Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Window on Eurasia: Crimea’s Annexation Makes Russians More Optimistic about North Caucasus, Poll Finds

Paul Goble

            Staunton, April 16 – Putin’s Anschluss of Crimea is having an impact on Russian public opinion in a way few might have expected: A new Levada Center poll finds that in the wake of the Kremlin leader’s moves in Ukraine, more Russians have a positive view of developments in the North Caucasus and fewer believe the situation there is explosive or a crisis.

            The poll found that 41 percent of Russians believe the situation in the North Caucasus is favorable, up from 18 percent who said that in January, that just 43 percent said it was tense, down from 60 percent three months ago, and only four percent said the North Caucasus was explosive or a crisis, down from 12 percent (

            Moreover, the survey found that 21 percent of Russians expect that the situation in the North Caucasus will improve in the future, up from 12 percent in January, and that only  nine percent now think it is deteriorating, compared to 17 percent at the start of 2014.

            Aleksey Grazhdankin, the deputy director of the Levada Center, suggested that this result reflects the “euphoria” among many Russians about Crimea and their resulting propensity to take a more positive view about other issues. And another Levada analyst, Denis Volkov, said this included “a sharp upsurge” of positive assessments of Putin and the Russian government.

             “The events in Ukraine and Crimea,” Grazhdankin added, “unqualifiedly had greater importance” in this regard “than did the Sochi Olympic Games.  But he suggested this upsurge would not last and pointed to the pattern of assessments of Moscow following the August 2008 war with Georgia.

            At that time, the Levada deputy director said, the penumbra of popular support for the regime because of what was presented as a Russian victory “lasted three or four months.”  Now, Russian euphoria is greater and thus may last somewhat longer, but it will not continue in the absence of other events that the regime can play up as it has the Crimean annexation.

            According to Volkov, the rate at which the current euphoria continues at least with regard to the North Caucasus will depend in large measure on whether there are any new “’major’ terrorist acts” in the region.  But he said he expects the euphoria to last for some time because of “the mobilization” by the regime of “old complexes about revenge for the disintegration of the USSR.”

            Statistics show that in fact the North Caucasus is not becoming all that more stable, despite what Russians tell pollsters.  According to Kavkaz-uzel, the number of victims of violence there from among the civilian population in 2013 was 17.5 percent more than the year before, although the total number of victims of the conflict did decline from 1225 to 986.

Window on Eurasia: Putin’s Ukraine Policy Accelerating Russia’s ‘Disappearance,’ Gontmakher Says

Paul Goble

            Staunton, April 16 – Vladimir Putin’s actions in Ukraine, Yevgeny Gontmakher says, are accelerating the disappearance of Russia not so much in the sense of pointing to a change in its borders but rather with regard to the existence of a distinctive Russian society capable of surviving into the future.

            In an interview published by yesterday, the deputy director of the Moscow Instiute of World Economics and International Relations and frequent commentator on economics and politics, lays out his reasons for this “pessimistic” assessment of the situation (

            What has made Russia a distinct civilization is now under threat, he says, and therefore it is entirely possible to make “the diagnosis” that “Russia is disappearing.” Gontmakher begins by noting that people have been talking about Russia as some kind of “separate civilization” since tsarist times.

            Uvarov’s trinity of “Orthodoy, Autocracy, and Nationality” was inadequate to describe it, he says, but “the phenomenon of ‘Russianness’ ... existed,” although it was difficult to describe, and allowed people to distinguish Russianness from Germanness or Chineseness.  But “now the end is coming to this special quality.”

            This is not a question of borders, Gontmakher continues. He says that he is “practically certain that Russian perhaps even another century will exist in its current borders. But this is not the most important thing.” What is important and what is disappearing is what many have called “the phenomenon of a special ‘Russian civilization.’”
            That was undermined in the first instance by the events of the 20th century. He points to three “strata” or levels on which this is clearly shown.  The first and “most external” is theinstitution of the state.  What is striking is that in 1917 and 1991 the state dissolved overnight, even though “many consider ‘Russian civilization’ and ‘the  Russian state’ as synonyms.”

