Russia Is Not an Empire

An interview with Boris Kagarlitsky by Filip Memches

Business elites in the East care only about the cash flow, control over the markets, and opportunities for enriching themselves at the expense of the state. In this sense, Russia and Ukraine form a peculiar vanguard of Europe— says Boris Kagarlitsky in conversation with Filip Memches.

In 1991, as a result of the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia lost a huge part of the territory it ruled over in the Soviet era. And the Putin era is seen as a period of a revival of Moscow’s imperial aspirations. You can name here the war against Georgia in 2008 and the diplomatic battle for Ukraine’s entry into the Customs Union—an organization which is the germ of the future Eurasian Union. Could Russia become an empire again?

Let us start with the fact that the current boundaries of Russia are a product of the breakdown of the Soviet Union, so talking about the loss of some part of territory belonging to it is incorrect. It was Russia, which initiated the Belavezha agreements sealing the end of the Soviet Union. Strictly speaking, if we think about contemporary Russia as a state, the reason it came into being was that in its declining phase the USSR literally pushed the other republics out of this unified political entity. Kiev and Minsk came to an agreement with Moscow, but the Central Asian republics were opposed to the disintegration of the state until the very end.

So the post-communist elites of Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan preferred the colonial status, despite the fact that they benefited from their empowerment in their relations with Russia?

It was only in January 1992 that they were forced to accept their independence, which they previously not only did not demand, but also tried to avoid by all possible means. This was of course also an element of the process of disintegration of Soviet property. A political structure for an “avalanche of privatization,” as Yegor Gaidar put it, was being created. Annihilation of one country prevented many conflicts and allowed for a peaceful distribution of resources and assets.

In the light of what you said, how should we interpret the claims of the Moscow political establishment to what it calls the zone of its “privileged interests,” meaning the former republics of the USSR?

After 1998, when the rise in oil prices increased the market value of Russian mining corporations, they launched—like any capitalist enterprise would—an expansion into foreign markets, taking control over the sale and transport of raw materials, etc. The former Soviet republics turned out to be areas suitable for expansion, although the same logic can be seen in the activities of Russian companies elsewhere, for example in Europe or Africa. There is nothing specifically Russian here.

But Gazprom is working with the Russian state, Russian business is not separated from the regime.

European businesses also apply for assistance to officials of the European Union and their own “national” governments. You can call it the rebirth of the empire, but more properly it should be called business. Russia has simply become a normal capitalist country, no different from France, Italy or Sweden.

But the Eurasian project, which is the pride and joy of Putin, is more than an economic game.

The Russian economy, as any modern economy, is confronted with problems associated with the policy of economic liberalization and open markets. In Russia this policy is supported by exporters of raw materials, who are also leading importers of various other goods. And these imports harm domestic small business. These antagonisms are behind the fact that the negotiations on Russia’s entry into the WTO have been dragging on for so long. The Eurasian Union—just like the Customs Union and other variants of integration on the territory of the former USSR—was proposed as an alternative to the WTO accession. This debate concerned the creation of an institutional base for a kind of collective protectionism. In essence, it was an idea for creating favorable conditions for development of industry in the former Soviet republics. However, within the same Russian elite other sentiments have prevailed. Particular versions of integration, proposed by Moscow to its partners, were becoming less and less sensible and advantageous—not only for them, but also for Russian industry. The interest in the subject began to wane, and Kremlin’s policy boiled down to exploiting the more and more abstract sounding slogan of Eurasian integration as a bargaining chip in the game with the West during the negotiations on the WTO accession.

And was Russia successful in that?

The U.S. and the EU quickly saw through this strategy. As a result, the Kremlin has come under pressure from two sides—domestic mining corporations and external partners. Moscow signed an agreement to join the WTO and in 2012 ratified it, although its conditions are extremely disadvantageous for Russia. You could say that Moscow actually capitulated. The economic situation in the country immediately deteriorated, industrial production began to decline. In this situation, the Russians brought the Eurasian integration back to their minds and attempted to revive it through the Customs Union. But it was too late.

How much of the imperial idea has been left in contemporary Russian nationalism, which probably transcends the division into the regime and the anti-systemic opposition?

