Thursday, March 20, 2014

Putin's Power Play in Crimea Exposes a Long-Held Russian Hypocrisy

by Nomad

Russia's decision to annex Ukraine's Crimean region has sent a shudder throughout the international community. Vladimir Putin's decision was part and parcel of Russian policy, one that has been shaped by both its tsarist past as well as its Soviet years under Stalin. How does this controversial decision reveal an underlying hypocrisy of Russian policy?

Empire Rebuilding?
Monday saw Russian President Vladimir Putin annexing the Crimean peninsula for the Motherland, in the name of protecting the Russian ethnic minority in Ukraine. While the Russian-speaking minority forms about 17 percent of the Ukrainian population, they do make up the majority in Crimea. A majority of region but a minority of the nation.
This act, which the international community has soundly condemned as treaty-breaking and in breach of international laws of state sovereignty, has many of Russia's neighbors- with similar minorities- extremely worried. Their greatest fear can be summed up with two questions: Is Putin actually attempting to revive the Soviet Empire? If not, where will he draw the line?

As The Washington Post found Putin's speech  was riddled with false statements about the events. One interesting misleading statement:
“Crimeans say that in 1991, they were handed over like a sack of potatoes, and I can’t help but agree with it. And what about the Russian state? What about Russia? It humbly accepted the situation. This country was going through such hard times then that realistically it was incapable of protecting its interests.”
Putin's re-writing of history supplies the Kremlin with all the justification it needed for what some have called "a land grab." In fact, the 1991 decision to join Ukraine was a democratic one, with a vote of 54% in favor. Buried in the quote, Putin makes the suggestion that now Russia is prepared to use force to protect its interests.
Even if that means defying the West.

What the world witnessed should have come as no surprise to any student of Russian history. Invasions of its neighbors is a time-honored Russian tradition. The bloodless "adoption" of Crimea was a  masterful production and a predictable reaction to unrest on its border. It was nevertheless disappointing.
Moreover, in his speech, Putin claimed the West was guilty of a double-standard. However as we shall see, the same could be said of Russia. 

Understanding Russification
To understand and appreciate Putin's decision, one has to understand the center piece of Russian policy. Throughout its history, Russification, as a social policy, has been a useful tool for empire building. It served as an artificial binding force for a large expanse of land populated by a variety of ethnic groups.
In some ways, it was a question of practicalities.
As Professor Willard Sunderland in his essay, Imperial Space: Territorial Thought and Practice in the Eighteenth Century observes,
Russians lived all across the Russian state, but this state was also home to many people who were clearly not Russian as well as some Russians who had apparently forgotten about their Russian-ness.
It's surprising to learn that, for the first time in centuries, the Russians have become a majority in their own country. That was not true until recently and this fact could explain the emergence of a new majority rule social policy.

Following the disastrous Crimean War of 1856, Tsar Alexander II used Russification to reduce the potential for rebellions. (Exactly the kind of rebellion and overthrow we saw in Ukraine). Tsars knew that if the empire was to survive then self-determination and separatism of minority ethnic groups had to be put down. Firmly, if necessary.

This is where Russification came in.
Under the tsars,  all subjects, regardless of nationality or ethnic background, had to acknowledge their allegiance to the Russian state, this included the acceptance of autocratic rule, the use of Russian as a common language, and the supremacy of the Russian Orthodox church. The Muslim population, for example, was allowed to practice its religion but only under certain conditions.  
Associate Professor of History Charles Steinwedel explains:
Mention of the tsar in Friday prayers became institutionalized at the time of Nicholas I’s elevation to the throne. Mufti Abdrakhimov (served 1825–1840) called upon Muslims to give thanks to God for the tsar and to pray for him every morning, night, and every Friday in the mosque.
Paying respects to the tsar meant recognizing the questionable right to rule. As leader of the Russian Empire, the  implication was, of course, the Russians and their culture were  superior to all other ethnic groups. and that the Russian Church was superior to all other religions. 
(Michelle Bachmann, incidentally, made much the same argument when she proudly proclaimed that "not all cultures are equal.")

In this way, the idea of majority domination is deeply embedded into the policy.

That's always been true in Russia. Cultural assimilation of all non-Russian communities could be voluntarily or  by force but one way or the other, compliance was mandatory. Challenges to the policy required the state make use of intimidation and repression.
This is why Putin's pretense of protecting Russian minorities in neighboring lands is highly ironic, given its historical treatment of other minorities.

Russian Shell Game
Another important aspect of Russification was the forced migration of the indigenous non-Russian populations to other provinces of the Empire  and the re-settlement of Russians into the opened lands. Poland, Ukraine, Moldavia, Lithuania and Finland were all regions where this policy was applied. This strategy for strengthening the empire carried on long after the Russian Empire fell to the Soviet regime.

Stalin applied this policy with a ruthlessness that went far beyond the tsars. Shortly before, during and immediately after World War II, Stalin conducted a series of deportations of local populations on a huge scale which profoundly affected the ethnic map of the Soviet Union. Following the deportations, Russians were encouraged to settle there. These areas were in this way, "ethnically-cleansed."

