Moscow has muscled onto the world stage, refusing to blink on flashpoint issues from Ukraine to Syria. Guess who's not surprised? The onetime leaders of the former Soviet republics, who say the more Russia changes, the more it stays the same.
Camera & Crew: Mindaugas Bagdonas, Valeriy Chizhov, Liudvikas Dobrovolskis, Andrei Ganson,
Aleksei Golubev, Garik Harutyunyan, Yevhen Heranin, Oleg Kaptarenko, Andrius Krisciunas, Oleh Malovytskiy, Ales Matafonov, Eduard Mzhavia, Valeri Odikadze, Anton Oleinikov, Ivo Panasyuk, Andrey Rabchik, Liutauras Strimaitis, Nikita Tatarsky, Andriy Urumov & Aleksei Zykov.
Translations: Valeria Korchagina, Alice Lagnado, Natalia Yefimova-Trilling, Stas Kuznetsov
Editing: Robert Coalson, Kathleen Moore, Charles Recknagel, Olga Serebryanaya, Daisy Sindelar
Post-Production: Alexander Blumberg, Margot Buff, Harutyun Mansuryan, Siarhej Shupa, Lucie Steinzova, Petr Tetal, Andrew Wills
Code & Design: Jan Rádl, Pangea Digital
"A riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma," is how British statesman Winston Churchill once described Russia and the difficulty of predicting its behavior. But if Moscow is a puzzle to many, it seems to be less so to those who live in Russia's immediate neighborhood. They describe Russia not as unfathomable but as a powerful yet troubled state they feel they understand well.
In a series entitled Russia & Me, 12 former leaders of countries which once were Soviet republics reveal how they regard Russia and its policies. The interviews, conducted over a six-month period by Anna Sous of RFE/RL's Belarus Service, reveal feelings toward Moscow which range from anger, to pragmatism, to affection. Taken together, they offer a rare collection of insights into a Russia whose behavior under President Vladimir Putin, these leaders say, is remarkably like that of the Soviet Union.
"There is no sovereign Ukraine for (Russia's leaders), Ukraine exists as part of Russia and this is the core of their philosophy," says Leonid Kravchuk, Ukraine's first president from 1991 to 1994. He recalls how newly independent Ukraine felt intense pressure from Moscow to stay in Russia's orbit from the moment the Soviet Union dissolved, despite an accord that each post-Soviet state would be free to chart its own future.
Many of the former leaders express bitter disappointment that Putin crushed their early hopes that Russia might one day become democratic, something that once looked possible under Mikhail Gorbachev's program of perestroika and then the presidency of Boris Yeltsin.
"It was a time of hope," says Vytautas Landsbergis, who was Lithuania's first head of state after it declared independence from the Soviet Union in 1990. "I'm sorry that the Bolshevik-style forces of vengeance and imperialism proved stronger." Like many, he remembers Yeltsin fondly. "He had honor and pride. I saw this during our negotiations, including times when his colleagues tried to sway him into acting unfairly," Lansbergis recalls. By contrast, he says for the Kremlin today "a person is worth nothing, but territory and power are valued above all."
But not all the former leaders are as critical of Moscow as that. Some say they understand Putin's efforts to keep the Soviet world effectively intact. And they blame some of the wars and crises that have resulted upon what they term an inability to negotiate with Russia.
Nino Burjanadze, who twice served as acting president of Georgia, defends Moscow's actions in annexing Crimea from Ukraine. She says "nobody doubts" the people of Crimea wanted annexation "because almost the entire population -- 90 percent -- took part" in a March 2014 referendum conducted by Crimea's pro-Moscow authorities on joining the Russian Federation.
Burjanadze's description of the referendum is patently false -- it was not monitored by independent observers, so no one knows what the real voter turnout was. But her statement illustrates the passions generated by Moscow's efforts to shape the post-Soviet world, even as she argues that the way to deal with Russia is through dialogue and identifying mutual interests. Georgia itself fought a war with Russia in 2008, a confrontation Burjanadze claims could have been averted.
Another former leader who views Russia as a country that can be worked with is Askar Akaev, the president of Kyrgyzstan from 1990 to 2005. Asked to define his own view of Russia, he replies that it is his "second motherland" because he grew up in the Soviet Union.
In a pitch-perfect echo of the Kremlin's own claims of noninvolvement in the military campaign in eastern Ukraine, Akaev asserts that "Russia is not taking part in any military conflicts, either in Ukraine or anywhere else in the world." (The interview, conducted in June 2015, predated Russian military involvement in Syria's civil war.) But his admiring view of Putin as a man who "fiercely defends Russia's sovereignty" is in itself a challenge to other world leaders to ask if they really understand what sovereignty means to the Kremlin and how it defines Russia's national interests.
Some former leaders in Russia's neighboring states say they are surprised that countries farther away from Russia often seem so mystified by Moscow. "The Americans often say to me, 'Well, tell us something about Russia – we don't understand them,'" says Guntis Ulmanis, the president of Latvia from 1993 to 1999. "But for how long can we not understand them, I ask?"
