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#21 - JRL 2007-39 - JRL Home
Russia Profile
February 15, 2007
Just Like Everyone Else
Russia Tries to Define Itself Against the West

Comment by Alexei Pankin

In one of her recent broadcasts on Radio Liberty, my wife noted that Vladislav Surkov, the Deputy Head of the Presidential Administration continually refers to Western experience when justifying the concept of sovereign democracy.

There is an important conclusion to be drawn from this: Western experienceand the international institutions based on itis an important point of reference for Russia and its leaders. By either accepting or rejecting the Wests ideas, Russia constructs its own identity.

And the problem of identity is of utmost importance to Russia. For the first time in the countrys history, it is coalescing as a nation state, breaking away from the imperial model embodied by the Russian Empire and the Soviet Union.

Getting used to this new identity is psychologically quite difficult, even given the fact that Russia has virtually no practical imperial ambitions. As part of this process, Russia and its leaders need continual outside legitimization from the West. That is why any failures in relations with the West are felt to such an exaggerated degree in Russia.

Understanding why Russia needs international institutions and why it is trying to join them is no less important than any concrete, tangible advantagesor shortcomingssuch membership may bring.

At the end of 1995, ahead of the resolution admitting Russia to the Council of Europe, I attended hearings on the issue in Strasbourg. My position was that, ahead of the 1996 presidential elections, when the ruling regime would be prepared to commit any act of violence against democracy in order to keep Yeltsin in power, a fully fledged entry into this club of European democracies would be used in Russia to legitimize any likely anti-democratic actions.

This, in turn, would discredit the idea of democracyand the Council of Europe itselfin the eyes of the Russian public. The leaders of the Council based their position on the consideration that delaying the admittance of a country like Russia, in which elections appeared to be held, and the press appeared to be free, would not be the right thing to do, and would create a case of double standards for both Russia and the Council.

Russia was admitted in 1996. And as a result, today we see a paradox in Russias relations with this institution. On one hand, it is difficult to take its criticisms seriously. Surely the Council knew what it was doing when it admitted Russia, so why does it seem so bothered about the state of Russias democracy now that Yeltsin is gone? After all, these things were of little concern before.

Also irritating, on the other hand, are the current discussions among Russias political leaders about sovereign democracy and, therefore, the idea that Russia is not tied to the West in terms of its path of development. Russia has signed numerous documents with its European partners, accepted certain standards, and implemented a set of rules. Russias leaders werent strong-armed into taking on these obligations.

It seems kind of silly that while everyone is unhappy with the current state of affairs, no one is prepared to make an open break. Such a move would be even less acceptable for all sides concerned. And, of course, there is the bureaucratic logic: It is necessary to appear to respect international obligations.

Some of Russias internal laws are being changed and brought in line with European democratic practices. And someday Russians will demand institutions that really function rather than operate on a purely fictitious basis.

No matter which institution you examine, the paradoxes are always the same. Its clear, for example, why Russias liberals needed to expand the G7 into the G8it was flattering, and at the time, the Russian democrats needed a boost to their self-esteem.

It is less clear why the Wests leading democracies needed to bring Russia in when its institutions were not yet ready; likewise, it is unclear why there are now discussions about kicking Russia out under the pretext of democratic backsliding.

But what is done is done. And there is nothing more insulting than taking away what was once given, or even hinting at it.

As for the discussions regarding Russias entry into the World Trade Organization, it would be wrong to speculate about who will benefit and who wont because Russia doesnt have a cogent economic strategy. It appears to be a matter of similar indifference for the world economy whether Russia is a member of the WTO or not, as long as its main exports are oil, gas and some types of metals.

But given that negotiations have already started, drawing them out indefinitely is not the right thing to do: it is absurd to keep an important country like Russia out of an organization that has already accepted everyone else.

So, Im all for integration into international institutions as a means of preventing the development of complexes that are unavoidable during a period when a people with a great 1,000-year history is starting to build up its own state from scratch.

Besides being married to Yelena Rykovtseva, Alexei Pankin is a freelance journalist based in Moscow. He contributed this comment to Russia Profile.