MOSCOW — U.S. President George W. Bush visited Russia just as a new wave of terrorist attacks was expected in North America. This grim background toned down the euphoric atmosphere of the Bush-Putin summit. Yet two things definitely stood out during the visit: the signing of an important arms-reduction treaty and the acknowledgment of the new strategic partnership between Russia and the West. The latter appeared more significant than the former: After all, the nuclear warheads in question will be not destroyed but merely stockpiled, and Russia has coveted the status of being a Western ally since the days of Peter the Great.
Russian President Vladimir Putin is devilishly good at public relations. He selected a perfect setting for the proclamation of partnership with the West — the magnificent city of St. Petersburg envisioned by its founder, Peter the Great, as Russia’s “window into Europe.” Bush did not disappoint his Russian host and lavishly praised Putin’s openness and hospitality as well as his help in combating global terrorism. A joint declaration issued May 24 proclaimed the era of animosity over and promised “a new strategic relationship” in the future.
Bush’s praise for Putin is based on the premise that the Russian president is a man with a pro-Western mind-set who is going to modernize his country along the lines of a free-market economy and Western values in general. This supposition has already met with considerable criticism in the media. What kind of Westernizer silences political opponents, shuts down independent newspapers and TV channels and relies on nationalism as state doctrine as Putin does?
Can Westernization be consistent with authoritarian trends in government, the reinforced stature of secret police and curtailed freedom of speech?
It looks like, unfortunately, it can. The best-known Russian Westernizer, Peter the Great, reigned with whip and ax and did not allow his opponents any breathing space. Still, every student of Russian history would agree that Czar Peter did Westernize Russia. He modernized it economically and socially — but not politically.
“Western world” is a thorny concept. In the days of Peter, the West included both the British constitutional monarchy and French absolutism, the bourgeois dockyards of Amsterdam and the feudal castles of Sicily. When Peter was re-creating his version of the West on Russian soil, he cut off what looked ridiculous to him (civil rights) and embraced what appealed to him (industry, science and education). He also borrowed Western fashions, both for his court and for his capital, the glorious St. Petersburg, where Putin received Bush in May.
Not unlike Peter, Putin is a special sort of a Westernizer. He discards Western-style tolerance, pluralism and cosmopolitanism, while encouraging the growth of a stock market, nuclear physics, advanced weaponry and (some) Internet. Like the great czar, he seems to favor Western fashions in clothes and architecture, and definitely does not want to see his country become a hermit of Eurasia.
But in opting to join the West on his own terms, is he much different from many other leaders on the European periphery who have tried to join the glamorous West before him?
Rightwing regimes in Spain and Portugal, whose human rights standards looked appalling to allies in Washington, London and Paris, were accepted as part of Western Europe and were invited to join the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. Right now there is a number of nations lingering on the doorsteps of a united Europe and seeking admission to the club, nations that have a very peculiar notion of democracy, to put it mildly. Turkey is flattening the Kurdish lands; Greece gives one particular religion (Eastern Orthodoxy) the status of a state religion. Moscow is hardly less Westernized than Istanbul or Athens and is infinitely more important.
A “pro-Western” leader or nation is a funny term. Turkey is a good example of that. It was allowed to join NATO and thus side with the West during the Cold War only because it was sitting in the soft underbelly of the “Evil Empire,” the Soviet Union, and was therefore instrumental as part of Western defense. Since Sept. 11, Russia has acquired new importance in world affairs for it has contained Islamic fundamentalism in continental Eurasia, no matter what one might think about its involvement in Afghanistan in the past and its military campaign in Chechnya in the present.
Of course, it’s more than just the issue of political opportunism on the part of Moscow or Washington. In the eyes of Islamic radicals, Russia belongs to the Western world of arrogant imperialist “haves” that mistreat Third World “have-nots.” So it is fair to say objectively that Moscow now is in the same boat as the Western capitals.
Putin gets recognition and encouragement not just from Bush who is dismissed by many columnists and TV hosts as a provincial simpleton but also from more sophisticated leaders like British Prime Minister Tony Blair. Russian liberals are watching Putin’s romance with the West with dismay. On the one hand, it is excellent that Russia is not regarded as an enemy in the West any longer. On the other, the mantle of a pro-Western pragmatic bestowed on Putin by the Western establishment gives him domestic carte blanche, and his attack on civil rights within Russia can now go unnoticed.
The unlikely alliance between the nationalistic Kremlin and NATO was made possible exclusively by Sept. 11. Thus one could say that the terrorists’ attack at the World Trade Center in New York City has undermined not only the American way of life and Wall Street but also the Russian democracy.
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