Archive for October 2016
You hear it all the time when people, both Russians and foreigners, say that Russia is turning into something akin to North Korea. This comparison is obviously only rhetorical because by the standards of authoritarian regimes that existed in the last 100 years and still exist today, Putin’s can only be described as super-mild.
It’s hard to compare it not only with North Korea, but even with Turkey, a member of NATO and a key ally of the US. Whereas in Russia the number of political prisoners is hardly reaching 50, in post-coup Turkey there are dozens of thousands. Russia is also lagging behind Turkey in terms of media censorship.
Yet, Russia is degrading, institutionally and culturally. The brightest Russian intellectuals and businessmen are leaving the country in droves, while public discourse is becoming increasingly debilitating. The nuclear deterrent ensures that the system can’t be changed from the outside. Chronic social apathy and fatalism of post-genocidal society don’t leave much hope that it can be easily changed from the inside.
All of that means that over decades Russia can indeed turn into a Godzilla-sized North Korea by very gradually squeezing out everyone who is capable of acting on their own initiative and keeping only those who will silently cope with more repression and deteriorating economy.
That creates a problem for the entire world. While these days the gangster-ish Russian leadership is artfully playing a psycho while not actually being one, a more North Korean society will be pushing real psychos to the top, making an accidental nuclear conflict a greater possibility.
That’s why there is no alternative to engaging Russia, while antagonization only serves Kremli rulers and state propaganda. Engaging Russia, but not necessarily its political regime, which should indeed be indeed disengaged from its London bank accounts and Cote d’Azur villas. It is Russian people who should be engaged, over the heads of their government.
All problems with this giant country stem from the fact that after the fall of Communism Russians found themselves in a cultural vacuum, feeling that they were unwelcome in the Euroatlantic community and despised by most of its members. They have always lacked the beacon of integration that has forced society in Eastern Europe to change, despite a natural predilection for authoritarianism, patrimonialism and tribalism, which is now showing self in Poland and Hungary.
Reaching out to various segments of Russian directly, having a clearly formulated message for each of them, choosing the right words and making sure that the message finds its audience – all of that may change the landscape for the better. The problem though is that at the moment the West has no positive message for Russians that could inspire them to change, while the level of knowledge and understanding with regard to Russia is just pathetic. With issues Trump and Brexit, there is too much domestic mess to be dealt with before anyone get any fresh thoughts on Russia.
Remember the panorama of Kiev’s Independence Square at the height of the 2014 revolution? Army tents, field kitchens, piles of burning tires, black smoke drifting through the frosty air and giant barricades manned by post-apocalyptic warriors straight out of Mad Max?
Now imagine the same Maidan scene at the National Mall in Washington – a square that stretches for three kilometres and abuts in the Capitol. If I were a Kremlin strategist – given their Tarantino-styled post-modernist obsession with re-staging iconic scenes over and over again – I’d be dreaming of orchestrating a colour revolution in the heart of America. That would be Kremlin’s most spectacular revenge for what it sees as US-backed revolutions in Ukraine, Georgia, Serbia and the Middle East.
This is what comes to mind when Donald Trump starts talking about rigged elections. It is one of the surest symptom of a pending colour revolution. Allegations of rigging is what sparked Ukraine’s Orange Revolution in December 2004. Seven years later, same allegations triggered Bolotnaya protests in Moscow, which the Kremlin read as an attempt to use the same political technology in Russia.
If someone has told Trump about colour revolutions, it would be Paul Manafort, who once advised Viktor Yanukovych, the man who was defeated in Orange revolution and then once again in the Revolution of Dignity in 2014.
Largely based on voters’ honesty and backed up by outdated technology, the US elections can indeed be rigged or disrupted by hackers, as demonstrated by the recent cyber-attacks, which the US authorities blamed on Russian government-controlled hacker. With a very weak voter identification procedure, hardly anything prevents what Russians call “carousels” – when groups of people travel between polling stations voting multiple times.
If violations and disruptions are sufficient to convince a constituency that’s already known for buying half-baked lies like president Obama’s non-US origin, then staging a massive permanent protest will be a technical issue. Occupy Wall Street did work for a while, so this one might work, too.
Can Trump rally a million people – the number which Louis Farrakhan promised but failed to bring to the National Mall in 1995? I have no idea. But if I worked for the Kremlin, I’d definitely try to convey the vision of a DC Maidan to Trump and his advisors.
Kremlin’s evident support for Trump’s candidacy has never been about making him win, but about making America divided, weak and preoccupied with an internal crisis. That worked in Ukraine, which keeps bleeding ever since the latest revolution. Making it bleed is not a means of achieving something, but an end in itself.
How many political prisoners are there in Russia? Around 50. Only a handful of them are genuine pro-democracy activists, while many are suspected jihadists and far-right extremists, who were naturally denied fair trial, just because it is Russia.
Now the number of people arrested in the aftermath of the failed Turkish coup is estimated at around 70 thousand, though some of them have been freed. The clampdown on the alleged “Gülenists” does smack of Stalin’s purges of the “Troskyists” in the 1930s. Most of the prisoners had nothing to do with Trotsky, it’s just that Stalin needed an enemy brand to rally his supporters by inciting fear and hatred.
There is a great irony in the fact that a NATO member and a country that once was just a step away from joining the EU (under the same government) is now more repressive than the much-feared Russia. More than that, the duo is now forging an alliance, as exemplified by the gas pipeline agreement announced today.
Just 20 years ago Russia was also a very different country, with a population naively enthusiastic about integrating with the West and ending the Cold War. But having been shown in every kind of away that it can’t hope for the same treatment as other Eastern bloc countries, it found itself in a cultural and political vacuum that has produced a monster called Vladimir Putin. Now it’s Turkey’s turn to create its own monster.
What unites Turkey and Russia is that they were both denied the possibility of integration in Euro-Atlantic structures not because of their merits or the lack of thereof but because of xenophobia and ancient animosities promoted by nationalists in EU member countries.
There are only two ideas that allow leaders to rally masses of people in most of Europe, especially in the east. One is nationalism, with its appeal to archaic tribal instincts of sticking with the kin and hating neighbours. The other is European integration.
When they come together – magic things happen, like Maidan revolution in Ukraine and velvet revolutions of 1989. When the integration component is missing, an authoritarian form of nationalism takes hold.
That’s because those who genuinely care about liberal democracy are never a majority. Not just in Russia or Turkey, but even in the US, as the current election shows.
There are various ways of stopping Putin’s and Erdogan’s brinkmanship as well as them building a Eurasian political alliance hostile to the EU. But there is only one that will ultimately work, if complemented by other methods, such as sanctions.
It is to appeal to the people and elites in both countries, over the head of their leaders, that they are welcome in the united Europe, provided they implement a set of conditions that include a thorough democratization and – in the case of Russia – withdrawing from Ukraine plus a complete overhaul of all corruption-ridden institutes. Leadership change is also a fair, though not necessarily practical demand.
This plan certainly sounds utopian now that various EU nations are now threatening to degrade into 20th century nation states, surrounded by barbed wire and customs posts. But the wind will change and EU expansion will be back on the table.