- oD 50.50
About Dmitri Travin
Dmitri Travin is Research Director at the European University in St. Petersburg's Centre of Modernization Studies
Articles by Dmitri Travin
Yemen - easy to get wrong
Through the bars
No to TTIP
Meteoric rise of Islamic State
Two recent events suggest that relations between Russia and America could change for the better. Not only did the Kremlin react positively to the United States' decision to step down anti-rocket defence installations in Poland and the Czech Republic. Dmitry Medvedev also made it clear for the first time during his New York trip that Moscow might join the international sanctions against Iran.
However, for the time being the situation remains uncertain. There are factors working for and against a rapprochement between Russia and the USA.
The man in the street
The attitude of many Russian citizens to America today is one of these. The conversation I had with a taxi driver in St. Petersburg is fairly typical. We were talking about the wealth of the US, and the driver said: "How could the Americans fail to be rich? They don't have to produce anything. They just print their dollars and sell them round the world." Interestingly, although he was driving a Ford, he still thought that Americans only got rich by selling dollars.
In fact, what the taxi driver really had in mind was the flotation of American government stock in various countries around the world. Thanks to the powerful propaganda campaign that has been under way in Russia over the last year, the state controlled mass media has interpreted the enormous state debt of the USA in a very unusual way. A year ago, few people in Russia even knew that America used loans to cover budget deficits. And those who did know did not find this information particularly interesting. But this autumn one often finds opinions like my taxi driver's all over the place in Internet discussion forums. Anti-American Russians use arguments like this to try and prove that Russia should not take the path of economic freedom and democracy that is associated with the United States. It is a myth that the US is a highly developed country, they say: Americans have nothing to sell except "paper".
The Kremlin's position
However, unlike those die-hard patriots, Russian officials have never declared their hostility towards America. The Kremlin's antagonism was mainly focused on NATO's eastward advancement. Those in charge of Moscow's foreign policy did not like the fact that countries which were part of the Eastern bloc 20 years ago (and some even in the USSR) could potentially end up as the bridgehead for attacks on Russia. It is unlikely that Putin, his defense ministers and foreign ministers really feared aggression from the West. But they were extremely unhappy at the prospect of any reduction in their influence in the world.
This should be a good moment to normalize relations. Not only have Americans withdrawn anti-rocket defense installations in the former Soviet sphere of influence, in Poland and the Czech Republic. Western countries have also not taken any substantial steps towards accepting Ukraine and Georgia into NATO - two nations with which Moscow has had extremely difficult relations of late.
What to do about Iran?
If the Kremlin wants to turn relations round, then this is the moment to respond positively. By not supporting Iran's aspiration to develop a nuclear capability, for instance. Especially as this capability is a double-edged sword. Anti-Russian sentiment is on the rise in Iran, and has already resulted in demonstrations over the past few months. Who knows how future rulers in Tehran will use their power?
While Ahmadinejad's followers may direct it against Israel, should opponents of the current president come to power, they might well turn their attention to Russia's southern borders. Moscow has not forgotten how quickly the Afghan Taliban escalated their attack in the north at the end of the 1990s, or how little time it took for Islamic fundamentalism to spread through the former Soviet republics of Central Asia. But the Taliban did not have nuclear weapons.
Establishing a new relationship with Washington would probably suit Dmitry Medvedev. In a recent article, I discussed Medvedev's statements on the need for rapprochement with western democracies. Now one of these, the most powerful, has given him the chance to demonstrate that he is an independent leader, not just Vladimir Putin's bag man.
Medvedev clearly wants the support of popular opinion. And he wants that support to be real, not just because he is the successor of a popular national leader. However, given the anti-American psychosis that has been developing in Russia recently, it is more likely to be nationalist politicians like Dmitry Rogozin - the current representative of Moscow at NATO - who will get that support. Medvedev will only emerge as an independent political figure if Russian-American relations change from fear and mistrust to pragmatism.
So it would suit the Russian president to meet Barack Obama halfway. It is no accident that they made progress during their recent meeting in New York. However, it looks unlikely that the Kremlin will really meet the White House halfway on the issue of Iran, for two reasons.
The political factor
The first is that tension in international relations has always served to bolster Vladimir Putin's popular rating. In recent years many Russians have felt that their country was surrounded by enemies. Russia has had difficult relations not only with the USA, but with the UK, Poland, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Moldova, Ukraine, Georgia, and several other countries. When people feel that they are surrounded by enemies, they often rally around the leader, and react angrily against anyone with a democratic agenda. At such times, they associate democracy with working for the enemy. When the man in the street feels beleagured, it seems to him that those who support democracy, who insist on raising difficult, painful issues are acting unpatriotically and undermining the country's defence capability.