                Unfortuntely, he says, Russia has not been able to establish an effective state over the last two decades. While there are “dozens of ministries, hudnreds of thousands of bureaucrats atall level, and enormous budgets,” “corruption, ineffectiveness, unprofessionalism, and personal rule” have deprived it of any real self-definition.

            The disappearance of Russianness is also in evidence at a second level, in what is called “civil society.” The Soviet system represented “the apotheosis of atomization of society,” and the post-Soviet system has not changed that fundamentally.  As with the state, he continues, there are lots of pseudo-NGOs, but “a significant part” of them are in fact GONGOs – government organized non-governmental organizations” – rather than the real thing.

            That is a critical reality, Gontmakher says, “because if a society cannot organize itself, then it is condemned to lose its deepest sense of identity,” and that is what is happening in Russia today.  Moreover, the regime is making it worse, refusing to support self-government because people at the local level “do not know and understand” what to do.

            But as the Moscow economist points out, “you can only learn to swim when you jump into the water” – and that is something the Kremlin isn’t prepared to allow.

            But it is at the third level that the situation is the most serious and fundamental, Gontmakher continues. The health and well-being of a nation “in the broadest sense of the word” depends on the state of inter-personal relations. If those are “relatively healthy,” a nation can come back from almost anything. But in Russia, they are anything but that.

            Putin’s Ukrainian policy has both revealed how ill these relations are and made them worse.  It has divided people even within families on the basis of the suddenly introduced principle that “he who is not with us is against us,” a dangerous idea from the 1930s and one that has grown with “the mass xenophobia” of the current period.

            This illness has also been exacerbated by a decline in the material well-being of Russians and by Putin’s decision to rely on oil and gas exports rather than broader economic development, Gontmakher continues.  But all of those problems have been exacerbated by the events in Ukraine and Moscow’s approach to them.

            In any society, there is always “the problem of ‘the majority’ and ‘the minority,’” he points out. But what has Putin done?  “He has destroyed [that] schema,” one in which the minority proposes and the majority disposes,” and demonized anyone who questions what he as the “minority” has decided. 

            To achieve that goal, Gontmakher adds, Putin has unleashed “an gigantic quantity of anger and interpersonal division.”  The Kremlin leader may think he has “everything under control,” but he has set in motion forces which are larger than he thinks, that are destroying the social fabric of Russia, and that will take decades if not generations to rein in.

            Given that, many are going to leave Russia because they have no future in the Putin economy or social system.  And many who don’t leave are going to once again constitute “an internal emigration,” another phenomenon that will only lead to further “personal degradation and collapse.”

            The Russia that will lead to a decade or so from now, Gontmakher says, will be a country “without a civil society” except an “imitation” one, with “imitation” parties,” and  acountry in which anyone who opposes the regime will be told to leave or face repression.

            Before the Ukrainian events, Russia was already “a regional power,” but it had the chance to form allied relations with Europe and the US. Now, this variant is “unreal because we have been stricken from the list of potential allies of both the West, and let us not engage in illusions, China as well.”

            Russia has “fallen out of this world order,” he continues, and “even on the post-Soviet space [it] cannot be confident that our partners in some future Eurasian Union – Belarus and Kazakhstan – will not one fine day say ‘good bye’ to Russia.”


Window on Eurasia: Russian Liberals Can’t Compromise with Putinist Patriotism, Kunadze Says

Paul Goble

            Staunton, April 16 --  It has become fashionable as Russia’s latest attempt to build a state in which people live in freedom and sufficiency and one which enjoys the respect of the surrounding world has failed to call for liberals and patriots to compromise, to agree to “call the naked king ‘half-dressed,’” Georgy Kunadze says.

            But the former Russian deputy foreign minister (1991-1993) and deputy ombudsman 2004-2014) says, no compromise between the genuine versions of either. Rather what is needed is for “the government to stop setting one group against the other,” to live according to the law, and “in general to know its place (

            In a comment in today’s “Nezavisimaya gazeta,” Kunadze defines “genuine patriotism as above all the striving to help one’s own country become better,” including via “honest and direct criticism of the shortcomings of the state, intolerance toward its mistakes and an unwillingness to come to terms with crimes.”

