‘Old-fashioned power politics’. That was Minister Verhagen’s verdict on Russia’s actions in South Ossetia. But in the opinion of Jaap de Wilde, Professor of International Relations and World Politics at the University of Groningen, Russia’s enhanced self-confidence is not a bad thing. De Wilde does not believe that Russia is aiming to found a new Soviet Empire. ‘It has defence problems more than anything else.’
In 1991, after the demise of the Soviet Union, there was great anxiety among the population that the country – traditionally a patchwork quilt of states and peoples – would disintegrate further. De Wilde: ‘Organized crime increased enormously and people feared that warlords and local rulers would take over. The border areas would become totally destabilized. People were afraid that a kind of super-Somalia would emerge.’ None of that actually happened, partly due to the Kremlin, which gradually gained control of the country after the fall of Communism. De Wilde takes a positive view of this development. ‘Disorder is the alternative. Without strong state governance, the country would become an even greater hotbed of terrorism and misery.’
However, strong state control also has its disadvantages, as De Wilde acknowledges. ‘There is a lot wrong with Russia. Corruption, little transparency, censorship, human rights violations, prisoners who have to live in atrocious conditions.’ But the West tends to apply a double standard when expressing criticism of Russia. ‘There has been much ado about President Medvedev, who came from Gazprom. However, it is exactly the same story in the US with Bush and his connections with the oil industry. But that is regarded as left-wing propaganda.’ De Wilde also thinks that Putin is unjustly described in the media as a despot and dictator, even now that he is no longer president. ‘It ought to be commended that Putin has stepped back and has become prime minister. Of course, healthy criticism of Russia is warranted, but one ought to see it in perspective.’
Nevertheless, De Wilde believes that it is possible to tackle the abuses in Russia from the outside. In this context, he has pinned his hopes on the Council of Europe and the OSCE (Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe), which can help install improvements at local level by means of democratization programmes and silent diplomacy. The European Union is a less appropriate candidate to improve the situation in Russia. ‘The European Union has the disadvantage that it is too deeply engaged in power politics.’ But ultimately, it is of the utmost importance to have patience. ‘It is an illusion to think that you can raise the human rights situation to a Western European level within ten years.’
Nineteenth-century power politics
In the meantime, tension is again rising between the US and Russia. The US wants to install a missile shield in Poland and the Czech Republic, and Russia has already held maritime exercises with battleships off the coast of Venezuela. ‘It is nineteenth-century sabre-rattling. They are goading one another. But, on the other hand, they do keep each other informed of what they are doing. If the US sends ships with relief supplies to Georgia, it first consults Russia on the matter. In the nineteenth century, the uncertainty was much greater and there was more miscommunication.’
No new Soviet Empire
De Wilde believes that Russia will play a more assertive role in the future. ‘It will continue its power politics. The country is a world power, bordering on many regions: the Caucasus, Asia, the Middle East, the North Pole. If conflicts arise in these regions, it will become involved. But I do not think that it has the objective of forming a new Soviet Empire. It has defence problems more than anything else.’ A huge problem in Russia itself is the gap between the city and the countryside. ‘Moscow and St Petersburg are comparable to Western cities, but if you go to rural areas it is as if you have travelled back in time. This contrast may lead to large groups of discontented citizens who fear that they will be subordinated to other interests. There is much mobilizable restlessness that could lead to civil war and terrorism.’
Jaap de Wilde is Professor of International Relations and World Politics at the University of Groningen. From 2001 to 2007 he was Professor of European Security Studies at VU University Amsterdam, and from 1995 to 2007 he was affiliated to the University of Twente as a senior research fellow at the Centre for European Studies. From 1993 to 1995 he worked at the Copenhagen Peace Research Institute (COPRI).
Prof. J.H. de Wilde.
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