Staunton, December 8 – Twenty-five years ago today, the leaders of Russia, Ukraine and Belarus met at Beloveshchaya and signed the agreement that many now call “the death certificate” of the USSR. But that event only represented another step on a long road of Russian imperial decay that is far from over, according to Andrey Kolesnikov.
The liberal Russian journalist argues that “the USSR is continuing to fall apart – Crimea and Eastern Ukraine, Transdniestria and South Osetia are all part of this very same process.” And consequently, despite what many now think, “1991 was not the end but the beginning of the collapse of the empire” (znak.com/2016-12-08/chlen_kudrinskogo_komiteta_grazhdanskih_iniciativ_obyasnil_pochemu_rossiya_putina_huzhe_sssr).
“The conversion of Russia into a normal modest Western state will be the first indication of the completion of this transition,” he continues; but he says that he remains “uncertain whether this in principle is possible,” not only because many regret the disintegration of the USSR but also because the current Russian leadership is behaving much like the Soviet one did.
According to Kolesnikov, it is wrong to blame those who signed the Beloveshchaya accord for the demise of the USSR. “The Soviet Union ceased its existence immediately after the appearance of elements of democracy,” he argues. And its demise was accelerated by the nature and behavior of the late Soviet leadership.
The last generation of Soviet leaders were in office so long that they were uninterested in or even afraid of any change that might undermine their power, Kolesnikov says. In this, they were just like “the current regime.” Moreover, the Soviet regime sought to improve the situation “without changing anything,” again the same approach Putin has adopted.
There are memoir accounts, he says, of how Brezhnev “sincerely and openly spoke in the narrow circle of his speechwriters: one must not touch anything; if you do, things will fall apart. What was important [to him and his comrades] was not movement or development but the familiar structure of relations” under the cover of Marxism-Leninism.
“Now,” Kolesnikov continues, “the very same logic” is present: “Let’s not touch anything or things will be only worse. This testifies to the absence of strategic thinking which can be described by formulae like ‘apres moi, le deluge’ or ‘our century has had enough.’” There is no appreciation that such an approach promises even more disasters ahead.
Russia has one advantage over the Soviet Union, according to the Moscow commentator. It has a ‘more or less working market economy” which is preventing everything from falling apart quite as fast as was the case with the USSR with its “harshly planned” variant.
Kolesnikov moreover says that Russians aren’t going to “return to Soviet times,” but the elements in common between the late 1980s and now are too disturbing to ignore: Once again, “Russia is living inside an anti-utopia,” and the lack of clear rules and a vision of the future may make the situation develop in even more unfavorable directions.
The Moscow journalist does not say but there are three additional reasons why Putin’s revanchist policies, however much supported by the majority of Russians who regret the disintegration of the USSR and who are inclined to blame Mikhail Gorbachev, Boris Yeltsin and other politicians for that outcome.
First, Putin’s efforts to reconstitute the empire if they succeeded would re-insert in Russian reality centrifugal forces that would tear the country apart, especially because those re-annexed would have memories of life beyond Moscow’s reach. There is a reason that the Baltic countries led the parade out of the USSR: they had the most recent experience with freedom.
Second, Putin is not committed to the kind of internationalism which blocked manifestations of xenophobic Russian nationalism against everyone else. Instead, he promotes exactly that, a trend that means that relations among the nations of Eurasia are likely to deteriorate not improve.
And third, and perhaps ultimately most important, Putin has failed to develop the kind of infrastructure that would hold even the Russian Federation in its current borders together in a crisis and to promote the kind of standard of living and conditions of existence that would make his country an attractive destination for others. Instead, he has done just the reverse.
In short, as Kolesnikov argues, Putin’s Brezhnevite approach is only accelerating the demise of the Moscow-centered empire. It may succeed in recovering one or another part of what it lost but only at the ultimate cost of losing all or almost all of everything else.