Sunday, April 23, 2006

Untimely Thoughts: US-Russia and Conflicting Perceptions

Untimely Thoughts: US-Russia and conflicting perceptions

Interesting discussion on Untimely Thoughts regarding US-Russian relations and the conflict of perceptions. This week is the first of two parts, starting with Russian perceptions this week, and US perceptions next week. The panel this week consists of Patrick Armstrong (Canadian Government analyst), Sergei Roy (editor of, Dale Herspring (Political Science professor, Kansas State University), Gordon Hahn (Senior Researcher, Center for Terrorism and Intelligence Studies), Ira Straus (US coordinator of the Committee on Eastern Europe and Russia in NATO), and Dmitry Babich (staff writer, Russia Profile). Starting with Patrick Armstrong:
15 years ago, Russians had hopeful, if unrealistic, expectations from the USA and its Western partners. Much of that hopefulness has been replaced with suspicion and, in some circles, with actual mistrust of the West and the USA. There are objective reasons for this change. Russian opinion polls have consistently shown a population divided on many things but united in two: opposition to NATO expansion and to privatization as it was carried out. These two can easily be woven into a conspiracy theory.

In the 1990s Westerners were shipped over to advise the Russians on how to effect the changes. US assistance was channeled through the Harvard Institute for International Development. Janine Wedel was the first to show, in 1998, in her book Collision and Collusion, the failures on the ground. The US actors selected a particular group of Russians, immediately named "reformers" - everyone else by implication being wooden-headed opponents of "reform" – who pushed their prescriptions through by presidential decree. In short, the principal beneficiaries of this policy were the oligarchs whom it created. When the long lawsuit against HIID rumbled to an end last year, she was shown to have been correct. Russians are not so stupid that they didn't notice this and for many Russians, therefore, democracy has become associated with insiders ripping off the people and enriching themselves, while cheered on by Western observers. This association has, to put it mildly, tarnished the image of one of the West's most important foundations; while polls show that Russians like freedom, democracy is now a tainted word. Old people saw NATO expansion as the extension of a military alliance up to Russia's borders; young people saw it as a door slammed in their faces. But NATO expanded anyway. Then the fears of the fearful appeared to be confirmed when NATO had its adventure in Kosovo - this indeed seemed to be muscle flexing by a confident military alliance that didn't care about anyone else.

To these two policies, we add the Russian predilection for searching out conspiracies. Driven by convictions that hidden plots underlie every surface event, they "connect the dots". One can easily imagine some Chekist warning Yeltsin in, say 1995: these people aren't our friends, although they pretend to be; they want to weaken Russia and break it up; their advice is designed to loot the country; their democracy is just a cover word; they will expand their military alliance until we are surrounded; they will promise to invest and trade, but they won't; they will say nice things to gull us. In 1995 this could be dismissed, but ten years later, consider what these people would now be telling Putin (who is perhaps more inclined to listen, given his background): Russia is weak; external forces do want to break it up (Berezovsky supports Basayev, Berezovsky has asylum in the UK; Brzezinski is high up in the American Committee for Peace in the Caucasus - see, it all fits!); it has been looted; NATO has expanded everywhere; there still is little trade and investment. Connect the dots... we told you this would happen.

And so it goes. Suspicious Russians can now point to quite a few dots. And, for dot connectors, the connections are the only truth - they can never accept any such explanation as human stupidity or the bad execution of well-meaning plans.
The rest of the discussion is also worthwhile and interesting, other points are raised, and it all touches upon topics that were also discussed here earlier this week. I recommend the discussion for anyone interested in the current perceptions and state of US and Russian relations.


RC Administrator said...

I hope that you are aware that Untimely Thoughts is run by an american who came to Russia as a nobody and eventually settled down to write predictable Pro-Putin news and blogs. Apparently that gets you a lot of money.

Some people are more easy going about their principles I guess.

W. Shedd said...

Yep, I had read through his biography and studies. I read his page and find some of the topics interesting - but I take him and practically every news or opinion source regarding Russia with a grain of salt. It is one of the things I've definitely learned as part of my routine with this blog - I'll google the names of reporters and try to get a feel for the tone of what they write and look for red flags. Even though I read Untimely Thoughts every week, this is the first time that I believe I have referred to anything that they posted there. He has Sergei Roy as a regular commentator who sometimes comes across as an old-line communist propaganda artist.