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Russia's post-orange empire

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“The political personality of Soviet power as we know it today”, George Kennan wrote in his now famous “Mr X” long telegram of February 1946, “is the product of ideology and circumstances.” The political personality of Russian power as we know it today, in October 2005, is the product of a lack of ideology and…circumstances. The devil is in the circumstances.

The “orange triumphalism” in the west that followed the regime changes in Georgia and Ukraine perceives the decline of Russia’s influence in the post-Soviet space as irreversible. The only relevant questions for the democratic triumphalists nowadays are how many more weeks Alexander Lukashenko can survive in power in Minsk and where the next “colour revolution” will take place.

Ivan Krastev is chair of the Centre for Liberal Strategies in Sofia, Bulgaria. He served as the executive director of the International Commission on the Balkans, chaired by Giuliano Amato

Also by Ivan Krastev in openDemocracy:

“We are all Britis today: Timothy Garton Ash’s Free World” (September 2004)

“Ukraine and Europe: a fatal attraction” (December 2004)

“The European Union and the Balkans: enlargement or empire?” (June 2005)

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In my view this single-scenario approach is an exercise in wishful non-thinking that underestimates the vulnerability of the newest “new democracies” and neglects Russia’s strategic drive to transform itself from a status-quo power into a revisionist power on the territory of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS). Could it be that Vladimir Putin’s Russia will emerge as the greatest beneficiary of the colour revolutions and “new Europe” is the biggest loser in the mid-term? There are convincing signs that Russia is adopting a “support for democracy” approach and has begun investing in the development of an NGO infrastructure as the major instruments for destabilising pro-western governments and regaining influence in places like Ukraine.

Three factors contribute to the emergence of a dramatically new situation in the post-Soviet space, composed of three elements:

  1. high energy prices, especially oil

  2. the crisis of the European Union’s “soft power” in the aftermath of the French and Dutch rejections of the European constitution

  3. the impact of Ukraine’s orange revolution on Russia’s political thinking.

First, the current energy crisis creates a perfect opportunity for Russia to transform itself from a defunct military superpower into a new energy superpower. Moscow’s favourable oil prices have given the Russian government the financial resources and international influence to launch an active foreign policy in its blizhneye zarubezhiye (“near abroad”).

Second, the impact of the European Union constitutional crisis on Brussels’ neighbours is not difficult to predict. The emergence of a de facto post-enlargement EU closed to the membership aspirations of Ukrainians, Georgians, Moldovans or Belarussians creates a space for Russia’s soft power and reduces the attractiveness of the “Europeanisation” option.

Third, and least understood, is that the orange revolution in Ukraine was Russia’s 9/11: it has had a revolutionary impact on Russian foreign-policy thinking.

In pre-orange days Russia tended to view the European Union as a benevolent competitor and a strategic ally in its desire for a multipolar world. In the post-orange reality of today, the EU is Russia’s major rival. This sudden change of heart is easy to explain. The EU is the only great power with unsettled borders. Even more important, the EU – which Moscow previously saw as an instrument to realise Paris-Berlin foreign-policy visions (and thus as an obstacle to the United States’s hegemonic presence on the continent) – is now viewed as an instrument for the realisation of the ambitions of Washington and Warsaw.

Thus, it is not surprising that marginalising the EU as a foreign-policy actor and sidelining “new” Europe will be a major objective of the new Russian policy. Moscow will focus on bilateral relations with the key European powers – Paris, Berlin, Rome and London – and it will do its best to make it impossible to adopt any common European policy towards the post-Soviet space.

The political technologists’ empire

In a remarkable twist of history, political technologists in the form of Gleb Pavlovsky and his circle – people who “screwed it up” in Ukraine – are the greatest beneficiaries of the new post-orange sentiment in Moscow. The “loss of Kiev” catapulted these political technologists to commanding heights in Russia’s foreign-policy-making process.

In March 2005, President Putin created a special department in his administration to promote Russia’s influence in the post-Soviet space. Modest Kolerov, a well-known political technologist and until recently Pavlovsky’s deputy at the Effective Policy Foundation (FEP), was appointed head of the new department. Contrary to all predictions, this group is more influential than ever when it comes to shaping President Putin’s strategy regarding the near abroad and they are the dominant voice in the current public debate on “what Russia should do now”.

The influence of the political technologists on Russia’s near-abroad policy today is comparable only to the influence of the neo-conservatives on American foreign policy in the aftermath of 9/11. Pavlovsky and his associates are hated and ridiculed in Moscow’s liberal circles but they have ideas – and their ideas are at the heart of the current post-orange consensus in Russia.

Taking political technologists seriously is imperative for the west when it comes to its Russia policies. In the Kremlin environment dominated by mediocre apparatchiks, KGB-minded civilians, KGB-at-heart officers and ruthless business politicians with murky pasts, political technologists appear people from a different planet.

They come from an intellectual milieu and the world of alternative culture. They read books; they also write books. They are ultimately cynical but also highly inventive (Gleb Pavlovsky played a critical role in introducing the internet into Russian politics). They do not want to “suppress democracy” but simply play it around “using” – and “abusing” – it to serve their own purposes. They are anti-western westernisers, ex-liberals, anti-communists, liberal imperialists and true believers in the virtues and durability of managed democracy defined as a subtle combination of soft repression and hard manipulation.

