The View From the Kremlin: Russia as Eternal Superpower

Five years ago the Soviet Union disappeared. The empire that Russia had been expanding and fortifying for three centuries fell in upon itself.

Suddenly, Russians found their horizons had shrunk. On maps, Russia's borders were dramatically redrawn, sometimes several thousand miles closer to Moscow.

But in people's minds, the shock was even greater. One of the world's two most powerful nations, and its last great empire, found itself a pauper begging for alms, when once it had dictated terms.

Five years later, Russia is still in search of its identity, uncertain of its role in the world as the next century draws near.

How is this still vast country coping? Is the old bear of legend sulking in its cave, licking its wounds, feeding on resentment, and preparing to lash out again?

Or does the upcoming millennium herald the birth of a genuinely new Russia, at peace with its neighbors and living as part of the global community instead of keeping it at bay?

Peter Ford traveled the length and breadth of the former Soviet Union to find answers to these questions. In a four-part series beginning today, he tells what he found.

Top the towers that stalk the Kremlin walls, five scarlet stars still shine.

Confusion in the streets below during these last chaotic years has upturned most of Russian life. Nothing, though, has dimmed these beacon symbols of the former superpower, the Soviet Union.

If Boris Yeltsin had his way, the stars would have been torn down. But in their place, the Russian president would have perched emblems of equal grandiosity: imperial double-headed eagles.

Russia may have lost its empire. When the Kremlin speaks, the world may no longer hold its breath to listen. But in the minds of the country's rulers, Russia's post-Communist travails are but a historical hiccup.

"I have always maintained that Russia should remain a strong power in any age," Mr. Yeltsin wrote in the preface to his latest book, "The Struggle for Russia." "The status of a great power was handed down to us as a legacy, not only as the foundation of our consciousness and our culture, but as the code of Russia's very state structure."

That status is looking shaky at the moment, to say the least. Russia's once-feared military, a heavily armed behemoth, crawled out of the breakaway republic of Chechnya last year after being humiliated by a ragtag collection of part-time guerrillas. The country earns most of its money like a third-world nation, cashing in on its oil, gas, and other natural resources, and Moscow lost its diplomatic client states around the world when it lost the cold war.

The country's banking and finance sectors are still in the robber-baron age, its computer and other high-tech industries are hardly visible, and the standard of living of many Russians has declined dramatically.

Neither government officials nor opposition leaders, however, are prepared to let these weaknesses cloud their vision of a greater future. And for liberals and conservatives alike, that future lies at the heart, and at the head, of the countries that surround it, that once made up the Russian empire and later the Soviet Union.

"Of course, when Russia gets to its feet, heals its wounds, when its economy is expanding, it will look beyond its borders," predicts Leonid Fituni, head of the liberal Center for Strategic and Global Studies think tank in Moscow. "If Russia is strong, there will inevitably be a process of expansion - first economic, and then political."

Nationalist politicians expect the country's smaller neighbors to come running back to hide behind Mother Russia's skirts when they tire of the hardships of building their economies on their own.

"I am absolutely sure" that Russia will win back her superpower status in the next few years, proclaims Aman Tuleyev, the minister responsible for relations with members of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) - the organization grouping most of the former Soviet republics.

"That festival of sovereignties," as Mr. Tuleyev describes the republics' declarations of independence, "is already behind us. More and more people are coming to realize that it was a terrible mistake and only made their lives worse." Though Tuleyev, a Communist, says he envisions "some European-style relations" among CIS members, "the most essential thing is the centuries-old links that have developed. The Commonwealth has to be led by its leader, Russia."

Enjoying their independence

More moderate voices - for example those of Russia's professional diplomats - phrase such questions in a more circumspect manner. "Our slogan is 'restore our economic relations' with former Soviet republics," explains Igor Savolsky, head of the Ukraine, Moldova, and Belarus desk at the Foreign Ministry. "We are ready for relations as close as they are ready for," he adds. "Sometimes they say we impose things on them, but that isn't so; it would be counterproductive."

That doesn't wash in former regional capitals such as Tbilisi, Georgia, where people are sensitive about Moscow's behavior. "In Russia they just haven't come to terms with the fact that Georgian-Russian relations are ties between two equal states, and not between a center and its provinces," said Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze during a recent spat with Moscow over Russian military bases.

