Who is Actually Subjecting Others to Finlandization?

15:46 03.06.2010 • Armen Oganesyan , Editor-in-Chief, International Affairs



The future is bleak if the present is burdened with a legacy that still awaits rational analysis... Skimming through the Western media, it is hard to take seriously occasional complaints that today's Russia is subjecting its neighbors to what used to be known as Finlandization in the Cold War era. In the context, one can't but recall the aggressive Finlandization – or, in the US terms, Canadization – that Russia had to endure in the 1990ies.

As an influential US paper wrote recently, over the past two decades proponents of humanitarian interventions have remained convinced that some countries are not entitled to independent domestic policies and should face punishment for defiance. During the period of time, the concept of limited sovereignty was imposed on a number of states by external forces while others - who chose to partake in the EU - in fact adopted it freely, at least on the formal level. A Russian writer remarked ironically that freshness of foodstuffs is a condition that affords no gradation. The same should normally be true of sovereignty – the phenomenon known as limited sovereignty clearly invites a less diplomatic descriptive term.

From the practical standpoint, the question is: do the rules of the zero-sum game apply to global politics and does a limitation of a country's sovereignty automatically translate into a strengthening of the sovereignty of others at its expense? The recent history and more distant past both seem to show that – regardless of whether the degrading treatment of a country was backed by military force or by “peaceful” means - the answer is No. Sooner or later the strategy of inflicting geopolitical, economic, or moral offenses backfires. History invariably furnishes evidence supporting the view, even though it may seem idealistic and naïve because of the delay between the offense and the consequences for the offender.

The stretching of resources of great powers to the limit, the unchecked swelling of the bulk of their new obligations, the chain reaction of clashes over spheres of influence, and the humiliating defeats suffered by those who resort to aggression (which is an extreme form of disregard for the sovereignty of others) are the costs paid for crushing national sovereignties in the XX century. The colonial character of the British Empire and its nihilistic attitude towards the sovereignty of dominions not only undermined the Empire but eventually dealt a blow to Great Britain's own sovereignty, largely making it a dependent partner of the new superpower - the US.

When I discussed the theme with a British colleague of mine, his predictable objection was that the Russian Empire did not treat its colonies any better. Naturally, I said that many nations opted for the incorporation into the Russian Empire voluntarily or because – due to the threats posed by their foes - the alternative open to them at the moment was not the loss of national identity and statehood but downright genocide. The pragmatically-minded Brits tend to be unreceptive to “humanitarian” arguments, but even non-Russian authors do admit that the status of Russians in the Russian Empire used to be in many respects akin to that of natives rather than of representatives of the dominant race in the overseas possessions of European empires. In contrast to most European empires, the Russian Empire was not colonial in the exact sense of the word. For example, non-Russian subjects of the Russian Tsar routinely had to pay less in taxes than their Russian peers and enjoyed such advantages as exemptions from serfdom and conscription (I. Busygina, A. Zakharov, Socio-Political Lexicon). Moreover, quite unusually for an empire, some provinces of the imperial Russia were much more developed than the core of the Empire. By the turn of the XX century, Russians – the nominally imperial nation - made up only 44.5% of the Empire's population, thus being a de facto minority.

In an arrangement that would have been ideologically unacceptable for the British Empire, the Russian Empire carefully preserved the identities of the nations under its auspices. Across the Empire's provinces, there was no uniformity of governance, which instead conformed to local customs and conditions. Upon incorporation, the majority of provinces retained their original administrative, cultural, and religious establishments and land ownership systems. Non-Russian elites were granted the status of Russian gentry and offered vast opportunities to integrate into the central administration.

The sole argument that today's Russia is not the former Soviet Union should suffice to dispel the myth reanimated by the Western media that Moscow is pressing for some sort of Finlandization in the post-Soviet space. A much more important point, though, is that – mindful of the Soviet phase of its history – the present-day Russia is, intuitively or based on rational analysis, avoiding the trap of geopolitical hyperambitiousness. Notably, this happens to be the kind of caution some of its counterparts neglect to exercise.

Apart from profound ideological regards, a watcher who fails to discern irony in the concept of Finlandization of Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, and Ukraine must lack not only realism but no less sense of humor. It should be remembered that the term was coined in the completely different settings of the Cold War as a warning to Europe against becoming overly dependent on the USSR. At that time, concerns over such dependence were spurred by the plans for massive energy supplies from the Soviet Union to Europe and even then served as a propaganda cliché.

Europe's current identity crisis is in part explained by the evaporation of the perceived Soviet threat and the admission of several former eastern bloc countries to the EU. The likeliest resolution is the adoption of a new European doctrine, but putting it together – and not diluting the document with verbiage in the process - is an uphill task given the fact that the doctrine should reflect a supranational ideology of an alliance of countries where populations have different mentalities and deeply entrenched beliefs in national sovereignty. The institution-oriented approach of Brussels is premised in the assumption that unified standards and regulations are Europe's panacea, while injecting any ideological elements into the design is unnecessary if not risky. Still, the thinking of the European majority is not dominated by bureaucratic instincts to the point of precluding the realization that life tends to evade formal schemes.

Europe and Russia have adopted markedly different approaches to overcoming their respective identity crises. Europe focuses entirely on the current realia and deliberately ignores the broader context of its own history. It seeks to define its status and role in the global developments exclusively in terms of the present-day public discourse. In contrast, for Russia deepening the understanding of its history – seen as useless unearthing of artifacts of the past by an average European - is an inescapable phase of the identity search. It may seem surprising to the West that, confronted with the challenges of modernity, Russians are eagerly probing into their history, but the above difference in approaches is, for example, the explanation behind Russia's preoccupation with the task of countering historical revisionism.

The truth is that it would be in the West's best interests to let Russia sort out its history without hindrance. The traditional Western stereotypes concerning Russia are common knowledge, no serious new ideas are looming on the horizon, and remakes of old concepts like the mythical Finlandization leave an impression of complete absurdity. Not only Russians are keenly aware of the absurdity, by the way – the advent of B. Obama and his new Administration finally prompted the most unconstrained of the US media to come up with alternative assessments of Washington's policies under G. Bush: “Washington wanted to create a balance of power that is distinctly unfavorable to Russia on Russia’s borders, and it wanted to secure a sphere of influence maintained by openly anti-Russian governments. It also wanted to make Kosovo an exceptional case... The U.S. cannot trample on state sovereignty some of the time, actively expand its sphere of influence in the vicinity of other major powers and declare publicly an intention to create «a balance of power that favors freedom», and then react with outrage and shock when other major powers imitate the U.S., attempt to limit the expansion of America’s sphere of influence and attempt to shift the balance of power back again in their direction” (The American Conservative, May, 2010).

Sounds refreshingly adequate, doesn't it?