Russia’s reinvented empire

George Schöpflin
2 May 2007

There has been much discussion of whether the United States is a new kind of empire, "an empire lite", an empire without colonies or a "hyperpower". Whatever one's conclusions, some kind of neo-imperialism seems to be in the air. The emerging Russian political system has attracted much less attention in this connection, yet it too is acquiring qualities that are best captured by using empire as a way of interpreting its developments.

Domestically Russia is clearly not a democracy, though Vladimir Putin's rule is evidently consensual as he enjoys the overwhelming support of the population. This political system can, therefore, be called a consensual authoritarian system, something that many theorists of democracy find perplexing, because their default assumption - tested to its limits in Iraq - is that everyone wants democracy.

The key features of Russia's domestic system, as has been argued in openDemocracy previously, is that it is ruled by a rent-seeking elite, it relies on heavy doses of xenophobia and Russian nationalism coupled with support from eastern Orthodoxy and calls itself "sovereign democracy", meaning something like "power knows best", which is why it has power (see Ivan Krastev, "'Sovereign democracy', Russian-style", 16 November 2006).

George Schöpflin is a member of the European parliament for Fidesz (Hungarian Civic Union) and was Jean Monnet professor of politics at University College London.

Also by George Schöpflin in openDemocracy:

"Israel-Lebanon: a battle over modernity"
(8 August 2005)

"Putin's anti-globalisation strategy"
(10 July 2006)

"Hungary: country without consequences" (22 September 2006)

"Hungary's cold civil war"
(14 November 2006)

"The European Union's troubled birthday"
(23 March 2007)

A mindset revived

Where domestic and international processes meet is the point where the outlines of a new type of neo-imperial ambition can be discerned. Centrally, Russia under Putin has embarked on the reconstruction of an international status that the president believes the country should have. Vital in this area is the projection of Russia's newfound power based on the current energy and raw-materials boom and the corresponding insistence on respect as a major world player. Domestically this plays well, as Russia has made no attempt to come to terms with the loss of the Soviet empire in 1991 and, indeed, sees no reason for doing so. Putin's declaration that the collapse of the Soviet Union was the greatest catastrophe of the 20th century fits well into this picture.

The components of this reinvented imperial idea include the active deployment of Russia's energy resources to gain power in order to acquire respect or generate fear, the two being seen as the different sides of the same coin, in as much as they oblige other international players to give Russia the same due as the Soviet Union had because of its military strength. The Russian concept of power tends to prefer hierarchy to equality and, hence, subordination of the weaker by the stronger. From this perspective, it is logical to build up hard power as the primary means of acquiring and sustaining status.

Closer to home, within the territories once controlled by the Soviet Union, the exercise of Russian power is more direct. The very expression "near abroad" implies denying full recognition of the sovereign independence of the former Soviet republics. Imagine if Germany referred to its former territories like Russia's Kaliningrad, say, as Germany's "near abroad". The howls of outrage in Moscow would resound round the world and the usual add-ons of "fascism" would follow. Yet Europe appears ready to ignore the territorial claim implicit in "near abroad".

Indeed, Russia's behaviour towards the former Soviet republics underpins this argument. They are the targets of threats, denunciations, occasional covert actions and interference - in Ukraine and Georgia, as well as the regular barrage of abuse directed at the Baltic states (very little of this is ever reported in the western press). From this perspective, the Russian neo-imperial mindset - the deep reluctance to recognise the loss of empire - is easily visible.

The energy instrument

This is where energy as an instrument of power comes into its own, coupled with globalisation and international property regulation. Similarly, Russia relies on the strict protection of property abroad, but rejects it at home, where the interests of the state transcend the law. Foreign capital and know-how are accepted, but Russia reserves the right to change the terms whenever Moscow so decides.

Since the arrival of the energy boom in the late 1990s, Russia has unexpectedly come into the possession of both direct and indirect means of extending its power - oil and natural gas have generated enormous cash reserves and the ownership of the means of delivery, the oil and gas pipelines, have enhanced the process. In this connection, Russia's strategic objective in the "near abroad" is the reassertion of power over the former republics through the control of energy supplies and the local delivery network, something that can already be seen to some extent in Armenia, an independent state that has been reduced to semi-satellite status.

