Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Vartan Gregorian on Russia in Eurasia

The president of the Carnegie Corporation of New York presents a thoughtful analysis of the impact of separatist movements in the post-Soviet space in the current Carnegie Reporter (ht Johnson's Russia List):
While the Soviet Union may have stifled open internal debate about these divisive issues, it could not prevent the West, during more than forty years of the Cold War, from appealing to nationalism and making religious and ethnic freedoms, along with the defense of national cultures, into effective anti-Soviet propaganda tools. Thus positioned as defender of the rights of Christians, Jews, Muslims and other groups, the United States and its allies stoked the fires of national identity and ethnic and religious rights that burned in the memory of those who mourned a lost nation or dreamed that a motherland, gone for decades or even centuries, could rise again.

In the 1970s, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and its aftermath rekindled the late 19th century Great Game that pitted the Russian Empire against Great Britain, though now the protaganists were the Soviet Union and its successor, Russia, vying with the United States for the future of the region. Afghanistan was the tipping point: throughout the war, which was fought, on the Afghan side, largely with Western arms and financing, the thousands of guerilla fighters who poured in from other Muslim nations and their political backers used Islam as a motivating factor and argued that the presence of “atheistic” Soviet troops in Afghanistan was an offense to Muslims all over the world. In an ironic twist, for the West—particularly the United States—Islam was, for a time, a useful buffer against “the red menace” of Communism, a weapon to be wielded as necessary, and sheathed when it was no longer needed. But that decision turned out not to be one that could be made without long-term consequences: once the Soviet Union collapsed, other nations such as Saudi Arabia and Pakistan saw that money and influence could be used to promote the rebirth of Islam as a potent political weapon to be used in the name of Muslim solidarity in the region but also to support their own national and regional ambitions.

Now, as competing international interests—the United States, China, and any number of Muslim states—continue jockeying for power, the newly minted Russian Federation is forced to face its own future. It may chose to be autochthonous, echoing with the Slavophile aspirations of those 19th century advocates of the supremacy of Slavic culture and historical institutions as a better model of development for Russia than the Western European one. Or it can continue the process of Westernizing begun under Peter the Great, and carried on by both the Czarist and Soviet governments, and thus continue bridging the divide between Europe and Asia. Which path Russia will follow is critical for the future of democracy in the region. Perhaps, defying hegemonies of all sorts, the new Eurasia will seek to find a way to embark upon new forms of regional cooperation suited to its common economic needs, including outreach to global markets, while at the same time leaving breathing room for discordant national, ethnic and religious interests to coexist. But even if this type of collaborative effort is a possibility, one thing is clear: throughout the region, Russian culture, language and Soviet models of governance and development still remain influential. (Let us remember, for example, that many of the newly independent states were or are still run by former KGB leaders or other strongmen.) For all these non-Russian republics—some of them multi-ethnic, including a major Russian population—the challenge is to transition from authoritarian rule to a rule of law and begin to build a future based on democratic principles that include not only free elections, free speech and freedom of assembly, but the creation of the institutions that make democracy possible. In capitals around the world, the impact of the choices made in post-Soviet Eurasia are waiting to be measured.