different. We ourselves don’t notice that we’ve changed over this short time! In the Soviet period, people entirely relied on the state, figuring that by themselves they could do nothing.”
“In principle, that was the way it was,” she added. “Now, however, the state already does nothing positive for its citizens and what is more interferes with their activities.” Having been forced to act independently and without relying on the state has “changed our psychology.
And that in turn, Alekseyeva says, means that Russians today, unlike their parents and grandparents or even themselves in Soviet times, are not prepared to “humbly” accept what the authorities do, especially when police and security officials ride roughshod over their rights.
Second, in an article published in the same Moscow newspaper, commentator Aleksandr Kolesnichenko notes that just as was the case in the Soviet past, the Russian state now has difficult, tense, and complicated relations with 11 of the 17 states along its borders (http://wwwnewizv.ru/print/69146).
Some of these troubled bilateral relationships, Kolesnichenko argues, reflect longstanding territorial and demographic tensions (Japan, China and Norway), the consequences of the breakup of the Warsaw Pact (Poland), and Russia’s problems in dealing with the three Baltic countries and most of the non-Russian republics.
Indeed, it is only within the very last category, he says, that Russia enjoys good relationships – and then only with Armenia, whose people still view Moscow as their protector, and the five increasingly authoritarian regimes in Central Asia, whose leaders if not whose populations are comfortable with the way the Kremlin now operates.
But some of the less than positive relationships reflect the continuing influence of Soviet values in the formation of policies toward the country’s neighbors. And he cites three observations that suggest just how strong this continuity of approach is, even if it is directed at new neighbors and not just old ones.
First of all, he notes, many officials, especially those raised in Soviet times, are comfortable with the idea that they are living surrounded by enemies. That justifies both a certain prickliness in dealing with the outside world and also greater powers for the Russian state in dealing with its own population.
Moreover, Kolesnichenko notes, some are openly contemptuous of the idea that Moscow should try to be friendly with its neighbors. Konstantin Zatulin, director of the Moscow Institute of CIS Countries, for example, told the journalist that Moscow should view these countries as prizes to be captured rather than friends to be made.
Russian officials are beginning to understand that reality, Zatulin added, and they have begun to reorient Moscow’s policies in this enormous region in order to advance the national interests of the Russian Federation rather than permitting these countries to do whatever they want.
And finally, the “Novyye izvestiya” writer cites the comment of Moscow political scientist Dmitriy Oreshkin to the effect that “the current Russian ideology is an attempt to achieve a kind of revenge [for the dismemberment of the Soviet Union in 1991] and to reestablish [the Russian Federation] as a great power.”
The third item in the Russian media today may seem the most minor, but it too highlights the tensions between continuity and change in today’s Russia. It concerns a new emerge to bureaucratize religion, to transform what should be an independent form of social life into a branch of the state.
In Bashkortostan today, officials of “The Foundation for Support of the Peace-Making Programs of the President of the Russian Federation” came out with a proposal to amend the Russian constitution and make the four “traditional religions” of Russia “state religions” (http://www.regions.ru/news2075319/).
The Foundation’s president, Kh. Sharafutdinov said that the country’s constitution should recognize the special role of these four faiths -- Orthodox Christianity, Islam, Judaism and Buddhism -- in this way because a basic law “ought to serve the All-Highest, the people and the state.”
Over the last decade, the Russian Orthodox Church and especially Metropolitan Kirill, who heads the External Affairs Department of the Patriarchate and is currently the odds-on favorite to succeed Patriarch Aleksii II, has pushed the idea of four traditional faiths as a way of solidifying their role.
But that push has not had a legal, let alone constitutional basis. Shafutdinov’s proposal could give it one, something that would threaten the secular basis of the state but intriguingly combine some aspects of Russia that have changed – the return of faith – and others that have not – the regime’s effort to subordinate public life to the state.

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