Vienna, August 19 – Today is the 10th anniversary of Russia’s default on its international financial obligations and the 17th anniversary of the launch of the failed coup against Mikhail Gorbachev that precipitated the end of the Soviet Union, and tomorrow is the 40th anniversary of the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, an event that marked a low point in the Cold War.
Each of these events remains important less because of the exact details of what happened in the past than because of the very different lessons the Russians, on the one hand, and people in the West, on the other, have drawn from them, sharply contrasting lessons that continue to inform what Moscow does and how the West reacts.
The first of these by date is the Soviet-led Warsaw Pact invastion of Czechoslovakia in 1968, an action taken in the name of the Brezhnev Doctrine to prevent the emergence of “socialism with a human face” in Prague but that had the unintended consequence of sparking the beginnings of organized public protests in Moscow against Soviet policies.
Many in the West view that event as part and parcel of the Communist System rather than a reflection of Russian geopolitical interests. As US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said last week, that action was part of the Soviet past, an immoral action rooted in a discredited system that hurt Moscow at the time and ultimately contributed to its destruction.
But what the Russian people and the especially Russian leaders recall of that event and its consequences is very different. The Russian people, as a recent poll highlighted, either know little or nothing about it, and those who do continue to accept the Soviet government’s explanation for why it acted as it did (www.fom.ru/topics/3520.html),
Russian leaders have not forgotten that action or even more how the West reacted. Initially, Western governments denounced what Moscow and her satellites had done, but within weeks, Europeans were arguing that East-West contacts were too important to neglect and within only a few years, the U.S was pursuing détente with Moscow – and that during the Cold War!
Given that pattern of Western behavior, it is not surprising that Vladimir Putin, schooled in the Soviet KGB and once stationed in East Germany, on the front lines of the East-West divide, should assume that whatever Moscow does as now in Georgia and however critical the West may be, Western governments can be counted upon to come around more or less quickly.
The second of this week’s anniversaries is that of the beginning of the failed coup in Moscow, an event that led to the demise of the Communist Party, the eclipse of Mikhail Gorbachev, the rise of Boris Yeltsin, and both the recovery of independence by the Baltic states and the ultimate freedom of the 12 Soviet republics.
For Western governments, that event and those that followed it was the final act of the Cold War, the end of Communism in Europe, and the triumph of Western values. Western governments and to a large extent Western publics were so taken by their own propaganda about what had occurred that they were quite willing to speak of “the end of history.”
The end of communism for many meant not only that Russia was now a normal country that could be counted on to integrate into Western institutions as a junior partner or perhaps even more and that, chastened by the tragedies visited upon it by its leaders in the 20th century, would want only to become like the West, a status quo power interested in peace and prosperity.
But on this 17th anniversary, neither many of the Russian people nor their supreme leader Putin view the failed coup in the same way. Most Russians, a new poll finds, do not see it as the triumph of democracy that guaranteed them a better future but as an intra-elite struggle that set their country on the wrong path (www.levada.ru/press/2008081800.html).
And Putin has infamously said that he believes the demise of the Soviet Union was “the greatest tragedy of the 20th century.” Anyone who continues to hold that view is unlikely to celebrate the collapse of the coup and the disintegration of both the communism system and the Soviet empire as something positive.
Instead, it is an indication that he and those who support him would like to see a fundamental revision of the post-1991 settlement, a revision that would elevate the Russian Federation over and at the expense of the independent countries around its borders, just as Moscow is attempting to do now by invading Georgia.
The third and final anniversary to be marked this week is the 1998 default, again an event about which Western governments and the Russians fundamentally diverge. For most in the West, that event reflected the massive corruption and mismanagement of the Yeltsin era, a reason why so many welcomed the stability Putin promised and in his own way delivered.
But for many Russians, August 1998 still haunts them as the kind of threat that is the part of the economic order in which they now live and a tragedy which many believe they will face again. Indeed, in sharp contrast to the other two events, the 1998 default and the possibility or a repetition have been major themes in the Russian media in recent weeks.
And many Russian leaders clearly fear this possibility as well, a possibility that may be exacerbated by the economic shock of capital flight as a result of Russian actions in Georgia and Russian government heavy-handedness in dealing with corporations whose leaders Russian or not are not prepared to go along with every demand of the Kremlin.
When two groups of states draw such different conclusions from the same events, there is a great danger that not only that these divergences will continue to define how they see both the past and the present but also that they will ensure that the two sides will continue to interact as they did, however often either or both proclaim that the present is not like the past.