The Great Friendship

After a period of cooling in their relations, Russia and the US are experiencing an acute bout of mutual sympathy. This seems a little strange against the background of the nationalist declarations uttered by President Putin during the first months of his rule. Journalists and political analysts are perplexed by such an abrupt change of course. What is going on?

With the general situation since September 11 leaving Moscow without room for manoeuvre, is this move designed to serve the interests of the oil magnates, who are trying to cement friendships with their US colleagues in the hope of making money out of military collaboration with Washington? No explanation seems really convincing.

To the outside observer, the Kremlin’s actions might have seemed like a sharp about-face. In fact, the actions were thoroughly premeditated, and preparations for them had been made long since. All that had been lacking was a pretext, and the formation of the anti-terrorist coalition supplied this. The puzzle does not lend itself to solution for the simple reason that it is not a puzzle at all. Russian policy has been consistently pro-American. Russian rhetoric, meant for internal consumption, is something quite different.

Throughout most of the 1990s Washington had few allies more consistent or devoted than Russia under Yeltsin. In their anxiety to please Washington, the Russian authorities were not deterred even by the fact that their actions contravened all the normally accepted concepts of national interests. While the other side was expanding its weaponry, the Russian authorities single-mindedly reduced their armaments.

One by one the limitations on American exporters and entrepreneurs operating in Russia were dropped, while the US retained protectionist measures introduced as far back as the 1970s, when they were intended to win permission for Soviet Jews to leave the USSR. Since then all barriers to emigration have been removed, more than a million people have left Russia, and for many years Western embassies have had to try to stem the flood of Russian citizens seeking entry. Nevertheless, the US restrictions remain in place.

In fact, the Russian leadership could hardly have done more to carry out the tasks posed in Washington if it had consisted entirely of officers of the US intelligence services. The politicians in power in Russia were not traitors, still less CIA agents; it was just that their strategies were based on clear, simple principles they had assimilated during the years that saw the collapse of the Soviet Union. There is only one boss in the world, the US, and this boss has to be pleased. Winning the sympathy of the boss constitutes the highest national interest.

The loyalty has been rewarded, if not for Russia as a whole, then at any rate for its elites. Moscow’s strategic goal has been to win recognition from the Western elites for the new ruling class that arose out of the plunder of state property. The participation by the Russian president in the “big seven” summit of the industrially developed countries was a sign that the chosen strategy was working. The transforming of the “seven” into the “eight”, with equal formal status for the Russian leader, was a fundamental foreign policy success.

This approach broke down only in the late 1990s, when in a context marked by continually falling living standards and the destruction of industry anti-Western moods in Russia reached a critical limit. The economic crisis was developing in parallel with the disillusionment of the population with neoliberalism, the free market and “Western values”. The crash of the ruble in August 1998 was perceived by society as final proof of the bankruptcy of the course which Russia had followed during the 1990s.

When in 1999 Vladimir Putin came to power, first as prime-minister, later to become Russian president, it was almost impossible for a politician looking for public support to openly proclaim neoliberal economic course and pro-American foreign policies. However, the same oligarchic group remained in power with the same, not-so-hidden agenda.

A veteran of the state security organs, Putin was used to uttering ritual patriotic phrases whose function was not so much to mask different views as to conceal an absence of any views whatever. A petty bureaucrat from St. Petersburg without political experience or even particular ambitions, Putin was raised in an instant to the summit of the political Olympus precisely because of his total incompetence. A complete dilettante in virtually all fields of state administration, Putin was the ideal partner for the oligarchy.

As befitted a state security officer, the new president valued power very highly, but had absolutely no idea of what to do with it. His first two years were spent mainly in reshuffling his officials.

During the great crash of 1999 a lot of Moscow-based banks went broke, even some oil oligarchs suffered heavy losses. Their smaller rivals in St. Petersburg, however, became stronger. A whole new team of aggressively pro-Western business people from “the Northern capital” rushed to Moscow as part of Putin’s entourage to take key positions in top privatized companies as well as in the public offices.

The president was interested solely in the personal loyalty of his appointees. Meanwhile, the oligarchic groups were restoring their lost control. Capital flight resumed, the wages of most of the population again stagnated, and Western corporations gradually began rebuilding their positions in Russia, positions that had been shaken at the time of the crash.

The War on terrorism was proclaimed as Russia’s top priority long before September 11. It became public justification of increasing authoritarian tendencies of the new administration. But it was also a message to the West. Long before September 11 Putin and his team tried to attract Western support and discourage the criticism of human rights violations, explaining that the war they were fighting in Chechnya was not an attempt to preserve the positions of Russian oil companies in the Caucasus but a struggle to save Western civilization from Islamic danger. In their public imagination Chechnya became the heart of global Islamic conspiracy aimed not so much against Russia as against the new global order.

Initially Western powers listened to that skeptically and kept reminding to the Kremlin that massive atrocities of the military in Chechnya didn’t look like a perfect civilized behavior. After September 11, however, the mood changed and Moscow was recognized as a partner in anti-terrorist coalitions alongside with other great defenders of human rights such as the governments of Pakistan, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Georgia.

