The Magazine

Russia's Sphere of Coercion

The bear was only hibernating.

Jun 15, 2009, Vol. 14, No. 37 • By CATHY YOUNG
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Bucharest, Romania

Until last month, I had never heard of the Economic Forum, a Polish-run venture whose annual conference in the resort town of Krynica has been described in the European press as the gathering place for the political elites of Central and Eastern Europe. Then in late May, I found myself in attendance (as a panelist, unpaid except for travel reimbursement) at one of the group's smaller meetings: the fifth annual Europe-Russia Forum, held in Romania's capital. I was not quite sure what to expect from the event, whose Russian participants were mostly of the official or semi-official kind. What I got was a fascinating glimpse into Russia's continuing struggle to define its post-Communist identity and its prickly relationship with its former satellites.

The conference venue added a touch of eerie symbolism. Bucharest is still haunted by the legacy of Nicolae Ceausescu, whose barbaric rule made Romania a hellhole even by the low standards of the Soviet bloc. The Europe-Russia Forum met in the building that is the most conspicuous legacy of his rule: the Palace of the Parliament, formerly the House of the People. Ceausescu had it built in his final years as both personal residence and seat of government, razing much of the city's historic district to make room for the gargantuan edifice. After his overthrow and execution, some wanted to dynamite it. Yet it still stands, a monument to megalomania and to the dark age from which this part of the world only recently emerged.
Has a different kind of dark age descended on Russia? Most Russian speakers pooh-poohed the idea. At the opening session, Konstantin Simonov, president of the Russian Center for Current Politics--a think tank with strong Kremlin ties--introduced his report on Russia in 2008, which, he claimed, avoided the pitfalls of either a too-bleak or too-rosy picture. His grounds for optimism included the fact that the war in Georgia had not led to a reimposition of the Iron Curtain or to wholesale militarization. (I was reminded of the old Soviet joke in which the pessimist says, "Things can't possibly get worse," while the optimist retorts, "Oh yes, they can!") In a deft balancing act, Simonov asserted that President Dmitry Medvedev was more "Western-oriented" than his predecessor (puppet master?) Vladimir Putin but also decried the "'good Medvedev, bad Putin' stereotype."

Members of Russia's political establishment are acutely conscious of their country's image as the bad guy in last year's war in the Caucasus and the 2009 "gas wars." The Russia-Georgia conflict was frequently and defensively brought up. The Russian speakers' claims amounted to this: Despite biased coverage by the Western media, it is now clear that Georgia's Mikheil Saakashvili was to blame; Russia did the only thing it could have done; and the unilateral recognition of Abkhazia and South Ossetia's independence was either the right and proper thing to do or the unfortunate but natural consequence of the Kosovo precedent.

"Today, many people in Eastern Europe see us as an authoritarian system, an analogue of the Soviet Union," declared Duma member Adalbi Shkhagoshev of the ruling United Russia party, participating in a panel on the prospects for partnership between Russia and the European Union. "This is not true. We want dialogue and are ready for it." He did acknowledge that Russia needs to be "more careful" abroad and listen respectfully to neighbors.

Alas, many other statements from the Russian speakers did little to dispel their country's reputation as an authoritarian bully. One telling moment occurred on a coffee break when I joined a conversation between Sergei Semyonov, director of a government-affiliated Russian institute of public administration, and a female Estonian parliament member whom Semyonov introduced as a delegate from "another part of post-Soviet space."

"Excuse me," the Estonian MP said firmly, "a full-fledged member of the European Union." "No, no," Semyonov replied with a smirk, "whatever you say, it's post-Soviet space." Moments later, he asserted with a straight face that Russia's initial reports of 1,500 South Ossetians slaughtered by Georgian invaders had never been disproved and that the current official estimate of about 150 dead refers only to Russian military casualties.