About Peter Rutland

I a Professor of Government at Wesleyan University in Middletown, Connecticut. My main research interest is Russia and the former Soviet Union, but I teach a course on nationalism around the world. This blog is connected to the course I teach. It includes links to new articles on recent developments where nationalism is shaping political events.

Private nationalism

Nationalism Beyond the Parades

A traveling exhibition explores the personal dimension of a phenomenon usually associated with the public square.

By Peter Rutland, Transitions Online, 4 August 2014

Nationalism is back in the news, from Crimea to Scotland. Judging by an unusual and important exhibition that is travelling around Central Europe, artists might have more insights into the dynamics of nationalist belonging than politicians and journalists.

Some artists are engaged in the production of works that bolster national identity – the most striking recent example being Danny Boyle’s orchestration of the opening ceremony for the London Olympics. But most contemporary artists, to the extent that they address nationalism at all, tend to subject it to ridicule and contempt.

The Battle of Inner Truth presents miniaturized versions of statues to be found in Hungarian museums. Photo by the Galerie fuer Zeitgenoessische Kunst in Leipzig.

A new exhibition, “Private Nationalism,” takes a different approach. Rather than celebrating or denigrating nationalism, the curators invited artists from the region to reflect on how nationalism manifests itself in the fabric of personal everyday life. The exhibits cover the gamut of nationalist expression: anthems, names, monuments, parades, etc. The tone is ironic and sardonic, while still recognizing the emotional force of nationalist appeals.

The exhibition began earlier this year in Prague and Kosice, Slovakia, before moving to Pecs, Hungary, where it ended 15 June. The centerpiece in Pecs was Battle of Inner Truth by the Little Warsaw artist group (Balint Havas and Andras Galik): a floor display of several dozen miniature statuettes and figurines of monuments from across Hungary, ranging from socialist workers to medieval knights. It is disconcerting to see monuments in shrunken form, and set alongside one another – since usually they are seen in splendid isolation.

Continuing the monumental theme, Martin Piacek presented a dozen models for works commemorating The Biggest Embarrassments of Slovak History, ranging from the car bomb that killed a police whistleblower in 1996 to Czechoslovak President Edvard Benes signing the decrees expelling the Sudeten Germans in 1945. As an exercise in national humility, each country’s history museum should have such an exhibit.

Kristina Norman’s video Monolith is a gripping account of the debate over the Soviet war memorial in central Tallinn, eventually removed in 2007 at the insistence of Estonian nationalists. She uses Stanley Kubrick’s 2001 – A Space Odyssey as a humorous framing device, with the bronze soldier zooming in from outer space. The film shows the powerful feelings displayed by the two sides: for local Russians Alyosha was a reminder of the victory over fascism, while Estonian nationalists saw it as symbol of occupation. Norman reminds us that a monument can have multiple meanings and that nationalism unleashes turbulent emotions, hard to reconcile between opposing sides.

At the opposite end of the spectrum from monumental art, Alban Muja’s striking My Name, Their City consists of photos of young Kosovans holding pictures of the cities after which they were named. It was apparently not uncommon in Kosovo in the 1970s and 1980s for parents to name their children after cities in the Albanian motherland from which they were separated. (There are also a dozen Kosovan boys with the first name “Tonybler,” in recognition of the British Prime Minister’s role in their liberation.)

Other videos on display include a piece by Dan Perjovschi, showing the artist having the word “ROMANIA” tattooed on his arm, and then removing it 10 years later; and a witty film from Andras Csefalvay (Slovakia), in which a digitized talking dinosaur strolls through Budapest explaining the Darwinian perspective on nationalism.

The World Cup, of course, reminds us that soccer and nationalism are intimately connected. Janos Borsos and Lilla Lorinc use soccer as a metaphor for civil war. A video shows the two artists wearing an identical mask (a composite of their two faces) and facing off in a soccer game. In front of the video, several wooden carvings of a soccer pitch show various distortions to the “level playing field” – a mountainous terrain, a chasm between the two halves, and a pitch where one side’s half was bigger than the other. In a simple but direct way it reminds the viewer that civil wars are about two sides claiming the same identity – and that despite that symmetry, the actual strengths of the two sides are invariably lopsided. The work adds a new dimension to understanding recent developments in eastern Ukraine.

Most of the works avoid politics per se. One exception is the piece by Szabolcs Kisspal in which he posts the replies he received from Hungarian radio stations when he asked them to play the Jewish anthem Hatikvah on 20 April 2014 – the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Bergen Belsen. He proposed using the recording of the camp inmates singing that was made by a BBC correspondent at the time. Only one of the stations complied, the others gave various spurious grounds for declining, such as the “poor quality” of the recording.

There was some controversy around the exhibition in Kosice because Slovak artist Dalibor Baca placed a flag of the former Czechoslovakia (and current Czech Republic) on the floor, for people to walk on. In the “velvet divorce” back in 1992 the Czechs had promised the Slovaks they would not use the old flag for their new republic but did so anyway.

From Pecs the show has moved on to Dresden (18 July to 1 September), and then it heads to Krakow, Berlin, and Debrecen, Hungary. The core consists of eight institutions from six countries, drawing upon 60 artists from 17 nations. Most of the pieces in Pecs were by Slovak and Hungarian artists: project leader Rita Vargas said it was difficult to recruit Czech and Polish artists, with the Czechs arguing the topic was passé. The Pecs exhibition also included pieces on the divided communities in Cyprus and Israel – a nod, perhaps, to the fact that Pecs, the “Gateway to the Balkans,” was under Ottoman rule from 1543 to 1686.

Hungary is a logical place to ponder the resurgence of nationalism. Since 2010 the government of Prime Minister Viktor Orban has been centralizing power in a manner that has alarmed Hungary’s European Union partners. Orban has also embarked on an energetic campaign of nationalist rebranding: renaming streets, re-installing old monuments from the Hapsburg Empire, and introducing new school textbooks that celebrate the writers and achievements of interwar Hungary.

