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Chechnya, Russia and the World

MOSCOW: As war in Chechnya winds down to a low level conflict, it is time to revisit the question of what the war was about and where it will lead. The West reacted to the conflict as a revival of Russian imperialism, a sign that Russia's relations with the world may grow cold again. Many Russians, including democratic reformers who do not fully support Russian policy, feel misunderstood.

When Russians speak of their national interests people see visions of a Soviet-style empire striking back. Nonsense. Except for a small number of fanatics and a few Slovophiles, Russians see no way back to the imperial past.

Nor do they want it, even if they could have it. Today, no irredentist/nationalist movement has significant support in Russia; nothing like the 15-30% of the vote for radical nationalists found in France and Austria. I think the Russians don't get much credit, even recognition, for the unprecedented equanimity with which they shrugged off centuries of imperial tradition. One reason Russia accepted so peacefully the break-up of the Soviet Union was that many recognized that empire and democracy were incompatible. What Russians seek is economic renewal that will pave the way for Russia to play a more important role in the life of Europe and the world.

This is not to say that there is no resentment about the way Russia is treated. For a decade we experienced humiliation after humiliation: the loss of superpower status; vast and disorienting social problems; NATO's eastern expansion. No one pays any attention to Russia: not over Yugoslavia; not over decisions concerning former soviet republics, where significant Russian populations reside. The West often claimed to be helping; Russia made a show of gratitude. But honestly speaking, nothing has been done that could not be explained by pure self interest.