Staunton, July 15 – For more than a decade, Vladimir Putin has insisted that the disintegration of the USSR was the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century and his supporters have argued that Putin himself is the basis for the continued existence of Russia. “If Putin is not present,” they say, “Russia won’t be either.”
But Donald Tusk, President of the European Council, has now challenged those ideas. “The collapse of the Soviet Union was not the most important geopolitical catastrophe. Today … I want to say this loudly and clearly: the disintegration of the USSR was a blessing for Georgians, Poles, Ukrainians and all Central and Eastern Europe.”
“And for Russians as well” (newsru.com/world/11jul2019/ussr_putin_tusk.html).
Tusk’s challenge is of more than historical interest. On the one hand, much of Putin’s authority and support rests on the fact that he argues that he and he alone has kept Russian from following the path of the USSR into the dustbin of history and even has taken steps to reverse the settlement of 1991.
But on the other, there are increasing indications that ever more people living within the current borders of the Russian Federation are coming to believe that while the disintegration of that country would not be good for Putin and his entourage, it might very well bring benefits to others just as 1991 has.
In two important LiveJournal posts, Moscow commentator Andrey Nalgin discusses this possibility (a-nalgin.livejournal.com/1716730.html and a-nalgin.livejournal.com/1718222.html). He says bluntly that “not everything that Vladimir Putin considers to be a catastrophe is such for Russians and it may be that the situation is just the opposite, something good for them.”
He takes as his point of departure the new study by economist Mikhail Dmitriyev and his team about the evolution of Russian attitudes in the direction of new protests, a study that has attracted attention because of his success in predicting the protests of 2011-2012. (For the new study, see ru.reuters.com/article/topNews/idRUKCN1U61WV-ORUTP.)
Nalgin sums up Dmitriyev’s findings this way: “The single restraining factor which so far has not allowed local protests to grow into all-Russian ones is the absence of charismatic leaders and political forces capable of offering the population a consolidating idea and a positive agenda. But this is not a good thing for the powers that be but a bad one.”
“In the absence of a positive agenda,” Dmitriyev and his team write, “the triggers for the activation of mass protests can be outbursts of negative emotions called forth by any actions or inactions of the powers that be. Such forms of protest activity can take on a clearly expressed irrational coloration and may assume an extremely destructive direction.”
That creates a potentially dangerous situation, capable of leading to “the destabilizationo of the situation in the country,” Dmitriyev says.
There is no doubt that those around Putin sense this danger, Nalgin continues; nor is there any doubt that at least some of them are now asking whether the disintegration of Russia would be a disaster for everyone even if it would be very much a disaster for the Kremlin leader and those who remain with him to the end.
Dmitriyev’s arguments about the growing possibility for mass protests have attracted attention, “but many have left unnoticed that another, no less but rather more important transformation of public consciousness in Russia has taken place.” Indeed, Nalgin argues, this second development may be vastly more consequential than the first.
“Its essence,” he says, “is a calm attitude toward the possible separation of the territories of Russia and the offering to the regions of greater authority. Such attitudes are manifested in regions where residents ae complaining about their low standard of living (Arkhangelsk, Magadan, Vladivostok) and also in national republics (Sakha-Yakutia).”
Nalgin continues: “for the population of poor regions, ideas of separating from Russia are one of the paths of solving the problems of raising the standard of living while in the national republics such ideas can be used by regional elites in order to legitimate demands for self-determination.”
And then he cites Dmitriyev’s conclusions again: “The data obtained show that the situation which exists at the moment is close to the critical point and the appearance of strong regional leaders inclined to separatism may destroy the existing status quo.”
That is more likely, Nalgin says, because “the troubled but strong desire for change, the loss by the powers that be of moral authority and the outburst of regional fronts” could once again lead to the disintegration of the country. The situation, of course, is “not identical” to that in 1991 but it is “similar.”