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Czech Republic: Prague Conference Assesses Russian Threat, Ukraine's Problems

A group of conservative-minded international academics, politicians, diplomats, and senior military officers gathered in Prague recently to discuss Trans-Atlantic missile defense, security cooperation, and the threat from Russia and other states.

Prague, 4 May 2001 (RFE/RL) -- The grand hall of Troja Palace in the Czech capital -- with its baroque frescoes depicting late 17th-century Central European victories over Ottoman Turkey -- was the setting for the third annual conference of the Prague Institute for National Security.

Among the messages that the participants at last weekend's (April 27) one-day meeting sought to deliver was that East-Central Europe must take notice of the growing threats to its security from Russia.

Russian emigre and former dissident Vladimir Bukovsky says Russia missed its window of opportunity to advance the country's development when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991. He says Russia should have put the communist system on trial, but failed to do so because of a lack of courage and energy. Such a trial, Bukovsky says, would have prevented the emergence of the current regime, which he describes as "a government of KGB stooges who do not conceal their past."

Bukovsky says the last 10 years were a decade of missed opportunities. In his words: "So much could have been done and nothing was. The country was slowly retreating backwards until [President Boris] Yeltsin surrendered his power to the KGB in exchange for personal immunity from prosecution."

Now, Bukovsky says, the KGB -- under its new name, the Federal Security Service -- is both battling the independent news media and "taking over criminal businesses."

"What is the KGB doing today? The KGB today owns businesses. They own a big chunk of the aluminum industry. They own a big chunk of the gas industry. Their idea today is to recreate the Soviet Union through this kind of energy dependency, be it in the Baltic countries or in Eastern Europe. And certainly after the introduction of this energy dependency, be it gas or electricity, they will be following in strength with their usual structures."

However, Bukovsky says he is convinced the KGB will not succeed in its goals.

"Are they going to succeed? No, I don't believe [for] a single moment that it's in the power of anyone to recreate the Soviet Union again. History cannot be repeated. But they will try, and in trying that they are going to destroy yet many more human lives, more generations, which might have been living as free people. In doing that, they might destroy many other useful things which appeared in the last 10 years, including threatening independence and democracy in Eastern Europe. They will be working on that. We can see them in action now trying to recreate all the former Soviet client states."

Nevertheless, Bukovsky concludes, the only possible outcome of Russia's current crisis is its further disintegration. In his words, "Russia is dangerous because it is too weak."

French political scientist Francoise Thom, a former policy adviser to the French Defense Ministry, poses the question of what Putin will do with all the power he has amassed for himself. She says she is skeptical of the official answer -- that Putin will launch the painful economic reform that Russia urgently needs.

"The main aim of the Putin reform, in my view, is the creation of a new Russian elite. As the KGB milieu in which Putin has been formed sees it, the Soviet Union's demise was caused by the betrayal of its elites, the betrayal of the communist party. So the task of the new Russian administration is to build a new elite, devoted to the state and aggressive, dominating economically -- [a] powerful oligarchy which will be able to compensate for the decay of the rest of the Russian population."

Thom cautions that prosperity in Russia is not the Kremlin's aim. Rather, she says, Putin's policy goals are "to train the cadres, the officials, the rulers of the future, of the new empire, which the Kremlin has started energetically to build." She even compares the reform of the state structure in Russia, which Putin has just finished, to the changes Hitler made to the structure of the German Reich structure in 1933-34.

"This reform is a prelude to empire building. And the creation of the vertical of power makes sense only if there is an underlying foreign-policy project. The power machine built in Moscow has a vocation to extend not only to the former Soviet Union but to the rest of Europe."

Thom says restoration of Russian hegemony in the CIS is well advanced. She says Ukraine, Moldova, and Georgia are being forced to submit to Moscow's will and she believes Russia has reasserted its control over the Caspian Sea. Nevertheless, she says restoration of the Russian empire is only a preliminary stage. The main goal, Thom says, is Europe. She concludes that Russia's ambitions can only be checked from abroad.

James Sherr, an Oxford University political scientist and adviser to the British Defense Ministry, says there are many connections between what is happening in Russia and what he terms "the very disturbing, even traumatic, events in Ukraine."

Sherr says the enlargement of NATO, the imminent enlargement of the European Union, and NATO's role in the Kosovo conflict have all persuaded Russia's political and security elite that Moscow is under concerted geopolitical pressure from the west and from the south. He says the elite believes that, faced with these developments, the country must transform former Soviet space into a functioning and beneficial zone of special interests in order to attain equality in the international community.

Sherr says much that has happened in the last two years in Ukraine demonstrates the difference between the two Ukrainian words for independence -- "nezalezhnist" and "samastilnist." He cites as significant events in this regard the late 1999 Russian reduction in oil supplies to Ukraine, the recent scandal surrounding President Leonid Kuchma -- alleged to be involved in the disappearance of a critical journalist -- and last month's ouster of Prime Minister Viktor Yushchenko.

Sherr says that, with the disintegration of the Soviet Union in 1991, Ukraine was quickly able to attain its former independence, its "nezalezhnist." But as he sees it, the country's political elite has failed to develop the other element of independence -- "samastilnist," the ability to stand on its own.

Sherr says the Ukrainian elite has now become much more realistic about what the EU is.

"They are beginning to understand that the EU is not fundamentally interested in Ukraine's strategic importance. It is not terribly interested in Ukraine's foreign policy. What the EU is interested in by definition is Ukraine's internal policy. And it is only by changes in internal policy that one is able to have satisfactory relationships with the EU, to draw closer to it or, as Ukraine has always declared it wishes to do, join it."

But Sherr says that when the Ukrainian political elite looks at what is involved in EU candidacy, they conclude that the goals are impossible to reach in the available timeframe and that if they go too far in trying to reach them they will undermine their own power and wealth. As a result, he says, the elite -- deeply rooted in the Soviet nomenklatura -- has decided to concede and keep conceding.

"In a country like Ukraine, where it is very difficult -- if not impossible -- to separate power and money, in which state institutions are de facto semi-privatized, in which transnational nomenklaturas of the Soviet era are dangerously powerful, then it is inevitable that the alliances between Russian capital and Ukrainian capital also become broader alliances between Russian and Ukrainian political administrative structures."

The result, Sherr says, is that those officials who genuinely have a Western view of what they wish Ukraine to be find themselves marginalized, intimidated, and, in many cases, dismissed. He says that on two occasions Russian officials presented lists of people to the Ukrainian president whom they deemed to be harmful to bilateral relations, resulting in numerous dismissals.

Most important, Sherr says, Russia's apparent successes in Ukraine have been most damaging for Russia itself because they serve to persuade Moscow that it can conduct the debate about its interests and its future not in post-imperial terms but in neo-imperial terms. But like Bukovsky and Thom, Sherer believes such policies are doomed to lead to further disintegration and greater misery in the long run.