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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

The Deficit of Values Behind a Crisis in Goals

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Although books have been written about the transition from capitalism to socialism for over a century, titles focusing on the path back to capitalism are a much more recent phenomenon.

It is 17 years since the fall of the Berlin wall and 15 years since the collapse of the Soviet Union. Current events in the former "socialist world" show that the scale of difficulties involved in the transition was seriously underestimated. Moreover, economic reforms are not the most difficult part; changing people's attitudes is much harder.

When communism fell, countries on the periphery of the former Soviet empire had no doubts about where to turn -- from Moscow to the West and the Euro-Atlantic community. There were no alternatives to this approach, which determined policy for the next 15 years and during which opposing political groups cooperated with each other, painful reforms were pushed through and the public tightened their belts. Now that success has been achieved, with the European Union and NATO throwing open their doors, we have a crisis of goals.

The recent riots in Hungary, political crises in Poland, unexpected electoral results in Slovakia and a nationalist making it to the second round of presidential elections in Bulgaria seem to indicate a backlash. The appearance of nationalism, populism and anti-European sentiment threatens to undo all the hard work of the transition period. Political, economic and social backwardness are making themselves felt. As soon as the common goal and psychological pressure disappeared, it turned out that meeting the Copenhagen criteria for membership in the EU was one thing, but getting rid of the heritage of the "accursed past" was quite another. This is because the values of democracy cannot take root to order, but are acquired as society evolves.

Everyone seems to agree Russia is not going the same way as other countries. The illusions of the early 1990s that Russia could become a "giant Poland" have been left in the past. Popular wisdom now underscores the unique nature of the Russian path, as distinct from the Central European way.

Yet the processes taking place here are not that far removed from what other post-communist states have lived and are still living through in terms of psychological mechanisms.

The Russian democratic movement of the 1980s and early 1990s, led by Boris Yeltsin, adopted the same slogans that national-democratic movements in Eastern Europe and other Soviet republics seized on -- liberation from the communist empire. But whereas anti-imperial zeal was the goal elsewhere, for Russian politicians it was a means to an end. For them the point was not the liquidation of a great power but getting rid of the communist regime. When the result was achieved, it turned out that the country that remained was unfamiliar and unnatural. At the time, this was the cause more for bewilderment than bitterness: It was tough to conceptualize what had just happened.

As for Russia's foreign policy orientation, this seemed like a no-brainer. This would coincide with the aims of the countries of Central and Eastern Europe -- toward the West. It was the general trend. Since no one was talking about European Union membership for Russia even during the most rose-tinted period of our democracy, there was no concrete goal. Meanwhile, reforms were much more difficult than had been naively imagined.

From the outset, Moscow's pro-Western course -- and we will assume here that the leaders of the day sincerely believed in it -- ran into the problem of post-imperial transformation. The tragedy was not that Russian society could not come to terms with the fall of empire. Most people at that stage were focused on basic survival, and great-power status was absolutely irrelevant. Rather, the elite in Russia, the legal successor state to the Soviet Union, could not decide whether it was ready to wave goodbye to the former great power. Even today it has still not made up its mind, although the actions it has taken are objectively destroying Russia's position in its traditional sphere of influence.

In the 1990s, while the former Soviet satellites in Central Europe passed difficult examinations to prove they met European standards, Russia was following a chaotic path, overcoming one crisis after another. A broad range of immensely difficult, important, but tactical problems were solved. The path was so complex and tortuous that the question of aims never arose.

Today, the economic and political situation is radically different, but the question of aims remains unanswered. No one can articulate distinctly what Russia wants to be. There is not even a clear answer to the question of whether it should be a nation-state or turn once again to the imperial multinational model. Two contradictory tendencies exist happily side by side in the public consciousness: On the one hand, increasing xenophobic sentiment and popularity of the slogan "Russia for the Russians"; on the other hand, a lingering nostalgia for what has been lost and an inability to accept the former Soviet republics as foreign countries.

Strange as it may seem, the upsurge in nationalism is bringing Russia close to the genesis of the other countries that have been liberated from communist regimes. A nationalist rebirth, sometimes in very unpleasant form, lay at the core of revolutionary events everywhere -- from the Baltic states to Poland to Tajikistan. In Central and Eastern Europe, nationalism was aimed at the West, while in modern Russia it is the other way round. All the same, the mechanisms are similar.

The problem of contemporary Russian politics is that it is based on no ideological or axiological base. Even the currently fashionable rejection of the 1990s is not a thought-out position or a fundamental reconceptualization of the country's place. If this were the case, then some alternative would have been proposed to the liberal-democratic values that we so dislike and that are associated with the Yeltsin period. But this is not happening.

All the attempts to formulate an alternative come down to two options. In one, we hear shrill, vaguely worded declarations appealing to some bygone age and assertions that foreign recipes are unsuitable for Russia (without, of course, suggesting which recipes are). With the other, we see attempts to provide an ideological foundation for the rather contradictory course currently followed in practice based on an aggregate of immediate interests.

These interests, we should note, are not national -- although the elite insists that they are -- but are group, corporate or personal interests. Added together they do not add up to the same thing as national interests.

What, in fact, are Russia's national interests? No one can say, since there is no mechanism for synthesizing the interests of the state, society, business and various groups and regions. This mechanism is impossible without democratic institutions.

Russia and other countries of the former Soviet bloc are united principally by these difficulties. Western political and economic forms consolidate much faster than they can be filled with the appropriate content. The difference is that in Central and Eastern Europe they have at least declared their intention to produce this content. Russia, on the other hand, is doing everything possible to show that it has no need of it. The problem, as we have seen, is that without any values it is impossible to set goals.

Fyodor Lukyanov is editor of Russia in Global Affairs.