Living with a new bear: parades in Moscow should not stop the West confronting Russian autocracy

The Economist
May 5, 2005

In this year of so many anniversaries, next week’s gathering of more than 50 heads of state and government in Moscow will be especially charged. Vladimir Putin, Russia’s president, is staging a grand parade in Red Square to commemorate Victory Day, marking in style the 60th anniversary of the Allied defeat of Nazi Germany in May 1945. Like those of 60 years ago, next week’s celebrations will be heartfelt and genuine. And yet some of Mr Putin’s guests will approach the jamboree with mixed feelings.

Nobody should belittle the sacrifices the Soviet Union made to win what Russians call the Great Patriotic War. The Soviet Union lost some 27m people in the conflict, more than all the other allies put together. But next week’s anniversary will still be bitter-sweet. For the people of central and eastern Europe, May 1945 marked the moment they escaped Hitler’s murderous grip, only to be imprisoned for half a century in a dictatorial communist empire after Stalin drew an iron curtain across Europe’s heart. Eight of the countries subjugated by the Soviet Union after the war are more inclined to celebrate their first anniversary of membership of the European Union than the false liberation of 1945. For them, joining the EU represented the logical culmination of the tearing-down of the iron curtain in 1989. Two Baltic heads of state have duly refused to go to Moscow for next week’s parade.

It is not surprising that the history of so cataclysmic an event as the second world war should still cast a shadow everywhere today. But at least in most countries of Europe, people have come to terms with, and in many ways moved beyond, that history-something the European Union by its very existence seeks to symbolise. Germany has fully admitted the sins of its past: next week, for instance, it will open a new Holocaust memorial in Berlin (see article). Even Japan, slow as it is to accept its faults, has repeatedly apologised for its wartime record. The exception is the host of next week’s celebration: Russia. And its failure to come clean about the iniquities of its own past is part of a wider story that helps to explain why post-Soviet Russia remains so prickly and troubling.

Mr Putin calls himself a democrat. And yet he recently declared that the collapse of the Soviet Union was the greatest geo-political catastrophe of the 20th century. He has also sought to justify the 1939 Nazi-Soviet pact that led to the annexation of the Baltics and the division of Poland. It is hardly uncommon for nations to glorify their wartime histories (think only of Britain’s jingoistic tabloid press), and perhaps it is forgivable. But in the memory of too many Russians a justified pride in having vanquished Hitler is mingled with a misplaced nostalgia for the days of “greatness”
(and terror) under Stalin’s own dictatorship (see article). It is one thing to acknowledge that the living standards of many ordinary Russians have suffered since the demise of the Soviet Union. It is quite another to damn the freedom and democracy that were then won by eastern Europe and many (but by no means all) former Soviet republics-and to suggest, by implication if not by actions, that it might be a good thing if these were reversed.

As it happens, the tearing-down of the iron curtain and the dissolution of the Soviet Union were achieved remarkably peacefully, considering Russia’s turbulent history. Moscow harrumphed when former vassals joined first NATO and then the EU, but it did not seek actively to stop them. Nor was Mr Putin able, over the past two years, to prevent the spread of “democratic revolutions” through such places as Georgia, then Ukraine and, most recently, Kirgizstan. But the Russians are still interfering, politically and militarily, in a string of neighbouring countries that were once under Soviet control. They have still not signed border treaties with two of the three Baltic countries (see article). To the neighbours, Mr Putin’s Russia looks dangerous-even if, to the West in general, a weakened Russia is far from the threat it was in cold-war days.

Living with a new bear Russia’s failure fully to acknowledge its past is more than a case of post-imperial twitching in its near-abroad. It is also part and parcel of Mr Putin’s shift from liberal democracy towards authoritarianism. As his presidency has progressed, the independent media have been muzzled, elections rigged and any hints of opposition neutered. This might seem a matter primarily for Russians to fret over, but it also troubles neighbours that have too often suffered from Russian attention. Foreign investors are worried too. The government’s attack on the Yukos oil company and its erstwhile boss, Mikhail Khodorkovsky-whose trial verdict was last week conveniently postponed so as to come after Mr Putin’s Victory Day parades-has demonstrated with an awful clarity both the lack of any independent rule of law and the arbitrariness of the Russian state’s intervention in business. To western Europeans who are increasingly reliant on Russia for energy, this too should be a matter of great concern.

As they gather in Red Square next week, western leaders should be mindful of these things. In recent years, Mr Putin-like many Russian leaders before him, including Stalin-has proved masterly at playing western governments off against each other. As America disengages from Europe to face challenges in the Middle East and Asia, leaders such as Germany’s Gerhard Schröder and France’s Jacques Chirac have been too anxious to engage Mr Putin, to cultivate their commercial ties, to soften any criticism of his democratic credentials, and to belittle the concerns of countries in Russia’s near-abroad.

This eagerness not to offend is a mistake. Russia has its pride and special sensitivities. But the countries of the West would be doing both themselves and the Russian people a favour by speaking firmly, with one voice, on human rights, democracy, the rule of law and the brutal war in Chechnya. They should urge Mr Putin to confront and transcend the dictatorship of memory by normalising Russia’s borders with the Baltic states, to re-open archives that reveal the terrible truth of the communist tyranny, and to abandon any atavistic dreams of empire. Only then will it be possible to say, on some future Victory Day, that Europe is at last whole and free.