Even Alexander Lukashenko, the president of Belarus and the CIS leader keenest on closer ties with Moscow, backed off when he saw the terms Russia was offering for a union. Responding to Mr. Lukashenko's pleas for tighter links, the Kremlin proposed that Belarus should simply become another Russian region, subsumed into the Russian Federation.

A 'benign' empire?

At the heart of Russia's attitude toward its former colonies is the widely and deeply held view that its empire was a benign influence welcomed by peoples in the Caucasus, Central Asia, and Eastern Europe.

Certainly, the Russian empire, which had reached its apogee just before World War I, differed greatly from the economically rapacious British or French empires. Few of the Imperial Army's conquests brought many spoils; rather, they met Moscow's military and strategic needs.

After the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917, all the republics except those on the Baltic enjoyed subsidies from Moscow, in a reversal of normal European imperial patterns.

At stake today in the southern hinterlands of Russia's old empire are fabulous oil and gas reserves in Kazakstan, Turkmenistan, and Azerbaijan, over which Russian and Western companies are doing fierce battle.

But as Russian planners look into the future, it is not the natural resources in neighboring countries they covet so much as the potential customers. "The 21st century is Russia's and the CIS's as far as the market goes," Tuleyev enthuses.

"And right now there is a struggle going on for that market. The West has not been asleep during the last five years," he adds. "They've been doing their best to seize these markets and to prevent integration" between Russia and other CIS countries.

Weak ... but influential

Russia is not well placed to compete yet. Its industry has been severely dislocated by the collapse of the Soviet Union and the demise of the command economy. Finished goods are flooding into the CIS from the Far East, Europe, and Turkey - not from Russian manufacturers.

But in many places, Moscow still enjoys the special influence that only a troop presence can provide.

The last Soviet soldiers came home from the Baltics in 1994 and from Eastern Europe a year later. But Russian soldiers are still stationed, for one reason or another, in 10 of Russia's 11 CIS partner countries. Border guards in Turkmenistan, Black Sea fleet sailors in Ukraine, missile operators in Belarus, peacekeepers in Armenia - all are useful levers in Moscow's efforts to pull her former colonies into a warmer embrace.

"We are ... aware of attempts to impede military and political integration within the CIS" by Western governments, Deputy Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov warned recently. "Influential political forces in some Western countries have not renounced their attempts to reduce Russia's role in the world to that of a regional power."

It is that fear - of being treated like a mere regional player on the world stage - that lies behind much of Russia's opposition to the eastward expansion of NATO to incorporate former Soviet satellite states such as Poland and Hungary. The alleged threat to Russian security that this expansion poses is only one aspect of the problem; another is the blow to Russian pride, the blunt reminder of Moscow's shrunken influence.

The fierce campaign that Russia has waged against NATO expansion, however, is a good example of how its diplomats are playing a weak hand as best they can. "It is a fact that we cannot send our tanks anywhere any more," acknowledges Russian Foreign Minister Yevgeny Primakov. "But that fact does not mean that we are just going to sit back and watch."

Instead, Moscow has protested noisily and often, resorting to vague threats of "appropriate response," and has already won significant concessions from NATO. No longer a superpower strong enough to block Western ambitions, Russia is still enough of a heavyweight to temper them.

Even so, Yeltsin could not resist exaggerating Russia's influence when he explained to the Russian people the terms of this month's NATO-Russia Founding Act on relations with NATO.

Yeltsin presented the agreement as a victory for Moscow that meant NATO would have to receive the Kremlin's approval for its future policy, wildly overstating the extent of Russia's sway over international affairs. But his words accurately reflected the wishful thinking that permeates policymaking circles, and the country's dormant ambitions.

But when and how Russia will be ready to pursue its own dormant ambitions will clearly depend on when and how it gathers the needed economic muscle. If the country remains in the doldrums, worries political analyst Fituni, "the greater will be the temptation to try and regather lost territory by force, to compensate for the lack of economic progress."

In a more peaceful scenario, he suggests, a prosperous Russia would act as a magnet for nearby economies and act as a leader merely by virtue of its size. "Then," he argues, "it would simply be a question of labels: Would you call that an empire, or would you call it our version of NAFTA?"

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