Professor Veljko Vujačić: The Recent Election Doesn’t Strengthen Putin

Vladimir Putin's portrait. Illustration: Tpyxa_Illustartion.

Emphasizing that winning 87 percent of the vote and handpicking compliant candidates does not constitute a genuine election, Professor Veljko Vujačić argues that such practices do not strengthen Putin’s position; rather, they highlight the regime’s weaknesses. Similarly, the murder of Alexei Navalny does not demonstrate strength; it reveals weakness. He further asserts, “I find the term ‘dictatorship’ more accurately encapsulates the reality of the Putin regime than ‘autocracy’ or ‘authoritarianism’ because Putin’s behavior epitomizes dictatorship, where power is wielded outside the confines of law and constitution. Currently, his regime seems to be veering toward a weak form of totalitarianism.”

Interview by Selcuk Gultasli

Professor Veljko Vujačić, a distinguished scholar of Russian, East European, and Eurasian Studies at Oberlin College and Conservatory, is renowned for his deep understanding of Russian history and contemporary politics. In an exclusive interview with the European Center for Populism Studies (ECPS), Professor Vujačić argues, "The recent election doesn’t strengthen Putin." Through this lens, he peels back the layers of Putin’s grip on power, delving into the historical origins of autocracy in Russia. "It traces back to Ivan the Terrible and finds reinforcement during the reign of Peter the Great," he remarks, emphasizing the enduring legacy of authoritarianism.

Drawing upon his extensive research and firsthand experiences, Professor Vujačić sheds light on the fundamental drivers propelling authoritarianism and populism in contemporary Russia. "Populism has increasingly become a ubiquitous term in the Western discourse," he notes, "but it’s crucial to discern that populism typically originates from grassroots movements." Yet, amidst the rhetoric of representing the will of the nation, he argues, "the reality is that the state dictates to the nation, not the other way around."

With incisive analysis, Professor Vujačić explores the blurred boundaries between autocracy and dictatorship, challenging conventional narratives and revealing the intricate interplay between state power, societal dynamics, and geopolitical ambitions. "I firmly believe this regime qualifies as a dictatorship rather than simply an autocracy," he asserts, highlighting the shift towards personal rule under Putin’s leadership.

Furthermore, Professor Vujačić illuminates the internal dynamics shaping Putin’s governance approach, examining the suppression of dissent and the erosion of democratic norms. "The murder of Navalny does not demonstrate strength; it reveals weakness," he remarks, underscoring the regime’s vulnerabilities amidst mounting opposition.

Throughout the interview, Professor Vujačić’s voice emerges as a beacon of clarity, offering a nuanced understanding of Russia’s past, present, and future. As the world grapples with the implications of Putin’s regime, his insights serve as a timely reminder that the recent election does not fortify Putin’s grip on power, but rather exposes the fragility of his authoritarian rule.

Here is the transcription of the interview with Professor Veljko Vujačić with some edits.

Putin Regime Fundamentally Operates as a Dictatorship

Thank you very much for joining our interview series, Professor Vujacic. I want to start right away with the first question. What are the historical origins and fundamental drivers underlying autocracy and authoritarianism in Russia, considering both the factors driving their implementation by governing authorities and the societal dynamics that sustain them? Additionally, what are the key factors contributing to the observed state of autocracy in both historical contexts and contemporary Russia?

Veljko Vujačić: The origins of autocracy in Russia are hardly a mystery, given the extensive literature on the subject. It traces back to Ivan the Terrible and finds reinforcement during the reign of Peter the Great. This autocratic tradition became deeply ingrained, persisting even into the era of the Russian Revolution. Nicholas the Second, despite conceding to the establishment of a Parliament (Duma), maintained a personal relationship with his subjects, viewing himself as the rightful owner of the realm. While there are undeniable deep roots to this tradition, there’s a temptation today to overemphasize continuity while downplaying discontinuities.

