There are signs of historical insecurity in Russia's move away from Europe and the U.S. But at the end of the day, China looms as the real threat for Moscow's future.
PARIS - Less than a year before the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics – a costly demonstration of its “new grandeur” – Russia seems to be drifting away from Europe and tilting closer to Asia.
This evolution is the result of a long process and has historical, cultural and political explanations.
For starters, the more Russian leadership feels weak, the tougher it is – inside and outside the country – with its citizens or foreign powers. This is a self-defense reflex, which finds its foundations in the Russian intellectual Slavophilia movement, which was opposed to Western Europe influences taking hold in Russia.
Today the effect is that it pushes the Kremlin toward authoritarian Asia, instead of democratic Europe.
To justify this evolution, Russian leaders use an emotional weapon – humiliation. “Be careful, we have the choice of going east or west. If you humiliate us by not taking us seriously, we will choose Asia.” I still remember this warning, administered 20 years ago after the collapse of the USSR, by Vladimir Lukin, who was chairman of the Russian Parliament’s Foreign Affairs Committee.
All throughout its history, Russia has alternated between turning toward Europe and the Western world – the dominant culture of its intellectual and artistic elites – and turning toward Asia – more suited to its political culture. When he was talking about Stalin’s Soviet regime, German-American historian Karl Wittfogel would use the expression “Oriental despotism.”
In truth, the temptation of despotism in Russia – despite denials from the Kremlin – is stronger than it's been in decades. So much so that my older Russian friends have the dreadful impression of having gone back in time. They feel like they are being listened to, watched and monitored in a way that they hadn’t experienced since the fall of Communism.
Of course, the freedom to travel abroad is a major victory, but it is not accompanied by freedom of opinion or of speech. Putin's 2013 Russia – this was not the case ten years ago, when controls were not as thorough as they are today – is, in terms of freedom, closer to that of the end of the Brejnev era than to any recent historical period.
Struggling to stay relevant
The way NGOs with offices in Russia – like the Adenauer or Ebert foundations – have been treated recently resulted in heated exchanges between Chancellor Merkel and President Putin during Putin’s recent German visit.
This is the most worrying symbol of the hardline adopted by Russia, which despite its energy riches and the economic weight of its oligarchs, can’t seem to exist in a positive way. It is a country that says “no” as loud as it is scared of not being relevant. Case in point the international conferences where China gets all the attention, and Russia hardly rates a mention.
Hardening its stance to stay relevant, playing the humiliation card to mask its deep weaknesses in demography and competitiveness, is Putin’s Russia walking backwards toward its future?
The main explanation for this sad observation is political. “Power corrupts. Absolute power corrupts absolutely,” wrote French philosopher Montesquieu in 1748. This is even truer when fear is hiding behind authoritarianism. The Kremlin is aware of how fragile power is, and that it is faced – in cities like Moscow or St Petersburg – with a protesting middle class, which is has ever-higher political expectations.
Against this pro-democracy movement, which is inspired by Western models, the Kremlin uses dissuasive repression as well as humiliation. When Putin described the end of the USSR as the “biggest catastrophe in the 20th century,” he plays on the wounded pride of his citizens.
When Russian diplomats mention including former countries of the Warsaw Pact like Poland or former integral parts of the USSR like the Baltic states, into NATO, or when it mentions the NATO bombings on Belgrade at the end of the 1990s, it is doing pretty much the same thing Iran does when it still rants about Mossadegh, the Prime Minister deposed by the U.S. in 1953.
It is necessary to take these wounds into account in our diplomatic analysis, but not to let them paralyze us. What’s most important is to make Russia understand – even if it is not ready to hear it – that it is going down the wrong path.
Politically, Russia can try to strenghten its weakened regime by following the Asian model. But strategically, Moscow needs the West much more – to balance China – than it needs Asia to be relevant to the Western world. Nature abhors a vacuum. In the long term, the only threat for Russia comes from China, not from the Western world. In the short term, the only threat comes from Russia itself and its incapacity to heed the fact that the artificial grandeur of the nation cannot build itself without the respect, or the happiness of its citizens.