Staunton, December 18 – Two decades ago, two communist empires fell apart, the Yugoslav violently and the Russian peacefully. In both cases, almost the entire political spectrum agreed on the need to dispense with socialism, but the two were split on whether to fight to maintain the empire, according to Andrey Piontkovsky.
Thanks to the pragmatism of Boris Yeltsin who understood that it would not be possible to hold the empire together even at the cost of what people at the time called “big blood” and of the Russian people who did not want to fight for a new empire but rather to recover from communism, Russia escaped what could have been a disaster.
But in Yugoslavia, thanks to the populism of Slobodan Milosevic and his desire to hold the Serbian empire together even at the cost of violent bloodshed, the peoples of that country did not escape the tragedy of war nor in the end avoid the disintegration of the space some of them thought should be maintained (svoboda.org/content/article/26741022.html).
Of course, there were supporters of an imperial restoration in Russia as well, Piontkovsky says. Some of them were among the putschists in August 1991. Indeed, seen from this distance, it is clear that the coup was “not a communist but precisely an imperial putsch.” Its members didn’t want to stop privatization; they simply wanted to reverse the disintegration of the empire.
(Gavriil Popov at that time even called for “the fraternal dismemberment of Ukraine” along the lines that Putin has been pushing, the Russian analyst notes. But neither he nor the coup people received much support at that time.)
“Not only the residents of the former Soviet Union but the entire world owes a debt of gratitude to the wisdom and restraint of the Russian people who did not fall for calls for ‘an ingathering of Russian lands,’” Piontkovsky continues. “A Yugoslav scenario on the post-Soviet space,” given Moscow’s nuclear arsenal, “could have become a worldwide catastrophe.”
That is what makes Vladimir Putin’s actions over the last year so disturbing. They represent “an insane attempt of an aging dictator to return via a time machine to 23 years ago, to replay the collapse of the Soviet Union this time in a Yugoslav way, and extend the agony of its rotting kleptocracy … in the grand style like Hitlerite fascism or Stalinist communism.”
Putin’s plans were doomed to fail, Piontkovsky says, because “the mentality of Russians has not changed over,” the “euphoria” over the Crimean Anschluss notwithstanding. Few of them saw their enthusiasm for that as a sanction to the Kremlin “for an unending hybrid war ‘in defense of ethnic Russians and Russian speakers’ in the entire post-Soviet space.”
Of course, there are some Russians who would like to see Moscow pursue a Milosevic-style campaign. Among them are “the Prokhanovs and the Dugins, the Kholmogorovs and the Prosvirins, the Zhiriks and the Zyuganovs, the Prilepins and the Okkhlobystins,” Prokhanov says.
But for all their brave talk and for all the times that Putin echoed it with his threats to use 1991, nuclear weapons against anyone who opposed him, “it has turned out that Putin is not ready to die for Narva.” He knows he would lose, and consequently, he will do what he can to avoid that lest he lose the other achievements of 1991, privatization and wealth.
Unfortunately and complicating Putin’s retreat, there are others in the Russian political firmament who want to follow the Yugoslav scenario to the end and continue the violence in Ukraine and the threat of it elsewhere. And they include in the form of “a real fuehrer” a “three-headed hydra of Girkin, Ragozin and Glazyev.”
They and their fate bear the closest possible watching.