By Fraser Cameron and Ron Asmus

Russian policymakers have often viewed the historical narrative of their country in ways contrary to actors in the west - nowhere is this more prevalent than in the erroneous line of thinking that describes the 1990s as a decade of purposeful humiliation by the United States and European Union.

Debate and free speech are the lifeblood of a democracy; that includes debates about history. Russia has often had a difficult time with its history. Inevitably the October 18-19 Deauville meeting of Presidents Nicolas Sarkozy and Dmitry Medvedev and Chancellor Angela Merkel has given rise to conspiracy theories. Were the three powers preparing to make a deal on Moldova, something Merkel proposed as an issue for discussion between the European Union and Russia when the two leaders met in July? Were the three powers going to 'sell out Georgia', as was reported in the Tiblisi press?

Conspiracy theories are often used to justify political actions. This is especially true in Russia where the 1990s are regularly portrayed as the decade when the West set out deliberately to 'weaken and humiliate' Russia. It took over half a century for Moscow to admit Soviet responsibility for Stalin's Katyn massacre. It still has never fully admitted responsibility for the illegal annexation of the three Baltic states or the subsequent mass deportations of their citizens to Siberia. Last year, President Medvedev even established a historical truth commission to monitor any attempts to undermine or diminish the USSR's heroic role in the Second World War. To be fair, Medvedev has recently shifted course, and has spoken out against Stalinism and warned of the dangers of attempts to revive the cult of the former Soviet leader around the VE day anniversary.

Vladimir Putin is, of course, also known for his pronouncements on recent history. His most quoted remark is undoubtedly that the downfall of the Soviet Union was 'the greatest tragedy of the twentieth century'. Russia would not be the first - or the last - country that has sought to rewrite history with a specific political purpose or agenda in mind. Perhaps nowhere is this more apparent than when it comes to the history of the 1990s. These years have assumed an almost iconic role in current Russian political discourse as the decade of western humiliation. The United States and Europe are regularly pilloried for having ostensibly sought to weaken and encircle Russia under Boris Yeltsin and deny it its rightful place in a new post-cold war European peace order.

Sweeping Assertions

Since taking office, Vladimir Putin has continuously promoted this claim and made it an essential foundation for his policies. Even though he was appointed by the late Boris Yeltsin and initially sought to continue a pro-western policy, Putin has largely built his legacy on a repudiation of those policies. His cultivation of a bogeyman in the west has served as an essential justification for many of his policies at home and abroad. These views have been promulgated not only by the Russian government but by large swathes of the Russian think-tank community and policy intellectuals. One principal propagandist of this distorted view of history is Sergei Karaganov, the chair of the Foreign and Defence Policy Council.

Like many of his colleagues, Karaganov has attempted to paint a picture of a 'triumphalist' west seeking maximum geopolitical advantage following the collapse of the Soviet Union. In a speech delivered in Prague on April 9, for example, Karaganov made a number of sweeping assertions. The Russians, he stated, not only had borne the brunt of the Communist dictatorship, but had also 'done more than any other nation' to put an end to it, a claim millions of Poles and Central Europeans might dispute. He then alleged that, after initial hesitation, the west began to behave 'like a winner' and took advantage of Russian weakness to consolidate 'geostrategic booty', mainly through enlargement of the NATO. Karaganov regrets that Moscow made a mistake by signing the Founding Act with NATO in 1997 as this document legitimised the bloc's enlargement.

Western Intentions

We leave it to Russian historians to debate what Moscow did or did not do right in the 1990s.We are also ready to admit that western policymakers may have made mistakes, for example in under-estimating the scale of change required in Russia. But when it comes to western motives and policy, there is one problem with the Putin and Karaganov line of argument. It just does not accord with the facts. Both authors were involved in the European Union and US policy debates about Russia in the 1990s.We challenge anyone to document any trace of triumphalism in Washington or European capitals. It didn't exist. On the contrary, the leaders of that era - George Bush Senior, Bill Clinton, Margaret Thatcher, Francois Mitterrand, Helmut Kohl, Jacques Delors - clearly went out of their way to seek an accommodation with Russia and to give it the chance to come closer to the west. Their main concern was a possible implosion of Russia - it hardly would have made sense to orchestrate a policy of humiliation for the eastern giant.

Moscow's signature on the 1990 Charter of Paris gave rise to expectations that Europe could finally be organised on the basis of freedom, democracy and the rule of law - and that notions such as spheres of influence would be banished once and for all. Countries were supposed to be able to choose their own domestic and foreign policies as the foundation of a new era of cooperative security. As regards Russia, the overwhelming western motive was to support a stable, independent, democratic Russia and to pull Moscow closer to the west as part of a strategy of building Europe whole and free. NATO enlargement was not motivated by a desire for 'geopolitical booty' or the containment of Russia. Instead, it was quite clearly part of a broader transformation of the EU and the Atlantic Alliance for a new era in which close cooperation with the Kremlin was supposed to be a constituent part. Both our words and our deeds clearly show that.

Why else would the EU support Russia's entry into the Council of Europe in 1996? Why else would the EU and US (against the wishes of Japan) support Russia's entry into the G8 in 1997? The EU offered Russia a Partnership and Cooperation Agreement (PCA) similar to the association agreements signed by the countries of central and eastern Europe. The main difference was that neither side envisaged Russia as a member of the EU. Brussels thought it would be too big to swallow while Moscow was not prepared to accept the limitations on its sovereignty that membership would entail. A substantial amount of technical assistance was also provided by the EU. Its effectiveness is another matter but that is hardly the behaviour of humiliation.

The same was true for NATO. It was open to any democratic state in Europe that could meet the entry criteria, similar to but less detailed than those for the EU. While most European allies could not envision Russia ever joining the Alliance, the US made it clear it could (as have both authors). Not only did NATO offer Russia the chance to develop a deep partnership, but it has refrained from conducting any kind of military exercises on the territory of new members even though it is entitled to do so. The fundamental principle, which all members continue to accept, is that no third country should have a veto on NATO membership.

The main motive for the previous rounds of NATO enlargement was to ensure democratic stability and security in central and eastern Europe. The reason why that region today is more stable and secure than at any time in centuries is precisely because of enlargement. That new security is not aimed against Russia. Indeed, it is very much in Russia's own interest to have a zone of stable, peaceful, prosperous countries on its western border. This was an argument that Putin himself accepted in 2001.

In reality these assertions about the 1990s are not so much about what actually happened - not about the past but the present and maybe the future. It is hard to escape the suspicion that they are an effort to create an alternative historical reality that justifies a more authoritarian line of politics at home and an anti-western foreign policy abroad. This wouldn't be the first time in Russian history that the enemy at the gate was invoked in order to justify the iron fist. Does it matter? Can we not just leave this debate to historians and get on with it? With a slight thaw in the air in relations between Russia and the west, shouldn't we look forward and not backwards? Well, it does matter. So long as Moscow rewrites this history to demonise the west, one must wonder if it is now honestly interested in cooperating with us. Perhaps we will know that the Kremlin is getting serious about opening up to the west when this fictitious account of the 1990s stops becoming official history and starts to be replaced with a more accurate and nuanced narrative.

(Fraser Cameron is Director of the EU-Russia Centre and Ron Asmus is Executive Director of the German Marshall Fund Office in Brussels.)


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