A new monument is being erected on Freedom Square in downtown Budapest to mark the occupation of Hungary by German forces in March 1944. The site is often ringed by protesters, who complain that the structure is intended to erase memories of the complicity of the Hungarian regime in the Nazi war effort up until 1944.

As Edit Andras explains in a catalog essay, nationalism is usually seen as a quintessentially public, collective act. Scholars have been slow to explore how it is reflected in private life, the pioneering work being Michael Billig’s Banal Nationalism (1995). Alongside the familiar high politics of nationalist symbolism, the exhibits in “Private Nationalism” remind us that nationalism is a part of the daily life of ordinary people and a component of the complex and shifting character of individual identity in today’s mobile, transnational world.

Peter Rutland is a professor of government at Wesleyan University and editor in chief of Nationalities Papers.

Putin, the First World War and Russian identity

By Glorifying WWI, Putin Ignores Its Tragedy

Yuri Kochetkov / Reuters

On Friday, Aug. 1, President Vladimir Putin took time off from making history, to reflect on history.

At a ceremony marking, to the day, the centenary of Germany’s declaration of war on Russia, Putin spoke at the opening of a new World War I monument. In his statements, Putin appeared to be more and more explicitly embracing a deeply historical view of Russia’s statehood — or what his critics would call an imperialist mindset.

Even the tone of the speech reflected this historical, almost imperialist outlook. Instead of the more inclusive “Rossiisky” adjective, which pertains to the Russian state with its multiethnic population, Putin made more frequent use of the more Slavic “Russky” to refer to the military glories of World War I.

But what stood out the most was Putin’s explanation of Russia’s part in World War I. Putin complained that in Soviet times World War I “had been written out of history as an imperialist war.” Far from being an imperialist war, he argued, Russia had acted justly to “defend its Slavic brothers” and fulfill its commitments to its allies. This eerily echoes Putin’s own justifications for annexing Crimea.

He even argued that Russia was on the verge of winning, thanks to the 1916 Brusilov Offensive, but “victory was stolen from the country by those who sowed dissension within Russia, who longed for power, and who betrayed the national interest.” Putin, of course, was referring to the Bolsheviks, though by failing to mention them by name he was in effect turning the tables and writing them out of history.

From remarks earlier this year, it is clear that Putin also blames the Bolsheviks for splitting up Russia’s empire. On April 16, during a televised phone-in, he condemned the Bolsheviks for giving Russian territory to Ukraine. He said “Kharkiv, Luhansk, Donetsk and Odessa were not part of Ukraine in tsarist times; they were transferred in 1920. Why? God only knows.”

But the issue of commemorating World War I had been on Putin’s mind long before the current crisis in Ukraine. In a Federation Council meeting on June 2012, Putin complained that “it was called an imperialist war in Soviet times.” He added that “there is no difference between the first and second world wars” because in both cases “people gave their lives for their country and should not be forgotten.”

He suggested that Soviet leaders deliberately chose to ignore the war because they had capitulated to the Germans in 1918, an act that he called “national betrayal.” Putin’s anti-Bolshevik analysis, of course, drew a strong protest from Communist Party leader Gennady Zyuganov, who still defends the Leninist legacy.

In his December 2012 state-of-the-nation address, Putin came back to the theme, lamenting that there was not a single World War I memorial in the country and arguing that it is important “to remember that Russia did not start in 1917 or even 1991.” The State Duma responded by promptly declaring Aug. 1 a day to commemorate the heroes of World War I and authorizing the construction of a monument, to be paid for mainly by voluntary donations.

In 2005, Putin famously referred to the Soviet collapse as “the greatest catastrophe of the 20th century.” But it seems that he considers the collapse of the tsarist empire to have been equally catastrophic.

By his actions in Ukraine, and by his words over the past several years, it is clear that Putin is motivated not just by a desire to stay in power but also by a desire to fulfill his historic duties as a leader of the Russian state. This is, to put it mildly, strikingly different from the way that World War I is being remembered in the rest of Europe, where it is portrayed as a tragedy testifying to the futility of war.

Peter Rutland is a professor of government at Wesleyan University in Middletown, Connecticut.



Turmoil in Abkhazia

Abkhazia’s Crisis Not Over Yet
Moscow Times, Jun. 09 2014

Denis Sinyakov / Reuters

Last week saw the toppling of the president of Abkhazia in mass protests reminiscent of those in Kiev’s Maidan Square. But while the new government may resolve some tensions, the breakaway republic’s ambiguous relationship to Russia may lead to yet more problems in the future.

Abkhazia, a province with about 240,000 inhabitants, broke away from Georgia with help from Russia after emerging victorious from a brutal war from 1992 to 1993. In the wake of the August 2008 war over South Ossetia, Moscow formally recognized Abkhaz sovereignty but only Nicaragua, Venezuela, Vanuatu and Nauru followed suit. Abkhazia remains an isolated enclave dependent on Russia for contact with the outside world — and for subsidies that amount to 70 percent of its budget.

On May 27 demonstrators, variously estimated at 1,000 to 10,000 strong, stormed the presidential administration building in Sukhumi, forcing President Alexander Ankvab to flee to a nearby Russian military base. Russian presidential aide Vladislav Surkov flew in the next day for negotiations with the two sides. The parliament, which previously had supported Ankvab, then declared that he was unable to fulfill his duties and appointed its speaker Valery Bganba as interim president on May 31.

Ankvab had been elected in a more or less free election in 2011, but had grown increasingly unpopular due to corruption, unemployment and his tendency to micromanage Abkhaz affairs. The target of six failed assassination attempts, he had also reportedly angered criminal elements who still loom large in Abkhaz society. Ankvab was also criticized by opposition leader Raul Khajimba for giving passports to ethnic Georgian, mainly Mingrelian, residents in the southern Gali district, in part because of the fear that the votes of those 50,000 Georgians could sway the results of future elections.

