Our confusions over Russia and Eastern Europe

Europe's polarising debate on Russia risks undermining its stand against authoritarianism.

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Seated in a Berlin hotel, Ilya Yashin turns down coffee and opts for juice, tea, and yogurt with fruit. This young Russian politician with polished manners jokes that he wants a long career, or at least to outlast the seemingly eternal Putin. That could be tricky. We both started university a decade and a half ago, when Putin came to power after the volatile Yeltsin era. Time has passed, one gets old and Putin is not only still in power, but has strengthened his grip, and made his project for Russia almost indistinguishable with the idea of Russia itself. From Georgia to Ukraine, and from the Baltics to Syria, so-called Putinism has heavily influenced the international security agenda –and European thinking on Russia. Along the way, he and his inner circle (siloviki) have seen their personal fortunes swell along with their political fortunes; a common occurrence amongst the elites of the post-Soviet arena –and closer home too, it seems.

A few months ago, Yashin and his RPR-PARNAS party presented a report on the war in Ukraine, under the name of the party’s leader, Boris Nemtsov, the reformist politician who was assassinated by gunmen in February. As a kind of “J’accuse”, the Nemtsov report explores the links between the Kremlin and military actions in Crimea and eastern Ukraine, compiling information on Russian casualties in the neighbouring country. It argues that the war in Ukraine is a “cynical and mean crime for which our country is paying with the blood of its citizens, the economic crisis and international isolation”. Yashin argues that he and like-minded Russian activists are “patriots” who are defending Russia’s interests, though in a different way from what we usually hear about. They advocate for a Russia that is “respected, but not aggressive; a friend to its neighbours and a partner of Europe”.    

In another Orwellian twist, shortly after the report emerged, Moscow announced steps to classify military casualties “in times of peace” as a state secret, criminalising the release of such information. This makes it harder for families to speak out and further marginalises a civil society that is slowly suffocating, though it continues to push for accountability. In the recent regional elections PARNAS faced almost complete exclusion from the electoral process, as well as various bureaucratic obstacles and boycotts. It comes thus as no surprise that it did not obtain representation in the Kostroma oblast, the only district where it was able to stand in the last minute. 

The voices of Yashin, NGOs such as Memorial, and activists are generally absent in our debates about Russia (and Ukraine). We often hear that they are not “relevant”, followed by the maxim that the Kremlin and Putinism are “just the way things are” and must be accepted, almost uncritically. The implicit message is that there is no point wasting time on alternatives that will not see the light of day. This frivolous acceptance of the status quo overlooks the fact that all dissenting movements against an established power and a repressive political system begin from a position of weakness. Success or eventual failure depends largely on its ability – often a juggling act – to transform the political agenda, on the scale of crackdown(s), the role of external actors and a large amount of luck and chance. Contrary to sweeping generalizations on shadowy Western plots to unseat regimes, in this era of global insecurity, the growing tendency among Western powers (with honourable exceptions here and there) is to rather refrain from becoming entangled in dissent and opposition movements, and from confronting human rights abuses affecting great (and not so great) powers. This is especially the case when the dissenters and their alternatives call into question some comfortable perspectives on international politics and diplomacy that place pragmatism above all else.         

In this regard, in Western Europe, and certainly in countries such as Spain or France, there is a surprising vision of Russia expounded by political forces from the left and the right, especially in the fringes (but not only), and by a number of academics. The vision consists in a confusing mixture of Kissinger-esque Realpolitik – whose empirical effectiveness in terms of peace and stability is yet to be seen – and nostalgic romanticism. There is nostalgia (mixed with envy?) for the Great Imperial Russia, as manifested in the rancid Gaullism of France’s National Front, or in the recent official visit by members of Sarkozy’s Republican Party to a Crimea in the process of being “Chechenised”- shortly before Silvio Berlusconi and other icons of today’s EU. There is also nostalgia for an idealised USSR that many were fortunate not to have suffered (what the average Eastern European thinks about their experience under the yoke of the USSR is treated as a mere annoyance). An USSR that, notwithstanding, seems to dwell in the subconscious of the “popular” leftist politicians who also visit Crimea. This “people’s” left, including parties such as Spain’s Podemos or Greek’s Syriza, systematically votes, along with the xenophobic far right, against any Strasbourg resolution critical of Putin’s Russia and minimally supportive of post-Maidan Ukraine, repeating Kremlin propaganda word for word.