One aspect often overlooked is the bureaucratic tradition. Having served as the provost of the European University in St. Petersburg for four years, I can attest that dealing with the Russian bureaucracy was often more challenging than anticipated. Instead of serving society, it often operates as an instrument of state repression. While autocracy garners attention, the bureaucratic machinery operates with its own dynamics. Pleasing the autocrat or one’s boss is paramount at all levels, leading to distortions in information transmission and feedback mechanisms. Many of the regime’s mistakes can be attributed to this dynamic, even concerning its own goals.

How do you perceive the evolution of populist nationalist rhetoric and authoritarian socio-political implementations in Russia, especially considering Putin’s prolonged tenure and recent electoral processes?

Professor Veljko Vujačić, a distinguished scholar of Russian, East European, and Eurasian Studies at Oberlin College and Conservatory, is renowned for his deep understanding of Russian history and contemporary politics.

Veljko Vujačić: Populism has increasingly become a ubiquitous term in the Western discourse, often associated with various forms of illiberalism, albeit occasionally aligning with left-wing ideologies. It’s crucial to discern that populism typically originates from grassroots movements, albeit frequently catalyzed by demagogues like Donald Trump in the United States. Conversely, left-leaning movements such as those championed by Bernie Sanders or Podemos in Spain also exhibit populist tendencies. Whether the Putin regime merits the label of populism remains debatable. While it does leverage populist rhetoric, asserting the primacy of the Russian people, it fundamentally operates as a dictatorship wherein the state reigns supreme over the populace. Hence, while there’s an appeal to the notion of representing the will of the nation, the reality is that the state dictates to the nation, not the other way around. Thus, it’s essential to avoid overgeneralizing the concept of populism.

When it comes to authoritarianism, there’s a discernible progression from what initially resembled a relatively mild authoritarian regime in the early 2000s. This has transitioned into a more pronounced emphasis on Putin’s personal rule, especially post-2014, notably following the events surrounding Crimea. The trajectory towards a more dictatorial form of governance became even more evident after 2012, notably following protests and Putin’s subsequent inauguration. Personally, I find the term "dictatorship" to encapsulate this reality more accurately than "autocracy" or "authoritarianism." But I guess we will continue this conversation within that vein.

Russia Seems to Be Veering toward a Weak Form of Totalitarianism

Considering your profound research on nationalism, autocracy, and authoritarianism in Russia’s historical and contemporary contexts, how would you characterize the current form of Putin’s regime? 

Veljko Vujačić: As I mentioned earlier, I firmly believe this regime qualifies as a dictatorship rather than simply an autocracy. Autocracy historically implied a stable system akin to a monarchy, where authority passed from one ruler to the next within a hereditary lineage. However, what we’re witnessing here is markedly different. For the past 24 years, it’s been characterized by one-man rule. The pivotal moment came in 2019 with changes to the Constitution, facilitating Putin’s continued presidency—an exercise of power that bypassed legal and constitutional boundaries, constituting a form of usurpation. This behavior epitomizes dictatorship, where power is wielded outside the confines of law and constitution. Unlike autocracy, which implies stability, this regime has rapidly transitioned from a relatively authoritarian system with limited citizen freedoms to a more dictatorial one. Currently, it seems to be veering toward a weak form of totalitarianism, though not on the scale of historical totalitarian regimes in terms of repression. Nevertheless, the trajectory is concerning, hinting at a shift towards a more oppressive system.

Current Regime Is More Problematic Than the Soviet One

Based on historical comparisons, how do you evaluate Putin’s regime compared to past authoritarian regimes in Russia, including those in the Soviet and tsarist eras? Are there significant continuities or differences between them?

Veljko Vujačić: I’d like to underscore the distinctions more prominently. While it’s undeniable that Putin’s background is rooted in the Soviet regime, particularly his socialization within the KGB, it’s crucial to note that Putin’s regime differs significantly from its Soviet predecessor in terms of stability and institutionalization. Recent events highlight this disparity vividly. Take, for instance, Putin’s spokesperson openly invoking nuclear threats on television—a scenario unimaginable in the Soviet era. During the Soviet period, there existed a stringent institutional framework, and any announcer who independently made such dire threats toward the West, such as "we will destroy London" or "we will deploy a nuclear bomb on Poland," would undoubtedly face swift removal by the Politburo and the Communist Party. This stark contrast underscores the evolving nature of governance under Putin’s leadership.

