The Lingering Dream of Empire

Monday, October 30, 2000


he debate over the likely course of Russia’s development under the presidency of Vladimir Putin has paid surprisingly little attention to Putin’s goal of reintegrating Russia with other former Soviet republics. As prime minister, Putin strongly supported the treaty, signed by Boris Yeltsin and Belarusan president Alyaksander Lukashenko on December 8, 1999, that created a new union state composed of Russia and Belarus. With Putin now at the helm, the integration of Russia and Belarus has been placed on a fast track. One likely result is that Belarus will lose its de facto political independence. “Is this the creation,” President Nursultan Nazarbaev of Kazakhstan wondered aloud, “of a union state under which the provinces of Belarus will become subjects of the Russian Federation?” It appears that this is indeed what the Putin regime intends.

In December 1999, Putin presented the new treaty to Russia’s upper chamber, the Federation Council, for approval. When one of the senators asked Putin if “a third state should join our union next year,” he replied with some emotion: “In our post-Soviet space we are cemented by the common past but also by the common present. Because many people are simply relatives of each other, millions and tens of millions of people, our quest for integration will be accompanied by the strengthening of the Russian Federation. Then they will come to us themselves. This is obvious.” Putin’s comments seemed to be addressed to such newly independent states as Ukraine, Kazakhstan, Moldova, Estonia, and Latvia, with their large ethnic Russian and “Russian-speaking” populations.

The president of Belarus calls the breakup of the Soviet Union “the greatest mistake of the past century.”

At the opening session of the union state’s Supreme State Council, held in January, Pavel Borodin—who had served for the previous seven years as Kremlin property manager, administering a vast financial empire estimated at $600 billion—was confirmed as state secretary and first deputy prime minister of the Russia-Belarus Union. (Incidentally, Borodin brought Putin to Moscow from St. Petersburg in 1996 to assist him in administering the Kremlin’s vast financial empire. It should be noted that Swiss authorities have issued an arrest warrant for Borodin on charges of money laundering.)

A vigorous man of action, Borodin has been charged with hammering together the administrative scaffolding and pouring the economic foundations of the new Russia-Belarus Union. As Borodin has emphasized, the new union is very much a work in progress. “We have not yet come up with a name for the union,” he notes. “We haven’t yet thought up a state emblem, and we haven’t thought up a state anthem. All of this is only now being created.”

Of one thing Borodin appears to be certain: the new union state will shortly ingest other former USSR union republics. While visiting Minsk with President-elect Putin in April, Borodin confidently predicted that “Ukraine, Armenia, and Kazakhstan will join the Russia-Belarus Union in the next three to four years.” In January, Borodin expressed the regime’s intentions bluntly: “The various states that emerged in the former Soviet space are fated to live together. As Europe integrates, we shall integrate as well and live together in a tight union, not a Soviet Union, but a union all the same.” The “disintegration of post-Soviet space,” Borodin contends, served as a “brake” on the economies of the former union republics, but once they are successfully reintegrated with Russia, their economies will prosper. For this reason, Borodin noted, his favorite toast is “Let us have many states, but the country should be one!”

The volatile and authoritarian president of Belarus, Alyaksander Lukashenko, has emerged (next to Borodin) as the most vociferous cheerleader for the new union. In May, he called the breakup of the Soviet Union “the greatest mistake of the past century.” Lukashenko stresses that 90 percent of the populace of Russia and Belarus support the idea of the Union. Moreover, he contends, “90 percent (plus or minus 3 or 4 percent)” of the populace of all the former union republics also approve the idea of a union state. “If there is a referendum—that would be a formality—the people will support us. I think that we have a very large carte blanche from the people.”

Russia’s military operations in Chechnya are costing it $88 million a month—as much as the Russian state pays for education and twice as much as it pays for health care.

Gennady Seleznev, speaker of the Russian State Duma and a strong backer of the union state project, emphasizes that the union is “open for all wishing to join it,” adding that, “as for Yugoslavia, we are satisfied that this fraternal Slavic country is confidently advancing toward unity with Russia and Belarus.” The Yugoslav parliament voted in April 1999 to apply to join the Russia-Belarus Union. Other Slav or Orthodox states situated in the Balkans—Romania, Bulgaria, Greece, Macedonia—would presumably also be welcome as members of the new union.

As Borodin has noted, a great deal has already been accomplished in creating the structures of the new Russia-Belarus Union. Its highest organ is the eight-member State Council, consisting of the two presidents, the two prime ministers, and the four speakers of parliament. The legislature of the new union will be located in Moscow.

A powerful union military force of 300,000 will defend Belarus. The Belarusan military will not (at this point) be melded with the Russian military, and it remains unclear whether Russian forces will be stationed in Belarus. However, Belarus has already reportedly been taken under the Russian nuclear umbrella.

