An interview with Vladislav Surkov, President Putin’s deputy chief of staff, published by Komsomolskaya pravda on October 1 provides a glimpse of the dark new political climate now facing Russia. Asked why it is Russia that should have fallen victim to the recent terrorist attacks, Surkov answered by focusing on other countries. He said that “one can find two basic groups among decision-makers in America, Europe and Asia…The first believe in the prospects for our democracy and they support us.” But the second group, according to Surkov, “consists of leaders who continue to live by the phobias of the Cold War, who look at our country as a potential enemy, and who are trying to prevent the political and financial isolation of the terrorists.” The latter “consider that they deserve credit for the almost bloodless collapse of the Soviet Union, and now they are trying to build on that achievement. Their goal is the destruction of Russia and the filling of her vast expanse with small, ineffective semi-state structures.”
This is a most curious analysis. It was not financial support from abroad—and certainly not from America or the West—that inflamed the North Caucasus. The bloodshed began because of errors on both sides, or more precisely because of the criminal actions of power-hungry forces among both the Russians and the Chechens. But now the Caucasus faces a new situation. Now that all of Chechnya has suffered years of warfare and state-sanctioned kidnapping at the hands of Russia, the resistance has come to take a new form. We are now seeing Chechen fighters who hardly think about independence; they are not separatists but seekers of private revenge for their humiliations at checkpoints, for the bombing and shelling of refugees fleeing into Ingushetia, for orders to arrest all males between 10 and 65 years old, for the murders of children before the eyes of their parents, for the insulting of adults in the presence of their children, for tortures, rapes and pillage.
As for their financial support, to a huge extent it comes from local or Russian sources. The frequent symbiosis of bandits from various sides in the joint trade of arms, narcotics, or slaves, along with pervasive corruption, bribery and embezzlement of state funds –these are both causes and results of the ongoing war. The astronomical sums of federal subsidies diverted in Chechnya are having the effect of prolonging the war; it is profitable to too many people. Neither Surkov nor any other official can plausibly point to any foreign sources which would even approach the billions of rubles available from domestic crime and corruption—including the illegal trade in oil.
Surkov does mention the problem of corruption, but according to his conspiracy theory, it is simply the product of some external force trying to destroy Russia. Anti-western and especially anti-American feelings are still strong in our country; it is easy for demagogues to tap into them. Of course, there are influential people in America who would like to see Russia weakened so that she would be forced to play by western rules; there is nothing new in this, every country pursues its own interests. But western politicians are pragmatists: They hardly want to see the disintegration of Russia with the dispersal of its nuclear, chemical and biological arsenals, or the loss of centralized control over the scientific and technological complexes which have produced those arsenals. The collapse of Russia would lead to unpredictable consequences threatening the entire civilized world. It is hardly in the interest of the west to see ten Afghanistans taking the place of today’s quasi-authoritarian Russia.
To look for enemies where there are none, to see any form of opposition as a fifth column, to substitute pseudo-democratic mechanisms for real ones while insisting on the sacred character of the current ruling elite—all these are steps backward towards authoritarianism. It is noteworthy that Surkov was not willing in his interview to admit even one mistake on the part of the current authorities; in his view others are to blame for everything.
The current leadership of our country includes many officials who are accustomed to military rhetoric, spy-mania and the ceaseless search for enemies. For the sake of their own interests they need conflicts, upheavals, and phobias besetting the whole of society—and thus making society easier to control. When they talk about national security, what they have in mind above all is the security of their own careers.
As democratic institutions are replaced by appointive pseudo-structures and as popular political activity withers away, public opinion is being strangled in Russia. As civic society loses the ability to influence the authorities, stagnation is setting in. Even Surkov will be unable to predict the consequences.