Great Power Complex

In recent weeks, Russia's political establishment has been increasingly preoccupied with the issue of Russia's status in world affairs. The most recent example of this was President Boris Yeltsin's demand that Russia be consulted before NATO takes any military action in Bosnia. The pro-government and nationalist press reiterates: "We are still a Great Power! We are still a nuclear power! Without Russia no problems in world affairs can be solved." No doubt this rhetoric is addressed mostly to a domestic audience, since the government and the political establishment at large are working on the assumption that the Russian people need a dose of self-confidence and pride in their nation. To a Western observer, this quest for a Great Power image may come across as a sign of insecurity, lack of self-confidence, and even as an identity crisis. The problem is that the Russian political elite has not defined Russia's role and place in the post-Communist world. One day it seeks membership in the Partnership for Peace program, the next day it steps back from joining. Russia is demonstrating the age-old love-hate relationship it has with the West: a desire to reform and be like the West combined with assertions that Russians are different and better and stronger than corrupt Western democracies. The Russian political elite has not yet found an answer to the question: What does it mean to be a Great Power in the modern world? Its instinct is to grasp at what it knows best: To be great is to be strong militarily, to be feared by one's neighbors and by the other superpower. A series of steps over the last several months clearly indicate that Russia's policy in the CIS is developing in the direction of disguised imperialism. Fearing Zhirinovsky and the "patriots," Yeltsin's government, disregarding the costs to the Russian taxpayer, has been conducting a policy of increased Russian military and economic pressure on the former Soviet republics. The military presence in the Caucasus and Tajikistan, talk of military bases elsewhere, the delaying tactics in the matter of withdrawal from the Baltics and the monetary union with Belarus are designed to counteract the accusations of the "patriots" that the current administration has sold out to the West. Even the mainstream press has been discussing Russia's "legitimate national interests" lately. This is usually a euphemism for the lost empire, a signal to the West that all former Soviet republics constitute a zone of Russia's influence and attempts by other countries to penetrate this zone by economic or, God forbid, military presence will be understood as acts hostile to Russia. This is the essence of what we can call the Yeltsin doctrine. The degree of anti-Western rhetoric in the nationalist and Communist press is bordering on paranoid. It has exceeded by far the levels of Communist propaganda under Brezhnev. Looking through the pages of Pravda, Zavtra, and Pravda Zhirinovskogo, one gleans a blind hatred of the West. It is accused of virtually all the problems Russia faces today: The U.S.S.R. was destroyed by a CIA conspiracy; inflation, corruption, consumerism, crime and dirty streets in Moscow are all the results of Western influence. If the West grants credits and/or humanitarian aid, the perception is that the West treats Russia as a beggar. If Western companies invest in the Russian oil industry it means they are buying up Russian national resources and the government is accused of treason, of selling off Russia. If the United States offers credits to Ukraine, it is perceived as malicious scheming behind Russia's back. If former East Bloc countries seek membership in the Partnership for Peace program it is perceived as the West's taking over what is Russia's legitimate and historical sphere of influence. Fortunately for Russia, not all the political establishment adheres to this view. Some observers and politicians have been cautiously trying to suggest in Nezavisimaya Gazeta and other papers that Russia can only be great if it reforms its economy. That is only possible through integration into the Western-led world economic system. That, in turn, is impossible without close cooperation with the leading Western industrial nations. Military expenditure and presence in the CIS countries are a burden Russia cannot afford. Greatness is measured, not by the number of tanks but by the billions of dollars in a country's banks, by the level of its technology, the level of development of its infrastructure and the standard of living of its people. Unfortunately in the last few months the trend has veered away from an explicitly pro-Western orientation and toward imperialism, albeit a kinder and gentler imperialism than that advocated by Zhirinovsky. Russia faces a painful identity crisis today. At least a part of the Russian elite is beginning to realize that in the real world of banking, finance, technology, and marketing, Russia is far from being a superpower, and its role in world affairs for the foreseeable future is not going to be that of a superpower. It is extremely difficult for politicians to accept this reality, let alone convey this message to the electorate. Dismantling an empire was a difficult process for Britain and France and it is even more difficult for Russia. U.S. policy toward Russia should be based on the understanding of the simple fact that Russia is in the midst of a spiritual, ideological and cultural identity crisis. Much depends on whether, and how, this crisis is going to be resolved. At stake here is whether Russia takes its place among the industrialized democracies of the world or reverts to post-Communist intransigent aggressive nationalism. Vladimir Brovkin is an associate professor at Harvard University. He contributed this comment to The Moscow Times.