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Russia: Analysis From Washington -- Ending 'The Breakup Of Russia'

  • Paul Goble

Washington, 3 January 2000 (RFE/RL) -- Vladimir Putin's latest justification for Moscow's campaign in Chechnya -- to "bring about the end of the breakup of Russia" -- raises some disturbing questions about the kind of policies he may try to pursue as acting president of the Russian Federation.

During a visit to Russian-controlled portions of Chechnya on New Year's Day, Putin told Russian soldiers that their campaign against the Chechens was "not simply about restoring honor and dignity to the country." Rather, he continued, "it is about how to bring about the end of the breakup of Russia."

Most immediately, these remarks call into question the claims Putin and his supporters have made in the past about this conflict. Until this weekend, he had insisted that the conflict was about extirpating "extremists" and "terrorists," goals which many Western leaders have found difficult to oppose even when they are appalled by the way in Russian forces have conducted themselves.

By shifting grounds so quickly and completely, Putin unintentionally has invited those governments to reexamine both his earlier claims about the conflict and their response to it. And he has equally unintentionally raised questions on only his second day in office as to how reliable a partner he may be in any negotiations with Western governments.

But as significant as these consequences may prove in the future, Putin's words on this occasion clearly have even more serious implications for the Russian Federation, for its relationship with its neighbors, and hence for the world as a whole.

For the Russian Federation, Putin's new position on Chechnya points to a more authoritarian future, one in which the reconstitution of state authority and the defense of a particular territory takes precedence over any move toward greater freedom and democracy.

As all polls show, Putin's popularity in the Russian Federation reflects the longing of many Russians for a stronger and more effective state capable of responding quickly and harshly to any challenge be it from often despised ethnic minorities, criminal groups or Western governments.

But a state reconstituted on the basis of such expectations is unlikely to be the peaceful and liberal democratic regime that many in both Russia and the West have been hoping for.

Under such leadership, the Russian Federation could become an increasingly authoritarian Rechtstaat, a regime in which the state is capable of enforcing the laws it issues rather than responding to expressions of population in whose name it rules.

For many Russians who have lived through the lawlessness of the Yeltsin years as well as for Western business interests there, such a state might appear to be a major improvement on current conditions.

But precisely because such a regime is likely to have to seek support through nationalist appeals, it might rapidly become something much less attractive and ever more nationalistic. Should that happen, the Putin government might move on from its current campaign against "persons of the nationalities from the Caucasus" to open and state-sponsored discrimination against other ethnic and religious groups not judged by Putin's brand of Russian nationalists to be truly Russian.

For the countries surrounding the Russian Federation -- especially the 11 former Soviet republics and three Baltic countries -- Putin's new position is if anything even more threatening.

At a minimum, the nationalistic Russia Putin's policies point to almost certainly will be far more difficult to get along with. But many in these countries are likely to be especially concerned that the Russian nationalist resurgence he is sponsoring will not stop at the borders of the Russian Federation.

Even the Yeltsin government showed itself willing to exploit the presence of more than 20 million ethnic Russians in these states to pressure them into a special relationship with Moscow. Putin will certainly do no less and is quite likely to do a great deal more, thus further ethnicizing politics in many of these countries and undermining stability in some of them.

But Putin's words on Saturday are potentially more ominous for the non-Russian countries. Many Russian are likely to view his words less as a call to firm up the borders of the Russian Federation, an entity many of them do not see as their country, than as a demand for a revision of the results of 1991.

Putin may thus push even harder for both a Russian Federation union with Belarus than did Yeltsin and may also put more pressure on the members of the countries of the Commonwealth of Independent States to defer to Moscow's interest.

For the international community, Putin's new position may be the most troubling of all. One of the bases of Putin's popularity has been his willingness, even eagerness, to dismiss Western criticism of his policies in Chechnya, a dismissal underlined by his assertion last month that Russia should not act as if it now has no enemies.

Such a leader seems an unlikely candidate for serious talks with the West anytime soon, even though Russia's economic problems may lead him to change his tone at least enough to extract more resources from Western governments who do not want to see the situation in Russia get even worse.

But far more that Yeltsin, Putin will find it hard to make any broader deals with the West. And consequently, his words about defending the borders of Russia may have the effect of creating precisely those dividing lines in Europe that leaders in both Moscow and the West have said they hope to avoid.