Ulmanis says "it's time to study Russian, meet with Russians," so that Western nations acquire the same knowledge of Russia its neighbors have. Only, then, he suggests, can one understand how Russia acts and how to respond.
The 12 interviews in the Russia & Me series are a step in that direction. In addition to those already mentioned, the other former leaders included in the series are Robert Kocharian, who has twice been Armenia's president; Petru Lucinschi, president of Moldova from 1996 to 2001; Rolandas Paksas, president of Lithuania from 2003 to 2004; Arnold Ruutel, president of Estonia from 2001 to 2006; Stanislau Shushkevich, Belarus's first post-Soviet leader, who was in office until 1994; Vladimir Voronin, president of Moldova from 2001 to 2009; and Viktor Yushchenko, president of Ukraine from 2005 to 2010.
RFE/RL welcomes the re-use, republication, and redistribution of text content published on this website. We also welcome the reposting of RFE/RL text content to websites, mailing lists, newsgroups, and databases on a regular basis. The sale of RFE/RL content, however, is strictly prohibited.
As noted below, before using any RFE/RL products containing Third-Party Content, you must first obtain permission not only from RFE/RL but from the owner of the rights to the Third-Party Content.
When re-using RFE/RL content, we require that you credit RFE/RL by including:
a permanent link, placed before the text of the article, to the original article on www.rferl.org,
the following information with each article:
Copyright (c) 2015. RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave NW, Ste 400, Washington DC 20036.
If choosing excerpts from an article, we require that you note that the material is an excerpt and refrain from altering the meaning or integrity of the product. RFE/RL reserves the right to revoke permission for use of its content at any time.
To inquire about the re-use of RFE/RL text content, including the establishment of syndication relationships, please send an email to:
Internet-based live and archived broadcasts of RFE/RL and its 20 broadcast services are intended solely for the personal use of our audience. No broadcast, rebroadcast or other use of these programs is permitted without the express, written authorization of RFE/RL, Inc.
Permission to re-use RFE/RL audio, video, and/or photo content must be requested in advance. When using RFE/RL material, the applicant must comply with RFE/RL's Brand Standards, which are set forth at branding.rferl.org. RFE/RL photos and video content must be visibly credited to "Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty."
To request permission to re-use RFE/RL photo, audio, graphic, or video content:
Some RFE/RL news products contain content created by individual photographers and/or outside parties ("Third-Party Content") such as Associated Press, Reuters, Agence France-Presse, ITAR-TASS, and so on. Before using any RFE/RL products containing Third-Party Content, you must first obtain permission not only from RFE/RL but from the owner of the rights to the Third-Party Content.
Links to External Sites
RFE/RL occasionally provides on its websites links to sites maintained by persons or entities not affiliated with RFE/RL. In deciding whether or not to allow a link to an external site on its own websites, RFE/RL gives preference to non-profit, non-partisan entities devoted to public service. RFE/RL has no control over these external sites and does not endorse their content, operators, products or services. Furthermore, RFE/RL is not responsible or liable for the content, operators, availability, accuracy, quality, advertising, products, services or other materials on or available from such sites. RFE/RL shall not be responsible or liable, directly or indirectly, for any damage or loss caused or alleged to be caused by or in connection with use of or reliance on any such content, products or services available on or through such sites.
When using RFE/RL material for scholarly work, please be sure to include a citation. For citation guidelines, see these websites:
Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) believes Internet users have a right to personal privacy and to unmonitored access to and navigation of the Internet.
In the course of our providing the best Internet news service possible to our users, we collect two types of information about and from our visitors: e-mail addresses provided to us by visitors wishing to subscribe to RFE/RL publications via e-mail, and aggregate statistical data used to track site usage.
Subscribers to RFE/RL e-mail newsletters voluntarily supply their e-mail addresses to receive newsletters. RFE/RL will under no circumstances make e-mail addresses used for this purpose available to any third party, nor will subscriber lists be shared internally for any purpose other than distributing the newsletters. Newsletter subscribers may unsubscribe from any newsletter at any time by following the directions published in the newsletter and posted on the website. If they experience problems unsubscribing, they may contact a staffer via an e-mail address published in each newsletter or by contacting the Internet Department at email@example.com
Like most publishers of websites, RFE/RL aggregates data when users visit the RFE/RL website. The purpose of this data collection is simply to count how many people come to the site, which countries they come from, which pages they view, etc. This data collection process does not enable RFE/RL to discern who you are, only that a computer with a specific number is accessing the web server. The software we use to create reports from this data relies on a standard browser feature called a cookie to track which webpages visitors view on the site. These cookies are assigned at random with each newly created visitor session, and are deleted after the visitor leaves the site. Reports generated by this data collection are used internally to improve the site and provide better value to our users based on their news consumption patterns.