Conspiracy theories abound, though, and the role of Moscow in these developments remains unclear. In an interview with Dozhd television on June 2, former vice speaker of the Abkhaz parliament Irina Argba blamed Russia for instigating the protests and failing to support President Ankvab.

However, no matter Abkhazia’s current fate or Moscow’s possible role in the protests that pushed out Ankvab, long term anxiety exists over Russia’s ambiguous relationship with Abkhazia. Professor Kornely Kakachia of Tbilisi State University suggests that some Abkhaz fear that Moscow might follow up on its seizure of Crimea by annexing Abkhazia. There is also the perennial worry that at some point in the future improved relations between Russia and Georgia, a larger and more significant potential ally, might cause Moscow to abandon Abkhazia.

As a way to guarantee its independent status, Abkhazia has asked to join the new Eurasian Economic Union treaty between Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan which was signed in Astana on May 29. This is unlikely to happen, though, since neither Belarus nor Kazakhstan has recognized the sovereignty of Abkhazia, nor that of Russian-allied breakaway republics South Ossetia, Karabakh or the self-proclaimed Transdnestr republic.

Russian tourists are the backbone of Abkhazia’s anemic economy, with roughly 1 million visitors per year, and oil company Rosneft is exploring for oil and gas under the Black Sea off the Abkhaz coast. The Russian government has been investing heavily in developing the transport infrastructure of South Ossetia and Abkhazia since 2010, as explained by Kommersant’s Olga Allenova.

However, Russia’s relationship with Abkhazia has not been all positive. According to a report last year from the auditing commission in Moscow, half of the $200 million spent in Abkhazia since 2010 had been stolen. Last year Moscow suspended payments, causing an acute financial squeeze. The Abkhaz government turned to Transdnestr, the secessionist region of Moldova, for a $6 million bridging loan.

The turmoil in Abkhazia is a small example of the way in which the recent dramatic developments in Ukraine cast a new light on Moscow’s relations with all its neighboring countries and change the behavior of political actors, in ways that are hard to understand, let alone predict.

Peter Rutland is a professor of government at Wesleyan University in Middletown, Connecticut, currently visiting Tbilisi.

A Paradigm Shift in Russia’s Foreign Policy

Moscow Times, May. 18 2014
President Vladimir Putin’s unwillingness to endorse the separatist referendums in eastern Ukraine on May 11 caused some confusion in Western capitals. The first reaction of most Western media was to suggest that it was just part of a deception by Moscow — just as Putin had initially denied any Russian involvement in Crimean separatist actions.

There are at least two ways to explain Putin’s behavior during this evolving crisis. First, the conservative, “realist” position would argue that the main goal of Putin was to preserve Russia’s “hard power” position by securing the Sevastopol naval base. Sevastopol is the only port on the Black Sea with berths deep enough to house Russia’s Black Sea Fleet. Giving up Sevastopol would mean abandoning Russia’s pretensions to be a naval power in the Black Sea and Mediterranean. It was pretty clear once Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych was ousted in February that any new nationalist government that replaced him would renounce the 2010 treaty extending Russia lease of the Sevastopol naval base through 2042.

It seems reasonable to assume that the siloviki — a pressure group that Putin cannot afford to ignore — insisted that Putin act to preserve Russia’s military assets.

According to this analysis, Russia has been acting as a status quo power, trying to preserve the balance of power after the Soviet collapse.

People in the West may agree or disagree whether this was a desirable state of affairs. Some people in Washington will not be happy until Russia is pushed back beyond its 1780 borders. But an objective realist would probably conclude that Russia was behaving like any other status quo power.

But recent developments have made this realist perspective itself look quaintly anachronistic. It seems to have been displaced by a new approach which will be far more tricky for the West to deal with. Writing in the April 27 edition of Global Affairs, political scientist Igor Zevelev argued that Putin’s thinking about Russia’s place in the world has undergone a seismic shift over the past year — and especially over the past three months.

Putin appears to have decided to embrace ethno-nationalism and not state interests as the overarching rationale for foreign policy decisions. Defending the rights of ethnic Russians — and by extension Russian speakers — will henceforth be a central goal for Russian diplomacy. Russian leaders had paid some lip service to this dimension since the early 1990s but had never taken it very seriously. Even Russia’s military intervention in defense of South Ossetia in August 2008 was more about protecting Russia’s credibility as a military power than about preserving the rights of Ossetians and Abkhaz.

But the shift in rhetoric and thinking seems unmistakable, as evidenced by Putin’s March 18 “victory speech” on the annexation of Crimea. And this comes against a background of parallel tectonic shifts in domestic policy — from the persecution of Pussy Riot and the “nationalization” of the elite through limits on foreign bank accounts to the dismantling of what remained of professional journalism.

Another sign of a paradigm shift is the appearance of members of Russian radical nationalist groups such as Russian National Unity among the leaders of separatist groups in eastern Ukraine, as political scientist Anton Shekhovtsov wrote in the April 28 issue of Open Democracy. These figures have had a very testy relationship with the government over the past two decades — sometimes favored by certain circles within the Kremlin but often suppressed. To see them playing a leading role on the front lines of Russian foreign policy is surely not accidental and represents a new and disturbing development. The fact that similar groups are operating on the Ukrainian side has just multiplied the potential for an explosive escalation of violence.

It is hard to say what exactly are the steps that the Ukrainian government could take to satisfy the new nationalist paradigm coming out of Moscow. In practice, Ukrainian nationalists had been unable to enforce a Ukrainianization program on Russian speakers in eastern Ukraine. Merely abstaining from changing the linguistic status quo may not be enough to satisfy the self-appointed leaders in eastern and southern Ukraine, who are also demanding a new federalist model. In the absence of a reliable court system and rule of law, there is a risk that an attempt to introduce federalism would be a recipe for endless squabbling and political polarization.

Western policy makers were already unhappy when they were trying to deal with Russia operating within the realist paradigm. They are now in for an unpleasant surprise. The new nationalist Russia will mean a far more unpredictable and conflict-­ridden zone in the countries bordering Russia — unless, that is, diplomacy prevails and these disturbing developments are rolled back.