            Genuine liberalism, in turn, he says, is “faithfulness to the principles of democracy, human right, the equality of all before the law, principles without which no country in the contemporary world can survive.” And he concludes that “in this sense, liberals are also patriots.”

             But that is not how the Kremlin or even many Russians see the situation, especially given “the almost complete international isolation of Russia and even more the coming out from under the rocks of the most repellant types of the Soviet past – chauvinists, Stalinists, and semi-fascists,” both of which are the result of Vladimir Putin’s annexation of Crimea.

            “Russia did not have and does not have a legal basis for this or the slightest chance to convince the world in the nobility of its goals and the purity of its intentions,” Kunadze says.  Instead, it has to whip up “a ‘patriotic’ psychosis,” blame the West for everything, and demonize “Russia liberal-Russophobes with their ‘anti-state’ ideas” as “’agents of influence.’”

            And in that context, Kunadze says, some like Aleksandr Lukin in a recent article in “Nezavisimaya” ( are prepared to urge liberals to sacrifice their principles and to find common ground with the patriots in the name of a “third way” much beloved by Russians.

            The “starting” point in this argument is that “Russia took the path of democracy not because this corresponded to its new national interests but only as a form of concession to the West.” Consequently, such people say, Kunade continues, Moscow “continued to formulate its national interests all these years in a purely Soviet way.”

            That is, “through the prism of opposition to the United States.”

            The West extended NATO to the east despite a “gentleman’s promise” not to do so, those who hold this view say, but they forget that this promise was “given to the Soviet Union, that is, its strategic competitor and not to Russia which it began to consider its potential ally,” Kunadze points out.

            Such people talk about Russia’s “’traditional allies,’” he says, ignoring the fact that “Russia did not have and does not have any ‘traditional allies: the Soviet satellites dispersed and it did not acquire any new allies.”

                Moscow has “tried to convince the West to acknowledge its ‘special rights’ on the post-Soviet space,” rights that would require “the limitation of the sovereignty of the post-Soviet countries.”  But the West has not accepted this Russian “’voice of wisdom,’” and in the current case, it has not accepted the Russian ultimatum to Ukraine.

            The Kremlin is demanding that Ukraine federalize, become a neutral county and give the Russian language state status. But the West “asserts that Ukraine is a sovereign state and has the right to decide these questions itself.”  How could Russia not be infuriated by such “naked demagogy?” such people ask.

            And how has the West protested Russia’s “reunification of Crimea”? By suggestions of “’humanitarian intervention’” and by denying that “nothing threatened the residents of Crimea,” Kunadze continues.  But in the view of Moscow, “Russian saved them” and has acted with “the natural right of a strong state to take land from a weak state,” even if that “pushes Russia into the embrace of China.”

            Still worse, defenders of what Moscow has done in Ukraine say, the West has “cynically” declared that Russia is not a “normal” democracy lie its members are. But of course, “Russian democracy ... is so special that it isn’t understood by every Russian.”

            And the partners of Western efforts to contain and denigrate Russia, in this view, are “Russian liberals [whose crime consists of] forever demanding that the state follow the Constitution and laws, secure the independence of the judiciary,” and other such un-Russian things. Giving in to them would “weaken” the state.

              Thus, it turns out that in the current understanding of the Kremlin and its allies, “all Russian liberals are enemies of their own country” whereas “the current authorities are honest, incorruptible,” and with only other good qualities.  Thus, Russians should love the authorities and hate the liberals and the West.

            In this context, calls for “moderate” liberals and “moderate” patriots to find a compromise are not only deceptive but dangerous. A true liberal is a patriot, Kunadze says, not because he or she supports anything his government does but because he wants what is best for his country, and a true patriot is a liberal because he or she knows that liberal values are the best prescription for that.

            If the Kremlin would get out of the way, liberals and patriots could find a common language, the former deputy foreign minister says, but neither should sacrifice that common understanding to do so.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Window on Eurasia: Putin Pushing World to Something Worse than Cold War, Piontkovsky Says

Paul Goble

            Staunton, April 15 – Vladimir Putin, in his effort to save his rule by intervening militarily in Ukraine, is pushing the world not toward a new cold war as many say but rather to something far worse and more dangerous, one in which one or another side may in fact view the use of force as a reasonable alternative, according to Andrey Piontkovsky.

