MOSCOW: Any analyst who dares define the national interests of a country caught in a decade of near revolutionary upheaval should be suspected of intellectual adventurism. Yet today, more than ever, it is necessary for Russians, and for Russia's neighbors, to understand what motivates so vast a country. Despite the transitional nature of so much of Russian life nowadays, a new consensus about Russian national interests is visibly emerging.
Consensus could soon fall apart, particularly if communists win the presidency or if severe political infighting resumes. But even if either event comes to pass, some of the elements of this consensus will stick, for they reflect lasting changes in and around Russia.
Many elements in this set of interests are traditional; a notion both reassuring -- Russia is becoming predictable, at last -- and troubling. Two new elements, however, influence policy (and thinking about policy in Russia) and shed new light on these old interests: The pluralization and democratization of Russian politics. More voices and interests need to be accommodated. Should groups like the communists try to shove the country in a dangerous direction, large sectors in society would simply balk.
To define Russia's interests, begin with the basics: securing national independence and unity. Today, no one threatens Russia's independence, despite paranoid rants to the contrary. Threats to territorial integrity, acute just three years ago, have been eliminated, though vestiges are being dealt with in an ugly way -- witness Chechnya.