Russia that I did not recognize

Thomas Graham presentation on Russia after Putin at Wilson Center puzzled me, because at one point I caught myself thinking that the Russia he was talking about and the Russia I knew seemed to be fundamentally different countries. He was saying about possibilities of democratic evolution and I compared this with the Russian reality that shows since 1999 there has been steady decline of democratic freedoms. He theorized that in a new era of globalisation, information technology etc. the Russian political system has to become more open, that Medvedev might eventually challenge Putin or Putin himself might be willing to configure more power sharing structure, etc. Theorizing is a good thing, however, I did not understand why he thinks, things will change in Russia for better, if the trend exactly the same. 

 What I saw in his words was rather a trap or even multiple traps, if I may say so. One trap is of the same kind, that the US got into in 1990s and early 2000s when in the first case war in Chechnya was considered to be a necessary evil for evolving democratic Russia and in the second case Russians were allowed to get under the umbrella of global war on terror, announced by the US. Russians effectively used the US to suppress separatist movements and once they have done it, they immediately started challenging the US. What the US should have realised long ago is the simple fact that Russia is still an old-fashioned multinational empire and therefore the US cannot really expect to have strategic alliance with a country like this. 

Mr Graham said, that the US is the only country that can provide what Russia needs: continual investment to modernise the country (estimated over $1 bn in the next decade or so), changing configuration of political balance in the Far East (apparent reference to rise of China and vast unihabited areas in the Russian Far East) and Islamic militancy in the south. Now I did not get these points properly, to tell the truth. Was that to say that the US is going to take care of the Russian empire? To preserve its territorial integrity for Russians? Why should the US care? Only perhaps in order to have some country to counterbalance China (the US is not apparently going to make the same mistake twice, such as it made in Iraq, eliminating Saddam’s regime and then having to deal with stronger Iran). Even in this case it is a fairly dangerous game, so far at least Russia has been much bolder in challenging the US, than China. 

 “Islamic militancy” in the south of Russia apparently referred to North Caucasus. Well, 14 years ago, before Russia launched first military campaign against its breakaway region of Chechnya there was no Islamic militancy at all. What Islamic militancy Mr Graham was talking about, I wonder. It is a separatist movement or one can call it fight for freedom. Russian atrocities in North Caucasus are still waiting for proper depiction. 

I understand it would still be possible for the US to espouse a country like that, after all there is Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and some others. But look at Russians, they delivered first dirty bomb to London (Litvinenko’ case), they constantly intimidate their neighbours and seek to reincarnate USSR.

All this is happening along tightening up of the political regime that is now practically a dictatorship. Indeed, the media development NGO that I worked for was shut down in Russia. Russia is second country after Uzbekistan in which IWPR had to stop working. The space for freedom of speech is shrinking all the time, freedom of peaceful protest is decimated (even single protestors get arrested by the police). It is true there are no mass repressions, but there is no need to have them. Not yet. I don’t understand how Mr Graham would explain that all this will lead to democratic evolution in Russia and even go as far as almost offering Russia a helping hand.

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