            In a blog post on Ekho Moskvy today, the Russian commentator says that Putin has “simplified” the task of those who seek to understand Russia. Now, such people only need to understand what is motivating the behavior of a single individual – in this case, Putin – and the fact that his actions are guided by “a single criterion – the preservation of his power for life” (

Putin’s concern is not a “pathological” one but rather “a completely natural worry about personal physical security” because he “understands perfectly the laws of the functioning of the system he has helped to build.” And in that system, those who lose will suffer the fate of Muammar Qaddafi.

 Putin’s approach to Ukraine has been both “consistent and logical at every stage,” Piontkovsky continues.  He saw what was happening in the Maidan as representing the possibility that Ukraine would escape “the chains of the post-communist thieving regimes ... and move toward the European model of economic and political competition.”

In Putin’s view, such a development could eventually infect Russia as well and consequently it had to be “liquidated in its cradle” through the defeat of the Ukrainian revolution and the discrediting of that revolution in the eyes of the Russian people. Those goals were clearly in evidence in the Kremlin leader’s March 18 speech.

That speech, apparently “unexpectedly” for Putin himself, became something more because it included a new Russian myth on which he could keep himself in power for life: a myth intended to replace the one he created at the time of his rise when he and his handlers presented him as the vigorous young officer who could stop the disintegration of the Russian Federation by “drowning” the Chechens in “an outhouse.”

But that myth has worn thin with time, and Putin knows from the Soviet case what happens when the myth dissolved.  The USSR kept going until people ceased to believe in its supposed commitment to the formation of a just society. When they no longer believed, the Soviet leaders were finished.

They did not adopt a new myth in time, but Putin, recognizing the threat to himself and his kind of rule, is doing just that and deploying the Russian media to “zombify” the population in such a way that it will conclude it has no choice but to support his military plans in Ukraine and his continuation in office forever.

Putin’s call for an in-gathering of the Russian lands on the basis of ethnic Russians abroad, of course, entails the same risks that were highlighted by Hitler’s call for uniting all ethnic Germans on the basis of a claim that ethnicity was more important than citizenship. Such an inversion challenges the entire international system, but Putin thinks it may save him by recasting him as “the Messiah of the Russian World.”

Many have suggested that such a program “will lead to a new cold war,” but Piontkovsky says he “categorically” disagrees. Instead, what Putin is doing “will lead to a situation of relations between Russia and the West that will be much more dangerous than those in the Cold War.”

During that conflict, US and Soviet leaders, at least after 1962, both “considered nuclear weapons exclusively as a means of preventing military conflict between them and as an instrument supporting strategic stability,” and consequently, they did not use such horrific weapons to threaten one another in the pursuit of their goals.

But now, “a politician who has taken upon himself the mission of restoring the Russian World by redrawing state borders and having an enormous nuclear arsenal and a relatively weak conventional army simply is condemned to proclaim” that he has “a free hand on the entire post-Soviet space” and threaten the West with “mutual suicide” if it interferes in any way.

This “nuclear bluff is working today in the war with Ukraine,” Piontkovsky says.  The very first words from Washington and Brussels about that conflict were that “military intervention by the US and NATO was absolutely excluded since Ukraine is not a member of NATO.”

But what might happen “if tomorrow the residents of [the Estonian city of] Narva have a referendum about joining Russia? Will tens of millions of people in the US and Europe take the risk of war with a nuclear super-power and die for Narva?  Putin,” at the very least, “is convinced that no, they are not ready.”  And Piontkovsky says he has to agree with him on that.

But the consequence of that Putin conviction is that “international relations are entering a stage of instability and volatility greater than at any time in the last 60 some years.” Indeed, the Russian commentator suggests, the last time they were this great were during the last months of the life and rule of Stalin.

At that time, Stalin “was concerned and not without reason abot the problem of the preservation of his power and life. And he came up with a three-part reset” to change that: “ forced march preparation for a third world war, the liquidation of the party hierarchs, and a radical solution of the Jewish question.”

In March 1953, “the Russian God interfered” and saved Russia and the world from that outcome.  It remains an open question whether that will happen again, Piontkovsky implies.