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Window on Eurasia — New Series: ‘Without Democracy, Russia Won’t Overcome Loss of Empire, but without Doing That, It won’t Be a Democracy,’ Khodarkovsky Says


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Paul Goble

            Staunton, April 25 – Losing an empire is never easy for any country, but those who have done so most effectively are democracies in which alternative futures can be discussed and the attitudes of the population will be taken into consideration in the elaboration of a post-imperial agenda, Michael Khodarkovsky says.

            A Russian historian who teaches at Loyola University in Chicago says that Russia’s tragedy is that it is not a democracy and cannot become one unless it comes to term with its loss of empire and that it cannot become a democracy unless it does precisely that (echo.msk.ru/blog/michael_khodarkovsky/2827598-echo/).

            That leaves Russia in a geopolitical “trap” from which there is no easy escape, Khodarkovsky continues.

            When France and Britain started to lose their empires, they resisted and many of their citizens continued to feel a certain nostalgia for empire for decades. “But neither the one nor the other tried to restore the empire by force or tried to reconquer Algeria or India,” the historian says.

            But Russia, “30 years after the disintegration of the USSR, still cannot come to terms with the disintegration of the Soviet empire or stop making attempts to restore it by force of arms.” None of the former imperial possessions want to return, and “you won’t change this by military threats or full-scale invasions.”

             Tragically, “President Putin remains a prisoner of Kissingerian realpolitik not having noticed that over the last half century, the world has fundamentally changed and that thinking in the categories of the 1970s means to condemn oneself to failure, Khodarkovsky suggests.

            Russia needs to dispense with its “illusions” about Russia’s greatness. Its economy is smaller than the US state of Texas and only a little larger than South Korea. It makes up only three percent of the world’s economy while the US forms 25 percent. And Russia’s population is only barely greater than that of Japan.

            “In other words,” he continues, “neither economically nor demographically is Russia capable of competing in the contemporary world” at the level of one of the three most important countries of the world alongside the US and China. Moscow should give up its pretentions and the geopolitical games it has been playing.

             Instead, it should define greatness “not by how much it frightens its neighbors and its dangerous games with weaponry but according to the well-being of its people and its country.” But that will require a change not just of the last 20 years but of centuries of Russian history, in which geopolitics always took precedent over economics.

            There is little chance that this is going to happen, Khodarkovsky says, “not only because geopolitics has become the ideology of the powers that be but also because the powers aren’t accustomed to taking alternative opinions into account.” Other former empires overcame their pasts because there were debates; Russia hasn’t had that and doesn’t appear to want it.

            In sum, the historian says, “without democracy, serious changes aren’t going to take place but without serious changes” including dispensing with imperial dreams, Russia “isn’t going to be a democracy,” a trap no one in the Kremlin is prepared to think about trying to escape.

 

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