Publication: Prism Volume: 5 Issue: 8

By Tatyana Matsuk

“Every strike on Yugoslavia is a blow to the prospects of maintaining democracy in Russia,” said former Russian Prime Minister Yegor Gaidar. Despite my staunch opposition to Gaidar, on this occasion, sadly, I agree with him. The world is on the brink of a new cold war–if not worse–and the only way out of the situation is to call a halt to NATO’s military action in Yugoslavia, and the sooner the better. However, articles in the Western media demonstrate that the West fails to understand why the alliance’s use of force against President Milosevic has triggered a huge outburst of anti-Western feeling in Russia, and why once again “we are seeing different pictures on our television screens.” Milosevic is certainly not an attractive character; the problem of the Kosovo Albanians required an immediate solution; and the Russian government was making every effort to promote the talks which were supposed to provide that solution. So why was there such a powerful and uniformly negative reaction to the military action, which could not have come as a surprise to anyone?

To a great extent, the answer to this question lies beyond the Kosovo conflict, which seems to me to be simply the pretext–the detonator which triggered the explosion. Slavic and Orthodox solidarity have their role to play, of course, but it is not a major one. The reasons go deeper: They are to be found within Russia and in the way Russia’s relations with the West have been developing over the last few years.

The fall of the Iron Curtain fundamentally changed the situation in the world, but both sides were ill-prepared for these changes. The old myths were dispelled, but instead of trying to understand each other, to accept each other as we were and to find a new way of coexisting as best we could, we once again began to construct a “virtual reality.” For a long time most Russians were almost in shock at what they had discovered about their country, in which they had always taken such pride. Against the background of this growing inferiority complex, the West began to appear to many as a heaven-on-earth, populated by angels. At that time–the late 1980s and early 1990s–after the withdrawal of Soviet troops from Afghanistan, people believed that the world was beginning to live by different rules: The military blocks would be disbanded, the arms markets would be regulated in accordance with joint agreements, a single international security system would be created and there would be a ban on the use of force to settle international conflicts. After August 1991 a “romantic era” began in Russia, when it seemed that the country would manage to complete the transition to a civil democratic society with a developed market economy quickly, and with as little loss as possible, and that the West would help us in every respect.

But the subsequent years brought bitter disappointments. Some of this disillusion was legitimate: People began traveling abroad, and many foreigners began to appear in Russia, among whom there were a number of dishonest people; the rose tinted spectacles began to slip. This would not have been anything to worry about were it not for the main disappointment: the failed reforms, which Russians also associate with the West–unfortunately not without reason. The West naturally wanted to turn Russia into a safe, business-friendly country as quickly as possible. Not a great deal was known in the West about the real Russia, but there seemed to be universal recipes which would work anywhere. They began to implement these without sensing that we are in fact very different, because we lived and continue to live under different conditions. Even the residents of East and West Berlin still read different newspapers and take offense when one side tries to tell the other how they should live. The difference in mentality between Russians and, say, English-speaking peoples can even be seen in a comparative analysis of the languages. In English, active forms usually take precedence over passive ones; the actions of a person are judged, not the person himself. In Russian the reverse is true. For Russians, strong emotions are preferred to cold rationalization, collectivism to individualism; there is no Protestant ethic here, no tendency always to follow the letter of the law. This is not necessarily such a bad thing as it may seem at first sight. It is simply the result of adapting to different living conditions, particularly geographical and historical ones. Real market reforms in Russia were hampered by the old Soviet nomenklatura, and those Russian professionals who wanted to live and work in the new way hoped that the West would sort out what was going on and help them to deal with the situation (and with the rising crime rate, which was being fed by the ever growing number of those on the margins of society).

