Since the collapse of the Berlin Wall 20 years ago, many former
communist countries of Central and Eastern Europe have distanced
themselves from Russia with a series of military, political and
economic reforms. But Russia itself is still struggling to lead an
effective military alliance, to modernize its resource-driven economy,
and to liberalize its authoritarian political system.
The collapse of the Berlin Wall on November 9, 1989 signaled not only the end of communism in Europe, but also of Moscow's control of the former Eastern Bloc. Several nations in the region have since entered the European Union and traded their membership in the Soviet-led Warsaw Pact for NATO. Independent Russian military analyst Alexander Konovalov says new NATO members sought protection against Moscow.
Konovalov says the Soviet Union imposed its political will many times, and although they would never openly admit it, the main reason those countries joined NATO is historic fear of Russia and the Soviet Union as powers that could impose something they do not want.
Russia has sought to organize a new defense alliance, the Collective Security Treaty Organization, which includes five other former Soviet republics. But in moves widely seen as snubs against Moscow, Belarus boycotted an alliance summit in June and Uzbekistan has refused to sign a key agreement on a rapid reaction force. Konovalov says Russia has also lost the initiative in another security group, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, or SCO.
Konovalov says many countries are seeking to join the SCO and they are currently being granted observer status, but the organization is not successful because it was organized by Russia, but because China is a member. He notes that SCO is an Asian, not Soviet organization.
Konovalov says the collapse of the Berlin Wall exposed Russia to market forces and revealed that its Soviet-era command economy was not competitive. Today, Russian leaders frequently talk about economic diversification, but the country continues to import the majority of its finished products and to export mostly oil, gas and other natural resources. This makes Russia heavily dependent on global price fluctuations. The RIA Novosti News Agency quotes Finance Minister Alexei Kudrin as saying the value of Russian exports would drop by $190 billion this year due to reduced worldwide demand.
The President of Moscow's New Eurasia Foundation, Andrei Kortunov, says the abundance of natural resources in Russia means there is little incentive for economic reforms. He says Russia also lacks another incentive that provided a big boost to former Soviet satellite countries.
"They wanted to join the European Union, and that was the key factor that defined their economic transformation policies," said Kortunov. "Russia doesn't have such incentive. Russia is not likely to join the European Union anytime soon. Therefore, there is no supergoal that Russia might pursue."
Kortunov says the Soviet-era social contract between ordinary Russians and the state continues by inertia. That contract, he says, presumes many ordinary Russians still expect the state to be responsible for their well-being.
"Under Mr. Putin, we had a restoration of the old social contract," he said. "On the one hand, the state provides citizens with growing real incomes, and at the same time, citizens - the population - are ready to provide their political loyalty to the state."
This inertia, says Kortunov, prevents many Russians from seeing the connection between their economic interests and the liberty to pursue them on their own.
Masha Lipman at the Moscow Carnegie Center agrees, but notes Russia has made considerable progress since the demise of the Soviet Union.
"The freedom of travel, there is a freedom to engage in entrepreneurship - if we compare this to the USSR, where private property and drawing profits were a crime," said Lipman. "This is a huge, huge difference, and for many people this opens new avenues to fulfill themselves. Not without limitations, not without reservations, but still a huge difference."
Lipman says some older Russians have nostalgia for the superpower status they enjoyed under the Soviet Union. As for the young, she says they have difficulty imagining the constraints of life in the totalitarian Soviet police state.
"It is indeed very hard to imagine, unless you lived in those days, how your very natural things were denied to you, like playing the music that you like, dress the way you like, enjoy yourself the way you like as a young person," she said.
Lipman says Russia today is a country in search of an identity; an identity that collapsed along with the Berlin Wall. She adds that many Russians have mixed feelings about that historic day, which Eastern Europeans used to revive their status as independent nations. Russians, however, appear torn between their Soviet and Czarist past; between communism and capitalism, and also between authoritarian and democratic rule.