Vienna, June 25 – Moscow is itself to blame for its declining influence in the former Soviet republics, a Russian commentator argues, because it has failed to articulate a well-thought-out policy for the region, to develop sufficient expertise on these countries, or even to decide what would constitute “success” for Russia there.
In an essay posted online on Friday, Oleg Nemenskiy says Moscow is currently missing what may be its last good chance to regain the influence it has lost over the last 15 years. Moreover, he says, it is engaging in counterproductive policies that strengthen its opponents and weaken its friends (http://www.russ.ru/politics/docs/politika_slona).
As evidence of that, Nemenskiy points to the recent Russian attacks on Estonian Prime Minister Andrus Ansip. Instead of further weakening the unpopular politician, Moscow’s actions had the effect of leading Estonians to form ranks around him lest it appear they were kowtowing to the Kremlin.
But that mistake, the Moscow analyst argues, is itself the product of three much larger problems – the Russian government’s inability to come up with a useful definition of compatriot, its commitment to the stability of existing governments above all, and its inability to move beyond Soviet-era ideological shibboleths on World War II.
First of all, he argues, Moscow’s long-standing problems with defining “compatriots abroad” in a consistent way have had the effect of “interfering” with the Russian government’s ability to pursue a more sensible policy across the post-Soviet space.
At present, he says, the official definition of this category of people is so broad that Moscow cannot help the ethnic Russians of Estonia because they are no more “compatriots” of the Russian Federation than the Estonians because the latter also lived within what Moscow saw as Soviet borders.
“Nowhere in the legal code of the Russian Federation is its statehood connected with the Russian people,” Nemenskiy says, adding that “the term ‘Russian people’ [in the ethno-national sense] is absent” in the country’s constitution as well. The 1996 Nationality Policy Concept was an exception, but it was never adopted as a law.
Currently, the analyst notes, officials and experts are fighting over a new edition of that concept paper. If some earlier drafts of that document gave hope, the Kremlin appears to have backed away from a clear statement, something that Nemenskiy argues is necessary for working with ethnic Russians in the former Soviet space.
Second, Nemenskiy continues, Moscow’s commitment to being a stabilizing influence in the post-Soviet space and a guarantor of the power of post-Soviet elites, while not necessarily a bad thing in all respects, has meant that unlike the U.S., Russia has not worked with opposition groups there.
Not only does that mean the Moscow loses influence whenever the opposition comes to power, Nemenskiy says, but it means that the opposition almost inevitably defines itself as more anti-Russian than would need to be the case, something that does not augur well for the future.
And third – and this is the most potentially explosive of Nemenskiy’s charges – Moscow remains locked in Soviet-era ideological “cliches” about World War II, a situation that is indefensible because the building of “the Soviet people” is no longer the task before Moscow. Consequently, Russia needs to change course.
Nemenskiy suggests that Russians must recognize that a number of peoples whom Moscow had viewed “as part of the Soviet community in fact are not representatives of the victorious side” in the Great Fatherland War. Instead, these nations, including the Estonians among others, view the Soviet army not as a liberator but as an occupier.
In trying to devise a strategy to gain influence with such people, he continues, Moscow does not need to sacrifice its view that the Red Army was “a holy force.” Instead, it needs to find formulae that allow both sides to put this issue into their past rather than serve as a continuing reason for division.
Nemenskiy suggests that Polish writer E. Pomianowski’s notion that one should speak “not about liberation but about the salvation of the peoples of Central and Eastern Europe by Soviet forces” may be precisely the kind of language that would not sacrifice Russia’s position but would allow it to have a positive influence with others.
Unfortunately, he continues, there are two reasons for pessimism that Moscow will in fact change its course on these questions anytime soon. On the one hand, because foreign policy is inevitably an extension of domestic politics, nationalist passions in the upcoming elections will make it difficult for Moscow to shift.
And on the other, Moscow today simply does not know enough or pay enough attention to its neighbors, Nemenskiy insists. Instead, it is like an elephant surrounded by mosquitoes. For the latter, the elephant is something they cannot avoid, but for the former, the latter are things it routinely ignores as it seeks to interact with other elephants.
At present, the Moscow commentator continues, there are no university programs on these countries. No one in Russia studies them. And as a result, “instead of being the leading specialists in the world on the peoples of the former Russian Empire and Soviet Union, we are almost the least informed about them.”
That will have to change along with the current defective policy framework, Nemenskiy concludes, if Russia is going to recoup its losses in these countries and transform the current situation in which Russians view five post-Soviet states among the six countries most antagonistic to their own.