But the West did not want to sort anything out–or perhaps simply was not able to. They mainly listened to people who looked respectable and made nice speeches in good English, and it was these people they gave the money to. The result was that all ended in corruption and economic collapse. The shattered illusions and hopes led to a rejection of the Western way of life and Western thought. (Similarly, when the argument was raging in 19th century Russia between Westernizers and Slavophiles, the ranks of the former were mainly filled by people who knew little of the realities of life abroad, and the latter were made up of those who were disillusioned by those realities.) The more hopes and illusions there were to start with, the stronger the reaction–and the hopes and illusions were many. Up to the last minute, Russians believed that NATO would not be able to use force in Europe without incurring UN sanctions. The bombing of Yugoslavia and the preceding scandal surrounding the failed impeachment of President Clinton (which Russians consider to be connected events) represent, in Russia’s eyes, the moral decline of the West. The Russian media claim that the true background to the action “to avert a humanitarian disaster in Kosovo” is ignoble and, moreover, governed mainly by the interests of the United States. These being:

1. Following the Cold War and the collapse of the Warsaw Pact, the question arose as to whether the North Atlantic block was needed at all. NATO is in need of funding which could be given for a new doctrine which is no longer purely defensive. This doctrine is now being “test-driven.”

2. Kosovo is on the crossroads of certain short transport routes where there is also a lot of copper, nickel and other cheap minerals which even the United States would find it profitable to develop.

3. The American economy has been growing for too long now and the stock market is overheating; a constant inflow of capital and a strong dollar are required. The conflict in Europe makes it less attractive for investors in comparison with the United States and curbs the growth of the euro.

4. A new presidential campaign is not far off in the United States. After the sex scandal, an election victory would be very helpful for the Democrats.

The above explanations seem highly plausible to the Russians. People here remember how the West turned a blind eye to Mikhail Gorbachev’s actions in Baku, Tbilisi and Vilnius, and to Yeltsin’s restoring “constitutional order” in Chechnya, where the casualties numbered hundreds of thousands. The double standards of morals and behavior, the egoism and hypocrisy which many people have come up against in their dealings with Westerners appear particularly cynical in this case, given that we are dealing here with human lives. The propaganda lie–quickly spotted by many Russians who know a thing or two about military technology–also grates. The inferiority complex is beginning to give way to a moral superiority complex. If we add to this the feeling of outrage that the 15 percent of the earth’s population from NATO countries did not take into account the opinion of the other 85 percent, then we have a very dangerous precedent which could eventually lead the impoverished population of Russia to justify lawlessness of its own.

Furthermore, the Kosovo crisis–just like the unsuccessful Russian reforms–suggests to Russians that Western and particularly American analysts are intellectually bankrupt. Even those in Russia who openly attack Milosevic understand that he cannot be taken by brute force alone. On the contrary–the more force is used, the worse the result will be. For the Serbs, Kosovo is a historical shrine, associated with their struggle for independence. As a small nation, they are particularly sensitive to that sort of thing and will probably allow themselves to be annihilated rather than succumb to force. Milosevic’s position in his own country–like that of Saddam Hussein in Iraq–is only bolstered by every new aerial attack from NATO. And if NATO were to undertake a ground invasion–remembering the Yugoslav resistance fighters in the Second World War–the Americans would have another Vietnam on their hands.

In Russia, the election campaign has in essence already started. Communists, patriots and nationalists of all shades now have a huge range of arguments in their favor. They can (and will) say to the electorate: “You were told that under the communist system you lived badly and were lied to. But under the democratic system you live no better and you are still lied to. With democracy you have double standards, lying self-indulgent politicians and American bombs over your heads if you don’t behave how the West wants. But we say that we have to be strong if we want to free and defend ourselves and our children from aggression. Russians are more intelligent and more honest, which is why they are poor. We must restore justice. We need a state with a “strong hand” and a powerful economy capable of mobilizing everything to repulse the enemy. Then we will be feared again–which means we will be respected.”

Do the democrats have anything weighty with which to counter these words? More IMF credits? But the country is already up to its eyes in debt. The Russian people are afraid of war and do not yet want a return to isolation and opposition. But they are getting poorer and poorer. There are already nine million unemployed in the country; for many of these even a war in Yugoslavia is a way out. We have our “hawks” here, in the military included. Speeches are already being made calling for Russia’s withdrawal from the treaty banning first use of nuclear weapons, and saying that if it is in danger Russia may use them for its own defense. Nationalist feeling is running high, and the specter not so much of Stalinism but of Germany in 1933 is becoming more and more detectable. If the United States and other members of NATO want to avoid plunging the world into disaster, then they should find in themselves the moral courage to admit their mistake and amend the situation honorably before it is too late. Otherwise they will bear responsibility for everything that happens–in Russia too.

Tatyana Matsuk is senior researcher at the Institute for Employment Studies, Russian Academy of Sciences.