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Russia's Wounded Imperial Consciousness

  • Victor Yasmann --> Whither the CIS? Many observers in Russia and abroad believe that recent events in Georgia, Ukraine, and Moldova have rung the death knell for the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), the fragile association that rose up in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Council for Foreign and Defense Policy Chairman Sergei Karaganov told RTR on 13 March that the CIS has essentially fulfilled its function and should be radically reformed. On 10 March, reported that National Strategy Institute Director Stanislav Belkovskii had called for "burying the CIS" and creating a new alliance of countries loyal to Moscow. Belkovskii dubbed this alliance the USSR, an acronym from the Russian words for "Commonwealth of Countries Allied to Russia."

The latest reflection of this new mindset in Russia was a proposed bill in the Duma that would have regulated the procedures for expanding the Russian Federation. On 10 March, Motherland Duma Deputy Andrei Savelev presented the bill on the creation of new constituents of the Russian Federation that would have amended a 2001 law on the Russian Federation (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 3 December 2001) to facilitate the incorporation into Russia of the self-proclaimed republics of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, which are part of Georgia; the Moldovan region of Transdniester; and the Nagorno-Karabakh region of Azerbaijan.
"Now is not the time to think about how to break up other states but to take care about the unity and sovereignty of our own country."

Under the 2001 law, regions wishing to join the federation do not have to share borders with Russia, but the consent of their present central governments is required for incorporation. The law also stipulates that acceptance of new constituents of the federation must be approved by a referendum of the entire country. In short, the expansion of the Russian Federation requires an international treaty and a complete, national domestic political process.

According to media reports, the amendments submitted by Savelev were drafted by Motherland faction leader Dmitrii Rogozin. They called for abolishing the requirement that expansion be accompanied by the consent of the foreign government involved, "Izvestiya" reported on 10 March. Instead, the proposed amendments stated that admission to the federation would be based only on "the will of the people of a region as expressed through a referendum" or by the mass acceptance of Russian citizenship. The only new condition that the amendments included was a provision that said the population of a candidate region must have voted "positively on the 17 March 1991 referendum on the preservation of the USSR." All of the regions listed above pass this standard, a fact that Rogozin mentioned in a memorandum he attached to the bill. In that message, he wrote that Georgia, Moldova, and Azerbaijan "have lately been intensifying efforts to project their sovereignty into the territories of these unrecognized republics" while simultaneously accusing Russia of "supporting 'separatism.'"

When presenting the bill in the Duma, Savelev stressed that the proposals correspond with the Kremlin's political line and its "ideology of national revanche." "President [Vladimir] Putin said last year that we gave up too much and [now] we must get it all back," Savelev said, according to on 11 March. "We do not need a new Russia of 'Yeltsinites' within the present borders, but a genuine Russia with its imperial borders."

The Motherland bill, however, attracted just 91 votes -- mainly from Motherland and its allies -- of the 226 required for passage. Thirty-four deputies voted against the bill and one abstained, with most deputies not participating in the vote. The pro-Kremlin Unified Russia party, which controls more than 300 votes in the lower chamber, declined to support the bill, arguing that it could destroy "the fragile balance of the territorial integrity of the Russian Federation."

Unified Russia's position seems to follow the old dictum that those who live in glass houses should not throw stones. Deputy Yurii Konev (Unified Russia) said: "The time for this law has passed. Now is not the time to think about how to break up other states but to take care about the unity and sovereignty of our own country," reported on 11 March.

Konev's concerns were echoed by Communist Deputy Leonid Ivanchenko, whose faction largely supported the measure. Ivanchenko, however, argued that the definition of "a popular referendum" in the bill "works against Russia's interests." He noted that the Myasnikovskii Raion of Rostov Oblast, which is in the district he represents, has a compact Armenian community, RTR reported on 12 March, and that it could theoretically vote to secede from Russia. First Deputy Duma Speaker Lyubov Slizka (Unified Russia) concluded the debate by saying that "adoption of the bill will mean the de facto declaration of war against neighboring states, whose territorial integrity will be violated." She added that it would be another matter if one or another of these regions gained international recognition and then expressed the desire to join the Russian Federation.

In an interview with "Argumenty i fakty," No. 10, TV-Tsentr commentator Aleksei Pushkov, whose statist views often reflect those of the Kremlin, said that Moscow is afraid to encourage separatist claims in Georgia and Moldova because it faces the same problem in Chechnya. Moreover, if Moscow legitimizes the disintegration of Georgia and Moldova, it could set off a chain reaction in Ukraine and Kazakhstan, both of which have large ethnic Russian minorities concentrated in regions bordering Russia. "It seems that the Kremlin is seriously afraid of complications in our relations with our neighbors, although as far as I can tell there is nothing to be afraid of," Pushkov said.

The introduction of the bill in the Duma indicates that those in Russia who harbor imperialist ambitions are not yet ready to surrender, despite the recent setbacks throughout the CIS. After Moscow's defeat in the Ukrainian presidential vote, political consultant Marat Gelman, who advised pro-Moscow presidential candidate Viktor Yanukovych in the election there, said that "Russia should now give up its imperial project," RosBalt reported on 29 December. "But although there is no chance of realizing any scenario of the restoration of the empire, our wounded imperial consciousness remains and is posing a serious problem."