The economies of the two states will be fused as rapidly as possible. Their customs and tax legislation are to be unified by the year 2001. The Russian ruble will serve as the new single currency. (According to the chairman of the Russian Central Bank, the changeover could happen before the end of this year.) The energy and transport systems are also to be unified.

Because Russia wants Belarus to serve as a showcase for other former union republics contemplating joining the union, it has been fairly cautious in tampering overtly with the symbols of Belarusan independence.

Integrating Unwilling Partners

Ukraine. As has been noted, Ukraine is one key state that Pavel Borodin expects to be integrated into the union state by early 2004, at the latest. The successful integration of this republic, with its population of more than 50 million people, would obviously constitute a major coup for the Putin regime. In early December 1999, however, Ukrainian president Leonid Kuchma stated categorically that Ukraine would not join the Russia-Belarus Union. The new union, he predicted, would in fact prove economically harmful for Russia itself.

The Putin regime apparently intends to bring insurmountable economic pressure to bear on Ukraine to integrate with Russia and Belarus. In May, the Russian Ministry for Fuel and Energy proposed that Russia take over the Ukrainian gas market and all Ukrainian gas pipelines in exchange for canceling Ukraine’s $1.41 billion gas debt. Russia’s partially state-owned Gazprom gas company charges Ukraine slightly higher rates than those it charges Western European customers and more than three times what it charges Belarus. Borodin has threatened Ukraine as well as the Baltic states with a project to export Russian oil and gas through Belarus rather than through their facilities. Belarus, he says “is a bridge between Europe and Asia. . . . If we build this bridge, then they will not steal oil and gas from us in Ukraine, and the Baltic will not fleece us. We will create such a country as will shake your imagination.” These policies led President Kuchma to accuse Moscow of conducting an energy blockade of his country.

Emphasizing the alleged suffering undergone by Russians and “Russian speakers” in Ukraine is another neoimperial tool used by the Putin regime. In February, the Ukrainian government declared Ukrainian to be the republic’s state language. The Russian Foreign Ministry responded quickly with vehement protest notes to Kiev, asserting, inaccurately, that Russian speakers make up a majority of Ukraine’s population. These harsh notes embodied a new line set by Putin himself at a meeting of Russia’s Cabinet of Ministers in which he called for steps “to create a favorable linguistic environment for our compatriots in the CIS [Commonwealth of Independent States] and Baltic states,” a step that he deemed an “exceptionally important matter for the Russian government.” Note that Putin considers all Russian speakers living in the CIS and the Baltic states, regardless of citizenship, to be “compatriots.” It should be borne in mind that Ukraine has a mere 36,000 Russian citizens, 29,000 of them sailors attached to the Black Sea Fleet. Between 22 and 23 percent of Ukraine’s citizens are self-identified ethnic Russians. Ukraine’s parliamentary ombudsman, Nina Karpachova, accused Russian officials of having “stepped outside the limits of their competence and interfered in Ukraine’s internal domestic affairs.”

Under Putin’s federation plan, ethnic Russians will once again attempt to impose their will on non-Russians.

Kazakhstan. In terms of territory, Kazakhstan is the largest of the former union republics after Russia itself. Its reintegration with Russia and Belarus would also represent an impressive coup for the Putin regime. Like Ukrainian president Kuchma, President Nazarbaev of Kazakhstan has made it clear that “his country does not intend to join any unions, including the Union of Russia and Belarus.” Yet, as in the case of Ukraine, Russia appears bent on using economic pressure plus the alleged persecution of Russians and Russian speakers as tools of integration.

Russia has insisted that Kazakhstan export its oil riches through Russia rather than through Azerbaijan, Georgia, and Turkey. It also wants Kazakhstan to join an energy union that would include Russia, Belarus, and Turkmenistan. Kazakhstan has already been pressured into joining a Customs Union consisting of Russia, Belarus, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan, and it has a formal “collective security” treaty arrangement with those same states, plus Armenia. Thus Kazakhstan already finds itself tightly bound to Russia and Belarus in the economic and security spheres.

Over the past year, separatist sentiments, nurtured by Russia, have begun to grow among Kazakhstan’s ethnic Russian community. In February, representatives of the Communist Party of Kazakhstan, the Union of Cossacks, and the “Lad” Movement (which claims to represent Kazakhstan’s Slavs) told journalists in Moscow that they wanted to hold a referendum “on whether the country [Kazakhstan] should accede to the Russia-Belarus Union.” The prosecutor general of Kazakhstan has declared proposals that Kazakhstan join the Russia-Belarus Union both illegal and unconstitutional.

