Central Europe Review: politics,
society and culture in Central and Eastern Europe
Vol 0, No 35
24 May 1999

Sam Vaknin B A L K A N   E N C O U N T E R:
The Defrosted War
Russia's role in a brave, new world
Dr Sam Vaknin

A President almost impeached. An important politician sacked due to incompetence. Business tycoons under investigation. The USA? No, this is the new, post-Communist, Russia. Many firsts, meager experience, numerous blunders. Is it democracy in action? No, it is simply autocracy exposed. The same machinations went on in Ivan the Terrible's court, the same conspiracies enshrouded Peter the Great's cabin and the same conflicts besieged Stalin. Ask Khruschev.

The great mistake of the West is the deeply ingrained, naive belief in progress. History is cyclical. Otherwise, we could have learned nothing from it. The nations of the Balkans will still be dividing and re-dividing their blood stained enclaves and the Russians will still be under autocratic rule and the Americans will still be moralizing in the year 3000. History teaches us fatalism or, at least, determinism.

Russian autocrats refined the art of divide et impera (divide and rule). They've always had a keen eye for conflicting interests. They pitted one group against another, dangling carrots aplenty in front of the drooling vassals. The recent shuffle is no different.

There are three major camps in Russia today. There are the "Reformists" - young, well educated, pro Western, with economic savvy, forward looking, corrupt. There is the "Old Guard" - old, guarded, backward, centralist, anti-Western (actually, anti-American), corrupt. And there are the nationalists - ideologically eclectic, rigid, radical, dangerous, corrupt.

Yeltsin is the ultimate puppet master. The Old Guard was good to stabilize a nose-diving economy and a disintegrating body politic. They knew where the levers were and how to use them, they possessed all the right dossiers, they were chums with the Communist Duma. But they proved to be too independent and too dangerous. They aspired to the presidency (Primakov). They were too anti-Western and, thus, risked the only reliable source of financing in the absence of tax collection (IMF funds). They espoused geopolitical brinkmanship. They were Cold War in an era of defrosted war. There is no money in Cold War mantras. In an age when money is the only ideology, they did not adhere to the party line. They posed a threat not only to Yeltsin's authority but to the very economic well-being of Russia.

Having looked into the abyss in the early stages of the Kosovo crisis (remember the re-directed ballistic nuclear missiles), Yeltsin engaged in a surprisingly elegant volte-face. He appointed Chernomyrdin, a pro-Western, quasi-Reformist, to contain the Kosovo damage. And he fired Primakov and Ivanov, the hawks. The IMF gave Russia 4.5 billion dollars that, only a month before, it swore blue in the face it would not hand over. A coincidence, needless to add.

Yeltsin doesn't give a hoot about Kosovo. All he wanted was to re-establish his domestic authority and to quash especially insolent and increasingly dangerous investigations into his murky financial dealings. Kosovo was an added bonus. A joker in an already excellent hand. Yeltsin put it to deft use.

By sending Chernomyrdin to sort out the Balkan mess, Yeltsin killed a flock of birds with nary a stone. He signaled to the West that a pro-Western, pro-Reformist team is in control again and that the bad guys have been consigned to oblivion. He signaled to the Duma and to politicians of every color and denomination who is the boss. The Duma took the hint and promptly dropped the impeachment charges and confirmed the nondescript (but very ominous) Stepashin as the next scapegoat. He enhanced the geopolitical standing of Russia and already converted some of it into hard cash, averting an otherwise certain default of the Russian Federation. He allied himself with most of the "progressives" and "liberals" of the world from China to The Guardian in London. And, in his role as peacekeeper, he effectively extricated Russia from the war psychosis that Mr Primakov et al were trying to plunge the country into.

But why did the West, especially the USA, collaborate with this St Vitus dance?

Because they wanted Yeltsin to achieve all the above goals. Because it served to neutralize Russia as a potential, backdoor combatant, a la Vietnam. Because they really had no more effective channel of communication to Milosevic. Because it is better to have your dependent as mediator - than a real independent. Because they had no choice: many NATO members would have protested had Russia's help been rejected. And because Russia has to be part of any future settlement.

Sometimes, as Freud said, a cigar is just a cigar. Only this time it is a smoking cigar. There is more to the intricate USA-Russian choreography than meets the eye. The USA is in no hurry to finish this particular "air campaign." Meetings are scheduled a week apart. The same proposals and the same envoys keep shuttling back and forth.

This is because Russia and the USA see eye to eye. They want Serbia weakened and Milosevic dead (if possible). They understand that "Greater Serbia" is Milosevic's dream but the world's nightmare. Everyone is holding out. Everyone - Russia included - wants the Serbs to cease being a viable fighting force. As time passes, Russia will become more and more confrontational, but, this time, the culprit and the recipient of their vitriolic diatribes is likely to be Milosevic. It is good for the West, and it is good for Russia, because it is Russia that will fill in the vacuum left by the debris of the Milosevic regime. The USA couldn't be happier. It wants out of the Balkans - never to come back.

At this stage, the poor nations of the Balkans are deluded into believing in a future and a West-sponsored, "Balkan Marshal Plan." They are in for a rude awakening. The minute the war ends, the USA will vanish, leaving the resulting mess to the natives, to a fragmented Europe and to Russia, who has asked for it by getting involved.

The only money likely to be invested in the region by the USA is in the reconstruction of the Chinese Embassy.

Dr Sam Vaknin, 24 May 1999


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