Isolated groups of nationalists are still willing to talk about Russia in the abstract terms of an “empire.” This means an ignorant confusing of the Romanovs Tsardom with the Soviet Union, which in institutional terms had little in common with each other. But the “imperial” type of nationalism, prevalent among older members of the military and the venerable members of the writers union (a relic of the Soviet era), is gradually giving way to ethnic nationalism, directly inspired by such ideological impulses from Western Europe as anti-immigrant discourse, Islamophobia or—to quote the title of Samuel Huntington’s famous book—a clash between civilizations, etc. Young ethno-nationalists differ from “imperialists” on key issues. They are ready to support the disintegration of the Russian Federation—so that a racially pure Russian Republic could come into being. They express approval for General Vlasov and Russian formations collaborating with the Third Reich, as well as for the Ukrainian extreme right, seeing a model for themselves in the Freedom Party of Oleh Tyahnybok and other nationalist groupings from the Kiev Maidan.

The American historian Terry Martin described the Soviet Union as an “affirmative action empire,” in the sense of a formal strengthening of the multi-ethnic social structure by the government. This project has evidently failed.

Let us go back to pre-revolutionary times. The Empire of the Tsars was less multinational than other European empires. Take the armed forces. Until 1918, the role and number of “indigenous” formations in the Russian army was incomparably smaller than in the armies of Britain and France. Some nationalities in Russia were banned from military service. And the relations between the “imperial” population from the centre and the “natives” from the periphery were also different: neither in the UK nor in France, there was a overt numerical advantage of the “imperial” nationality. Tsarist Russia was closer to the Austro-Hungarian Empire, with which it had more in common than we usually think.

And this had changed in the Soviet era?

In the Soviet Union a formal and to some extent actual equality of nationalities inhabiting it was present. However, it did not mean an automatic non-discrimination on grounds of nationality. Various nationalities bore the brunt of the regime’s brutality, from the persecution of Tatars in Bashkortostan to manifestations of official anti-Semitism in the post-war period. But—and here we come back to the beginning of our conversation—it makes no sense to talk about it in the context of “empire,” because the real empire was liquidated in 1917. And attempts to talk about the “Soviet empire” is an anachronous playing with words.

So what is the attitude of the Russian ruling class to the current events in Ukraine? If there is no return to the empire, why does Vladimir Putin use the term “brotherly state” in reference to Ukraine?

The Russian elite is very worried about their investments in Ukraine. Its entire policy and strategy actually boils down to that. The Dnipropetrovsk clan, that is Batkyvchina, and western Ukrainian clans, that is the Freedom Party and other groupings, are seen as less reliable partners than the Donetsk clan, that is the Party of Regions. But the latter often cheated on their Moscow partners, and therefore for some time they have not been enjoying an unambiguous support of Moscow. This complicated the situation of the Donetsk clan in Kiev, but these people have only themselves to blame for this state of affairs.

What about the situation of the Russian-speaking population in Ukraine? Is it important for the Kremlin?

As for the language question, the facts show that it has been resolved a long time ago. The entire Ukrainian business has definitely made a choice in favor of the Russian language—no major business publishing house publishes books in Ukrainian. And this is why no serious moves in defense of the Russian language have been and will be made.

Why? After all, the law on national minorities pushed through in 2012 by the regime, enhancing the status of the Russian language, caused a huge row.

If any part of the Ukrainian elite would lose sleep over such an issue, the Russian language would have long since achieved the status of an official language—as Swedish in Finland or French in Switzerland. The Russian establishment is no more worried about what is happening with the population of Lugansk or Sevastopol than about the fate of the inhabitants of Voronezh or Saratov. Important things are the cash flow, control over the markets, the possibilities for enriching themselves at the expense of the state, etc. Besides, the same can be said of the Ukrainian elite. In this sense, it seems to me, our two countries form a peculiar vanguard of Europe. For the ruling circles of the Old Continent evolve in the same direction.

Filip Memches

Filip Memches is a feature writer; author of a book entitled Słudzy i wrogowie imperium. Rosyjskie rozmowy o końcu historii (The Servants and the Enemies of the Empire: Russian Conversations on the End of the World) (2009).

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