April 6, 2003
Russia's Politics of Anti-Americanism
By Masha Lipman
Masha Lipman, a Russian journalist, writes a monthly column for The Post.
MOSCOW -- Just after the beginning of the war in Iraq, President Vladimir Putin made an extremely tough statement condemning the U.S.-led operation. There's no reason to believe it was because the Russian president opposes the idea of using military force, bombing cities or inflicting civilian casualties: His three-year experience with the Chechen war has shown otherwise. Nor does it appear likely he has changed the generally pro-American course he opted for after 9/11. Integration and economic cooperation with the United States (as well as with other developed countries) still remain critical for Russia.
But Putin also has to deal with anti-American sentiment among the public and parts of the elite. And while the public may remain relatively passive -- there have been no street protests to speak of -- polls show strong antiwar, or anti-American, feelings. Some 90 percent were opposed to the military operation in Iraq a month before it began, and 71 percent said the United States was itself a security threat, while only 45 percent thought Iraq was. Never under Putin's rule has the number of Russians taking a negative attitude toward the United States been so high. The media have generally assumed an anti-American tone, and an interactive vote on a popular Sunday news show yielded an astounding result: 80 percent of the relatively liberal audience said they hoped Iraq, rather than the United States, would win the war.
Given Russia's weak civil society, policymakers, including the president, can easily enough ignore the public. But once in a while public opinion in Russia becomes important. This occurs, of course, around elections.
The parliamentary election is scheduled for December, and the campaign has already begun. The competition, just as it was four years ago, will be between the Communists and the pro-Kremlin party created, guided and controlled by the Kremlin. The Kremlin manipulators need nothing short of a solid victory over the Communists, having come in about 1 percent behind them in 1999. Unless they do significantly better this time, Putin's much-vaunted stability and claims to economic progress will be seen as not having made much of a difference.
Right now the situation does not look good for the pro-Kremlin party: The most recent national poll put its popularity rating at 21 percent and that of its Communist rivals at 31 percent. The Communists are not missing the opportunity to capitalize on anti-American feeling. Anti-American rhetoric, which portrays the United States as an evildoer seeking to destroy Russia, has an irresistible appeal for their constituency. Putin's aides in charge of the pro-Kremlin party are fully aware of this, as well as of the broader public frustration over American hegemony.
Before the war, the Kremlin pursued a policy of playing down the U.S. standoff with Iraq so as to keep a lid on the public's anti-American feelings. But as soon as the operation started and war images appeared on TV, this was no longer an option.
In a March 20 statement, Putin said the war was unwarranted, unjustifiable and a bad mistake, warned against the "rule of fist," and strongly condemned violations of the principle of state sovereignty. This immediately unleashed a wave of fierce anti-American statements from conservative elites, who, after Sept. 11, 2001, had learned to withhold their opinion and would not dare challenge Putin's pro-American position. Duma legislators passed an angry resolution calling on Putin to initiate a U.N. General Assembly meeting to discuss the U.S.-led "aggression" in Iraq. The upper house followed suit. Neither resolution is in any way binding on the Kremlin, but both are important as reflections of prevailing sentiment.
This sentiment is not deep, however. It derives not from any profound cultural hostility but rather from frustration over the loss of superpower parity with the United States. Even now at the height of bad feeling toward America, most people believe the prewar relations between the two countries will be resumed. Nevertheless, once unleashed, anti-American feelings take a while to subside.
It is certainly true that Russia cannot, to use President Bush's expression, "go it alone." Because of the country's deep economic and social problems, its further development strongly depends on the degree of its integration with the West. Indeed, the Kremlin seems to realize the need to repair damaged relations. Efforts have been made to calm the mood. Characteristically, the same Sunday show whose viewers wished victory to Iraq thought better a week later of probing the opinion of its audience, and even sounded moderately sympathetic toward U.S. military personnel. After his earlier statement of condemnation, Putin made several more that may be interpreted as reflecting a desire not to widen the U.S.-Russia rift and to soothe his compatriots' emotions. Talking to Duma faction leaders, Putin emphasized that Russia and the United States are partners.
Apparently, there must be more diplomatic attempts, hidden from the public eye, to bridge the new gap between Russia and America. But this is a tough job for the pragmatic, westernizing wing in Russia's political establishment.