On several occasions Putin has used his position to say unpleasant things about his opponents. On one occasion he said they were ‘scavenging' off foreign leaders (meaning feeding off the left-overs, like jackals). Many who agree with Putin are of the view that ‘democrats' and foreigners wish to destroy Russia together.
A marked improvement in relations with the USA would clearly make it impossible to sustain this notion of Russia being surrounding by enemies. If America becomes a partner of Russia, it will be difficult to convince Russian citizens that ‘democrats scavenging off foreign leaders' are planning to do Russia down. Is Putin likely to abandon the anti-American and anti-democratic propaganda which has done so much boost support for him domestically, and to do so for the sake of improving relations with Obama? It is not entirely clear. But we should bear in mind that Medvedev does not have a real power base of his own, and is dependent on Putin in many respects. So the view of the previous president is likely to be decisive.
We should also bear in mind how many political analysts, commentators and specialists on international relations have made careers out of anti-Americanism in recent years. If Russia really does meet the US halfway, these die-hard patriots who are protecting their interests will bang the drum of anti-Americanism. They will bang it louder than ever before, and the din just might drown out the voices of the pragmatists.
The war of the pipelines
The other reason why Russia is unlikely to meet the US halfway on the Iranian issue is economic. It has to do with gas.
If Tehran faces universal condemnation of its nuclear programme, it may not be able to push that programme through to completion. Iran needs Russia not only in order to finish building its atomic electricity station in Bushehr, but also for uranium.
Will this be a tragedy for Iran? Not at all. From an economic point of view, Iran can easily do without nuclear energy, as it has plenty of oil and gas. However, developing these oil and gas fields usually requires major investments from leading trans-national corporations. So if Tehran wants to avoid plunging the country into poverty, it will have to come to terms with the West and reject the harsh anti-Israeli rhetoric which President Mahmud Ahmadinejad has been adopting recently.
Supposing there really is a change in politics in Tehran. Supposing that thanks to the combined efforts of the USA, EU and Russia, Ahmadinejad falls, and pragmatists come into power who aspire to modernize the country without rejecting Islamic values, while rejecting Islamic fundamentalism. Supposing that trans-national corporations are allowed into Iran; that all sanctions are abolished, and that the country starts to earn substantial money by exporting its energy resources.
If this were to happen, one of the most promising areas for export would be the European Union. The Nabucco pipeline, which is planned to provide gas to south-east and central Europe, needs Iranian gas. Nabucco may get built without it. But if it did, it would only carry fuel from Azerbaijan and perhaps Turkmenistan.So the result of the rapprochement of Russia with the US would ultimately be to destroy the barriers that divide Iran and the EU today. Nabucco would then become a serious competitor to Yuzhny Potok, the Russian pipeline which Putin proposes building along the bottom of the Black Sea, with the aim of selling gas to more or less the same markets as Nabucco. This the Kremlin does not want to do, as far as we can tell from all its recent activities. Putin has staked too much in recent years on this aspect of his gas pipeline policy. Indeed, right now gas is virtually the Kremlin's only means of exerting pressure on its neighbors.
The morning of the 10th September began with a sensation on the Russian Internet.
At the end of July, Vladimir Putin made an unusual move in his economic policy. He criticized Russian bankers harshly for providing loans to entrepreneurs at excessively expensive rates, and even indicated a specific interest rate that the Russian government considers normal for modern conditions.
The obliging bankers immediately responded to the criticism. Two of the country's major financial institutions - Sberbank and Vneshtorgbank (VTB) - announced that they were prepared to reduce their interest rates. At least, for borrowers they described as strategic.
Vladimir Bortko is one of Russia's most famous film directors. His film "Taras Bulba" went on general release in April 2009. It was more of a political event than a cultural one. For it reflects the current mind set and its problems very clearly: the elite aspiring to become part of Western culture, while at the same time assuring Russians of its Russianness.
The film attracted a great deal of attention for several reasons. Firstly, it was timed to coincide with the 200th anniversary of the birth of Nikolai Gogol, one of Russia's greatest writers, whose work is studied by every schoolchild in the country. Recently, events such as the anniversary of a major writer have become an occasion for a large-scale propaganda campaign. In Petersburg, for example, Gogol now looks down at passers-by from dozens of advertising posters on streets in the city centre.
Secondly, "Taras Bulba" is a special story: it's very patriotic, which is not particularly typical of Gogol's work. At the centre of the tale are the Zaporozhian Cossacks, who were free and independent of the Tsar. They lived in what is now part of Ukraine and fought with Poland in the 15th-17th centuries (Gogol does not indicate the exact time of the events he describes). The story tells how Andrii, the son of the main character, Colonel Taras Bulba, betrays the Cossacks because of his love for a Polish woman. Taras kills his son with his own hands, demonstrating that loyalty to the nation is more important than any personal feelings of love. He himself eventually suffers a painful death at the hands of the Poles.
