Geotherapy: Russia's Neuroses, and Ours

Geotherapy: Russia's Neuroses, and Ours

Mini Teaser: An ambition, inordinate and immense, one of those ambitions whichcould only possibly spring in the bosoms of the oppressed, and couldonly find nourishment in the miseries of a whole nation, ferments inthe heart of the Russian people.

by Author(s): Stephen Sestanovich

Now, where did imperial nostalgia fit into this strategy? Leave aside
for the moment the fact that those candidates who put nationalist
themes at the center of their campaign lost badly, and that exit
polls put the number of voters who were swayed by foreign policy at
only 2 percent. If the geotherapists were right about the country's
mental state, we should have seen Yeltsin scrambling to prove that he
is part of the revisionist patriotic consensus. Instead, we saw him
use foreign policy as a tool to demonstrate the differences between
himself and the Communists, and to remind voters of what they don't
want to retrieve from their "glorious" past.

The issue was not simply a matter of rhetoric and mood, but of
conflict between the legislature and the executive. On March 15,
1996, the Russian parliament passed two Communist-sponsored
resolutions annulling the acts under which the Soviet Union was
dissolved in 1991. It declared that the agreement to create a
Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) in place of the USSR "did
not and does not have legal force", and charged that the officials
who had "prepared, signed, and ratified" this decision had
"flagrantly violated the wish of Russia's people to preserve the

With this bold move, the opposition clearly thought that they had
Yeltsin trapped. On the one hand, he could hardly endorse a
resolution that personally denounced him. On the other, opposing it
would put him on the wrong side of a supposedly super-charged issue.
As things turned out, however, the Duma's action proved to be the
moment when Yeltsin's campaign got on a winning track for good. It
gave the president and his allies their first, best opportunity to
persuade voters that the Communists really were bent on restoring the
old order. Yeltsin called the resolution "scandalous" and, showing
that he had no fear of seeming too attentive to foreign opinion,
immediately instructed Russian diplomats to tell other governments
that the vote would have no effect.

There is a Moscow witticism that goes: Anyone who does not regret the
collapse of the Soviet Union has no heart; anyone who wants to
restore it has no brain. The Communists bet that people did not
really believe this; they lost the bet. The March 15th resolution and
its aftermath certainly put a question mark over the idea that the
loss of empire has left Russians in a state of "bewilderment and
anguish." But it is, admittedly, only a single incident. Perhaps the
Duma's action was too bald, with too many overtones of restoring
communism intact? Perhaps for this reason the Russian people weren't
quite able to respond to it as they might have liked, with honest
imperial relish?

Fortunately, there is other evidence to work with. In the course of
the election campaign, Yeltsin did pander on some foreign policy
issues. Even before the Duma's March 15th resolutions, his advisers
openly acknowledged that he intended to respond in some fashion to
the electorate's presumed unhappiness with the state of relations
among the former republics of the USSR. These initiatives, they said,
would keep the Communists from monopolizing popular discontent. And
sure enough, at the end of March and beginning of April, Yeltsin
unveiled new agreements with three of these states: a quadrilateral
"Treaty on Deepening Integration in Economic and Humanitarian
Spheres", signed by Russia, Belarus, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan; and a
bilateral treaty between Russia and Belarus, which created "a
qualitatively new phase in relations" between them. The closer one
looks, however, the less these agreements, and the public response to
them, seem like proof of a growing appetite for empire. As they
scrutinize the menu, Russians appear quite undecided about how hungry
they really are, and eager to make sure they don't overeat.

Both integration agreements were replete with commitments to advance
this or that concrete interest, such as increased trade and
investment, joint efforts in science and technology, coordination of
education policy and veterans benefits, etcetera. The quadrilateral
treaty, in particular, was precisely the kind of diplomatic
"breakthrough" that Russians long ago learned not to take seriously.
As for the "union of the two" with Belarus, the real question was
whether the agreement marked the first big break in Russia's
reluctance to cooperate too closely, on the grounds that it would be
too expensive and slow down Russia's own economic stabilization
program. There was, in fact, some reason to see the agreement as
something new: Russia had for the first time agreed to a monetary and
a customs union. And yet the conditions for implementing the
agreement remained extremely stiff. For "integration" to take effect,
Belarus has to bring its economic reforms and policies fully into
line with Russia's--and this is virtually inconceivable.