Paradoxically, in some respects, this current system appears to be more problematic than the Soviet one, particularly regarding institutionalization. Unlike the Soviet era, where power was distributed among various institutional bodies such as the Communist Party, with regular elections for the General Secretary and oversight from the Politburo, the present system hinges largely on the whims of a single person and his inner circle. If the General Secretary of the Communist Party deviated too far from the party line or took excessive risks, as exemplified by Khrushchev’s removal, there were mechanisms for replacement. Crucially, the Communist Party retained control over the KGB, not vice versa. However, in the current setup, there lacks such structured oversight. There’s a notable absence of party structures or civilian bodies regulating what Russians refer to as the "ministries of coercion" or "ministries of force." This absence underscores a significant weakness in the current governance model.

Who truly wields power in Russia today? Is it the former KGB or FSB? Without any meaningful institutional constraints, they seem to operate with impunity. Recent events, particularly the shocking images of torture circulated widely, underscore their unchecked authority. While the targets are labeled as alleged terrorists, their identities and culpability remain uncertain. Yet, the brazen display of their torment on television represents a departure from the clandestine methods of the Soviet era. In those times, dissenters were often silenced through incarceration in psychiatric facilities or covert torture, shielded from public scrutiny. Unlike the brutal purges of the 1930s, by the 1970s and 1980s, dissent typically led to imprisonment rather than execution. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, for instance, was expelled from the country rather than imprisoned, reflecting the regime’s uncertainty on how to handle outspoken critics. Others, like the Jewish refuseniks and even long-standing dissidents such as Vladimir Bukovsky, were eventually released, sometimes in exchange for political leverage. Despite the repressive nature of the Soviet regime, there was a degree of predictability in its methods—a stark contrast to the arbitrary rule characterizing the current regime. This arbitrariness is why I characterize it as a dictatorship.

There Are Significant Internal Obstacles to Putin’s Ambitions

Police officers detain a woman on Pushkin Square in Moscow, Russia, at a rally protesting war in Ukraine on February 27, 2022. Photo: Konstantin Lenkov.

 

Does the current regime in Russia persist in its historical expansionist policies as it seeks great power status? What could be the next step for the Putin regime in its politically revisionist and territorially expansionist pursuits following the attempted invasion in Ukraine?

Veljko Vujačić: Your question, while pertinent, risks overstating continuity. Undoubtedly, Russia has a history of expansionism, but it’s crucial to differentiate between the Soviet regime and the earlier Russian imperial one. The Soviet expansionism wasn’t akin to traditional imperialism; rather, it was driven by revolutionary messianism. Communism sought global triumph, advocating support for movements in places like Vietnam, Angola, and Cuba. This mission, and consequently its behavior, markedly differed from the goals and methods of the Russian imperial regime.

In the 1990s, a significant aspect often overlooked or forgotten—rather than actively suppressed—pertains to the collapse of the Soviet Union. It’s essential to remember that in 1991, it was Boris Yeltsin and the Russian Federation that played a pivotal role in the dissolution of the Soviet Union. At that juncture, Russia, or more precisely its elites, demonstrated a reluctance towards imperialism. They sought a new arrangement with the republics, indicating a departure from historical expansionist tendencies. Reflecting on the subsequent two to three decades, I may not be the most adept in matters of international politics, but it’s evident that there has been a significant geopolitical shift. The expansion of NATO, whether justified or not, was perceived by Russian elites as a threat, primarily on a psychological level, which influenced their perceptions and actions. Putin’s invasion of Ukraine can be seen as an attempt to redefine the terms of the international order.

