Richard Pipes: Pride and Power, Russia caught between continents and haunted by its past

Roundup: Historians' Take

[Richard Pipes is Frank B. Baird Jr. professor of history, emeritus, at Harvard University. In 1981 and 1982 he served as Director of East European and Soviet Affairs in President Reagan's National Security Council.]

Russia is obsessed with being recognized as a "Great Power." She has felt as one since the 17th century, after having conquered Siberia, but especially since her victory in World War II over Germany and the success in sending the first human into space. It costs nothing to defer to her claims to such exalted status, to show her respect, to listen to her wishes. From this point of view, the recent remarks about Russia by Vice President Joe Biden in an interview with this newspaper were both gratuitous and harmful. "Russia has to make some very difficult calculated decisions," he said. "They have a shrinking population base, they have a withering economy, they have a banking sector that is not likely to be able to withstand the next 15 years."

These remarks are not inaccurate but stating them publicly serves no purpose other than to humiliate Russia. The trends the vice president described will likely make Russia more open to cooperating with the West, Mr. Biden suggested. It is significant that when our secretary of state tried promptly to repair the damage which Mr. Biden's words had caused, Izvestiia, a leading Russian daily, proudly announced in a headline, "Hillary Clinton acknowledges Russia as a Great Power."

Russia's influence on world affairs derives not from her economic power or cultural authority but her unique geopolitical location. She is not only the world's largest state with the world's longest frontier, but she dominates the Eurasian land mass, touching directly on three major regions: Europe, the Middle East and the Far East. This situation enables her to exploit to her advantage crises that occur in the most populous and strategic areas of the globe. For this reason, she is and will remain a major player in world politics.

Opinion polls indicate that most Russians regret the passing of the Soviet Union and feel nostalgia for Stalin. Of course, they miss not the repression of human rights which occurred under Communism nor the miserable standards of living but the status of their country as a force to be reckoned with: a country to be respected and feared. Under present conditions, the easiest way for them to achieve this objective is to say "no" to the one undeniable superpower, the United States. This accounts for their refusal to deal more effectively with Iran, for example, or their outrage at America's proposal to install rocket defenses in Poland and the Czech Republic. Their media delight in reporting any negative news about the United States, especially the dollar, which they predict will soon be worthless (even as their central bank holds $120 billion or 30% of its reserves in dollar-denominated U.S. securities).

One unfortunate consequence of the obsession with "great power" status is that it leads Russians to neglect the internal conditions in their country. And here there is much to be done. To begin with: the economy. The Russian aggression against Georgia has cost it dearly in terms of capital flight. Due to the decline in the global prices of energy, which constitute around 70% of Russian exports, exports in the first half of 2009 have fallen by 47%. The stock market, which suffered a disastrous decline in 2008, has recovered, and the ruble has held steady, but the hard currency reserves are melting and the future does not look promising: The latest statistics indicate that Russia's GDP this year will fall by 7%. It is this that has prompted President Dmitry Medvedev recently to demand that Russia carry out a major restructuring of her economy and end her heavy reliance on energy exports. "Russia needs to move forward," he told a gathering of parliamentary party leaders, "and this movement so far does not exist. We are marking time and this was clearly demonstrated by the crisis... as soon as the crisis occurred, we collapsed. And we collapsed more than many other countries."

One of the major obstacles to conducting business in Russia is the all-pervasive corruption. Because the government plays such an immense role in the country's economy, controlling some of its most important sectors, little can be done without bribing officials. A recent survey by Russia's Ministry of the Interior revealed, without any apparent embarrassment, that the average amount of a bribe this year has nearly tripled compared to the previous year, amounting to more than 27,000 rubles or nearly $1,000. To make matters worse, businesses cannot rely on courts to settle their claims and disputes, and in extreme cases resort to arbitration.

The political situation may appear to a foreigner inculcated with Western values as incomprehensible. Democratic institutions, while not totally suppressed, play little role in the conduct of affairs defined by the leading ideologist of the regime as "sovereign democracy." Indeed, President Medvedev has publicly declared his opposition to "parliamentary democracy" on the grounds that it would destroy Russia.

A single party, One Russia, virtually monopolizes power, assisted by the Communists and a couple of minor affiliates. Parliamentary bodies duly pass all bills presented to them by the government. Television, the main source of news for the vast country, is monopolized by the state. One lonely radio station and a few low-circulation newspapers are allowed freedom of expression in order to silence dissident intellectuals. And yet, the population at large seems not to mind this political arrangement—an acquiescence which runs contrary to the Western belief that all people crave the right to choose and direct their government...

comments powered by Disqus