Understanding Uneasy Nation-Building Process in Post-Communist Europe

Moscow is right to insist that the West is not doing much to understand how Russians feel about the post-Cold War world.

As Europe and Russia are redefining their relations, understanding each other’s experience of the past 25 years is more important than talk about values and interests, believes Ivan Krastev, Chairman of Centre for Liberal Strategies in Sofia, Bulgaria.

Speaking at the Valdai Club seminar, you said that Russia perceives the current EU crisis through the lens of its traumatic experience of the late 1980s – early 1990s, reflexively anticipating the worst. Do you think the western elites realize how the trauma caused by the collapse of the Soviet Union continues to shape Russia’s attitude to the European Union and the processes that are going on there now?

The experience gap is a critical factor in explaining the current dynamics of the EU-Russia relations. For the West, the whole story of 1989-1991 was the story of the end of communism. For the majority of Russians the disintegration of the Soviet Union, and not the collapse of communism, was the central story. In the early 1990s Russia lost about one third of its GDP and experienced a very high economic, political, and cultural uncertainty.

As for the end of communism, not so many people in Russia were sorry about it. The language that was coming from the Russian elites at that time was that of a victory. All the rhetoric at that moment was that it was a win-win game.

But soon the language of unilateral victory prevailed in the West, which was pretty embarrassing for Russia.

Right, and this, in my view, is the emotional foundation of the current politics of resentment against the West. But for many East European countries communism was perceived as occupation by Moscow. And, unsurprisingly, although the official discourse was of our common victory over communism, there were “victory parades” outside Russia, but not in Russia. This attitude made it easy for the current Russian propaganda to assert that anti-communism of the West was nothing more than another form of traditional Russophobia. However, propaganda works precisely because there are certain shared sensitivities to which it can refer.

We are in a difficult moment of bilateral relations, because on many occasions Moscow is right to insist that the West is not doing much to understand how Russians feel about the post-Cold War world. But, at the same time, for the Russian government the demand that others should better understand Russia is a demand that the West should uncritically accept what Russia is doing and the way it is doing it.

In my view, better understanding of Russia’s post-communist experience is urgently needed, but this does not mean justifying certain Russian policies.

In the aftermath of the World War II, four countries were universally recognized as exceptional based on what had happened: the two ideological super powers, the United States and the Soviet Union, which defeated Hitler; Germany, which had engendered Nazism; and Israel, which was created as a consequence of the murderous Nazi policies. In the age of the post-Cold war normality, these four countries were forced to redefine their exceptionalities. The US tried to make its democratic exceptionalism the new normal; Germany became exceptionally normal, Israel constantly resisted attempts to be viewed as a normal country perceiving this as a threat to its survival, while Russia stumbled in its attempt to become a “normal country” and now in my view is in a desperate search of some Russian exceptionalism.

At the round table at the Valdai Club on Monday, Carl Bildt hailed participants of the Euromaidan as the first truly post-Soviet generation in Ukraine. But a generational shift has taken place in Russia, too. Those who were born after 1991 experienced an era of relative prosperity and national pride in their teens and witnessed the post-Crimean euphoria in 2014. They did not inherit the feeling of national weakness that came with the experience of the USSR collapse, which became formative for many of those Russians who are now in their thirties and forties. Do you feel this fact is overlooked in the West?

I believe the generational dimension is very important and should be taken very seriously – all over Europe. In Russia, you have a younger generation, which is certainly the most westernized – at the level of their consumption or travel habits and so on – but at the same time the most anti-western one. This is not a new phenomenon. This can often be seen in many countries of the world. The post-Cold war period was an age of imitating the West and the result of this imitation is both growing similarity and resentment. In terms of their attitude to the West, this generation resembles any second generation of immigrants, who are better integrated and at the same time much more resentful.

This generation’s idea is that they want to be proud of their country. Many of them want to get the recognition of the West by opposing the values and norms of this same West. This is not unique for Russia. Look at other post-communist countries. At the recent elections In Poland, 60 percent of people younger than 29 voted for parties which make national dignity their major story. This is largely the result of disappointment in cosmopolitanism and globalization promoted after the collapse of the Eastern Bloc. So, some things we think are exceptional for Russia or Ukraine are part of bigger European trends.

What we see all over Europe is the rise of identity politics. People in the West tend to compare Ukraine to Poland in 1989, but what is happening there rather resembles the painful process of nation-building that we witnessed at the time of disintegration of colonial empires in the 1960s and 1970s. Russia is also in the process of state-building because historically, Russia never had an empire, it was one. So, unlike England, it could not simply cut itself off from its overseas possessions.

In order to understand what is happening in Ukraine, we should rather look at the experience of countries like Algeria in the 1960s than Poland in the 1980s. That’s why you have the rise of anti-Russian sentiments there – this is the type of things that states are built with.

If you look at how the ongoing confrontation with Russia is reflected in the Ukrainian social media, you can notice that the most rabid anti-Russian comments are often left in the Russian language and by people with Russian names. Interestingly, it is as common to see Russians with Ukrainian names promoting Russia’s cause in online battles, given the significant proportion of ethnic Ukrainians in Russia’s population.

This is the most important argument for my case. Being Ukrainian today does not depend on the language you speak. The war in Ukraine paradoxically liberated Russian language. Today, Ukrainian identity is defined by the position you take in the war in Ukraine and not by the language you speak.

In comparing the identity-building processes in the post-Soviet space I was always fascinated by the case of Belarus. They do not have a strong nationalistic tradition to go back to, like, for example, western Ukraine. So, Lukashenko succeeded in taking the Soviet legacy to the core of their identity. In fact, Belarusians began to build the identity of the last Soviets, while everybody was against that. For him, it was an identity that had to be distinctive from what was happening in Russia. So he did not go anti-Russian in building the identity of Belarusians, opposing to the anti-Soviet discourse of Russians instead.

I’m saying this because many are surprised by the rise of anti-Russian sentiments in Ukraine, neglecting the fact that states are traditionally built not only by borders and constitutions but also by certain mobilization of national sentiments.

The rise of nationalism was easy to predict. If you take the post-Yugoslav space, you realize what kind of states can emerge out of post-Communist disintegration and what kind of stuff national identities are made of. And this is a huge problem for the European political and intellectual elites. In the words of historian Charles Tilly, “states make wars, but wars make states”.

The traditional framework of the EU-Russia relations has been impacted by new factors – the refugee crisis in Europe and the decline in energy prices. Do you feel these crises offer Russia and the EU an opportunity to rethink their relations and to start from scratch?

The EU and Russia are experiencing very important transformative political crises. The refugee crisis is pushing the EU to redefine itself, testing its resilience. On the other side, Russia is suffering not only from low oil prices, but also from the lack of infrastructural reform, the failure to diversify its economy, as well as uncertainty about its future political model. At present, society is consolidated around President Putin but it is difficult to imagine how post-Putin Russia will look like. As a result, the domestic political crises (which are very important because they are essentially about identity and survival of these states) and the way we will react to them will largely define the relations between Russia and the European Union.

Here, we have two scenarios. We can try to cope with this crisis by better regulating our relationship, trying to guarantee that the policies of the other are not an additional destabilizing factor. Or we can use the confrontation with each other for domestic political consolidation. I believe the choice is to be made. This will shape the relations between Russia and the European Union and from this point of view 2016 is going to be more important than the previous two years.
Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.