Thirdly, Vladimir Bortko became famous during the late 1980s, when he made the excellent film based on the story "The Heart of a Dog" by Mikhail Bulgakov. Bulgakov was a major Russian (Soviet) writer of the first half of the 20th century, whose works were not popular with the Soviet authorities. "The Heart of a Dog" had a clear anti-Soviet message, poking fun at the values on which the Soviet state was founded. When "Taras Bulba" was released, many people were interested to see how Bortko, the critic of Soviet morals, would position himself now as a supporter of the state and a patriot.
Predictably, "Taras Bulba" provoked bitter disputes. Russian filmgoers were divided into two groups: those who fully appreciated the filmmakers' patriotism, and those who had some serious questions for Mr. Bortko.
Firstly, why did the director and screenwriter feel it necessary to rewrite Gogol? He is a classic of Russian literature, and not just some hack writing scripts for contemporary films.
Secondly, how does the work of Vladimir Bortko as the director of the famous "Heart of a Dog" fit in with the work of Vladimir Bortko the director of "Taras Bulba"?
Andrii, son of Colonel Taras Bulba, betrays the Cossacks for love of a Polish woman.
Let us try to answer these questions.
In Gogol's text the conflict between the Cossacks and the Poles arises because the Cossacks live by raiding their neighbours and are fed up with sitting around and doing nothing. They are spoiling for a battle with the Turkish Sultan. Their entire way of life is a series of battles and the capture of trophies. Cossacks are at war so often that they rarely live to old age or die a natural death.
In Gogol's story the Koshevoy (leader elected by the Cossacks) refuses to start a war, saying that he has signed a peace treaty with the Sultan. The Cossacks then decide to have an election to replace the peace-loving Koshevoy, but at this moment refugees from the west bring them news of outrages inflicted by Poles and Jews on the defenceless Cossacks. The infuriated Cossacks immediately start a Jewish pogrom and take up arms against the Poles, rather than the Sultan.
Typically, Gogol gives no evidence of the crimes committed by the Poles and Jews. According to the logic of his story, the Cossacks are so eager to fight that any excuse is enough for them, even an unreliable rumour: if they can't fight the Sultan, then they'll fight the Poles. However Bortko introduces a scene into the film in which refugees show Taras the corpse of his wife, who has been killed by the Poles. Thus the war started by the Cossacks is not just the result of inner aggression, but righteous revenge.
The filmmakers have added an element that was not in the original text, but they have also omitted something very relevant. Gogol describes the brutality of the Cossacks thus: "The infants were beaten, women had their breasts cut off and those allowed to go free had the skin flayed off from the feet to the knees". In another passage (towards the end of the story) Cossacks even burn girls at the altars of Christian churches. They pick up infants on their spears and throw them into the flames from the burning women.
In Mr. Bortko's film the Cossacks are also no angels, but their patriotism takes the form of inflicting punishment on their enemies in honest battle, whereas the Poles (a scene that is indeed in the original text) burn Taras alive and, before executing his eldest son Ostap, they break his arms and legs.
Changing screenplays in this way is no surprise in Russia today, as making a film is an expensive process. State backing is vital and also gives filmmakers greater opportunities. "Taras Bulba" is currently being advertised extensively on state Russian television, which is undoubtedly helping the film to do well at the box office. Furthermore, we should note that in recent years Mr. Bortko has made two mini-series for television based on Fyodor Dostoyevsky's novel "The Idiot", and Mikhail Bulgakov's novel "The Master and Margarita". Screening these mini-series increases the director's popularity enormously, and ensures that viewers will be eager to see his latest film at the cinema.
Gogol trod a very different path when he was writing in the 19th century. He was not set any propaganda objectives by the state. He was able to reflect historical reality honestly and became a great Russian writer because he wrote what was in his heart, without serving any political ends.
So what does this mean? Are contemporary Russian filmmakers simply working to an ideological commission from the state? I don't think so. Things are probably more complicated, which explains the difference between the Bortko of "The Heart of a Dog" and the Bortko of "Taras Bulba". Whatever we feel about the moral and ethical aspects of his work, from a purely cinematic viewpoint it is always highly professional. Audiences are interested and the films do well at the box office. But to do well at the box office, it's not Gogol, Bulgakov, eternal human values or even one's own political beliefs that are important. What matters is what people are feeling and what they want to see at any given point in time.
At the end of the 1980s a film like "The Heart of a Dog" couldn't fail. It was at the time of perestroika, the intelligentsia was riding high and the class values promoted by Kremlin propaganda were being rejected. Bortko's was successful.
