Fateful August: four dates that still matter

by Nina Bachkatov

August 2016 is gone, with numerous references to the 25th anniversary of the putsch of 1991 and other critical events, all in the month of August, that still weight on Russian internal and international policies.

The putsch by hardliners opposed to president Gorbachev’s reforms in 18-21 August 1991 has been the most dramatic because the putschists, who acted to save the Communist regime and prevent the signature of Gorbachev’s new Treaty of the Union, gained the opposite. Their action paved the way for the end of the Soviet Union four months later. Not only did Boris Yeltsin emerged winner in his fight for power against Mikhaïl Gorbachev but he dissolved the Communist Party, attracted around him the young Turks dismayed by Gorbachev’s refusal of their radical reforms, and liberals who believed that an independent Russia would be easier to reform than the rigid Soviet Union. It inspired successive declarations of independence or/and sovereignty by other republics (even if, as Russia, they stay part of the Soviet Union de jure and de facto until its dissolution in December 1991).

The financial crisis of 17 August 1998 convinced Russian elites that Boris Eltsine had to go and reinforced popular feelings that economic reforms had been launched by privileged circles for the good of a small minority guided from the West. The image projected by the crisis is still central to Russia’s attitude towards the outside world – that only strength is respected. The conclusion of most Russians (then and now) is that the reforms, which proved disastrous, were encouraged as a way to destroy the Russian economy and finally open the doors of the country’s richest sectors to international groups. Even liberals drew a parallel with what happened in June 1991 when Gorbachev came back empty-handed from an historic G7 meeting, and was popularly discredited for failing to obtain the aid he had hoped for. All of which explains why the 1998 financial crisis can be seen as the primal trauma of Vladimir Putin who, in successive foreign policy doctrines, would assert state control of a large swathe of the economy, especially in strategic sectors, and limit international debt in the interest of national security and independence.

The blowing blow-up of apartments in Moscow on 31 August 1999 lent justification for the operations in Dagestan which started earlier that month and led to the second war in Chechnya – up to the point that some people claimed that Vladimir Putin’s secret services orchestrated the event. Today, Chechnya has been pacified under autocratic Ramzan Kadyrov who is pushing to the extreme the demand of Chechens for the right to live according to their traditions, under their own leaders – something they quoted regularly when asked why they took arms against Moscow power in the early 90thies. President Putin took them at their word, letting ‘local leader’ Kadyrov go his own way, as long as violence was kept under control. He has also provided Chechnya with copious federal funds and closed his eyes to abuses as long as they stay ‘local’. People continue to flee, proof that the situation is far from satisfying for the population. However, the worst predictions have not been fulfilled.

The sinking of the submarine Kursk on 12 August 2000, killing all 118 sailors on board, was the first big test of personality of Vladimir Putin as president. He failed it by deciding to leave the handling of the disaster to professionals, and staying away gained the reputation of cold fish that will take years to overcome. The humiliation of the sinking can also be seen as the start of a decade-long effort to restore the greatness of the Russian fleet, so long starved of funds.

The political repercussions of the Russian operation in South Ossetia in 7-12 August 2008 are still felt today. The war discredited Georgian president Saakashvili and his party, but the republic’s new authorities stick to the point that, as much as they would like it otherwise, Georgian-Russian relations can not be normalized as long as Tbilisi does not regain control on the ‘occupied territories’ of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. In the meantime, the previous open hostility between Tbilisi and Moscow has gone and Russia is satisfied to live with a neighbor which, without being a friend, is not an enemy. Internationally, the operation in Georgia has meant a step back in relations between Russia and the West, and especially with NATO, since the memory of what happened in 2008 has poisoned discussion of the Crimean question. Similarly, the violence in Eastern Ukraine is seen as a pattern of Russian foreign policy. On a military point of view, Russia has learned from its military shortcomings during Georgia’s operations, especially in communications, allowing the surprise operation in Crimea and decision to reinforce NATO against a threat by aggressive Russia.

The exclusion of Russian athletes from much of the Olympic Games of August 2016 (and a total ban of the Paralympics) took Russia by surprise, with hope of a last minute settlement. The many medals nevertheless won by Russian participants has reinforced the popular feeling of unfairness, and made it seem yet another episode on a decade-long Western plot to prevent Russia from appearing as a successful country. Sadly enough there was no need of media hysteria and official propaganda to boost that effect. The feeling in Russia is now that “whatever we do, they will find something wrong so we simply no longer care”.

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