Staunton, August 19 – It has become almost a commonplace to say that Vladimir Putin has reversed what those who defeated the August 1991 coup plotters wanted and instead realized the goals of the putschists themselves, Vladislav Inozemtsev says. But such analyses are incorrect for three major reasons.
First, they ignore the fact that most of what Putin has done is not a departure from but an extension of what Boris Yeltsin who led the defeat of the coup sought to do. Second, they fail to see Putin’s success in promoting a monarchical system at home has been accompanied by his failure to achieve an imperial recovery abroad.
And third, and perhaps most important, such arguments do not recognize that the very thing that has allowed Putin to succeed at home – his stress on national sovereignty – is what is precluding his achievement of his imperialistic goals abroad and that this disjunction sets the stage for the eventual collapse of his system (snob.ru/entry/236463/).
It is certainly true that Putin has turned Russia back from the democratic transition it appeared to be headed toward at the end of the 1980s, Inozemtsev says. But it is important to remember that he did not begin that process. Boris Yeltsin did. And it is also important to remember that the Russian people agreed to it.
That is because they like the rulers they have had the last 30 plus years viewed democracy not as a system valuable in and of itself but in instrumental terms, intended to achieve particular goals. Thus, the Russian commentator says, they did not exchange democracy for well-being because they did not see that as a choice.
But if Putin has had success in restoring a monarchical authoritarian system and undermining democracy at home, he has had much less in achieving his imperialist goals. His defeat of Chechnya at home and his advances in Georgia and Ukraine have brought back under Moscow’s control far less than most think. They have added only 0.36 percent to the territory of the Russian state.
A major reason for that is that the Russian people are not prepared to sacrifice anything for that. “The overwhelming majority of the active population” are today too young to “have had personal experience with life in the former country” and do not see its recovery as their primary concern, Inozemtsev says.
Consequently, however successful Putin has been in suppressing democracy, he has failed just as much at territorial expansion. But this is not just because of popular attitudes but because of the interrelationship of monarchy and empire. While the first predisposes leaders to pursue the second, the way in which Putin has achieved the first precludes the second.
Putin is very aware of how sensitive for Russians the disintegration of the USSR remains and how worried they are that the same thing could happen to their current country. That is why he has made the idea of sovereignty central to his political paradigm. But by doing so, he has put at risk the achievement of his other goal.
That is because all the other post-Soviet states have done the same, and the more Moscow may threaten their sovereignty, the more closely they cling to that value making any imperial restoration difficult if not completely impossible. Thus, an idea which “opened the road to monarchy for Russian leaders has closed the path to empire.”
What happened in August 1991 is thus important in ways that are not always stressed. It was a reaction to the party nomenklatura to the emerging threats to both the monarchical principle and the imperial one that had guided Russian development for 500 years. But the defeat of those who tried to block that trend has not led to the restoration of both.
Instead, it has thrown Russia back to the state it was in at the middle of the 17th century: to Muscovy with Siberia but without Ukraine and the south, with a boyar duma and servile population, with a primitive transportation system” and with a similar reliance on exports to pay for needed imports.
“Such a state,” Inozemtsev argues, “is too humiliating to its population to remain unchanged forever.” Some will try to restore both of the other principles but they are likely to be blocked, and the Russian people, just like their Soviet predecessors, at some point will want to become “’like everyone else.’”
When that happens, both monarchy and empire will collapse, the Russian Federation in its current form will disintegrate, and Russians will live in a new country, much as many of them hoped to at the end of Soviet times.