Chechens are not the only minority under threat in Russia. With the exception of Ukrainians and Belarusans, all minorities in Russia appear to be in danger. A recent poll showed that 43 percent of Russians see “non-Russian nationalities in Russia” as threats.

Formal and informal attempts by the Russian government and others to foster separatist sentiments among Russians and Russian speakers in Kazakhstan and to demand that Russian be accorded the status of a state language will predictably continue.

Armenia and Latvia. In May, the head of the Armenian Communist Party, Vladimir Darpinian, warned President Robert Kocharian that his party would launch a nationwide campaign to remove him from office unless he “abandoned his opposition to Armenia’s accession to the Russia-Belarus Union.”

Complaints against imperial pressures from Moscow have been growing in a number of other former Soviet republics. At the end of April, to take but one example, Latvian president Vaira Vike-Freiberga warned that Russia “might use military force against Latvia and other Baltic states” and criticized recent Russian government attacks on Latvia’s citizenship and language laws, which, she noted, have been studied carefully and vetted by the European Union, the Council of Europe, and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.

Domestic Implications

Given the neoimperial and neocolonial sentiments present within Russia’s top political leadership, it is not surprising that the country’s own minorities have begun to fare poorly. Chechen civilians have, of course, been the target of a vicious war. The Putin regime appears to have emulated Slobodan Milosevic’s callous strategy toward the Kosovar Albanians. Russian military correspondent Pavel Felgenhauer reported on a conversation he had in March with a Duma deputy who had recently been to Chechnya on an official visit: “All Russian servicemen he met in Chechnya hate the Chechens. And many say: ‘If we are to win, we have to kill all Chechens, civilian or otherwise.’” Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov has noted that “antiterrorist operations” in Chechnya are costing the treasury $88 million a month—as much as the Russian state pays for education and twice as much as it pays for health care.

Not only Chechens but all minorities in Russia, with the exception of Ukrainians and Belarusans, appear to be in potential danger. A recent Russia-wide poll showed that 43 percent of respondents saw “non-Russian nationalities in Russia” as threats to Russian security. Anti-Muslim and anti-Semitic sentiments also run high.

There are also plans for various administrative restructurings that would prove harmful for Russian minorities. In May, Putin signed a decree ordering the creation of seven “federal districts” within Russia. These districts are to be run by governors-general appointed by Putin and are likely to become an instrument for taking control of finances, taxation, and police and security services in the 89 regions. For example, Chechnya will become a tiny component of the North Caucasus Federal District. A related plan, said to be favored by Putin, would prohibit presidents, governors, and heads of regional assemblies from sitting as members of the Federal Assembly and would deprive them of legal immunity.

The implications of the union state project for the development of democracy in Russia and in the Newly Independent States (NIS) are not encouraging. Campaigns of political destabilization and economic subversion that pit titular nationalities against Russians and Russian speakers will clearly be damaging to the prospects for democracy in the NIS. Moreover, Russia now finds itself closely aligned with the ultra-authoritarian Alyaksander Lukashenko of Belarus.

By downgrading the status of the autonomous republics within Russia—whose titular peoples are all non-Russian—the Putin regime will strike another blow at political democracy. Minority representation and minority protection lie at the heart of developed democracy. Russia’s Islamic populace, in particular, is likely to grow increasingly disaffected, and new Chechnyas, while unlikely, cannot be ruled out.

One reason that the Soviet Union broke apart was that its core nationality—ethnic Russians—made up only approximately half of the USSR’s population. The new imperial project sponsored by the Putin regime will once again witness ethnic Russians seeking to impose their will on non-Russians, but this time without the aid of a supranational legitimizing ideology like Marxism-Leninism. The de facto ideology of the Putin regime seems to be imperial Russian nationalism with elements of pan-Orthodox Slavism, an ideology that will hardly prove attractive to non-Slavs in the NIS.


Are the plans of Putin and others for a newly expanded Russian Federation likely to come to fruition? It seems clear that Russia is at present too weak to undertake such an ambitious and expensive project. In a March poll, 73 percent of Russians described their country’s current economic situation as “bad” or “very bad” (a mere 1 percent described it as “good” or “very good”). And in January, it was announced that the number of births in Russia had dropped 5 percent since 1999 and that immigration to Russia had plummeted by 29 percent. The population decline, the largest recorded in Russia since the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991, was ascribed to “worsening economic conditions, rising rates of alcoholism, and poor medical treatment.”

If the Putin regime were in fact concerned about the well-being of Russia’s constituent peoples, then it would look inward and seek to resuscitate a weak economy and an ill and demoralized populace. Expansionist adventures–with their high economic and human costs–are the last thing an impoverished and demographically declining Russia needs at the inception of a new century and new millennium.