Thursday, February 4, 2016

Putin Using Specter of Russia’s Disintegration to Avoid Reform, Rogov Says

Paul Goble

            Staunton, February 4 – Vladimir Putin is talking about the disintegration of the Soviet Union in order to promote among Russians that their country is at risk of the same fate, an idea that as it gains currency will drive off the political agenda all other issues, including the failures of the current regime, according to Moscow commentator Kirill Rogov.

            The suggestion that such a threat “real or imaginary” exists “immediately changes the priorities of the political agenda,” Rogov says. Everything people normally care about including economic well-being and justice becomes “secondary” to preventing collapse and saving the country (

            “The civic agenda is replaced by a mobilizational one, and the goals of development are subordinated to the goals of preservation” because if the country is threatened with disintegration, opposing that must be the first duty of leaders and anyone who suggests that other issues should be discussed is thus marginalized.

            While some polls suggest that Russians have become more acceptant of the disintegration of the USSR, Rogov says, “in political discourse a movement in the opposite direction has been observed,” and “the theme of the disintegration of the Union over the course of the Putin era has become ever more prominent.”

            In 2005, Putin described the collapse of the USSR as “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century,” and recently he returned to this theme with his attack on Lenin’s organization of the non-Russian republics as the reason that the Soviet Union disintegrated 70 years later.

            According to Rogov, “these two passages completely reveal the role of the theme of ‘the disintegration of the USSR’ in contemporary political mythology” – a longing for super power status and its return, and “the ‘projection’ of the theme of the disintegration of the country (USSR, Russia) as the main domestic political threat.”

            Putin’s return to this theme with his attack on Lenin is “hardly unexpected,” the commentator continues.  The country’s current economic problems inevitably raise issues about the need for reform, but by suggesting that the country faces the prospect of falling apart, Putin drives all those issues off the table.

            And thus we are confronted “with a surprising historical paradox,” Rogov says. Putin “apparently intends to act in the opposite way to Mikhail Gorbachev” with a new “anti-perestroika.” But “in fact, in his understanding of political and economic priorities, Putin to an obvious extend is repeating the Gorbachev trajectory” in 1990-1991.

            The issue of why the USSR fell apart remains open and will long be discussed, “but the basic driver was not political factors but economic collapse,” Rogov argues.  By the end of the 1980s, only the Baltic republics and several in the Caucasus backed the idea of leaving the Union.  The others mostly did not at least in early 1990.

            “From the middle of 1990,” however, Rogov continues, “the preservation of the Union became the main political concern of Mikhail Gorbachev.” As a result, reformists in his regime were replaced by security officers. And “at the start of 1991, force was used to try to stop the exit of the Baltic republics from the USSR.”

            “In real everyday life, the main problem at that time undoubtedly was economics,” Rogov says. Oil prices were down, shortages were mounting and reforms were needed, including a transition to a market economy.  But Gorbachev because of his “indecisiveness” couldn’t make up his mind and so ever more relied on the siloviki who opposed such reforms.

            The Soviet president knew that such reforms would lead to inflation and that he was convinced would cost him the rest of his public support.  And consequently he accepted the idea that “the defense of the Union” was “vitally important and politically a win-win situation” for himself and his regime.
            And this is “the surprising historical paradox: the struggle for the preservation of the Union became for Gorbachev both a motive and occasion to put off economic reforms and in the final analysis the most important factor of the collapse of the union state.”

            Had he undertaken reforms, could Gorbachev have saved the situation? That is at least a possibility, Rogov says, although of course there is no way to be certain. He could not have held the Baltics but he certainly could have kept together “five or six” of the core republics and maintained himself in office as well.

            After the fell apart, the Russian Federation was also at risk of disintegration in the early 1990s. That that outcome didn’t happen, Rogov says, is due “not so much to Boris Yeltsin but to Yegor Gaidar” who liberalization policies restored the importance of money and access to resources and thus made regional elites look to Moscow rather than pursue independence.

            According to Rogov, “there is no threat of disintegration confronting today’s Russia. But it is, it would seem, seriously threatened by the permanent struggle for the preservation of Russian unity,” since that is one of the best means to block any serious consideration of and pursuit of reform.

            That is what the demise of the Soviet Union teaches, the Moscow commentator says; but he strongly implies that it is a lesson the current Kremlin has not yet learned.

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