ANTHONY BUTLER: SACP romance with Russia blind to its colonial project

Ambivalence about Vladimir Putin in SA fails to recognise decolonial struggles in the region

First published in BusinessLive

24 FEBRUARY 2022

The Russian invasion of Ukraine has elicited a wide variety of reactions within SA. Many citizens insist that such egregious violations of international law should be unequivocally condemned. In contrast, SA Communist Party (SACP) general secretary Blade Nzimande endorses Russia’s justifications for its actions.

For its part, the department of international relations & co-operation has expressed “concern” and urged “all parties” to pursue diplomatic solutions. Like many SA intellectuals and political activists, it appears uncertain about how to respond to these extraordinary events.

This is curious. While it remains unclear precisely which goals Russian leader Vladimir Putin is pursuing, these clearly go well beyond pressuring Ukraine to accept the federalisation of its eastern provinces. Instead, it would appear Moscow is determined to “decapitate” the state and install a puppet government.

Putin’s self-indulgent speech on February 21 marshalled a century of evidence about the purported victimisation of the Russia people. He also identified missteps by the country’s own leaders that had allowed the break-up of various iterations of the Russian empire.

He lamented the loss of Finland and the Baltic states when the Russian empire partially broke up after World War 1, and also the collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s. Populous republics such as Ukraine (40-million population), Uzbekistan (35-million), Kazakhstan (19-million) and many smaller states were allowed to secure the status of sovereign republics. This was accompanied by the dissipation of Russian influence across Central and Eastern Europe.

The trouble for Nzimande, and others who are keen to take Putin at his word, is that post-Soviet Central and Eastern Europe contains thriving and increasingly democratic societies that do not intend to return to the Russian empire.

As in the other “colour revolutions” that so threaten the repressive Moscow autarky, Ukraine’s imperfect democracy was the product of an explicit popular revolt against Russian claims of legitimate domination over an otherwise “masterless” Ukranian people.

Russia is meanwhile a resources economy in secular economic decline, with virtually no trade and investment links with SA. The relationship between the two countries has been dominated by the increasingly incoherent Brics formation, and the attempt by the Russian regime to sell redundant nuclear technology to SA in the Zuma era has left strained relationships and dissipated trust.

The wider ambivalence in SA about how to view the conflict between Russia and Ukraine results in part from a failure to see Ukraine — and other post-Soviet states — for what they are: sites of decolonisation. In Ukraine, the former colonial power enjoys support almost exclusively from 8-million or so ethnic Russian settlers who amount to fewer than one in six of the population.

The collapse of the Russian empire in the early 1990s resulted in Ukraine rediscovering and elaborating national historical and cultural narratives, re-centring indigenous languages and religion, and dismantling the broader apparatus of Russian imperialism.

This decolonial struggle has sometimes been unattractively enthno-nationalist in character, but its broad outlines are familiar to decolonial movements in Africa. It has involved the dismantling of imposed Soviet systems of economic planning and control, the banning of Russian imperialist statues, flags and monuments, and the renaming of more than 50,000 streets and 20 cities.

Thousands of busts of Lenin — as familiar across the former Russian empire as Cecil Rhodes is in Southern Africa — have been removed, and sometimes with humour: in October 2015 a bust of Lenin in Odessa was converted into a statue of Darth Vader.

As the nature of Putin’s regime is progressively unveiled in the crisis to come, even the SACP will eventually have to recognise that the legitimacy of a decolonial project does not depend on our historical sympathies for the settler population — or on the continent in which the colonised people are trying build their collective national projects.

• Butler teaches public policy at the University of Cape Town.

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