How might this energy power actually work? The delivery network from Russia to the country concerned is often already in place from the Soviet period and this necessarily links these states with Russian suppliers. One day, a "fault" is discovered in the pipeline or the tap is turned off and the oil stops flowing. Before repairs can begin, the state is put under pressure to sell its ownership of the pipeline or else. Next, critics of this dependence are silenced, unfriendly political forces are told to disappear from the scene (or else). Russian security agents then begin to play a yet more active role, suborning politicians, intimidating journalists, and NGOs (see Tanya Lokshina, "Russian civil society: an appeal to Europe", 30 April 2007). The country concerned then opens itself up to Russian capital, legislation is passed through a compliant parliament and eventually the state finds that it is aligned with Russia in a whole variety of ways, in both foreign policy and international affairs.

Moscow appears to be intent on extending its power beyond the "near abroad" into the former central and southeast European satellites as well. This is bad news for them, nine of them now members of the European Union. The resistance shown by Poland brought about a ban on Polish meat exports to Russia, on "health" grounds, a dispute that has been simmering for a year and Poland's partners in the European Union have been less than enthusiastic in showing their support for Warsaw. The Druzhba pipeline that is supposed to carry oil to Lithuania's Mažeikiu oil refinery from Russia has been dry for nine months because Lithuania had had the audacity to do a deal with Poland on ownership rather than allow Russian energy interests to acquire it.

All this adds up to a pattern. The Russian use of the energy weapon gives the lie to the rather disingenuous Russian protests that it is a normal market actor and a reliable supplier. This narrative is taken very seriously by those charged with projecting Russia's image abroad. At a meeting in Budapest in late March, I had occasion to witness just how seriously. One of the Hungarian speakers mentioned that when it came to economics, there was a European attitude, favouring free markets, and a Russian one, which relied on a state-driven idea of economic activity.

The Russian ambassador to Hungary responded by vehemently denying that Russia behaved in any way differently from Europe's free-market way of doing things. Unfortunately for him, the Lithuanian ambassador was also present and he reminded the audience that Russia was refusing to pump oil to Lithuania on grounds of problems with the pipeline (which, it seems, are impossible to fix).

Russia and Europe

Image is important to Russia and leads its image-makers to make two claims. One is that Russia is as European as any other state and the other is to deny that Russia is an empire in any shape or form. These two propositions are connected. Russia, seemingly, desperately wants to be accepted as a European country, that it has always been one and, therefore, it must deny that it is an empire, because Europe and empire are now wholly incompatible.

In any case, Russia's protestations are not wholly convincing. In the 19th century, it is true, Russia was a part of the concert of Europe and a fully participating member of the "holy alliance", the overall aim of which was to stop the emergence of democracy. But this only made Russia a participant in the imperial, anti-democratic part of the European tradition, something that Europe now regards as a source of shame. While the former colonial powers in Europe are generally uneasy about their colonial pasts, Russia does not share this view of imperial conquest, indeed denies that it has been a colonial power at all, while being quite proud of its "civilising mission" (see Geoffrey Hosking, "Russians in the Soviet Union: rulers and victims", 22 June 2006). Then, in the first half of the 20th century, Russia-as-Soviet Union directly controlled a large part of Europe and imposed on it a highly homogenised version of a part of the European tradition - a peculiarly Russian reading of socialism that had been stripped of its democratic elements (other than on paper).

After 1991, Russia had a choice whether or not to opt for democratic pluralism or something else and discovered that democratic pluralism brought chaos and the emergence of enormous inequalities. Putin wound up the chaos and simultaneously squelched the experiment in democracy inaugurated by Boris Yeltsin, resulting in today's consensual authoritarianism. This makes Russia very un-European indeed.

Counter-arguments from high culture, that Russia had always been a part of the European cultural space in music, painting and literature do not really stand up too well on mature consideration. There has certainly been a European reception of Tolstoy or Dostoyevsky (who had a fine contempt for Europe, as it happens), but that reception does not automatically make them European. After all, there has been a similar reception of the giants of Latin American literature, but no one would claim that Gabriel García Marquez or José Luís Borges or Carlos Fuentes were or are European.

The proposition that Russia is or has been a European type nation-state likewise does not stand up to serious scrutiny. Russian nationhood always been bound with imperium, both Czarist and Soviet, together with a kind of civilising mission. While Russian nationalism is not a necessary part of the Russian imperial tradition, it has been a useful resource for both the Czars and Stalin, and, for that matter, for Putin. The revival by Putin of that arch-imperial symbol, the double-headed eagle, facing west and east, and the very Czarist-style funeral of Yeltsin indicate that the current bout of constructing Russian nationhood still has its imperial shadow. Besides, today's European nation-state, committed as it is to civic rights and multiculturalism is precisely what Putin is moving away from.

