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Exit Empire

Dmitri Trenin of the Carnegie Moscow Center has published a new book entitled “Post-Imperium: A Eurasian Story,” which we assume, like the previous books that we’ve read, will advance a gentle, moderate version of how Russia arrived to its current form of statehood.  The Financial Times has a review of the new book, emphasizing Trenin’s glass-half-full view that Russia’s transition from Soviet Empire could have been much, much messier (although all that nonsense from the nationalists about annexing South Ossetia somewhat punctures Trenin’s idea that Moscow’s imperial nostalgia is a settled matter).

Russia has mounted “one of the most stunning demilitarisations in history”, he argues, and has come to “a basic realisation of all neighbouring states as geopolitical realities”. It lauded, but ignored, the late Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s call for a “reorganised Russia”, taking back Belarus, Northern Kazakhstan and Ukraine to Mother Russia. Compared with such imperial hangovers as the messy and murderous withdrawing roars of France, Portugal and the UK, Russia got out of empire “unbelievably well”.

Still, this is no glad endorsement of the new Russia. Trenin presents himself as unillusioned about his country and his fellow citizens, arguing that “the state is too corrupt to inspire national consciousness” and that it presents “an atomised society beholden to personalised power”. The surrounding former Soviet republics are held to it by ties, not of affection, but need – for energy. Yet they are pulled in various directions – towards Europe, China, Turkey and the Muslim world.

The largest charge Trenin makes is that the state has balked at modernisation of almost every kind. It needs to project soft power to its neighbours, but it prefers the old method of showing its claws. Its constitution claims a republican form of government, but the res publica is not ample enough to give its citizens real freedoms. Its economy is a one-trick pony, liable to stumble at every lurch in energy prices. It has nothing to offer the world in the way of innovation, creativity or even decent low-cost products. Though it cannot be of the EU, it could be of Europe, and create a common European space – but it will not. It is not a threat to the world, yet neither is it a boon, least of all to itself.