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Russia's Sphere of Coercion

The bear was only hibernating.

Jun 15, 2009, Vol. 14, No. 37 • By CATHY YOUNG
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At the forum's opening session, Valery Fedorov, director of the state-run Russian Public Opinion Research Center, maintained with an equally straight face that Russia had successfully met the challenge of presidential transition. Medvedev's "election," he argued, was legitimate since most Russians genuinely embraced him as a successor to Putin, the man who had rebuilt not only the economy but the self-respect of a people traumatized by "the disintegration of our great country." Besides, Fedorov explained, competitive elections mattered little to Russians since nothing good had come of them in the past.

The next day, Fedorov reappeared at the Russia-EU partnership session to offer some stock phrases about the twilight of the American empire along with a gloomy prognosis: The differences in values between Russia and the EU were far too great to achieve partnership. "Everyone" in Russia, he said, shared a basic " 'don't tell us how to run our country' " outlook, which inevitably conflicted with the European paradigm of integration and "the primacy of the secular state and the individual"; at best, one could hope for "reasonably amicable coexistence."

My own panel, on democracy and the media, gave further cause for pessimism. Moderator Igor Pavlovsky, deputy editor of Russia's leading wire service, Regnum, delivered this gem: "I'm always annoyed by all these international ratings and indexes of freedom of the press. For some reason we're supposed to accept them as a universal standard. Why not an index of spirituality in the press?"

A few semi-dissenting Russian voices came from delegates from the "Right Cause," a liberal party launched recently with the Kremlin's blessing. One of its leaders, Vladimir Nikitin, deplored the Russian tendency to see liberal democratic values as "a cynical cover for naked self-interest" and even suggested that Russia's foreign policy was often driven by neurotic overcompensation. Yet the loyal opposition had little in the way of a positive program to offer beyond generalities about cooperation on global problems and the hypothetical prospects for Russia's eventual integration into Europe.

On the EU side, the frustration was palpable. Even the more accommodating representatives of "Old Europe" lamented Russia's tendency to see any EU attempt to build ties with former Soviet republics as "anti-Russian." Speakers from "post-Soviet space" and Eastern Europe--who included some notable figures, among them Poland's former president Alexander Kwasniewski and legendary anti-Communist resistance leader Lech Walesa--were more openly wary. They wondered aloud what visions of future European integration had to do with Russian policy today and on what principles pragmatic collaboration with Russia could be built. Romanian president Traian Basescu, who hosted the forum, complained about Russia's attitude toward "the common neighborhood" and its insistence on a right to a "sphere of influence"; what was needed instead, he said, was to build "spheres of trust."

This remark led to one of the forum's moments of unintentional humor near the end of its second day. A Russian discussant attempted to quote, approvingly, Basescu's comment; unfortunately, "sfery doveriya"--spheres of trust--came out as "sfery davleniya," "spheres of coercion."

"That," said the discussant, quickly correcting himself, "is quite a slip." Somewhere, the ghost of Freud was smiling.

Cathy Young is a contributing editor to Reason magazine.