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Russia is not the USSR in disguise

This week marks the anniversary of the attempted coup against President Gorbachev on August 21, 1991. How is this event remembered in Russia today?

In Russia, the events of August 19-21, 1991 are traditionally seen as a putsch, conducted by the Soviet nomenclature that formed the State Emergency Committee to prevent the disintegration of the USSR, to restrain the policy of President Gorbachev and to preserve the old order.

Over the past more than quarter of a century, the attitude towards the putsch in Russia has changed, and today it is rather calm - for people it is part of the past, a milestone that separates and simultaneously links two stages of the country's development - the Soviet period and the contemporary history of Russia. An entire generation has grown up, for which the events of August 1991 are no more than a phenomenon of the distant past, and by no means the most significant one.

A special relationship can persist among people who lived at that time, who remember their perceptions at that moment and can compare it with their current vision, relating some of their expectations at the time to the experience of subsequent years. Today, as sociological surveys show, most Russians are skeptical of both sides of the confrontation. A minority believes that after those events, the country took the right direction. A majority still assesses the outcome of the putsch in an unfavourable light.

An important circumstance, which I would like to draw special attention to, is the fact that the events of August 19-21, 1991 had a purely metropolitan character: they occurred in Moscow and affected mostly Moscow itself. In the regions, life proceeded as usual, everything was simple and calm. All watched, but only the capital and those associated with it participated. Therefore, in spite of the fact that the consequences were very dramatic for the whole country, the event itself did not manage, during these three days, to acquire truly national proportions, which reflects on people’s attitude towards it.

How similar are Russia’s strategic goals today on the European continent to those of the USSR?

Russia's strategic goals are public: anyone can open the National Security Strategy or the Foreign Policy Concept to see them and understand how far they lie from the experience of the USSR. The Soviet Union was an ideologically oriented state that formed one of the poles of the bipolar system of international relations. Despite the rather early rejection of the idea of a permanent revolution and of the spread of communism across the planet, the Soviet Union still actively competed for positions in the class struggle against world capitalism. Policies adopted in this direction did not always meet the demands of Soviet citizens. This was one of the reasons for the disintegration of the USSR. The utility anyone could reap from repeating this experience is to say the least, doubtful.

The Russian Federation is building its policy in the world on the basis of its national interests, formulated in a very pragmatic and predictable manner. Russia’s core interests are strengthening sovereignty and state integrity, improving the quality of life of its citizens and the competitiveness of its economy, and maintaining strategic stability in the world. Moreover, Russian policy often has a “reactive” character: Russia responds to those challenges and threats that are external as best it can, but certainly does not create them.

Russia's strategic priorities in relations with Europe include the formation of a common economic and humanitarian space from the Atlantic to the Pacific. This common space should be built on the basis of mutual respect and equality - it cannot be “the EU +” nor “the USSR 2.0.” It is important for Russia that the formation of this common space should help to overcome common challenges: to fight terrorism, to regulate migration, to stop drug trafficking and other organized crime.

Elements of nostalgia for the Soviet past, which may persist in Russian society, will not be able to influence the current pragmatic efforts to achieve greater effectiveness in foreign policy.

You have extensive experience working with Western experts of Russian politics. To what extent does the Soviet past influence perceptions of Russia today?

Attitudes vary among people, and giving general characteristics to all Western experts with whom we work is very problematic. Quite a large number of specialists in different countries are well versed in today's Russia, in its policy and model of development, without reference to what came before. There are all grounds today for this to be the case: open borders, a lot of information in different languages, and extensive social ties between Russians and citizens of other states. However, unfortunately, perceptions of modern Russia through the prism of the USSR, which ceased to exist more than a quarter of a century ago, are really preserved in the West. This applies to those who still live in the Cold War era, seeing in Russia what people once saw in the Soviet Union, looking at it through the keyhole of an unassailable “Iron Curtain.” The “Iron Curtain” itself has long been thrown in the dump, but there still remain people wishing to periodically visit this dump and through the keyhole, through which nothing but waste has long been visible.