Ukraine’s gas problem

Margarita Balmaceda and Peter Rutland, OpenDemocracy.net, 8 May 2014.

It is commonly assumed that the main economic challenge facing Ukraine is its dependence on energy supplies, especially natural gas, imported from Russia. Russia, it is true, has a powerful lever that it can use to extract political concessions from Kyiv‚ as it did when President Viktor Yanukovych was forced to renege on his pledge to sign the Association Agreement with the European Union last November.

But Ukraine’s dependency on Russian gas is only half the story. Equally troubling has been Ukraine’s dependency on cheap gas; gas that just happens to be from Russia. Ukraine inherited from the Soviet Union an economy hooked on cheap hydrocarbons. Until last week’s price increases, residential consumers only paid about 25% of what the gas is worth on the European market: industrial consumers pay about 75%. At the same time, coal produced in Ukraine’s Donbas is sold to domestic customers at about half the extraction cost.

This cheap energy, together with the existence of parallel markets for energy, has generated a huge flow of economic rents, up to 5% of the country’s GDP (approximately £3.5 billion) in peak years, which Ukraine’s political and economic elites were able to capture for themselves. The rents have been turned into hard cash either through the re-export of Russian gas to European customers, or through the manufacture of energy-intensive products such as steel or fertilizers for export.

This flow of rents produced a political class, both in Ukraine and Russia, who were unified in their collective self-enrichment, and whose common interest lay in preserving the status quo.

The disputes with Russia that disrupted gas supplies in 2006 and 2009 were more about the division of these rents between groups in Moscow and Kyiv than about the price that Ukraine would be paying.

Over the 20 years of Ukraine’s independence, Ukraine’s political class made no serious effort to reduce the country’s dependency on Russian gas. The proportion of Ukraine’s energy imported from Russia fell only slightly from 1991 to 2012, from 50% to 40%.

The first real attempt to correct the problem came after massive increases in the price of gas imports from Russia, resulting from a much-criticised March 2010 contract with Gazprom signed by then Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko. It was Yanukovych’s subsequent efforts to seize more of the energy rents for himself that caused the oligarchs to withdraw their support for him during the Euromaidan crisis.

Adding to this failure to address Ukraine’s gas problem, the political class has also done little to build functioning institutions, such as rule of law or honest political parties, which would attract the loyalty of Ukrainians.

Ukraine suffers from many of the features of the ‘resource curse‚’ even though it does not itself produce any oil or gas, but is merely able to exploit its position as a transit country. Neighbouring Belarus is in a similar situation, except that in Minsk a single individual, Aleksandr Lukashenka, has managed to establish control over the flow of rents, using them to consolidate his dictatorial regime, while in Ukraine they are fought over by a small group of oligarchs.

The Ukrainian people have received some modest benefits from this rent-based economy, in the form of cheap gas and electricity. But in the long run, ordinary Ukrainians are paying the price of being trapped in an economic model that depends on rent-extraction rather than investment in competitive industries. Ukraine is saddled with an economy whose carbon intensity is 0.89 kg CO2/GDP, twice the world average, while much of its rich arable land lies unused.

Essentially the same group of people has remained in power for the past 20 years. For all the talk of Euromaidan as a revolution, the leaders of the new provisional government are the very same figures who formed the government that emerged from the Orange Revolution a decade ago. Yulia Tymoshenko was Prime Minister, Oleksandr Turchynov was Tymoshenko’s deputy, Petro Poroshenko was Secretary of the National Security Council, and Arseniy Yatsenyuk was Economics Minister.

The main factor that caused the breakdown of the post-Orange reform government was disagreement over who would control the energy rents. How realistic is it to expect them to behave any differently this time around?

Why, then, does the IMF expect such a government to dismantle the energy rent regime – the one thing that holds the political class together? The provisional government in Kyiv is under pressure to rely on regional oligarchs to win back the loyalty of Eastern Ukraine, precisely the men whose fortunes depend on the preservation of the old energy rent regime.

Yet, the IMF has made liberalisation of energy prices a central condition for the release of its £10 billion rescue package. The provisional government has taken a first step in this direction by announcing a 50% increase in the price of gas from 1 May. It is unlikely that they will be able to enforce this price increase. Even if patriotism trumps profit, and the government sticks with the reform, popular dissatisfaction with the price increases will likely erode the legitimacy of the government.

This is not the only problem with the IMF programme, which the Financial Times described as ‘egregiously optimistic’ in its growth projections for this year and next, especially given the occupation of Crimea and the mayhem being sown by Moscow in Eastern Ukraine.

The crisis currently engulfing Ukraine is not just about a predatory Russia. It is also a question of how to ensure Ukraine emerges from the present crisis as a functioning state, capable of earning the loyalty of all its citizens. The question we should be asking is: why are we waiting for the IMF package to fail, before concerned countries come up with a realistic plan to rescue the Ukrainian economy, and stabilise the country?

Ukrainian Lessons

Four things that are wrong with the conventional wisdom about the country’s politics.

by Petra Stykow and Peter Rutland Transitions Online, 10 April 2014

The dramatic developments in Ukraine left Western media scrambling to explain a distant and complex country to an audience that could barely locate the places on a map or pronounce the names.

Ukraine found itself in a tug of war between Moscow and Brussels, and this fed into a simplistic narrative of a bifurcated country, torn between East and West, that misrepresents the situation on the ground. The fact that Western policy is based on this misreading of Ukraine helps explain why it has gone so badly astray.

1. Binary thinking is lazy thinking

Western newspapers have been very proud to publish maps showing the Ukrainian electorate divided along into two neat halves: the west-center versus the south-east. Looking at that electoral map, it does indeed seem as if Ukraine has a serious identity crisis – and one that suggests a natural and insuperable territorial divide.

