Russian Focus On Middle East Unrest Points To National Identity Crisis


Both the Russian authorities and members of the Russian opposition are currently discussing the future of their country not as they usually did earlier on the basis of European models but rather in terms of unrest in the countries of the Middle East, a shift that a leading Moscow commentator says reflects a serious national identity crisis.

Writing for the portal, Dmitry Shusharin notes that “at the endof the 1980s, progressive Soviet society was delighted by the velvet revolutions.” That is what Russians need, its members said. And things “almost turned out that way, although not completely” (

“The countries of tank socialism returned to the national histories that had been interrupted,” and “Russians put an end to the artificial and anti-national Soviet Union and got a chance to establish anew [their] national statehood.” In short, Shusharin says, “The velvet revolutions were a worthy model for emulation.”

The same thing was true of the so-called “color revolutions,” he continues, all the more so because these were “events in countries which had more in common with our country than just common borders.” But now, the commentator says, Russians appear to be focusing on other models.

Russian attitudes “to the destabilization in the enormous space from the Maghreb to the Far East,” Shusharin says, “is extremely strange.” In talking about this unrest, those in power are “repeating the clichés about a conspiracy of unseen forces, exactly the same thing that they said during the color revolutions.”

And “the progressive intelligentsia” is also using clichés, albeit “with a different tonality.” For them, what is happening are “positive changes” and “popular uprisings,” Shusharin continues. “And of course,” such people are talking about “the victory of Twitter over tyranny.”

Both sides, the commentator suggests, know better about what is taking place, “only the powers that be do not want what is taking place, and the color forces dream about the possibility that Russia will drawn into this process.” This is clearly a sign of “an identity crisis: 20 years ago, [they] looked for models of political behavior in Europe; now, they are looking elsewhere.”

This “identity crisis” of Russians, one that suggest they see themselves no longer in terms of Europe but rather as part of “the periphery of the civilized world” could lead to “a new isolation of Russia if the ruling elite [as a result] refuses to take part in joint action with other countries in the resolution of the new problems.”

By focusing on the paternalistic regimes in the Middle East now in crisis rather than on the liberal democracies of the West, Russians are effectively viewing themselves as part of the former and thus at risk of taking similar steps to overcome that crisis within their own country, something that could make the situation in Russia itself even worse.

Moreover, when one examines the nature of the crisis in the Middle East, Shusharin says, one observes that there is a combination of enormous natural wealth and “the impossibility of self-realization in the clutches of an archaic social system,” which have “played such a significant role in the birth and development of contemporary terrorism.”

And what is “the main thing: for the paternalistically oriented population, [expanded government aid] becomes just the same kind of narcotic as oil dollars. Without a change of the basic stereotypes of behavior, above all labor norms and values, nothing changes in these countries.”

An example of this within Russia, Shusharin suggests, “is the attempt at the pacification of Chechnya and the fate of investments in the North Caucasus.”

Consequently, he argues, “the destabilization of the periphery is not an occasion either for paranoid unmasking of the moves of ‘the Washington obkom’ or for happiness about the renewal of the world as at the time of the velvet and color revolutions.” There is no movement forward, at least not yet; at best, there will be “a cyclical renewal of the ruling elites.”

But Shusharin concludes that “the Arab scenario” does not “threaten” Russia “for one simple reason.” Russia already was infected with “’the Arab disease,’ which was given birth by the heightened paternalistic expectations of the population.” That revolt took place in Russia “already in 1993.” And no one could call that revolt “massive.”

Russians therefore should not be considering the Arab situation as a model for their future. Instead, Shusharin argues, they should be asking themselves “why machinations with elections … which have become the basis for color revolutions in other countries do not generate anger in the Russian voter.”

Paul Goble

Paul Goble is a longtime specialist on ethnic and religious questions in Eurasia. Most recently, he was director of research and publications at the Azerbaijan Diplomatic Academy. Earlier, he served as vice dean for the social sciences and humanities at Audentes University in Tallinn and a senior research associate at the EuroCollege of the University of Tartu in Estonia. He has served in various capacities in the U.S. State Department, the Central Intelligence Agency and the International Broadcasting Bureau as well as at the Voice of America and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Mr. Goble maintains the Window on Eurasia blog and can be contacted directly at [email protected] .

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