Why does this happen? Here there can be two options – either, for some reason, these people find it profitable, or they are simply not interested in what is actually happens in Russia. Quite often we have to face the fact that the most odious and emotional opponents of Russia never visited the country. They have not seen or even express an interest to see what Russian society is like, what concerns Russian people and what their achievements are. There is a Russian saying that it is better to see once than to hear a hundred times.

Everyone can have their own interests and preferences among which sources of information to consult - that is the value of the pluralism of opinion. The problem is that the very knowledge about modern Russia is not simply discouraged, but is censured, ostracized: absurd ideas about imaginary dangers that Russian officials, Russian experts, Russian companies and Russian media can present are being introduced. There are people, organizations, which consider the very fact of possible communication with the Russians as a risk to their reputation. This really reminds us of the experience of the Soviet Union, though reproduced abroad, rather than within Russia.

In the West one can also find historical analogies - for example McCarthyism. Unfortunately, people are in the process of forgetting the content and outcomes of these policies, which remain very instructive to understand what is happening today.

Is Europe from Lisbon to Vladivostok a utopia?

Europe from Lisbon to Vladivostok is not a utopia, but a geographical and cultural reality. Vladivostok is a beautiful and dynamic European city, which many residents of Northeast Asia and of the Asia-Pacific region as a whole perceive as the closest geographical point where they can see what Europe is like. Street planning, architectural monuments, branches of the Hermitage and the Mariinsky Theater, the modern Far Eastern University, and so on: for an increasing number of tourists, Vladivostok has recently become a real window to Europe.

As for the current political agenda, a large Europe from Lisbon to Vladivostok is still a matter of discussion. I am glad that this discussion is not weakened because of various kinds of speculation but rather on the contrary is actively expanding and developing, a symptom that, in the expert community, there is great interest for this idea. This is the case both in the EU and in Russia. It is also the case across the fields of academia, business and politics.

It seems to me that we are all too used to confounding Europe and the European Union, an attitude which inevitably affect the development of international relations as a whole. As you know, Europe does not have its own telephone number. In the same way it does not have a single decision-making center. Belonging to Europe is not a monopoly or a privilege; it is a part of the reality that one needs to accept.

It is often customary for us to ask ourselves: is Russia Europe or Asia? Or does Russia have its own path, a third way? There have been and remain so far numerous disputes over these questions, numerous arguments accumulated in support of each side... One fact, in my opinion, plays an important role here: the fact that Russia, on its own, knows how to be different. Russia knows how to be Europe, but at the same time wants to preserve its ability to be something else, to preserve its specificity and adaptability. Russian presence in Asia is an important part of the country’s identity, as well as, in current conditions, a factor of national competitiveness. Russia will never cease to be Europe (even if someone strongly desires it to), but neither will it lock itself inside Europe - that is clear.

Building a large Europe is a multilateral process. It is not limited to relations between the EU and Russia, although it will be determined by them. Equal dialogue, respect for the national interests of all participants - this is what is necessary for the consistent construction of any community, and for a pluralistic Europe - even more so. An important step in this direction could be to involve in this dialogue other integration projects that exist beside the EU in the space from Lisbon to Vladivostok. I am thinking in particular of the Eurasian Economic Union. It would be useful to search for and conclude agreements which do not have a strong political component but could contribute to the construction of joint regimes for regulating the economy.
In any case, the expansion of contacts and relations on the European continent is in the interest of all who reside there. Based on these shared interests, the main task is to mobilise enough political will to overcome inertia and find more effective ways to achieve desired goals.

Alexander Konkov is the director of Rethinking Russia, an independent Moscow-based think tank. Rethinking Russia strives towards a better integration of the worldwide expert community to analyze global political and economic trends, and in particular their significance for Russia. Rethinking Russia works with a wide range of experts from Russia and other countries to render Russia more understandable abroad. Prior to joining Rethinking Russia in 2017, Alexander Konkov was Advisor to the Director of the Gorchakov Public Diplomacy Fund. Since 2013, he is a member of the Board of the Russian Political Science Association and, since 2014, an Associate Professor at the Moscow State University.

Interview and translation from Russian by Nora T. Kalinskij

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