This apparent east-west split confirms our own preconceived notions and tendency toward binary thinking – dividing the world into “good” actors (people who share our values and are thus deserving of our support) and “bad” actors (enemies, not to be trusted). Since western Ukraine is geographically adjacent to Europe, it’s assumed that it must also be closer to European values than people living farther east.

One problem with this binary narrative of Ukrainian politics was that it could not account for the appearance of radical nationalist groups – who are primarily based in western (i.e. “good”) Ukraine. The presence of government ministers from the ranks of extremist parties such as Svoboda and Right Sector does not fit the standard account of Maidan as the triumph of Western, democratic values.

2. Language does not equal ethnicity

The people of Ukraine are not bifurcated into two distinct groups. Rather they have at least two overlapping identity divisions – language use and ethnic identity. You cannot take language use as an indicator of ethnic identity or political loyalty. In the census, some Ukrainians claimed Ukrainian as their “mother language” even though they may not actually speak it at home, as a way of expressing their identity. On the other hand, some Ukrainians who speak Russian at home express a desire for their children to learn Ukrainian.

Moreover, the language options do not fall into simply two categories – Ukrainian-speaking versus Russian-speaking. There is a third category, people who speak surzhuk. This is a dialect sometimes described as Ukrainian vocabulary with Russian grammatical structure. Surzhuk is not an option in the census, but it is spoken by about 30 percent of the population, mainly from villages and small towns.

3. The west-east split is a product of the political process

Without a doubt, the east-west split in Ukrainian political behavior has deep roots and many aspects. It is the product of a centuries-old history of shifting imperial and state boundaries, and rests on linguistic, ethnic, religious, and socio-economic cleavages.

However, it only emerged in such a stark binary form – and became a threat to the existence of Ukraine as a nation-state – as a result of a series of polarized elections, beginning with the Orange Revolution in 2004.

In reality, Ukrainian public opinion – like the electorate in any country – is split across multiple dimensions, and the east-west divide along the alleged ethno-linguistic gap is not the only possible variant of Ukrainian politics.

Back in the 1990s, economic policy was an important factor driving political competition, and on that issue voters were not always split along east-west lines. True, Leonid Kuchma, a factory director from eastern Ukraine, won election as president in 1994 as the “pro-Russian” candidate. However, he won re-election in 1999 against a Communist opponent by running on his pro-market economic policies (he boasted that he had brought inflation down from 10,000 percent to 25 percent). The electoral map in 1999 was not divided into two neat blocs. Rather, it was a mosaic, with many eastern and southern regions voting against Kuchma, and a couple of western provinces – now Svoboda‘s bulwark – supporting him strongly.

4. The triumph of patronage politics

The party system changed after the Orange Revolution in 2004 with the downfall of the Communist Party (whose support fell from 25 percent in 1998 to 4 percent in 2006). The demise of the Communists undermined the left-right dimension of the political debate, and the party system shifted from one between competing programs and ideologies to a clientilistic system built around personal leaders trading favors.

The new leaders – Viktor Yushchenko, Yulia Tymoshenko, and Viktor Yanukovych – used the west-east divide as a way to consolidate their electoral base. The politically divided Ukraine that we see today is as much the product of the evolution of the party system as of a “naturally” divided electorate.

This helps explain one of the many puzzles of the Ukrainian crisis – why support for Yanukovych collapsed overnight on 21 February. Lawmakers from his own Party of Regions deserted him en masse once they realized that he had agreed to leave office. Added to which they agreed to revert to the 2004 constitution, which weakened the powers of the president, which meant that there was nothing to be gained from backing Yanukovych even for the transitional period.

Implications for the future

Over the 23 years of an independent Ukraine no single group within the elite has been able to defeat and dominate the others – but nor was any one faction strong enough to set up rules that would survive the next elite battle. Instead, each round of the political struggle has led to a rewriting of the rules of the game, which means that distrust and deceit have become institutionalized.

The different historical experiences of different parts of Ukraine certainly affect the present political culture. But Ukrainian politicians need to learn the art of compromise, of stitching together coalitions across different groups of interests. It is an important part of the drama unfolding before our eyes that Ukrainian elites over the past decade played the most dangerous of all available cards – the ethno-linguistic card – in mobilizing supporters when competing for power. As history has demonstrated many times, this kind of political tactic runs the risk of blowing up any civilized rules of the political game, giving way to violence and civil war.

Petra Stykow is a professor of politics at the Ludwig-Maximilian University of Munich. Peter Rutland is a professor at Wesleyan University in Middletown, Connecticut.

Getting Russia Wrong

published in the Moscow Times, 9 April 2014

A lead article in the March 7 New York Times argued that the U.S. failure to predict Putin’s actions in Crimea is due in part to a dearth of experts in Russian politics. Since the end of the Cold War, political scientists have deserted Russian studies, and a new generation of specialists has not emerged to replace their Cold War predecessors.

There is some truth to that argument. Only three out of the eight Ivy League universities have appointed a tenured professor in Russian politics since the collapse of the Soviet Union, and none of them has appointed a Russia expert in economics or sociology. There is a similar situation in Germany. While there are 43 professors of Russian or East European history, there are only three professors of Russian politics, and one each in economics and sociology.

But that is only part of the story. In fact, there are plenty of Russia specialists out there in U.S. academia. There are even some former Sovietologists still at their desks, including yours truly. At the same time, however, there is also a new generation of young experts who are extremely well informed about contemporary Russian politics — better informed than their Cold War predecessors because they have more opportunity to travel there and conduct research and because they can draw on the findings of new Russian scholarship.

The problem is that this academic expertise is not being tapped by the mass media, nor by government agencies for that matter. The few exceptions would include Michael McFaul, who before serving as the U.S. ambassador to Russia was President Barack Obama’s top adviser on Russia, or Celeste Wallander, now serving on the National Security Council.

