Russia's Sphere of Coercion
The bear was only hibernating.
Jun 15, 2009, Vol. 14, No. 37 • By CATHY YOUNG
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.
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.