A good indicator was the ban on the use of the Latin alphabet by the approximately 7 million speakers of the Tatar language. The grounds were simple - one country, one alphabet. But this is valid only for Russia, of course. If, hypothetically, one of the Baltic states were to insist that locally Russian could no longer be written in Cyrillic, Moscow would be incandescent. In all, there is, in effect, no citizenship in Russia that would in anyway limit the power of the state - the recent brutal dispersion of the "march of dissent" demonstrations in St Petersburg, Moscow and Nizhny Novgorod is clear evidence.

The rise of a fairly unpleasant brand of chauvinist nationalism in Russia has two consequences. In makes all things non-Russian inherently suspect and makes the criteria of Russian-ness - language, race, a very particular version of history, Orthodoxy and territorial ambition - the sole way of interpreting the world. The outcome is not unfamiliar to those who know the Russian past - a kind of absolute, single-factor, monistic worldview that is very much at variance with the relativistic, reflexive quality of citizenship that marks Europe these days. Arguably, Europe has paid a price to learn this lesson, as did Russia in the second world war, but Europe and Russia drew diametrically opposite conclusions from it. Europe chose to limit the power of the nation, while Russia gives it free rein.

No end of a lesson

The upshot of this analysis is that Russia has reinvented itself as an empire of sorts, that this empire has evident support within Russia and is viable as long as the raw-materials boom lasts. This signifies that Putin's speech berating the west at the international conference on security policy in February 2007 was no aberration, but a signal as to the kind of Russia that the world will have to live with - a Russia sensitive about its status in the world, disregarding the rules of the world order when it wants to (following the example of the United States?) and determined to subordinate as much of its former empire as it can to its reinvented imperial form.

Also on Russia politics and economics in openDemocracy:

Dieter Helm, "Russian gas, Ukraine and Europe’s energy security"
(20 January 2006)

Geoffrey Hosking, "Russians in the Soviet Union: rulers and victims" (22 June 2006)

Ivan Krastev, "'Sovereign democracy', Russian-style"
(16 November 2006)

Oksana Chelysheva, "The decline of freedom in Russia"
(5 February 2007)

Zygmunt Dzieciolowski, "How Russia is ruled" (14 March 2007)

Tanya Lokshina, "Russian civil society: an appeal to Europe"
(30 April 2007)

Dividing the European Union is high on Russia's list of priorities and, indeed, some members of the EU seem ready to listen. The deal between Germany and Russia to build the Nord Stream pipeline on the Baltic seabed is a case in point; regardless of vociferous objections from Poland and the Baltic states, Germany is determined to press ahead. The tempting of the Hungarian government to desert the Nabucco project, which would bring natural gas from the Caspian region to Europe as an alternative to Gazprom's Blue Stream, is a similar gambit. The Hungarian government is wavering uneasily at this time, saying yes to both Nabucco and Blue Stream.

Nor is it in any way easy to identify where Russia's neo-imperial ambitions end. There will obviously be fierce resistance from the former Soviet colonies in Europe whenever Russia might attempt to reassert its power through energy expansion and threaten their independence. There are, of course, genuine arguments in favour of letting Russia establish its own security, but not when that requires making inroads into the security of others.

Likewise, a neo-imperial Russia will be a difficult partner for the US at a time when the US itself is losing its readiness to accept other players as equals in esteem, especially as Washington's attacks on Russia's move away from democracy are decidedly unpopular in Moscow. The Sino-Russian relationship is something of an enigma. Economic relations are intensifying, but Russia can hardly be comfortable with China's growing economic impact on the Russian far east. Paradoxically, while China's entry into the global labour market has radically devalued unskilled labour in Europe and the US, Russia is not significantly affected, because its own market remains protected.

In a broader context, a neo-imperial Russia is likely to be an awkward entity in global affairs. It will place its own interests above those of the US and the world system that the US is seeking to construct (see Daniel W Drezner, "The New New World Order", Foreign Affairs, March/April 2007), it will pay only as much attention to the Washington consensus as suits it, and will generally be ill-disposed to western concerns relating to democracy and human rights. On the other hand, and maybe this is a thinnish silver lining, this Russia, unlike the Soviet Union, will not seek to remake the world in its image, only what is within its own reach.

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