Academics who try to portray Russia in a more nuanced way — that is, beyond the primitive, good-versus-evil binary — have a hard time getting their point across. Take my own case, for example. In my 30-year career as a Russia specialist in the U.S., I have managed to publish an opinion piece in The New York Times or International Herald Tribune three times. One was on the Islamic insurgency in Mali, a second was on the chances for an Arab Spring in China, and the third was on the conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan. I am not an academic expert on Mali, China, Armenia or Azerbaijan, and I do not speak the languages of those countries. But on the topic in which I am actually proficient, Russia, I have never once been published in The New York Times — and it is not for lack of trying, I assure you.

The media have their own stable of authoritative commentators on Russia to whom they repeatedly turn when a quote or op-ed is needed. And this group of experts, mostly located within the Washington Beltway, tend conveniently to fall into two camps. The majority are contemptuous of Russia, seeing it as an irrelevant, declining power at best. At worst, they see Russia as a dangerous, authoritarian regime that poses a threat to its neighbors and plays a destabilizing role on the international stage. At the same time, there is a minority of observers who insist that Russia is a normal country, on the way to integrating with the West. Debate consists of an exchange of comments between the camps of pessimists and optimists.

The two low points where misunderstanding of the situation in Russia has been most damaging are 1993 and 2009. In 1993, the U.S. government supported President Boris Yeltsin’s decision to illegally dismiss the parliament and then shell it into submission when protesting deputies refused to disband. The U.S. media rallied behind the pro-Yeltsin position, and very few critical voices got a hearing.

In April 2009, on the eve of his first visit to Moscow, Obama undiplomatically declared in an interview that Putin had “one foot in the past [Soviet Union]” and that Obama would concentrate his efforts on then-President Dmitry Medvedev. That diplomatic faux pas was based on a misunderstanding of the “tandem leadership” in which then-Prime Minister Putin was still, in fact, calling all the shots. Obama’s gross misread of the country’s power structure set his Russian policy on a flawed track from which it never recovered.

Crimea now provides us with a third example of how a shallow and schematic understanding of Russian politics can lead us to be taken by surprise by the turn of events. This is somewhat ironic since Russian policy is itself overwhelmingly shaped by their analysis of what the U.S. is doing to Russia. The U.S. has consistently ignored Russia’s legitimate interests in the post-Soviet space. For example, no complaints were raised when Estonia and Latvia denied citizenship to their Russian minorities after these two countries gained their independence in the 1990s. At the same time, Slovakia and Romania were obliged to protect the language rights of their Hungarian minorities as a condition for European Union entry.

Senior U.S. diplomats such as Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland seemed to be more interested in playing the role of freedom fighter than trying to work toward a peaceful solution to the crisis. With Russian propaganda stressing that the protests in Kiev were orchestrated by the West, it was unwise to be photographed on Maidan Square handing out food to riot police or to boast that the U.S. has spent $5 billion on promoting democracy in Ukraine. Such steps were a red rag to the Russian bull — and Moscow responded in kind.

What is Putin thinking?

His incursion into Crimea could be muscle-flexing, expansionism, desperation over losing Ukraine, or none of the above.

Transitions Online, 5 March 2014

Vladimir Putin’s decision to teach the West a lesson by a show of force in Crimea has stunned observers around the world. Commentators are struggling to make sense of his actions. This essay is a speculative excursion into competing explanations for Putin’s behavior.

Russia’s attitudes toward Ukraine have always been deeply ambivalent. Even as they acknowledge Ukraine is a separate country, they are likely to assert that Ukrainians are “just like us.” Russian media are sending a mixed message: are Russian forces going in to save the ethnic Russians living there from the Ukrainians, or to save the Ukrainians themselves from the “fascists”?

Just as the U.S. officer in the Vietnam War famously said, “We had to destroy the village in order to save it,” so Putin seems bent on breaking up Ukraine in the name of saving it – from fascism, Western domination, or whatever.

Things did not become much clearer after Putin’s press conference on 4 March – his first public statement since Russia’s Federation Council authorized the deployment of troops on 1 March. Putin twisted himself into knots trying to justify the legality of his actions, but he failed to clarify what his real objectives are. It was hard to explain why, if it was a legitimate peacekeeping operation, Russian troops were not wearing any identifying insignia – a clear violation of the centuries-old laws of war, let alone the laws of peacekeeping.

Putin signaled no desire to go to war with Ukraine, saying, “I am sure that Russian and Ukrainian troops will not be on opposite sides of the barricades.” At the same time, however, he said the people of Crimea have the right of self-determination.

From a Hobbesian point of view, Putin’s unilateral display of military muscle would seem a classic example of a state rationally pursuing self-preservation, using the means at its disposal. As a result of the political standoff in Kyiv, Ukraine had fallen into a state of anarchy, a condition in which, Hobbes argued, “force and fraud” become “the two cardinal virtues.” Force and fraud certainly describes Putin’s behavior toward Ukraine over the past week.

Russia enjoys overwhelming military superiority against Ukraine, a bankrupt country with no military allies, no nuclear weapons, and an army a tenth the size of Russia’s. The only thing holding Russia back from taking advantage of this superior position was its recognition of international norms restraining its behavior. For Putin, however, the toppling of the duly-elected president of Ukraine and the tearing up of an internationally brokered agreement to form a transitional government amounted to the breakdown of the established rules of the game. In a state of anarchy, states (or individuals) will do whatever they can to survive.

However, this Hobbesian logic is completely inadequate to explaining the problem at hand. Ukraine posed no threat to Russian national survival. Russian media reports of attacks on Russians living in Ukraine are nonsense. Threats to infringe on the language rights of Russians – in the form of parliament’s hasty move 27 February to effectively revoke the status of Russian as an official language in some regions – have been part of the usual ebb and flow of Ukrainian politics over the previous two decades. In the past Russia has never acted as if this were a vital concern.

Is Putin’s goal the annexation of Crimea? Russia would gain some nice beaches and a naval base in perpetuity. But it would face tremendous international opprobrium, and it would drive the rump Ukrainian state to seek even closer ties with the West. So from a cost-benefit point of view, it does not look particularly attractive. But after witnessing two revolutions in a decade, perhaps Putin has simply lost patience with Kyiv and given up on the idea of a Eurasian Union including Ukraine. Crimea therefore is a consolation prize.