Another major political accomplishment was the Law on Extremism passed by the Russian Duma as its contribution to the international anti-terrorist effort. This law follows the same lines as similar legislation passed in Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Pakistan and other allies of G.W.Bush’s new Crusade. Defining “extremism” in the broadest sense, this law gives the police force a right to attack legal rallies and demonstrations if they spot “one single extremist present in the crowd”.

The law also gives authorities a right to “de-register” (i.e. ban) political parties and non-government organizations suspected of being involved in extremism. As one can easily guess the theory of class struggle is included in the list of extremist ideas which should be prevented from spreading.

Even during the visit of G.W.Bush to Moscow Russian authorities didn’t stop their campaign against a few remaining independent media. By now Novaya gazeta weekly remains the only national publication not controlled by either the government or one of the oligarchs. Another critical weekly – Obshaya gazeta – was closed this summer. The situation became so though that nationalist and liberal intellectuals started co-operating in attempts to preserve what remains of press freedom.

Under Yeltsin the authorities had spoken openly of what they were doing, and even taken pride in it. Under Putin they preferred to remain silent, or to lie. This was the new political element which the state security veterans who filled the corridors of the Kremlin had introduced. The state pursued an even harsher line with regard to housing subsidies and education, preparing to dismantle the last remnants of the Soviet “safety net”, but at the same time talked unceasingly of its “concern for the poor”.

The income tax for the rich was drastically cut with the explanation that this is better for social justice. Now Russia has 13% flat income tax, which the authorities proudly advertise as the lowest income tax in Europe. For the poor the tax, however, rose by 1%. The government is preparing to join the World Trade Organization. New Labor Code was introduced in 2001 limiting the right to strike and form trade unions. Oligarchs looked at this with increasing satisfaction and “patriotic” intellectuals who initially praised Putin’s arrival to Kremlin became increasingly confused.

Within the Kremlin, people thought they had found a magical device for “selling” the population anything whatever. This device was nationalism. With the help of patriotic rhetoric, lightly spiced with racist demagogy and clericalism, any political course was rendered “truly national”, regardless of its content. At first the declarations by the authorities aroused hysteria in the liberal-minded intelligentsia of Moscow and St Petersburg, but after a certain time, when it became clear there was nothing behind the demagogy, the public started to calm down.

In practice, the sole manifestation of the “national course” was the repression in Chechnya, which did not let up for a single day. The war in Chechnya, which had been launched as part of Putin’s election campaign in 1999, continued as a result of inertia. Russian society had grown used to the deaths each week of dozens of soldiers, and had ceased to react to reports of reprisals against peaceful civilians.

Since racism had to a degree become part of official consciousness, the accounts of murder, rape and plunder in the Caucasus republic were perceived rather as good news, as proof that the authorities were taking an honest and serious attitude to the Chechen problem.

Russian diplomats and politicians speaking at international forums happened to become very close to their Israeli colleges defending the actions of their respective armed forces in the occupied territories. The irony of the situation, however, is that “Israeli example” was most praised by some hard-line Russian nationalists like Dimitry Rogozin who never before were heard saying anything positive about the Jews.

The attitude adopted by the Russian elite is not hard to understand. After all, Western politicians and military leaders often do the same, without having to accept criminal or even moral responsibility. While Washington claims the right to bomb anyone it likes, regional rulers who kill a few thousand of their subjects have hanging over them the spectre of the Hague international tribunal. Moscow has demanded equal rights, in the sense of being freed from all moral responsibility.

But Washington, in its arrogance, has not conceded even this. For Putin, the lack of even minimal benefits from his military-political collaboration with the US has begun turning into a domestic political problem. Dissatisfied military officers, and nationalists who honestly believed the official rhetoric, feel themselves betrayed.

In Russia, the summer of 2002 is turning out to be unusually hot. Almost every week, the television and newspapers report disturbances and protests. At one point the people of Voronezh, ruined by increased communal service charges, attempt to storm the local administration building. At another, residents of Ulyanovsk Province whose electricity has been shut off try to blockade highways.

Then, provincial teachers who have been reduced to pauperdom demonstrate in the capital. For the moment, the protests have been aimed at ministers and local authorities, and have not touched the president. This has nothing to do with Putin’s popularity, but is the result of an elemental fear; in Russia, quarrelling with the president is a dangerous business.

Sooner or later, the growing dissatisfaction will become a serious problem for the Kremlin. The political police veterans who are running the country will react in their accustomed fashion, seeking to “tighten the screws”. In doing this, Moscow will find support from the West essential, and there is no doubt that the Bush administration will supply it.

Compared to Kazakhstan, Georgia or Uzbekistan, Russia is a bastion of human rights. If the openly dictatorial regimes in these other republics have no problems with Washington, this means that the way is open for the Kremlin. How far can the clamp-down in Russia go without risk of an outcry from “Big Brother”?

Experience from the 1990s shows that neither the shelling of the parliament, nor “temporary censorship”, nor the banning of “extremist political parties” is considered a violation of freedom where “friends of America” are concerned.

Leave a comment