Saturday, August 24, 2019

Russia Cannot Be a Democracy in Its Current Borders, Yeltsov Says

Paul Goble

            Staunton, August 17 – Russia cannot become a democracy as long as it remains in its current borders, Petr Yeltsov says; and consequently, because of the continuing desire of its peoples for freedom, the country’s territorial integrity will continue to be threatened by separatism with Russia likely to disintegrate over the course of the next generation.

            Yeltsov, a Russian-born historian and anthropologist trained at Harvard and now teaching at Washington’s National Defense University, laid out his ideas on this point in a recent Politico article (, ideas which he expanded in an interview with the Russian Service of the Voice of America.

            He tells VOA’s Valeria Jegisman that “Russia today is in a weak position economically, ideologically and politically. I would even say,” he continues, “that we are seeing a certain agony of the empire,” with the Russian Federation unlikely to last even half as long as did the Soviet Union (

                That is because “there is no single national identity in Russia. The country will be shaken under pressure of separatism. Now, everything is being held together by Putin.”  Unlike in tsarist and Soviet times, there are no institutions other than one man holding the country together. When he leaves the scene and he will, things will fly apart.

            “Many nationalities live in Russia, and the government is trying to impose a single identity.” It has developed a law on “a single Russian nation.” But most non-Russians will never accept that. Moreover, Yeltsov says, “ethnic Russian separatism is very strong” with regions like Siberia identifying not with Russia but with themselves.

            “Not everyone knows about this,” the historian says, “and only recently did many documents become accessible.”  

                If after Putin leaves, Russia changes its government and has a democratic regime, the disintegration of the country can be relatively peaceful. If he is succeeded by another authoritarian, it may be preserved in its current borders for a time but ultimately will fall apart in a less vegetarian way.

            The biggest threats to Russia thus come from within, he says. Western policy must be based no containment.  Economic sanctions won’t work, and efforts to impose democracy on Russia have already shown themselves to be failure. Personal sanctions are more important and effective, Yeltsov argues.

            The most effective means of putting pressure on Russia, however, is to support the flourishing of the former Soviet republics, such as Ukraine, Georgia and Kazakhstan.  If they become successful, Russians will then ask themselves why their own government is preventing them from achieving something similar.

            Yeltsov points out that the views he has expressed are his own and do not necessarily represent those of the National Defense University or the US government. 

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