The Eternal Value of Autocracy

9 september 2004

Fyodor Lukyanov is Editor-in-Chief of Russia in Global Affairs, Chairman of the Presidium of the Council on Foreign and Defense Policy, and Research Director of the Valdai International Discussion Club. Research Professor, Faculty of World Economy and International Affairs, National Research University Higher School of Economics, Moscow.

Resume: Differences in the interpretation of the Beslan hostage drama by Russia and the West could well drive a wedge between the two sides, reducing relations to their lowest point since the demise of the Soviet empire.

Differences in the interpretation of the Beslan hostage drama by Russia and the West could well drive a wedge between the two sides, reducing relations to their lowest point since the demise of the Soviet empire.

Vladimir Putin’s meeting with western journalists and policy experts was supposed to crown the long-planned international conference entitled ’Russia at the Turn of the Century: Hopes and Realities,’ held under the aegis of RIA-Novosti and the Council for Foreign and Defense Policy.

In the wake of the tragic events in Beslan the routine event turned into a political event of international importance, likely to play a crucial role in shaping Moscow’s future relations with the leading Western capitals.

Many delegates admitted they had been most impressed not by what Putin said at the conference, but how he said it — confidently, vigorously, with conviction.

In the course of Putin’s presidency Russia’s relationship with the West has seen several stages. By the beginning of his second term in office it became clear that no legal or ideological integration of Russia into the western world, so much hoped for in 1990s, had taken place.

Due to various reasons the European choice, declared a decade ago and reiterated with Putin’s advent to the Kremlin was never implemented. On the contrary, the socio-political model of modern Russia is moving further and further from western, especially European, patterns, representing a mixture of tradition of Russian autocracy, far-eastern concepts of authoritarian modernization and individual elements of liberal democracy.

Whether the western state system could triumph in Russia in late 20th and the early 21st centuries is another matter for discussion. One way or another, it has never happened.

Quite recently western partners actively sought to contribute to Russia’s transformation, but now they have restrained their ardor. At any rate, the first half of this year saw changes in the relations between Russia and the European Union, relations in which the humanitarian component has hitherto prevailed.

The parties switched from the bickering caused by differences in interpretation of democracy and human rights issues to a practical bargaining on more specific issues of interaction. In relations with the US that change occurred even earlier when Bush famously “looked into Putin’s eyes” in Ljubljana, and then Putin decisively supported Bush in the wake of 9/11.

Moscow, on its part, hailed the transfer to a new form of relationship, which suggested that the Russian state would guarantee that the West’s key desires, first and foremost, oil and gas, would be satisfied, while Russia’s internal affairs would be none of its western partners’ business. Actually, that model is quite viable and has been successfully tested with many countries.

However, the issue of ’values’ is again being raised; moreover, this time it is Russia that is set to initiate the discussion.

Regardless of the monstrosity of the latest terror attack in Russia, neither the US nor Europe seem to have revised their approach to the beginnings and instigators of the Caucasian conflict. It is hardly a coincidence that EU officials are so insistently demanding an explanation from Moscow.

The more terrible the actions of the terrorists, the more convinced is the West that Russia must revise its Chechnya policy seen in the West as the root of all Russia’s tragedies.

Russia, on the contrary — not only the leadership but also most ordinary Russians — sees the Beslan drama as the final blow to the idea of talks with the leaders of the self-proclaimed independent Ichkerian republic.

And this is a question of ’values’, as Vladimir Putin told his foreign guests at his residence in Novoogaryovo: child-killers and their accomplices have lost their right to anything.

The differences in interpretation of the events in Beslan by Russia and the West are likely to sow the deepest discord between Russia and the West since the collapse of the Soviet Union.

It is no secret that many members of our political establishment still view Russia as a great power, encircled by enemies.

Putin’s vague allusions to those who incite terrorists, included in his address to the nation, were reiterated in Novoogaryovo. The president rebuked the West for regular meetings with leaders of the Chechen underground and its unwillingness to call them murderers.

The response came the next day. Richard Boucher, spokesman for the State Department, pledged the US would continue meeting Chechen separatists, noting that the US’ views on certain ’political figures’ differs from that of Russia.

This statement paves the way for a strengthening of positions by Moscow ideologists who have long been calling for the erection of ’Fortress Russia’.

Is the transition to the ’pragmatic’ model mentioned above possible in this situation? Basically, yes, even more so as our establishment is by no means ready to sever ties with the West completely. Admittedly, that model only works provided it is based on the authorities’ ability to ensure stability.

Destabilization casts doubt on the basis of any interaction.

In the course of a decade of the Chechen war we have seen many terrible incidents, and yet those were individual acts perpetrated at lengthy time intervals, not connected with one another directly. Today Russia faces a large-scale campaign, with one blow following another.

A real terrorist war is, for instance, what has been unleashed more than once since the early 1970s by Palestinian extremists or the fighters of Irish Republican Army in the early 1970s and 1980s. Something similar, although on a lesser scale, happened in Germany in the late 1970s, where left-wing radicals sent shockwaves across the country.

This is a durability test both for the state and society, while no one in Russia seems ready to undergo that test, of which much has already been said and written. It is worth adding that the inability to rein in the terrorists will also disrupt the country’s foreign policy.


Last updated 9 september 2004, 18:03

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