Wednesday, 15 December 2004

Russia's backsliding

Anne Applebaum is one of my favorite columnists because she’s willing to take on just about anyone, including the left, though she’s an editor at the WaPo. She also wrote what is probably the definitive book on the Soviet gulags. And she’s a babe, from the looks of things—and I wasn’t influenced by the song Jet City Woman, which I just happen to be listening to at the moment. [Yeah, I realize that’s a “stream of consciousness”-type comment.]

Given her experience covering the collapse of communism in the early 90s, she’s a good person to look to for the state of affairs in Russia at the moment. It ain’t pretty:

She had just turned 18. She was a freshman at a small American college. In flawless English, she explained that she was home for Christmas, visiting her family in Moscow. We spoke about how much her city had changed in the past decade, about the new shops, about how many Muscovites now travel abroad. Then, because we were stuck in Moscow traffic and had run out of small talk, I asked her what she thought about recent events in Ukraine. “We’re really upset about it,” she said. At first I thought she meant that she and her family were upset because the Russian government had helped the Ukrainian government try to steal the election. But in fact, they were upset because they thought Ukraine might leave Russia’s sphere of influence. “If all of these countries around us join NATO and the European Union, Russia will be isolated,” she said. “We must prevent that from happening.”

These were casual comments, and they came from someone who was in no way a typical Russian. But that was precisely the oddness of it: A young woman, educated in the West, felt affronted because Russia’s neighbors want to join Western institutions. And compared with the views of some others, who are not educated in the West, hers are relatively mild. A few days later, at a seminar for high school teachers on “civic education,” I was angrily asked why the U.S. government funds Chechen terrorism and why the American government wants to destroy Russia. Certainly not everyone in Moscow labors under the belief, which my companion in the car also expressed, that Russia will never—can never—join any Western institutions, or that Russia must make a “last stand” against Western encroachment, or that Russia must, at all costs, defend the last redoubt of its empire. Last weekend, at a somewhat ramshackle congress of Russian democratic and human rights activists, I listened to a handful of them argue passionately about the nature of Russian xenophobia and how to stop it.

RTWT, and weep. It seems to me that the Russians should be focusing more attention on commerce and internal liberalization; less on any pretense of empire and the goings-on of their neighbors.

Applebaum’s old employer, The Economist, lead with Russian decline this week as well:

THE drama playing out in the streets of Ukraine in recent weeks has been gripping in its own terms. But its bigger significance for the West lies north-east of Kiev, in Russia. As the tide moves towards a presidential election victory for the opposition leader, Victor Yushchenko, on December 26th, the efforts of Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin, to thwart him have looked ever more cack-handed. But they have also depressed those who still hoped that Mr Putin’s Russia might move, slowly and tortuously, on to a path leading to political liberalism—and that he might prove an ally not a foe of the West.

As if Russia’s intervention in Ukraine were not enough, the Kremlin’s anti-western rhetoric has also risen. In an excess of hypocrisy even by Soviet standards, Mr Putin and his foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, have accused the West of meddling in Ukraine in order to destabilise the region (see article). This week Mr Lavrov attacked the Organisation of Security and Co-operation in Europe, whose monitors declared the Ukrainian election fraudulent three weeks ago. Mr Putin then widened the field of assault by criticising Iraq’s interim government and its plans to hold elections next month.

Of course, none of this bodes well for Russia’s future—and it doesn’t even include the news that Russia will develop a new class of nuclear weapon designed to evade missile defense. It seems that President Bush’s look into Putin’s soul wasn’t quite thorough enough. It also appears that Russia will be a long-term opponent of the U.S. unless things change. It’s a shame, really. China and India are pretty good examples of countries that can embrace economic reform and fix their situations at home rather than being distracted by the workings of other countries. Russia could do the same.

Update: Dale Franks has more. He also reminded of Churchill's quote on Russia:

Russia is a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.
That's still true as far as I can tell. Completely inscrutable and untrustworthy.