The lack of significant repercussions for Russia’s actions in Crimea in 2014 just emboldened Putin. This historical expansionism and revisionism, particularly in terms of challenging the established international order, represent a relatively recent development. Putin’s actions can be seen as a form of retaliation for what he perceives as Western slights over the past 15 to 20 years. It’s noteworthy that during this period, Putin initially demonstrated cooperation with the West, supporting initiatives like the "war on terror" and granting the United States military access to bases during the Afghanistan invasion. At one point, he even wanted or at least he stated, expressed interest in joining NATO or a similar security structure. However, a shift occurred after 2007, notably marked by his Munich speech. Therefore, to better understand this expansionist behavior, it’s crucial to analyze the factors influencing Russia’s trajectory over the past 25 years.

Now, I doubt he would risk invading a NATO member, such as the Baltic States or Poland; the stakes would be too high. Even Ukraine presents significant challenges. Instead, his strategic focus seems to be consolidating control over territories like Donetsk and Luhansk, connecting them to Crimea to establish a secure land route to Sevastopol and its military bases. This appears to be the current extent of his ambitions. However, the future is uncertain. Putin may have allies in countries like Iran and China, albeit with varying degrees of reluctance. These forces could potentially destabilize the existing international order. Ultimately, the trajectory of this expansionism hinges on the evolving geopolitical context.

Furthermore, there are significant internal obstacles to Putin’s ambitions. Russia has already incurred substantial military losses, though the exact numbers remain undisclosed. A potential mobilization effort to bolster forces for a decisive victory in Ukraine—potentially involving several hundred thousand to half a million people—carries considerable internal risks. Opposition is emerging, with mothers of soldiers forming a social movement against further recruitment. This underscores a pervasive fear among Russians that their youth may be thrust onto the front lines. Despite the regime’s outward confidence, these internal constraints are crucial considerations.

Murder of Navalyn and Election Results Highlight Putin Regime’s Weaknesses

How do recent events such as the war in Ukraine, the murder of Alexei Navalny, and the presidential elections reflect or challenge the autocratic tendencies in Russia, particularly under Putin’s strongman leadership, analyzed through the perspective of authoritarian and nationalist populism?

Veljko Vujačić: I expressed my thoughts on the aspect of populism. Winning 87% of the vote and handpicking other compliant candidates to create the semblance of pluralism does not constitute a genuine election. However, what is more significant is the fact that hundreds of thousands of people queued up to collect signatures for the relatively moderate opposition candidate, Boris Nadezhdin who ran as a candidate for peace. Therefore, the fact that he could gather 300,000 to 400,000 signatures without any state support indicates the presence of a constituency for peace in Russia that is willing to actively engage.

Similarly, the murder of Navalny does not demonstrate strength; it reveals weakness. It is, in fact, a significant blunder. Whether it was intentional or a mistake that led to his exposure to torture and cold, resulting in his demise, the exact circumstances may never be fully uncovered. Nevertheless, it was a grave error on the part of those responsible. In Russia, figures like Navalny often become martyrs in the struggle against the state, gaining increased popularity in death or through prolonged repression and torture. Consider the examples of Solzhenitsyn and Sakharov; the history of Russian dissent is replete with such instances. Navalny will persist as a symbol of resistance to dictatorship and a rallying point for various opposition forces, whether through his wife, his collaborators, or others following in his footsteps. Therefore, it is clear that his assassination was a significant misstep.

Consider the case of the Kurdish leader (Abdullah Öcalan) whom Turkey has imprisoned for over two decades. Nelson Mandela endured 27 years in jail without being killed. Therefore, it wouldn’t have harmed Putin’s regime to keep Navalny in decent conditions in prison for an extended period. However, his assassination signifies weakness. Recent events, such as the terrorist attack, have exposed vulnerabilities within the regime, particularly its failure to ensure Russian security and stability. This incident, in which nearly 200 people were killed, and several hundred others injured, underscores a significant state failure that authorities are attempting to conceal. Despite efforts to suppress or manipulate events, they do not bode well for the regime. The election does not strengthen Putin’s position; rather, it highlights the regime’s weaknesses.

