Saturday, June 06, 2009

Foreign Policy Insight: Russia's Sphere of Coercion

Cathy Young writes in The Weekly Standard:

Until last month, I had never heard of the Economic Forum, a Polish-run venture whose annual conference in the resort town of Krynica has been described in the European press as the gathering place for the political elites of Central and Eastern Europe. Then in late May, I found myself in attendance (as a panelist, unpaid except for travel reimbursement) at one of the group's smaller meetings: the fifth annual Europe-Russia Forum, held in Romania's capital. I was not quite sure what to expect from the event, whose Russian participants were mostly of the official or semi-official kind. What I got was a fascinating glimpse into Russia's continuing struggle to define its post-Communist identity and its prickly relationship with its former satellites.

The conference venue added a touch of eerie symbolism. Bucharest is still haunted by the legacy of Nicolae Ceausescu, whose barbaric rule made Romania a hellhole even by the low standards of the Soviet bloc. The Europe-Russia Forum met in the building that is the most conspicuous legacy of his rule: the Palace of the Parliament, formerly the House of the People. Ceausescu had it built in his final years as both personal residence and seat of government, razing much of the city's historic district to make room for the gargantuan edifice. After his overthrow and execution, some wanted to dynamite it. Yet it still stands, a monument to megalomania and to the dark age from which this part of the world only recently emerged. Has a different kind of dark age descended on Russia? Most Russian speakers pooh-poohed the idea. At the opening session, Konstantin Simonov, president of the Russian Center for Current Politics--a think tank with strong Kremlin ties--introduced his report on Russia in 2008, which, he claimed, avoided the pitfalls of either a too-bleak or too-rosy picture.

His grounds for optimism included the fact that the war in Georgia had not led to a reimposition of the Iron Curtain or to wholesale militarization. (I was reminded of the old Soviet joke in which the pessimist says, "Things can't possibly get worse," while the optimist retorts, "Oh yes, they can!") In a deft balancing act, Simonov asserted that President Dmitry Medvedev was more "Western-oriented" than his predecessor (puppet master?) Vladimir Putin but also decried the "'good Medvedev, bad Putin' stereotype."

More here.


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