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Democracy vs Stability: The EU’s dilemma in Russia

Arthur Chrenkoff writes about European attitudes towards Russia:

Basically his summary is that Eastern European states, with strong memories of Russian & Soviet imperial rule, are desparate to not only forge stronger ties with Western Europe, but also to build up a democratic buffer between themselves and Russia.  Western Europe, by contrast, doesn’t fear Russia in the same way – it’s primary concern is the stability of Russia, and this takes priority over democratic reform – hence the Western (and especially French) sniffiness toward Polish and Baltic ‘interference’ in Ukraine.

As he puts it:

For the West, Ukraine is not the buffer, it’s the whole of the Eastern and Central Europe. It doesn’t matter if the buffer itself is democratic or autocratic, content or sullen; Russia trumps all. If she’s happy, then the West is happy, if she burps, the West gets indigestion, too.

I’d agree with that stability is the key pillar of EU foreign policy, especially with regards to Europe.  But I think it is becoming clear that the EU’s policy of maintaining Russian stability is increasingly conflicting with the EU’s underlying ideology of promoting stability through democracy promotion.

While democracy promotion was restricted to places like Greece, Spain and Portugal, or even Central Europe, it didn’t really make that much of a difference to those in charge in the Kremlin.  Government changes in states thousands of miles away, while of interest to them, were not significan threats to their security or their own hold on power, so they didn’t kick up too much of a fuss.  But the closer that democratic reform gets to Russia’s borders, the smaller Russia’s sphere of influence seems to the siloviki currently peeking out over the Kremlin walls. 

The closer the wave of democratic revolution gets to Russia’s borders, the closer the day is when the people of Russia will begin to demand a democratic revolution of their own.  Like the people of Ukraine and Georgia, they are beginning to recognise the post-Soviet revolutions for the false dawn that they were, and they will slowly begin to demand more and more accountability from a government that has no plans to give it to them.

The EU fears this day because, unlike revolutions in Ukraine or Georgia, the instability that comes with any regime transition may not be so easily contained in Russia.  Russia is simply too large.  The EU also knows that those currently in the Kremlin have no powerful outsiders to back them up in a crisis.  Leonid Kuchma, the outgoing Ukrainian President, at least has the security of knowing that his powerful protectors in Russia will (probably) not allow significant harm to come to him.  But what powerful outside protectors does Vladimir Putin have if he can’t hand pick his successor?  Where is his safety net should he be kicked out of office?  When the day comes, he’ll fight that much harder than Kuchma or Shervardnadze did, and that means an increased chance of conflict within Russia.  That is what the EU fears. 

The ideological logic of the EU means, however, that the EU cannot back away from promoting democracy – especially when the United States is heavily promoting it, too.  The EU may be about to face its greatest challenge in Russia, and it is one that many in Europe feel they may not be able to control.


  • Interesting idea – I guess it comes back to the old democratic theory about the desire of middle classes for political representation. Except, in this case, we’re talking about the upper upper middle classes.

  • Jim Hoagland’s latest column in the Washington Post speculates about the day when the “millionaires revolt against the billionaires” in Russia itself. (That’s how someone characterized the shift in the balance of power in Ukraine.)

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