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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Europe's New Sick Man




A new constitution granting new rights and freedoms, including the right to vote, is proclaimed. People dance and joyfully embrace in the streets. Their country is free, moving ahead, joining the civilized nations of the world.


Boris Yeltsin's Russia in 1991?


No, the Ottoman Empire in 1908, the place described, ironically enough, by Tsar Nicholas II as "the sick man of Europe," the multiethnic and multiconfessional empire that few can or wish to remember today, including Turkey, its main successor.


Western policy-makers would do well to dust off their history books and reread the sections dealing with the terminal decline of the Ottomans. After the "new start" of 1908, the reform movement faltered and the government drifted. Giddy optimism among Ottoman subjects turned into bitterness and a sense of betrayal. Finally, the reform movement came to an end when the empire's former subjects humiliated it in the Balkan Wars of 1912-13. A frustrated young Ottoman officer, Enver Pasha, seized power in a coup Jan. 23, 1913. Thirsting to restore the empire's greatness, he plunged Ottoman Turkey into World War I the following year. The "Eastern question" that dominated diplomacy in the late 19th and early 20th centuries f managing Ottoman decline f was finally answered with the dismemberment of Enver's dream state in the world's first global blood bath.


The similarities between Ottoman disintegration and the continuing collapse of Russian power can be disquieting. The Ottomans built their empire fighting under the banner of Sunni Islam. Their all-encompassing Islamic ideology gave the Ottoman state more than a transcendent purpose: It stamped its institutions with the imprimatur of eternal truth. Even tax codes were defined till the end of time.


Meanwhile, beyond the Ottomans' boundaries, new and more powerful technologies, and new and more efficient forms of military and economic organization, sprang up. When the empire's military began to wane, so, too, did the elite's faith. As the Ottomans' chroniclers tell us, state officials began to use their offices not for the greater cause of the empire but for the greater size of their private purses.


In addition to the military challenge, a whirlwind of economic change in the form of an evolving global market and industrial revolution began penetrating the Ottoman lands, transforming the Ottoman economy. The state's institutions, fossilized on the outside and rotting from the inside, no longer performed their functions. The farthest-removed ofOttoman lands slid into the orbit of other powers; domestic disorder set in. In the Balkan and Anatolian countrysides, marauding bands, some with political agendas, most without, pillaged the land.


Substitute the words "Marxism" for "Islam," "information revolution" for "industrial revolution," "organized-crime gangs" for "marauding bands," and "1991" for "1908" and you have a short narrative of the decline of Soviet, now Russian power. Although this "Eurasian question" has been with us for nearly two decades, Russia policy analysts have preferred to fantasize about a Russia either resurrected to play a great-power role as a rival to the West or reborn as the West's democratic ally.


But as Shamil Basayev and his band have demonstrated, Russia is far from being reborn, and may be in terminal decline. If the stakes were high at the beginning of the century f when failure to adroitly handle Ottoman decline led the great powers into a clash in the Balkans and World War I f the stakes today are even higher.


Yeltsin and his new prime minister, Vladimir Putin, seem determined to lead Russia into another military humiliation f possibly their version of the Balkan Wars of 1912-13. True, in Basayev's band the Russians face a foe numbering fewer than 2,000, and one that has pulled back for the moment. But in the three years since Russia lost its war with Chechnya, its forces have evinced little improvement.


Dagestan has, so far, resisted the siren song of self-determination and anti-Russian rebellion precisely because it is so ethnically fragmented. None of Dagestan's 30-odd nationalities forms a sizable plurality. The result is a peace underpinned by an ethnic MAD (mutually assured destruction) doctrine. This strength, however, is also Dagestan's Achilles' heel. The one identity that unites virtually all Dagestanis is a Moslem one. It is a strong identity and, moreover, one that is historically bound up with the struggle against Russian colonialism.


Basayev does not need a spontaneous Islamic insurrection to triumph. It will be sufficient to plunge Dagestan into a protracted civil war. As a populace already tormented by impoverishment and corrupt government wearies of the strife of war, it will reach for a solution with the lowest common denominator. As in Afghanistan, radical Islam can build on a common identity and provide a political order that, however imperfect, is still order.


Some might object that, other than Chechnya, no region has pushed for a complete and total break with Moscow. But the point is, if the Kremlin goes under, they might not have any choice. Others might contend that the shared language, culture and traditions of Russians render an Ottoman-style breakup inconceivable. Such ties, however, did little for the political cohesion of the post-Ottoman Arab lands, and there is no reason why they should keep such a vast country as Russia unified. After all, the birthplace of Russian cultural identity is Kiev, now the capital of a place called Ukraine.


That Russia's Caucasus has been in open rebellion for some eight years is alarming enough. But the failure of the Russian state to adapt and respond to this challenge, among many others, signals a state doomed to self-destruction. No crisis has galvanized the Russian state into long-awaited rejuvenation. Its response has grown steadily feebler and less coherent. Far from worrying about balancing a resurgent Russia, the West had better begin preparing for Russia's burial.


Michael A. Reynolds is a Fulbright scholar in the Department of Near Eastern Studies at Princeton University. He contributed this comment to the Los Angeles Times.