Most political technologists have had some exposure to western influence and in their current work they have adopted many of the tools they were taught in the west. Their view of politics is totally elitist. It is a strange mixture of French postmodernism, dissident mannerism, KGB instrumentalism and post-Soviet cynicism combined with business efficiency and the traditional Russian pathetic style. They believe in democracy, only their true belief is not in representative but in manipulative democracy. This is the new generation of empire-builders.

Many analysts of the political-technologists phenomenon tend to confine their role either to cynical political consultants devoted to dirty electoral tricks or to the shameless agitprops they generate as cheerleaders for the government’s policies (a truly insightful analysis of the phenomenon can be found in Andrew Wilson’s book, Virtual Politics: Faking Democracy in the Post-Soviet World, Yale University Press, 2005).

This interpretation is profoundly misleading. These are people, ideas and infrastructure (think-tanks, information agencies, media outlets) that most articulately formulate the new policy to be followed by the Russian government until 2008. The political technologists are not simply the instrument of Putin’s policies: they are the source of these policies. It is their move to the mainstream of Russian policy-making that will determine the new character of Moscow’s near-abroad policy.

The political technologists’ project

In 2003 Anatoly Chubais – once the leading voice in the Russian liberal camp (and not among Pavlovsky’s soulmates) – announced the project of Russia’s liberal empire as the only viable project for securing market and democratic reforms in the CIS. The geography of the empire included primarily Ukraine, Belarus, Kazakhstan and Moldova, and to a lesser extent the Caucasus republics and the central Asian republics.

The empire was to be built within the institutional framework of the CIS, and Russia’s leading role was to be based not so much on Russia’s military strength as on its soft power: energy, business presence, Soviet-era nostalgia, Russia’s cultural influence and the dominance of the Russian language. The not-so-hidden assumption behind the liberal empire project was that the west would endorse it.

Chubais’s offer to the west was a trade-off – the west would have to recognise Russia’s sphere of influence, and in return would get a free market and the possibility of a democratic (or at least stable) Russia and surrounding region. If the liberal empire project happened to cause hysterics among Moscow’s neighbours, Chubais had his liberal answer ready: “hysterics is best treated with shocks and I have a reputation as a shock therapist”.

The orange revolution destroyed this project. What follows was a new strategy of empire-building where Russia seeks to transform itself from a pro-status quo power to the power of change in the post-Soviet space (The United States undertook a similar transformation in the middle east after 9/11).

Russia, in this vision, will no longer be a hostage of its loyal or semi-loyal clients, the likes of Eduard Shevardnadze and Leonid Kuchma. The new policy inspired by the political technologists liberates the Kremlin from its dependence on the local post-Soviet elites. Moscow is thus free to build a power base of its own founded on the mobilisation of ethnic Russians, Russia’s economic presence, and Russia’s role as a labour market of last resort for the Eurasian societies.

Also in openDemocracy on the “colour revolutions” and Russian policy:

Caucasus: regional fractures” – articles by Neal Ascherson, Sabine Freizer, Thomas de Waal, Brenda Shaffer, George Hewitt, Nino Nanava, and others

Ukraine: the orange revolution” – articles by Alexander Motyl, Marek Matraszek, Katinka Barysch & Charles Grant, Krzysztof Bobinski, and others

Alena V Ledeneva, “How Russia really works” (January 2002)

Mary Dejevsky, “The west gets Putin wrong” (March 2005)

Artemi Troitsky, “Alice-in-Wonderland Russia” (March 2005)

Stability and preservation of the territorial integrity of the post-Soviet states is no longer a primary objective of Moscow’s policies. Russia’s new strategy in the making is – in a distorting echo of the “guerrillas without guns” model pioneered by youth movements in countries to its west and south – based on exporting its own version of democracy and building pro-Russian constituencies in the post-Soviet societies. The major objective of this policy is to develop an efficient infrastructure of ideas, institutions, networks and media outlets that can use the predictable crisis of the current orange-type regimes to regain influence not simply at the level of government but at the level of society as well. Russia will not fight democracy in these countries. Russia will fight for democracy – its kind of democracy.

Moscow’s policy places civil society at the heart of its comeback strategy. In the view of one of the leading political technologists, Sergei Markov, the revolutions of the 21st century will be NGO revolutions. They do not have a coordination centre or a single ideology; they are planned and launched in a most public way. “NGO revolutions are revolutions in the age of globalisation and information. It is meaningless to protest against this reality”, Markov writes; “everybody who wants to take part in the politics of the 21st century has to create his own networks of NGOs and supply them with ideology, money and people”.

The creation of Russia-dominated NGO networks – think-tanks, media organisations, development centres – is indeed at the heart of the country’s new policy in the post-Soviet space. Russia is positioning itself as an “exporter of democracy”. Moscow’s policy-makers are making sure that the next revolution – the one to revolt against Viktor Yushchenko and Mikhail Saakashvili – will be Moscow-coloured. And their hopes are not utopian.

The prospect of Putin’s Russia turning into the greatest medium-term beneficiary of the wave of the anti-Russian colour revolutions in Tbilisi and Kiev is not a fantastic option. It is the new reality.


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