People mourn for Alexei Navalny in Budapest, Hungary on February 16, 2024. Photo: Alexey Gorovoi.

Please Support Russians Living Abroad

Considering the crackdown on dissent in Russia, how do authoritarian practices such as repression of opposition figures and independent media shape the political landscape under Putin’s rule?

Veljko Vujačić: Organizing against the regime in Russia is incredibly challenging. Minor posts on Telegram are landing people in jail with lengthy prison sentences, effectively breeding a generation of martyrs, many of whom are young and some are women. Traditionally, political prisoners in Russia have garnered sympathy from a significant portion of the populace, albeit not the entire electorate. Roughly 20-25% view such actions as wholly illegitimate. However, much of this dissent remains latent, stifled by severe penalties. It’s crucial to remember that over 20,000 arrests have been made in Russia since the onset of the war, possibly more. This indicates that Russian society is not entirely united behind Putin or the war effort. Monitoring Russian blogs, posts, and Telegram channels reveals a pervasive anti-war sentiment among the populace, who are weary and fatigued. This aspect is often overlooked in Western media coverage.

This isn’t a youthful nation. Russians aren’t overflowing with young individuals they can readily send to the front lines. It’s an aging population, predominantly consisting of pensioners who require support. Demographics are dire at present. Who would want to raise a child in Russia given the circumstances? They’ve suffered a significant loss of human capital, with perhaps a million people—potentially fewer—fleeing the country, primarily talented young middle-class individuals who could compete on the global job market. So, there’s substantial fragility beneath the facade of strength. 

However, Russia possesses a menacing poker card: nuclear weapons. This poses a formidable challenge for Western powers, and indeed for any entity, particularly when wielded by someone who acts recklessly and unpredictably, akin to a rogue state. We’ve witnessed how even North Korea can flout international norms with impunity, let alone Russia. That’s a big problem. Internally, organizing opposition is exceedingly difficult, a factor we must acknowledge and comprehend.

I concur with Yulia Navalnaya’s call within the European community: "Please support Russians living abroad, and refrain from revoking their bank cards, credit cards, or visas. Show generosity towards these individuals." However, it is imperative to exercise caution and implement security measures while extending support. As highlighted by the Czech president, there exists Russian citizens engaged in espionage activities, and it is vital to prevent their entry into Europe and Western nations. These individuals include bots, bloggers, and troublemakers. Nevertheless, it’s crucial to recognize the potential of this generation of emigrants to contribute positively to Russia’s future. Despite the presence of opposition abroad, it is essential to provide them with support to prevent their potential irrelevance, akin to the fate of Russian immigrants post the Russian revolution.

Given recent security challenges, how do you foresee events like the recent terror attack by Islam State Khorasan (ISK) influencing Putin’s governance approach and the continuation of his autocratic policies?

Veljko Vujačić: It’s evident that there’s an attempt to manipulate the narrative by linking it to Ukrainian fascists and other unfounded claims. Russia has long grappled with attacks from Islamist movements, evident in past incidents like the Beslan school shooting during the Chechnya war. There were radicals from Dagestan who went to fight for groups such as ISIS in Syria. These threats are not new; during my time in St. Petersburg, there was an explosion on the metro near a station I frequented with my child. Despite Russia’s extensive security apparatus, which includes a vast number of police officers, FSB personnel, and military forces, such incidents continue to occur, raising questions about their effectiveness.

Many Russians are skeptical of the official narrative attributing the events to Ukrainians because the individuals involved bear Tajik features. Tajik people are also present in Afghanistan, prompting people to question the connection. The absence of Ukrainian involvement raises doubts about the narrative’s credibility. It seems authorities are attempting to manipulate the story for their own agenda, but I doubt it will be readily accepted. Their efforts to spin the situation seem forced and unlikely to convince the public.

Professor, do you have any suspicions that the attack was carried out by ISK?

