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  • Reading RussiaThe Wounds of Lost Empire
  • Ghia Nodia (bio)

Broadly understood, Russia is another one of the many hybrid regimes that hover in the "gray zone" between liberal democracy and autocracy. In recent years, it has moved so close to full-fledged autocracy that the democratic element, without being fully forsaken, has worn exceedingly thin. But this does not make Russia a unique case, either in its region or globally. Russia is also a "petrostate," in the sense that oil and natural-gas riches have underpinned the political regime's stability. While one cannot deduce a regime's character simply by counting its mineral resources, the weight of evidence suggests that if a regime harbors autocratic tendencies, the availability of vast mineral wealth will reinforce rather than dilute them.

But this "hybrid regime" formula, even when augmented by observations concerning Russia as a petrostate, is too broad and indistinct to advance our understanding very much. The regime's hybrid character can be explained by a number of structural factors that are no more applicable to Russia than they are to a number of its neighbors: Democratic traditions and civil society are weak; the middle class is small; people long for a strong hand after the misery and instability of the 1990s; and so on. All of this is true enough, but it is also true about a lot of places besides Russia, whose specific case therefore remains to be explained.

I believe that the crucial factor in explaining the peculiarity of the Russian case (or, to use the Churchillian words, the "key" to the Russian "enigma") has to do with developments in Russian nationalism, or the Russian perception of the world and Russia's place in it.

The concept of nationalism mostly brings to mind small nations striving for independence from larger ones. But big-nation nationalism is [End Page 34] no less important, even if many contemporary analysts of international relations fail to gauge its significance. Small-nation nationalism is typically about sovereignty, about being recognized as a player that can make its own choices. But great-power nationalism is about participation in determining the world order, about having a voice in setting international norms. It is about the recognition not merely of sovereignty, but of greatness. Failure to attain such recognition leads to deep feelings of resentment: It is the note of resentment that makes this variety of nationalism the most powerful factor in international politics, especially post–Cold War politics.

The syndrome is mostly characteristic of nations that once had, but have now lost, great-power status. Russia is one of the most conspicuous cases of great-power resentment, though certainly not the only one. Such resentment expresses itself in various ways in the behavior of nations as different as France, Turkey, Iran, and China.

The Mainspring of Policy

The most popular target of such resentment is the United States—not necessarily because it has done something wrong (it may have done so, of course, but that is not at issue here) but because it is the great power of the day. The resentment may also take as its target a vaguer entity called "the West," because in the modern world, "the West" has acquired the collective moral power to set norms in politics and much more besides.

This feeling of resentment, rather than some rational calculation of national self-interest of a type familiar to Westerners, is the major explanatory factor behind many of the steps that Russia has been taking in the international arena. Moscow's August 2008 invasion of Georgia and subsequent recognition of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, for instance, was meant as a direct response to the NATO bombing of Yugoslavia a decade ago and the subsequent Western recognition of Kosovo after it declared independence in February 2008. Striking at Georgia certainly brought psychological satisfaction: Russia wanted to make a point to the West, and it did so. Whether this served Russia's "national interest" in some objective sense is another matter entirely.

Russia's predicament as a fallen great power is also relevant to understanding its domestic politics. What is notable about the trajectory of Russia's development since communism gave...


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pp. 34-38
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