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25 May 2015

Why are we doing this?

Our interest lies in Russia overcoming its phantom pains; thus, we are launching the ‘Intersection Project.’

“Why are you doing this?” a Russian friend recently asked me. “Why do you want to ‘convert’ Russia and change it your way?” After all, you will not succeed.”

My friend was referring to the work of the Centre for Polish-Russian Dialogue and Understanding, a legal entity founded five years ago by the Act of Polish Parliament as an initiative of the Polish government. I organized the Centre and have led it in its mission to build a constructive dialogue between the two countries and its citizens to improve understanding in Russian-Polish relations, ever since.

My colleagues and I are not interested in launching a crusade to ‘convert’ Russia. On the contrary, we seek to achieve the Centre’s stated mission by sharing with the Russian public the motives and reasons behind established views about Russia in Poland and by enhancing Polish knowledge about Russia as it is today. Additionally, we offer a platform of communication for all interested in participating in debate with Russia and about Russia from all over the world.

But my friend’s question of  “why” we do this demands an answer. The question is especially significant in light of The Intersection Project - the Centre’s new initiative to bridge the gap between Russia and the Western world. Launched by an international team, our aim is to reach both Russian and English speaking audiences interested in Russia’s political, economic, legal and social development. So, why then, are we doing this?

The answer is simple - we are concerned with what Russia is today and with what it will become in the future.

The debate over what Russia is, what it should be, its connection with European civilization, and its democratic prospects has a long history. It forms an integral part of Russian identity, political thought, and culture. Without question, this debate over Russia’s path of development, about what values and principles ​​should serve as the foundation of Russian society must be hammered out by Russians themselves. But the outside world cannot be satisfied with merely playing the role of a passive observer. How Russians choose to navigate their ship will trigger a wave of consequences for the rest of the world. Therefore, we cannot remain indifferent to what happens in Russia.

The Intersection Project is a tool to follow, analyze and discuss the moral and ideological aspects of the Russian debate, its political, economic, legal and social processes, and the resulting external implications. We invite those interested in a fair and honest exchange of ideas to engage in this dialogue. Contributors may write from the point of view of the “left” or the “right”. The only condition is a commitment to democratic principles and views. We invite everyone but those who accuse their opponents of  “treason”, being “foreign agents” or keen to “destroy” Russia.

Every initiative dealing with Russia, even the most innocent one, will sooner or later be confronted with the same set of questions which always arises in discussions about Russia: „A wy protiw’ kogo?” Whom are you against? What Russia do you serve? What Russia do you stand for? Does this initiative have a true purpose or will it do harm?

Our answer is this: ours is a pragmatic approach. We want to talk about a Russia that has a future. An imperial and authoritarian Russia does not.

If we look at the world’s most developed countries with high living standards, which due to innovation, are most responsible for stimulating progress, we will see that not a single country among them redraws its borders by force or conducts its foreign policy by threatening to annex it neighbours’ territories. The Russia that uses a policy of aggression with the goal of dividing the world into spheres of influence, subjugating other peoples, and implementing the principle of “the end justifies the means” is an archaic Russia. Such a Russia is of the past, and does not have a future. It is unlikely that Russian society is the only society in Europe that is unable to build a modern democratic system. We will strongly oppose the notion that Russia cannot develop a democracy.

But is this vision of a democratic Russia realistic? 40 years ago while working in exile in London, Juliusz Mieroszewski, a well-known Polish political thinker, asked, “Is that which is right realistic, or only that which is possible?” For all the skeptics from both the East and the West, Mieroszewski’s answer is instructive, “That which is right will never become reality if we doubt it is possible. What is right is much harder than realism. Force can be used to temporarily preserve injustice and the yoke. But only by defending what is right can one live and survive,” (Juliusz Mieroszewski, O kasztelaniach przygranicznych). We will encourage and promote such an approach to realism in the discussions on Russia and its future.

History shows that no country is doomed or predisposed to the imperial model of development. The formation of empires and their collapse were the results of historical circumstances, not God's plan. Empires disappeared as public participation in the political process became widespread. Over time, democracy led to the recognition of the individual and of equal rights of all peoples to self-determination. This, along with the development of national awareness of people living within the boundaries of empires, led to a change in historical conditions. Empires, like dinosaurs, became extinct.

The Soviet Union was Europe’s last empire. Its collapse was the natural outcome of a historical process, not human error which brought about the Egyptian Curse of Tamerlan on humanity. The fall of the Soviet Union created conditions to accelerate the development and improvement of living standards across Europe. Any changes are measured by their results. There are always victims, but the ultimate measure is the number of winners. The whole world won when Empires ended up in the dustbin of history!

The fall of the Soviet Union initiated a process of de-imperialization. Russian society and its elites had to alter their expectations about the potential of the state which was significantly reduced compared to its past. Russians continued to live where they had lived before, but Moscow was no longer the capital of a world superpower offering an alternative model of social and political development. When that alternative model failed, the axiological foundations of the Soviet superpower were destroyed. Russians were now living in a new state.