In Ukraine, Stalin put a halt  to any separatism in favor of unity- meaning, of course, Russian domination. This was a leader who thought that ideas were more powerful than guns and one idea that could not be tolerated was state sovereignty.

This repressive and regressive philosophy gave rise to the image of the Soviet Union as a monolithic state, resistant to change. All that came crashing down with startling suddenness when the countries that made up the Soviet Union asserted their independence and established claims to their own sovereign borders.  

With the fall of the Soviet Union, one might have thought this policy would have been tossed into the rubbish bin of history. However, in Georgia and now in Crimea, Putin has found a new use for Russification, probably its last real utility. 

As a pretext for a Russian invasion, minority Russian populations can claim (with little or no legitimacy) of mistreatment by the majority, and Russia can wear the mask of the pretend defender of the pretend victim. Although Putin received standing ovations when he formally announced the annexation of Crimea, few outside Russia are fooled by the land grab of Crimea.  

Europeans know all to well the excuses from nationalist autocrats for expanding borders. And American history has its own parallels. The United States and Mexico had a similar altercation when Texas was annexed. But at least, the US government did make an $25 million offer to buy the land from Mexico. The 1845 decision by President Polk was hotly contested, and his critics- quite rightly called the move "imperialistic." Compare that with cheers that Putin received as he signed the annexation treaty on Monday- only one day after a hasty referendum in Crimea.

Putin's Minority-Majority Hypocrisy
The underlying problem with Russification- and with any imperialistic policy- is that it presumes that one culture is innately superior to another and therefore entitled to rule, and to special rights. This, therefore, runs contrary to the very idea of liberal democracy. In its ultimate expression, this social policy can transform into a system of racism, intolerance and discrimination. Isn't this the very same argument in Aryan guise that was proposed by Hitler?
As Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch  noted:
"Authoritarian governments adopted the form but not the substance of democracy, as if all that matters is a vote on election day, not public debate for the rest of the year. This feigned democracy rejects basic principles: that laws apply to those in power, and that governments should respect free speech and uphold the rights of unpopular minorities."
Given his position on other minorities inside Russia, Putin's position of coming to the rescue of the Russian minority population in Ukraine is rather pathetic and hypocritical. Since taking power, his concept of democracy- enthusiastically justified by his own cadre of select scholars- was that domestic "aggressive" minorities had to be suppressed for the sake of the majority. Diversity as a social concept appeared to have little place in modern Russia.

This was, after all, the primary rationale for the anti-gay laws. The charge was made that, by being openly gay, this minority were "promoting their non-traditional lifestyle" and, by demanding equality, was manufacturing anti-social propaganda.

Up until Crimea, Putin seemed to believe that minorities were merely irritants to the greater will of the people. These groups, he implied, were making unfair demands on the state. Suddenly when it comes to the Russian minority in Ukraine- (an independent state, it is important to remember) Putin feels obliged to launch a military defense to protect another nation's minority.  There was then no talk about whether the Russian minority in Crimea- in demanding absolute autonomy from Kiev- was not making "unfair" demands.

Had the new government in Ukraine outlawed Russian minority in Crimea from making pro-Russian propaganda, it would have only been following Putin's precedent with respect to its own gay population.  

A Game Two Can Play
But there are more serious problems than mere hypocrisy. The most obvious problem that two can play this game. Is Putin ready to accept this tactic when others apply it?

As a map of the different ethnic groups in Russia clearly shows, the Turks could make an equal claim in former Soviet territories- as well as deep inside Russia itself.  
In fact, the claim would have far more legitimacy because- unlike the Russian minorities- the ethnic populations have lived in theses regions for centuries and can be considered indigenous.

Along Russian's southern flank, the inhabitants were forced to become Russian-speaking but are certainly not ethnic Russians, but Turkic. Some form of Turkish is spoken from the Mediterranean to the borders of China.

In addition to a common language, the Turkic people share a common religion, many shared traditions and similar ethnic origins. Under the Soviet Union, these aspects of identity all were suppressed.
If one wishes to revive imperial ambitions, why stop at Russia? Putin should think hard about the possibility that his Crimean adventure could spark the same ideas in other minds. If Putin can claim the right to protect the ethnic Russians of other nations- why should Turks be able to do the same thing? Turkification, if you will.

As Putin knows too well, Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan is not in any position to follow through with a Turkification of Russia and former Soviet satellite nations. In the last year, he has struggled just to maintain his hold over his own Republic. So any talk of empire is out of the question. Another problem is that Erdogan simply doesn't have the military to implement such a social policy. 

And that is the very reason why Putin's decision is a catastrophic mistake. The Crimean annexation could never have happened without the implied threat of force.  It could never have happened without heavily-armed masked men standing in doorways, with blockades and checkpoints and long lines of Russian tanks and squads of Russian soldiers.

Without right on their side, these empire builders require a great deal of military might for their aspiring ambitions.  The sad truth of all empires, whether Russian, or the United States, was pointed out by Joseph Stalin himself:
Everyone imposes his own system as far as his army can reach.
The justification for that imposition, as Stalin knew too well, can be manufactured after the fact, if necessary. This was demonstrated very well this week by Vladimir Putin in Crimea.