So in this ideological medley, where, ironically, opposing extremes meet, one finds both a nostalgia for fallen European empires as well as a rabid anti-Americanism. An anti Americanism that, in some quarters, one is inclined to think, will ultimately make Ukrainians, Georgians, Syrians and Afghans pay, in 2015, for the 2003 fiasco in Iraq (or for Washington’s past excesses in Latin America).

The other irony is that this Manichaean, anti-Western anti-imperialism, whilst feeding on an understandable popular disenchantment with mainstream politics, austerity and Western hypocrisies or abuses, drives many Europeans into the arms of other empires. In doing so, they end up condoning homophobias, theocracies, lies and authoritarianism, with its crimes and purges. George Orwell said that “to see what is in front of one’s nose needs a constant struggle”. It is anyone’s guess whether these politicians and pundits simply do not see what is in front of their noses, do not want to see it, or choose to see only the convenient parts that support their self-serving ideologies.    

Moreover, these perspectives reveal at least two major points of confusion on Russia and Eastern Europe. The first is to conflate Putinism and the Kremlin with the legitimate Russian question (Russia’s place in the Euro-Atlantic and Eurasian space) and with the Russian people. By uncritically accepting the language of the Kremlin and its parallel reality, legitimising its use of force and agenda of instability, the Russian question becomes even more intractable, and positions harden on both sides. Furthermore, in politics – in democracy, that is – the opinions and preferences of the people are the starting point and not the end point; nor are they something to simply be resigned to. Consider the initial support for the Iraq war by Americans or Serbian nationalism in the Milosevic era, not to mention previous cases. The popular “will” in Russia, as in these scenarios, could be different in a context of greater freedom, more information and a remotely pluralistic debate about the actions of those in power.    

The other great confusion, which predates the Iron Curtain, is that of simply mixing the Russian question with that of Eastern Europe. Historian Tony Judt dwelled on the Western incapacity to understand Eastern Europe, and how the obsession with Russia and the USSR condemned this complex region, our other self, to a moral and physical marginalisation from history. As shown by many discussions on Ukraine and the chances of its “Finlandisation”, there is a traditional reluctance to recognise these countries, sandwiched between great powers, as political actors with their own will and destiny. Let us dub it the Yalta syndrome: the apparent ease with which European strategists and diplomats entertain spheres of influence, partitions and divisions of populations in the East. True, the opposite instinct also arises at times: the questionable trait of ignoring the impact of half a century of authoritarianism, ethnic homogenisation and imperfect democratic transitions, when faced with situations such as the refugee crisis –though in this bigoted Europe, these countries are probably not the exception.

It is no surprise then that when faced with events as complex as Ukraine’s Maidan and citizens’ protests in Moscow or other parts of Russia, instinctive reactions shape the debate. Reactions ranging from a simplistic return to conspiracy theories (voiced by many in Spain who rend their clothes against the “conspiranoic” cries regarding the March 2004 bombings or the 15M movement, a Spanish Maidan of sorts);, paternalism as regards the capacity for change of these and other societies, or the trotting out of labels (“pro-Western”, “pro-Russian”, etc.) which do not encompass a more complex reality. True, these geopolitical crises are a golden opportunity for those who long to dust off Cold War theories of international politics or shop-worn ideological concepts (such as “antifascism”), which otherwise they would struggle to apply. Yet the sad truth is that these ivory tower intellectuals condemn other peoples to suffer their utopias and dogmatic visions.

The bottom line is that we remain too blind, too deaf and burdened by too heavy a baggage of preconceptions and ideology when it comes to Eastern Europe and Russia. This beleaguered Europe without a shared narrative must wake up to the fact that it faces the return of various forms of authoritarianism, and its consolidation worldwide. It is somewhat worrying then, that faced with challenges on such a scale, many in the right and left have no answers beyond ideological reflexes.

Embracing movements of dissent raises tough dilemmas too, and will never play the sole pivotal element for international diplomacy. But it is regrettable that many European governments, in this time of great uncertainty, are imprudently falling over themselves to embrace Thucydides’ maxim that might is right, be it in Cairo, Moscow or Damascus. Here, next to the remains of the Wall and weighing history and events like the East Berlin uprising of June 1953, one is forced to conclude that in this Hobbesian world, dissenting voices, in the East and South, have few chances. But let us at least refrain from being systematically complicit in their silencing.

This is an adaptation from op-ed for El Mundo newspaper, 15 September 2015. Translation by James Badcock.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


ECFR Alumni · Head of ECFR Madrid Office & Policy Fellow

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