By Paul Goble
One of Ronald Reagan’s greatest contributions to the overthrow of communism and the disintegration of the Soviet Union was his identification of the USSR as “the evil empire,” a term that outraged Moscow but inspired many within its borders and prompted those beyond its borders to talk about decolonization as something inevitable.
Now, Nikki Haley, the US permanent representative to the United States, has introduced a term that has outraged Russian officialdom every bit as much Reagan’s words did. She has referred the government in Moscow as “Putin’s regime,” a turn of phrase that lumps it together with those of Kim in North Korea and Asad in Syria.
Russia’s permanent representative to the UN, Vasily Nebemzya was outraged. “In Russia, there isn’t a regime,” he responded angrily; there is instead “a lawfully elected president and an appointed government.” What is striking, Konstantin Gaaze observes, is that the Russian diplomat didn’t react to Russia being lumped together with them as “the axis of evil.”
According to the Russian commentator, the reason lies in the clash “between the political languages of the West and of present-day Russia. For Haley, a regime is a legal term; for Nebenzya, as for the entire Russian leadership, it is a political and theological one” (mbk.media/sences/on-nam-rezhim-kak/).
Philosophers have been classifying governments since Aristotle’s time, but the word “regime,” Haaze says, “appeared in the late Medieval period” to designate not governments but rather personal behaviors such as diet. It was extended to governments only after the French Revolution when people began to refer to the Ancien Regime.
Marx and Engels used it in that sense as well, and in Soviet times, “Stalin frequently used this term” both about the arrangements powers made for others and about the specific form of a government in place but not the entire system. In 1947, for example, the Soviet leader made the distinction between system and regime.
A system, he said, included economics and was the foundation, while “a regime is only a temporary and political phenomenon.”
According to Gaaze, “negative connotations began to attach to the term ‘regime’ in the second half of the 20th century,” both in Western and Soviet political thought albeit “for different reasons.” In the Soviet Union, the Kremlin referred to unfriendly post-colonial states as regimes, usually adding the adjective “puppet” or pro-American” to it.
By objecting to Haley’s use of the term regime for Russia, Nebenzya was doing no more than his Soviet predecessors had, insisting that Putin’s regime is neither “temporary” or “a puppet” of someone else.
Haley in contrast, “when talking about ‘the Putin regime, had in mind something entirely different. She was talking not about a deficit of legitimacy or about the absence of sovereignty.” Rather the reverse. She and other diplomats who have now used that term wanted to “stress two things.”
First, for them, a regime is “a group which has power but which has separated itself from the international community and acts against its interests.” And second, and even more important for them, such a group of people “acts exclusively in its own interests” and “against the objective interests of its own country.”
“The conclusion,” Gaaze says, “is that the rulers do this exclusively in their own interests. Kim Jong-un, Bashar Asad and Vladimir Putin above all want to rule and keep power and only then do something useful for North Korea, Syria or Russia.”
That is very difficult for Nebenzya to understand because already for a long time, Russian writers have argued that the interests of Putin and the interests of Russia are one in the same thing. Instead, they have suggested that without Putin, Russia would not exist and that if he disappeared, so too would Russia “as a subject of world politics.”
Haley’s words represent an indictment of the Russian state; and they show that the US ambassador “is thinking about the interests of the Russian people more than Nebenzya is: Regimes come and go,” her words imply, “but Russia remains and therefore to put all the blame on Russia and not on the Putin regime would be an exaggeration.”
And her words contain a message for Russians: it is entirely legitimate to “distance oneself from the policies” of the Putin regime which are “harmful for the interests of their motherland.” Putin is not Russia, she suggests; and Russia is not Putin.