To try to head off international condemnation, he may leave Crimea as an independent statelet, rather than incorporate it into the Russian Federation. This would be consistent with Russia’s treatment of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, both Georgian breakaway territories that it formally recognized as sovereign states in the wake of the 2008 Georgian war.

Maybe Putin’s ambitions do not stop at Crimea, however. He might want to peel off more Ukrainian provinces where Russians form a majority, or even a plurality. This will be a lot trickier to engineer than Crimea, however. Russia does not have military assets on the ground, and it is not clear that the Russians living in Donetsk or Lugansk want to give up on the Ukrainian state. Yes, living standards in Russia are higher – but would you want your sons to be drafted into the Russian army and sent to Dagestan? (Ukraine has been free of Islamist terrorism and in December abolished the draft.) But the idea of a state of “New Russia,” perhaps even extending around the northern coast of the Black Sea to Odessa, is appealing to Russian nationalists.

One thing is clear – Russia has no plan for putting Ukraine back together. At his press conference, Putin bluntly acknowledged that Viktor Yanukovych “has no political future.” Putin anyway had always found him a prickly customer to deal with. It seems to have been personal. One senior U.S. diplomat suggested that their antipathy rested in the fact that Putin was an ex-cop and Yanukovych was an ex-con.

Some strategists of the Realist school, especially those sitting in Washington, D.C., have searched for some still deeper, nefarious master plan. Some argue that Putin’s real agenda is the restoration of the Soviet empire. Cue at this point Putin’s 2005 statement that the Soviet collapse was “the greatest catastrophe of the 20th century.” Less quoted is his remark that “he who does not regret the fall of the Soviet Union has no heart, and he who thinks it can be put back together has no head.”

Other analysts argue that Putin’s strategy is to undermine the European Union by showing its impotence, and to sow discord between the EU and United States. The latter was greatly aided by the intercepted phone conversation of Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland, in which she interjected “F**k the EU.” This was gleefully promoted on Twitter by the Russian Foreign Ministry, in a strange meeting of 19th-century realpolitik with 21st-century hipster communications. But rather than quit while they were ahead, Moscow subsequently launched Operation Crimea, thereby uniting the EU and United States in a common cause to contain Russian aggression.

Grand strategy aside, maybe one can find a more mundane explanation for Russian behavior. As things were falling apart in Kyiv, Putin had to be shown to be doing something – anything – even if it did not make much sense from the point of view of Russia’s national interests. The military and security services had some contingency plans in their office drawers – to secure the Crimean peninsula, and to trigger an ersatz nationalist uprising in the Donbas.

Back in 1971 Graham Allison published a classic account of the 1963 Cuban missile crisis titled Essence of Decision, in which he demonstrated that the strategic bargaining between the national leaders was overtaken by events as they developed on the ground. The U.S. Navy set the blockade farther offshore than President Kennedy had anticipated, triggering a premature confrontation with approaching Russian vessels. (Since the Soviet Union lacked the naval forces to break the blockade, they turned back.) On the Soviet side, they had installed tactical nuclear missiles to defend Cuba from a U.S. invasion before they started building the strategic missile sites – something the United States was not aware of as it threatened military action against Cuba.

A similar pattern of bottom-up initiatives seems to have driven the extraordinary political developments in Ukraine. Time and again in Kyiv it was clear that political leaders in both the government and the opposition found themselves upstaged by developments on the street. Similarly, Putin may find himself vulnerable to the spontaneous actions of Russian nationalists in Crimea or Donbas.

The Cuban Missile Crisis ended, thankfully, without war. One can only hope that the messy evolution of the Crimean crisis will similarly educate world leaders about the dangers of confrontation.

Peter Rutland

Pluralism and nationalism: the legacy of Robert Dahl

Earlier this month venerable political scientist Robert Dahl passed away at the age of 98. His work has important implications for the study of nationalism in the contemporary world – with the Ukrainian crisis being a case in point.

Best known for his later writings on American democracy, one of his most important works is a study in comparative politics, Polyarchy, published back in 1971. Based on a systematic study of the 34 democracies he identified operating in the world at that time (out of 104 countries examined), Dahl looked for the conditions which seemed conducive to the flourishing of democracy.

Dahl was defending a pluralist interpretation of democracy – the idea that democracy is best served if there are several fairly well-organized blocs of interests competing for power, with no single group guaranteed a majority in every election. Ideally, there would be several dimensions of cleavage (ethnicity, religion, region, class) which would be “cross-cutting,” so that someone might belong to one group on one issue, and another on a second.

As a concept “pluralism” peaked in the 1950s and fell out of favor in the 1960s, under attacks from the Left who argued that it failed to notice the systematic exclusion of some groups from the political process, such as blacks and women. The Right were not interested in pluralism since they focused on individual rights. Dahl came up with the new term “polyarchy” as a replacement for “pluralism,” but it never caught on.

In his 1971 work, Dahl was rather doubtful about whether ethnic pluralism was good for democracy. He divided the countries into four groups based on their degree of ethnic fragmentation, and he found that 58% of the 26 most ethnically homogeneous countries were democratic, compared to just 18% of the 33 most ethnically diverse countries. Dahl concluded that “a competitive political system is less likely in countries with a considerable measure of socio-cultural pluralism.” (p. 111)

There were nevertheless six countries in that most diverse group that were functioning polyarchies as of 1970 (Sierra Leone, Ceylon, Malaya, India, Canada and Switzerland); and three in the next group of fairly high ethnic pluralism countries (Belgium, Lebanon and the Philippines). Looking back 44 years later, we see that out of that short list of 9 ethnically diverse polyarchies, three collapsed in war (Sierra Leone, Lebanon and Ceylon); Belgium is frozen in political deadlock; the Philippines battles a persistent Muslim insurrection; and even Canada narrowly escaped the secession of Quebec in 1995.

