Where Does Russia Belong?

Where Does Russia Belong?

Mini Teaser: In the last issue, Zbigniew Brzezinski proposed a new plan for including Russia in an expanding transatlantic community. But his ideal world might not come about. With a comment from Brzezinski.

by Author(s): Stephen Sestanovich

This distinction is no mere linguistic nicety. Only by keeping it in
mind can we understand what Putin means when he says both that
domestic problems are his top priority (this is his constant refrain)
and that he is determined to strengthen the state. The "Open Letter
to Russian Voters" that launched Putin's presidential candidacy last
winter was littered with the word gosudarstvo and its derivatives;
derzhava, by contrast, showed up only here and there. Candidate Putin
obviously thought the voters wanted to hear that he would kick-start
governmental institutions that have ceased to work for ordinary
people and rescue the bureaucracy from the control of criminalized
special interests.

Understanding the different ways in which the Russians want to
"strengthen the state" can help us to see that they are thinking
coherently about the problems they face. But it can also help us see
that a focus on their domestic pathologies will not necessarily
facilitate their integration into the West. Consider this other
formula from the "Open Letter": "The stronger the state
[gosudarstvo], the freer the individual." Putin plainly does not mean
by this that the average Russian citizen will feel freer if he knows
that his country can kick around Georgia and Azerbaijan. The
ostensible meaning is this: the average Russian's life will be better
off if the central government is strong enough to, among other
things, keep corrupt regional governors from running mini-despotisms
that impoverish everyone except an inner circle of thugs and cronies.
But it also carries with it a more ominous potential meaning: the
anarchic effects of the past ten years have been so great that a
major reassertion of governmental authority is needed to keep order.

"Order", says Putin soothingly, "is nothing more than rules." But
what kind of rules? When the government's new doctrine on
"information security" declares that the state has to take
responsibility for ensuring that citizens receive correct information
from the media, it is clear that the "rules" could start to chafe
against basic democratic liberties.

If we tell ourselves that the main problem represented by a strong Russian state is what it can do to its neighbors, we are setting ourselves a task that in all likelihood we will be able to solve successfully.  But the real world may present us with tasks for which we are not so well prepared. Neo-authoritarianism may be a larger problem for Russia's integration into the West than neo-imperialism. And it may also prove a larger problem for us, for two reasons.

First, it will be much harder to reach agreement about when the "strengthening of the state" has gone too far. After all, much of what Putin talks about involves measures that most of us would support if we were Russians and had witnessed first-hand the decrepitude and corruption of state institutions. But some of his measures could also easily produce a rollback of the past decade's democratic achievements. Russians who are concerned about this will be discouraged if all they hear us talking about is neo-imperialism--not the principal problem they think they face.

Second, even if we had clearer benchmarks for how much "strengthening of the state" is too much, the leverage we have in reacting to neo-authoritarianism in Russia is simply less than we have for countering neo-imperialism against its neighbors. For this reason, in "living with Russia" in the future we have to make sure that we hold on to such leverage as we have. As long as the G-8, for example, continues to define itself as the club of industrial democracies, Russia's status in the group will remain somewhat provisional, and constructively so. If Russian democracy were in real jeopardy, Putin's participation could, and should, be reconsidered. Proposals (like Brzezinski's own) to include China in a new G-9 should be judged in this light. It would be hard to imagine ever again putting Russian media freedom on the agenda of such an expanded group. When we tell the Russians that their democratic evolution is a key test of integration, we need to mean it.

Putin's Test

WHEN Madeleine Albright is asked whether she thinks President Putin is a democrat, she gives the following artful answer: she thinks he understands that Russia will not reach the goals he has publicly set for it unless it continues to develop as a democracy. The same thing can be said about Russia's integration into the West. It is hard to see how Putin can successfully address the deep structural problems he has described (to give him credit, he has described them more realistically than any other Russian leader) without a strong commitment to integration.

Over the past decade, Russia has--for good reasons and bad--done no more than a fraction of what was possible in advancing the process of integration. Its good reasons for being a poor joiner include political and economic upheaval, and weak and unfocused leadership. But there were bad reasons as well, and they include an expectation that Russia's political importance would guarantee a place at the high tables of international affairs. Winning a place by refashioning one's policies was a logic that others might follow, but not Russia.

If President Putin wants to turn back to this agenda with new seriousness, he will have many things going for him: a lift in the economy, a moment of relative political calm, and even his own credibility as an interpreter of Russia's interests. But the task of integration is also a harder one now. Over the next two years, during which questions about Russia's relations with both NATO and the WTO will be especially difficult, he is likely to be able to advance the process only by changing Russia's approach. This is Putin's test, and it will tell us whom we are dealing with.

Stephen Sestanovich has served since 1997 as ambassador-at-large and special adviser to the secretary of state for the New Independent States. These are his own views.

Zbigniew Brzezinski replies:

I will confine myself to only one issue raised in Dr. Sestanovich commentary on my article. Evidently exercised by my criticism of the Clinton administration's feckless non-reaction to the Chechen tragedy, he cites a number of puerile verbal protestations that his State Department superiors made to the Russians, concluding triumphantly that the Russians doubtless "noticed" them. Unfortunately--encouraged also by President Clinton's public profession that, "I have no sympathy for the Chechen rebels", not to mention Clinton's shocking reference to Russia "liberation" of Grozny--that is all they did.

Essay Types: Essay