Developing awareness of the consequences of de-imperialization takes much time. The process is accompanied by psychological and political phantom pains which manifest themselves in many ways - nostalgia for past imperial status and for lost territorial sphere of political influence, as well as the emergence of political forces calling for revenge and for the restoration of the former empire.

The phantom pains that arose after the loss of the empire are a natural and historically understandable public reaction to the change in the state’s potential and the development model that characterized Russia for the past several hundred years. What is problematic today is that these feelings are politically instrumentalized and used by the Kremlin to fight its political and ideological competition.  The authorities openly declare that international law and principles of peaceful coexistence do not apply to Russia, a “distinct civilization” which does not share the “too casuistic” European tradition of law with its roots in Roman times. As the Constitutional Court Chairman, Valery Zorkin, argued, “The principle of the superiority of (international) law cannot put in doubt whether Russia is to be or not to be at all”. 

In February 2014, behind closed doors of the Kremlin, Russian President Vladimir Putin and a small group of advisers determined that Russia’s existential interest legitimized aggression against a sovereign Ukraine and the annexation of Crimea. Proponents of such an approach reason that without recognition of the permissibility of aggression on sovereign neighbours, Russia will not survive. This reasoning is characterized by imperial ambitions, allowing the unilateral use of force as a tool of Russia’s foreign policy. All this, of course, would affect the internal political process in Russia.

The need to protect the state’s interests over that of the citizen’s explains why the Kremlin has been playing with the slogan about ‘lifting Russia from its knees’. Any calls for systemic change are treated as a desire to harm Russia. This political manipulation is used to legitimize the concept that the use of force against Russian citizens may be an acceptable weapon in the Kremlin’s political arsenal when protecting the power of the current political nomenclature and its symbolic political system. This approach is no different from the communist slogan of: “Having once attained power, we will never give it up.”

The theory of Russian civilization distinctiveness is used to promote a vision for the development of Russia that has no alternatives. It perpetuates historical falsehoods which presume that European standards are not applicable in assessing the situation in Russia. As a distinct civilization, Russian need not adhere to European standards, as each civilization shapes its own norms and standards - even if the outcomes are poverty, poor infrastructure and technology and a lack of innovation.

Today Russia’s level of prosperity, quality of life, economic competitiveness and innovation does not meet 21st century standards . Since it falls short by these important measures, the Kremlin has had to look for other justifications to legitimize its aspirations to regain the former Soviet superpower status. The ‘national’ norms, were therefore introduced in the form of imperial traditions and glorification of past generations, which include the lives of millions of Russians, Ukrainians, Belarusians, Kazakhs, Jews, Tatars and representatives of other peoples living in the Soviet state who were sacrificed on the altar of victory over the Third Reich 70 years ago. Because of the Kremlin’s revisionism, we will also participate in the debate over Russia’s history as part of the Intersection Project.

But even critics of Russia’s current political system, sometimes unwittingly endorse Putin’s theory of ‘Russian special path”. I mean those disillusioned democrats who view Russia’s return to the authoritarian system through the prism of some civilizational DNA or uniqueness of Russian people which prevent them from living - or even having the wish to live - in accordance with European standards. Do they understand that the absence of alternatives, and shifting blame from Putin to the whole nation, actually contributes to the consolidation of Putin's myth that Russia is destined for a different future than Europe?

One may criticize Putin and his policies, but the Russian people, whose minds have been poisoned with propaganda, should not be blamed. To do so discredits the very idea of ​​democracy and European values which any European nation is capable of being adopting. Additionally, such a fatalistic position leads to the growing dislike among Russians of those who consider them a nation with a ‘slave mentality.’ These disillusioned democrats are playing into Putin’s hands, indirectly endorsing Putin’s idea of “a special path”. Moreover, by using what is actually quite insulting rhetoric, they undermine their credibility as well as their chances for Russians to pay them heed and listen to them. Given the current political circumstances in Russia, it is inappropriate to lay the blame on the Russian people.

To avoid misrepresentations by Russian diplomats reporting on the Intersection Project, I shall explain my general approach. I support Russia in overcoming its post-imperial phantom pains, in ceasing to be a semi-peripheral player, and in bridging the gap with the the most developed countries of the world, not only focusing only on increasing the prosperity of lucky few – members of Putin’s nomenclature. My colleagues and I would like the Intersection Project to contribute to this goal and to help realize it as soon as possible. I am deeply convinced that Russia will evolve into a modern, democratic country governed by the rule of law, a country in which national interests are defined in pluralistic debates and though democratic mechanisms. And if, by virtue of my position, those reporting on our project label me a ‘Russophobe’, so be it


Photo by Mariusz Kluzniak/CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

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