The implication is clear: ethnic pluralism makes it hard, but not impossible, for democracy to thrive.

Empirical political scientists have yet to reach a consensus on whether the data shows a consistent relationship between ethnic fragmentation and democracy. As Mark Beissinger points out, the data on ethnic pluralism is inconsistent and it is hard to isolate the impact of ethnicity from other variables such as poverty. In a 2012 study Wolfgang Merkel and Brigitte Weiffen found that ethnic fragmentation was low in established democracies (0.28) but twice as high in failed democratizers (0.58) and authoritarian regimes (0.49). (Table 3) They conclude that “most facets of heterogeneity do not hinder democratic transition[but] most of them complicate democratic consolidation.” That is, ethnic pluralism may weaken autocratic regimes, but in the longer term may make it more difficult for a functioning democracy to emerge.

We see this sadly illustrated by the case of Ukraine. Ukraine as is well known is a country divided between a Europe-oriented West and a Russia-oriented East, with an ambiguous tranche running through the middle of the country. This ethnic pluralism seems to have aided the emergence of a quasi-democratic, parliamentary system of government in the 1990s – certainly a system that was more democratic than that in neighboring Russia. Lucan Way described this as “pluralism by default,” referring to the case of Moldova – which like Ukraine was split between two language groups, a Russophone minority and a Romanian-speaking majority.

However, short-run gains seem to come at the expense of long-term stability. The divided electorate meant that neither side could achieve a commanding majority in free elections, so power oscillated between the Westerners (who won the re-run election in 2004) and the Easterners (who won in 2010). Dahl warned back in 1970 that a binary division seems more unstable than having three or more groups, since this allows for coalition bargaining.

Looking at the rest of the post-soviet space, we see that democracy did well in the Baltic states, which were quite ethnically homogeneous. Lithuania was demographically homogeneous, while Estonia and Latvia were engineered to be homogenous by denying citizenship to the non-Estonians and Latvians who made up half their population. But it did badly in some other ethnically homogenous countries, such as Armenia and Azerbaijan. In the former Yugoslavia, democracy has been established in post-Yugo republics that were ethnically homogenous, but not in Bosnia, where the three rival ethnic groups have not been able to trust each other sufficiently to engage in the sort of bargaining that makes pluralist democracy work.

Advocates of democracy promotion tended to ignore ethnicity while assuming that a common national identity will magically appear once democratic institutions are installed. From Bosnia to Iraq, the evidence suggests that democratizers ignore national identity at their peril.

The Sochi Olympics and Russian national identity

A Putinkin Opening Ceremony in Sochi

The Moscow TImes, 13 February 2014



The spectacular opening ceremony at the Sochi Olympics confounded Western critics who were expecting a bombastic display of Soviet nostalgia and muscular nationalism, a showcase for President Vladimir Putin’s embrace of “traditional values.”

Instead, viewers saw a whimsical, poetic and restrained paean to Russian high culture — art, music and ballet. The title was “Russia’s Dreams.” It was an impressive show, combining stunning special effects with old-fashioned sentimentality and emotion.

Westerners, who were prepared to see the Olympics as Putin’s Games, seemed to have overlooked the surprising gap between the ceremony’s idealized narrative and the “traditional values” that Putin has been trying to promote over the past few years.

Russian nationalists were confused and incensed by the ceremony. Where, they asked, was the reference to World War II, the clear centerpiece of Russian political identity? Blogger Chernosotenets complained that “The [early] Soviet period was shown as red combines grinding people.” Why was the Leonid Brezhnev period represented by dancing, pony-tailed and smiling hipsters? And where was the past 20 years of post-Soviet history? Blogger kolobok1973 wrote: “There is no new Russia, the past 20 years did not exist. It melted away like a vision, a bad dream.”

Instead, the spectacle showcased emigres such as writer Vladimir Nabokov, composer Alfred Schnittke and inventor Igor Sikorsky, who found success abroad, not inside Russia. The works of artist Kazimir Malevich or composer Igor Stravinsky’s “Rit es of Spring,” are little-known to ordinary Russians.

Nationalists complained that Putin had contracted out the country’s national narrative to a cosmopolitan intellectual elite. Indeed, Vladimir Gomelsky, deputy director of state-controlled Channel One, explained that “Our ceremony was designed for an international audience.” Producer Konstantin Ernst, general director of Channel One, insisted that the show was an “expression of love for our homeland” on behalf of “real Russians, untainted by decades of propaganda and the Cold War.” But surely all those decades of propaganda and Cold War are part of Russian identity, for better or for worse.

It turns out that Ernst relied on international experts to script and stage much of the show. They included the New York-based George Tsypin, production designer for “Spiderman: Turn off the Dark,” who presented a tableau of dancing puppets at the 2002 Venice Biennale. Costumes were designed by Kim Barrett, another “Spiderman” veteran. Two producers had worked on the London Olympics ceremony, three aerialist experts came from the Cirque du Soleil and a director of the Shanghai circus choreographed the gymnastics.

The special effects were themselves fabricated outside Russia. The flying troika came from Sweden, and the mascot puppets were made in Australia.

Journalist Olga Kabanova wrote in Vedomosti: “This has happened throughout Russian history. The main monuments were built by foreigners in accordance with an ideological commission.”

According to arts critic Grigory Revzin, the disjunction between the ceremony and Putin’s current policies is partly due to the fact that planning began three years ago — before the political protests of December 2011 and before Putin’s big push toward conservative values. Andrei Malgin reported in The Moscow Times that the producers wanted to incorporate a commemoration of World War II, including a minute of silence, but this was nixed by International Olympic Committee officials.

The Sochi Olympics look set to be a resounding success and will undoubtedly boost Putin’s standing on the international stage. The debate over the content of the opening ceremony may be little more than a storm in a samovar, but it does illustrate the continuing ambiguities around Russian political identity.