Veljko Vujačić: I’m not a security specialist, but I don’t believe the idea that somehow Putin’s FSB was behind this, as they may have been behind some of the explosions in Moscow and Ryazan attempted just before Putin’s assumption of power. At this point, I don’t subscribe to this kind of conspiracy theory. This event isn’t in their favor; it’s not something the regime would want, especially now when they need to mobilize more people for the war and garner more support. They’re aware that the election was fraudulent. Trust me, to build consensus, they need much more societal support. They don’t need a disruptive event like this. So, I see no reason to doubt Western intelligence services when they predict such events. They first received intelligence on the ground and through satellites, warning of a potential attack. They advised their citizens to stay away from Moscow concert halls weeks ago. Putin dismissed it as a bogus Western plan, and this is what resulted. I’m not part of those intelligence services; I’m not privy to that kind of information. Nonetheless, I have no reason to doubt that this is probably what happened.

Passivity of Russian Society in Response to War Creates Astonishment

Reflecting on your research, what key factors do you believe are crucial for understanding the persistence of autocracy and populism in Russia amidst shifting geopolitical dynamics and internal challenges?

Veljko Vujačić: I believe I partially answered this question. One aspect that I didn’t elaborate on is the astonishment felt by many Russian intellectuals, educated individuals, and professionals regarding the passivity of Russian society in response to war. They anticipated much more resistance, particularly regarding the recruitment of young soldiers. If there’s something that deeply concerns every person in Russia, it’s the prospect of their son going to war and possibly not returning home. This sentiment was evident in the 1990s, for instance, when attempts were made to mobilize Russian soldiers to participate in the conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan that erupted in 1988 in Baku, leading to pogroms, and later, war over Nagorno-Karabakh. There was a significant protest by Russian mothers in the Krasnodar region of Southern Russia, resulting in the cessation of recruitment. Similarly, in Chechnya, there were instances of Russian mothers mobilizing and even journeying to Chechnya to retrieve their sons from the army. However, this did not occur this time around. 

Another aspect often overlooked, although noted by observers like Marlene Laurel at George Washington University, is the substantial payments made to impoverished individuals to incentivize their participation in the war effort. In their circumstances, these payments were considerable, amounting to $5,000, $6,000 or even $7,000. This represents a significant sum of money that many people in villages and smaller towns would not earn over the course of several years. Thus, in a sense, they were bought to participate in the war through financial means.

I also believe there’s another factor that isn’t taken into account, and that is the Covid epidemic, not so much because of Putin’s isolation, which is often discussed. He was indeed isolated and cut off. I think what he realized was that the population was responding to mass death with relative indifference. Russia experienced a significant number of casualties from Covid, which was disproportionately high, almost comparable to the United States, despite having a population two and a half times smaller. I think Putin looked around and thought, “well, it doesn’t seem like people care too much if someone dies; they accept it fatalistically. So maybe I can send them to war.” 

Now, this is not what happened in the 1990s at all. There was much more resistance to that. And I think that’s a big surprise. Part of it is money, and part of it is that many of these people in the vast Russian provinces lead dreary day-to-day lives, and suddenly some of them can become heroes. Some of them can be elevated to positions of power or status, and so on. And glory is always very attractive in a society that is essentially dominated by wealthy oligarchs, even if they are state oligarchs under Putin. There’s a huge inequality in Russia, and the war serves as a mechanism for redistributing some money to those social strata. So, that’s one of the major obstacles to real opposition in Russia. But I think, again, that patience will run out as more and more young men return in horizontal positions from the front. That has to thin out at some point.

Pan-Slavism Is Dead

Selective blur on a T-Shirt with the Z letter and Putin portraits in Belgrade, Serbia, supporting Russia and the war in Ukraine on September 25, 2022. Photo: Shutterstock.

Lastly, do you perceive a sense of Pan-Slavic solidarity, shared emotions, and ideals between Putin’s Russia and other Slavic nations, like Serbia? How do Slavic nations generally interact with Putin’s regime in Russia, taking into account both political and emotional dimensions? Furthermore, what is the nature of the relationship between Putinism and Pan-Slavism?