There was perhaps no better confirmation (even if indirect) of
Russian skepticism about the new relationship than the speech given
by the president of Belarus, Alyaksandr Lukashenka, at the treaty
signing ceremony in Moscow. Sensing that this was his best chance to
speak to the Russian people about the agreement, he devoted the bulk
of his remarks to refuting the idea that only Belarus would benefit
from it, at Russia's expense. ("That is not so. It is a lie, to say
the least", he fulminated. "Belarus has never been dependent on
anyone and has never been a parasite.")

Lukashenka did not seem aware that the Russian soul is possessed by
demons that drive the country toward integration whether it will
benefit or not. He appeared to believe that he actually had to defend
the treaty on the humdrum ground of interest. Accordingly, he spoke
of all the goods that Belarus produces for the Russian market, of the
revenues it used to supply to the Soviet treasury, of the value of
coordinated national policies on such matters as "finding employment,
health care, acquisition of property, housing construction, and so

After the April agreements were signed, there was a typical bit of
Moscow squabbling about who deserved the real credit for this
gigantic achievement. Was it the Duma, as the Communists insisted,
that had pushed Yeltsin in this direction? Or had the president, as
his aides rebutted, been deeply committed to integration for a long
time? This was precisely the sort of struggle for political advantage
that could bolster the geotherapists' case. Except for one thing: The
controversy seemed to evoke no public interest. It lost its fizz
almost immediately, and the politicians turned to other issues, where
it really mattered who got the credit.

An Imperial Elite?

The fact that reconstituting the Soviet Union has been a bust
politically makes it hard to defend the first of the geotherapists'
propositions. There is no identifiable pressure from jingoist public
opinion that radicalizes all policies until they "differ only in
degree." But we can hardly be certain that Russia has sworn off
empire just because its people are not imperialists. The elite may
have its own, very different aspirations, and lack of popular support
will not necessarily keep them from being realized.

This second proposition is a bit harder to put under the microscope.
The Russian ruling class is far more diverse than ever
before--politically, economically, regionally, generationally,
ethnically, and in other ways as well. It is therefore quite
artificial to speak of what the elite thinks. (This was beginning to
be true even in the last years of the Soviet era.) All the same,
there are many organizations purporting to express what they claim is
a hard-boiled centrist consensus, and none does so more convincingly
than the Council on Foreign and Defense Policy (CFDP). The group is a
self-styled analog to our own Council on Foreign Relations in its
heyday, a comparison made credible by the former's success in
bringing together corporate leaders and experts on international
affairs. Its members--among whom ambitious insiders, trimmers, and
climbers are very well represented--know exactly what is respectable
and what is not.

Last winter and spring, the CFDP conducted a series of meetings to
discuss a draft report--"theses", they were called--on the issue of
integration. The document went through three versions, was greatly
expanded, heavily revised, and published in May under the signature
of forty-four bankers, industrialists, journalists, and policy wonks.
In its final form (bearing the title, "Will a Union be Reborn?"), it
represents the most revealing statement to date of elite opinion
about Russia's relations with the other former Soviet states.

The most arresting passage in the CFDP "theses" is the repudiation of
the idea of recreating the USSR, which is labeled "an extremely
reactionary utopia." Pursuing it, says the report, will only weaken
Russia and cause much bloodshed.

However humiliated the national consciousness of the Russians may be,
today Russian society is absolutely unprepared to pay the price of a
lot of blood to make up for geopolitical losses.

To be against a restored communist imperium and against bloodshed is
not, of course, to be against re-building Russian power. The CFDP
believes that the collapse of the Soviet Union left Russia with much
less international influence, and it proposes to try to increase it.
But how? Bloodshed, it turns out, is just one constraint among many;
so is cost.

Essay Types: Essay