1 June 2004
Back in 1990-91, the United States and Europe were terrified at the prospect of the Soviet Union collapsing. Dealing with a single leader was a far more attractive option than building relationships with a dozen presidents of newly independent states.
My father, who was appointed Soviet foreign minister after the failed August 1991 putsch, has said that the United States regularly informed him of Boris Yeltsin's contacts with the administration of President George Bush Sr. so that Gorbachev wouldn't get the idea that there were some shenanigans going on behind his back.
As influential as the United States was in those days, it could not prevent the Belovezhskaya Pushcha Accord. To conceal this huge political setback, the United States announced that the collapse of the Soviet Union had been its objective all along.
We also find it somewhat awkward to admit that we have only ourselves to blame for the fact that we now have to clear customs every time we visit friends and relatives in the CIS. It's easier to pin the blame on a foreign conspiracy, and this has given rise to one of the enduring myths of our age.
Another favorite myth involves a plot ostensibly hatched by foreign nongovernmental organizations and Russian human rights activists with the aim of weakening Russia. This myth came through loud and clear in President Vladimir Putin's state of the nation address last week.
In this space and on the pages of my magazine (founded in part, by the way, with a grant from the European Commission), I have repeatedly criticized the "freedomologists" in far more biting terms than Putin used. This is a fitting topic for debates in the press, but not for the chief political address of the year.
For starters, it seems rather unbecoming for the president of a great nation to stoop to attacks on human rights groups and charitable organizations. This also sends the wrong signal to the international community. The fashion for discussing the rise of authoritarianism in Russia had actually died down recently. Following Putin's speech it flared up again.
Another basic problem with this conspiracy theory is that no such conspiracy exists. Western governmental and private aid organizations are no different from any other bureaucracy. They are genuinely interested in changing things for the better, but they also have a strong instinct for self-preservation, i.e., glowing annual reports, securing next year's funding and so on. I find it difficult to imagine that a subversive plot could arise in this milieu.
The question of how these organizations determine what is "better" for Russia is a different matter. The influence of freedomologists on charitable organizations and the Western press today exceeds their public mandate.
Then again, Western foundations began teaching Russian journalists to apply business management practices to the mass media long before Putin noted that to be free, the press must above all be economically independent. The fact that there are media companies in Russia today that fit Putin's description is due in large part to foreign assistance.
Garry Kasparov did not need a grant to fund his appearance before the U.S. Congress in which he, on behalf of the Committee of 2008, called for Russia's exclusion from the G-8. Nor is the Soviet-era dissident Eduard Lozansky, who dismissed this call as harmful and ridiculous, on the Russian government's payroll. Life is quite simply too complex to be explained by a conspiracy theory.
Finally, it has been true at least since the Soviet era that when our leaders talk about laissez-faire and laissez-passer, their words have little resonance. Their calls to clamp down and not let go, on the other hand, are perceived by the bureaucrats further down the food chain as a direct order.
Can it be that the president doesn't understand how his own country works? And if so, how is he any different from the "democrats?"