Putin's imperial dreams
The San Diego Union - Tribune
December 19, 2004

To divide a people in order to conquer them is an immoral strategy that has endured throughout recorded history. From Alexander the Great to Stalin the Cruel, variants of that strategy have been used to keep nations in thrall to the will of an emperor.

We are now seeing this strategy at work again as President Vladimir Putin stealthily seeks to restore Kremlin supremacy over the lands treated as "lost" when the Soviet Union imploded in 1991. In so overplaying his hand in Ukraine's recent election, however, Putin clearly revealed to the world his neo-imperialist designs.

In the wake of the euphoric mass protests in Kiev, Russia's president has since said that he can work with whatever government Ukraine's people choose. These are mere words, for in mind and action Putin does not want anyone to rule Ukraine that he has not put in place. No price is too high to achieve that end, so traditional threats about dividing Ukraine have been used.

I speak as someone who has been on the receiving end of Russian imperialist designs. When Lithuania and then the other Baltic States Estonia and Latvia which were occupied by Stalin early in World War II, seized their opportunity for freedom in 1990-91, the Kremlin did not sit on its hands. It knew that the rest of Russia's colonies the so-called "Soviet republics" would want to follow the ungrateful Baltic countries into freedom.

Although Russia's rulers were by then communists in name only, they didn't hesitate to reach for the old Leninist recipes. They began to foster and incite splits and confrontations. They stoked supposed resentments among different national or ethnic communities based on Lenin's idea that even small groups of villages could demand territorial autonomy.

Note the word "territory." The demands were never about normal cultural autonomy as a means of continued identity and supposed self-protection. Only territorial autonomy, it seems, would do.

This way, minorities become easily manipulated majorities. Divide enough, stoke enough resentment, and a nation becomes nothing more than a ruined society within a national territory. Arm some of these manufactured minority structures so that they can demand autonomy at the barrel of a gun, and you get the kind of chaos the Kremlin can use to reassert its control.

Fortunately, Lithuanians as well as Estonians and Latvians understood this game. It failed also in Crimea when Russia sought to deploy its old strategy of divide and rule there in 1991. But these defeats did not inspire the Kremlin to abandon the basic strategy. On the contrary, Russia's imperial ambitions persisted, and persistence has paid off.

Around the Black Sea, Russia has called into being a series of artificial statelets. Georgia and Moldova have both been partitioned through the creation of criminal mini-states nurtured by the Kremlin and which remain under its military umbrella. Indeed, in the very week that Putin was meddling in Ukraine's presidential election, he was threatening to blockade one of those statelets, Georgia's Abkhazia region, after it had the temerity to vote for a president the Kremlin did not like.

Moldova has been particularly helpless in the face of the Kremlin's imperial designs. A huge Russian garrison remains deployed in Transdneister, where it rules in collaboration with local gangs. Proximity to this lawless territory has helped make Moldova the poorest land in Europe. To the east, Armenia and Azerbaijan were pushed into such bloody confrontation at the Kremlin's instigation that the only way for them to end their ethnic wars was to call in the Russians as in Transdneister for a kind of "Pax Ruthena."

Now Ukraine's people may face a similar test after supporters of Viktor Yanukovych threatened to seek autonomy should the rightful winner of the country's presidential vote, Viktor Yushchenko, actually become president. Who can doubt that the hand of Russia is behind this? Would Moscow's mayor Yuri Luzkhov, a loyal creature of Putin, have dared to attend the rally where autonomy was demanded without the sanction of the Kremlin's elected monarch? Indeed, Putin openly claims this part of Ukraine as a Russian "internal matter."

It is to be hoped that Ukraine's Russian-speaking citizens, having witnessed the economic despair and sometimes the bloodshed caused by the Kremlin's manufactured pro-autonomy movements, will realize that they are being turned into Putin's pawns. The test for Viktor Yushchenko and his Orange revolutionaries, as it was for Lithuania's democrats in 1990-91, is to show that democracy does not mean that the majority suppresses any minority. Lithuania passed that test; I am confident that Viktor Yushchenko and his team will do so as well.

But Europe and the world are also being tested. Russia is passing from being the Russian Federation of Boris Yeltsin to a unitary authoritarian regime under Vladimir Putin and his former KGB colleagues. Europe, America, and the wider world must see Putin's so-called "managed democracy" in its true light, and must stand united against his neo-imperialist dreams.

The first step is to make Russia honor its binding commitment to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, as well as to the Council of Europe, to remove its troops from Moldova and Georgia. Any plans to "defend" Yanukovych and the eastern part of Ukraine by military force must be confronted.

Landsbergis, Lithuania's first president after independence from the Soviet Union, is now a member of the European Parliament. This commentary was written for the Prague-based Project Syndicate.