Veljko Vujačić: Pan-Slavism is dead. I mean, how can there be Pan-Slavism when you’re attacking a fellow Orthodox nation, Ukraine, which you claim to be Russian, not even part of a Slavic brotherhood? But in the name of Slavic brotherhood, you’re bombing them, invading them, and killing them. Secondly, there’s no homogeneous Slavic world. It’s a myth; historically, Poles and Czechs dread Russian expansionism. They don’t want to see that again.

Serbia occupies a very unique position. This is because there’s an analogy to be drawn, as I did in my work, between the breakup of Yugoslavia and the breakup of the Soviet Union. Historically, Serbs viewed themselves as being on the right side of World War One. They were opposed to the attempts made by Austria-Hungarians and were victimized by them. They also emerged victorious in World War Two, with Allied assistance. There was significant resistance in Serbia initially by the monarchists, and later by the Communists, many of whom were ethnic Serbs, particularly those from Croatia and Bosnia who played a significant role in Tito’s Partisan Movement.

There’s this perceived loss. “We are nations that lost World War 2. The Germans are living well. The Japanese are living well, but we are not living well. We lost, and so there’s this perception of some kind of historical injustice. And not only that, but we are not even allowed to stay together with our fellow brothers and sisters in Croatia and Bosnia, and so on. They deny us the right to self-determination.” I mean, that’s the narrative. “And here we are. We were exposed to genocide in World War 2.” That’s the Serbian narrative. “We were heroes and victims and look what they did to us.” So, especially the NATO bombing changed the equation in Serbia a lot, and people remember that, unfortunately, and that’s one of the big reasons for pro-Russian sentiment. 

Another reason is, of course, Russian propaganda. That’s quite obvious, and it’s quite intense in the case of Serbia. But a third reason that’s not taken into account is that Yugoslavia was never invaded by the Soviet Union. Serbia is not part of the Soviet bloc. So, therefore, the anti-Soviet/anti-Russian feelings that are characteristic of so much of Eastern Europe were just not present in Yugoslavia. That’s forgotten completely. It was a pro-Western country, essentially, even in Communist disguise and culturally.

So, this notion of Pan-Slavic solidarity is terribly inflated and unrealistic. However, what I do think fosters some affinity between Russia and Serbia is this shared historical experience of state breakup, where both Russians and Serbs feel they got a raw deal. They were heroes and victims of World War 2, and their contribution to the Allied victory was underestimated and undervalued by Westerners. They felt slighted in their pursuit of self-determination, observing NATO’s unilateral actions, such as in Iraq, Afghanistan, and the bombing of Yugoslavia, which was a significant turning point for Russia. Not because of pro-Serbian sentiments at that time, but simply due to the perception that "nobody consulted us." “How could they bomb European cities like Belgrade without seeking our input? Our cities were bombed in World War 2.” I’ve met Russians who were very young, saying, "We had nothing to do with Serbia; we barely knew where it existed. But all we could think was, how can they bomb a European city in 1999? What are they thinking?" This was a crucial psychological turning point in Serbia, explaining much of the lingering anti-Western sentiment and the inclination to support Russia in disrupting the Western-dominated order.

However, it has very little to do with Pan-Slavism. Sure, there’s Christian Orthodoxy, some historical similarities, and always the Russian soul and all these sorts of mystifications. But they are mystifications. It’s much more important to understand that the real historical experiences they generate memories, whether it’s World War II or the NATO bombing and so on. That’s very immediate to people. Whereas Pan-Slavism, that’s sort of 19th century. Maybe there was some of it in 1945 because there was so much anti-German sentiment then. And when the Soviet army swept through Eastern Europe, there were expressions of Pan-Slavism in some countries, like the Czech Republic, for example, Czechoslovakia then, because they were betrayed by the Western powers, and here were the liberators, the Russians, and so on. So, there was some of that initially. But that’s long ago.

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