But today's propaganda teaches audiences that Russia is surrounded on all sides by perfidious enemies. In recent years we have been told that these enemies are Poland, Estonia, Georgia, Ukraine, Moldova, the UK, and, of course, the USA. So filmgoers now need a quite different product from what they were offered 20 years ago. Vladimir Putin once described democrats as begging for scraps in foreign offices (in the sense of scrounging for grants and other forms of support). In this way Taras' treatment of his son Andrii acquires a contemporary meaning: in Putin's terms Andrii is begging for scraps from the Poles to win the love of a beautiful woman, and with it (one assumes) money and a high-ranking position.
The priority in Mr. Bortko's big films is commercial success. Objectively his work may be serving Kremlin propaganda purposes at present, but actually propaganda has done more for him than he has for it. It has prepared an audience, who will certainly go and see a patriotic film like "Taras Bulba".
Paradoxically, Bortko's patriotic film is in essence absolutely American and absolutely Hollywood. It has all the ingredients to make it a box office hit. Anything complex has been ruthlessly taken out. Bright colours, lavish costumes, attractive actors, beautiful melodies, enchanting landscapes and exciting battle scenes - Bortko has all this in abundance. He omits Gogol's lengthy reflections, not easily digestible for modern viewers who have been brought up on clips. The scenes of battle and torture and not too gory. Perhaps this is the main reason why Bortko does not show "cut-off breasts" and "flayed skin". If he had shown real torture and other things that are in Gogol, half the audience would have been scared stiff and run away before the end of the film.
I should like to note in passing that the American style is very common in Russia today. Our spin doctors even create political anti-Americanism using American political experience. For example, a typical rally in support of Putin and his policies has nothing at all in common with gloomy Soviet rallies, which no one went to unless they had to. Political events today are organized as entertainment to attract young people.
In this context there is one more important thing about the film. "Taras Bulba" is fundamentally different from Soviet patriotic films, in which enemies were often caricatured - the demonic German Fuehrer, the stupid enemies of the working class and the puny crusader knights of the Livonian Order, who were struck down in their dozens by Russian warriors. Today Russian viewers are not fooled by these cheap tricks. The Poles in Bortko's film are handsome and noble. The film bears all the hallmarks of an expensive, prestigious product that one does not regret having paid to see. It is fully up to Hollywood standards.
While I was watching "Taras Bulba", I kept being reminded of the American film "The Patriot", with Mel Gibson in the lead role. Like Taras, he kills masses of enemies in revenge for the evil deeds they have committed. He gives his young children weapons too. The American patriot kills the English, the Russian patriot kills Poles. The point is not to turn the audience against foreigners. Britain is now a close friend of the USA, as we know. But if the viewers have the money and want patriotism, the filmmakers are perfectly happy to play this up. As they say, don't take it personally - it's just business.
Other openDemocracy Russia articles on Russian film:
Kinoeye: Russia's reviving film industry, by Zygmunt Dzieciolowski, http://www.opendemocracy.net/globalization-Film/russian_film_3726.jsp
Dissenting blockbusters, by Mumin Shakirov, http://www.opendemocracy.net/article/email/dissenting-blockbusters
The ‘vertical of power' grabs Russian cinema, by Danil Dondurey: http://www.opendemocracy.net/article/email/the-vertical-of-power-grabs-russian-cinema
Russian anti-Nazi film v Kremlin bulldogs, by Mumin Shakirov: http://www.opendemocracy.net/article/email/russian-anti-nazi-film-v-kremlin-bulldogs
On the eve of the first anniversary of the inauguration of Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, rumours spread across the country that Prime Minister Vladimir Putin might dismiss the head of state. Yes, rumours that Putin was planning to dismiss Medvedev, not the other way around. And there's no need to look to the Russian Constitution to clarify the legal conditions for this kind of action, as of course there is no such provision. Legally no one in power has the right to dismiss the president, who was elected by the whole country. Only members of parliament can impeach the head of state under certain conditions. But the rumours persist, and it must be admitted that they find some justification in Russian political reality.
Firstly, everyone knows that Medvedev only became the president of Russia because Putin chose him from among numerous associates and supporters. What's more, an important factor for Putin seems to have been that, unlike others close to him, the "intellectual" Medvedev had no serious influence in government, "siloviki" or business circles. He has never had his own base: he depended completely on support from Putin. Many people still call Putin the national leader, emphasizing that informally his status is higher than the president's.
Secondly, in his first year in office Medvedev was unable (and perhaps unwilling) to appoint his own people to any leading government positions. Putin's protégés now predominate in the government and among the siloviki. Even key figures in the presidential administration owe their rise to power to Putin, not to Medvedev. The Russian president still has no personal support staff. A year ago he was one of the players in Putin's team and, essentially, he still is - albeit the highest ranking.
So if Putin were to ask Medvedev to step down voluntarily, then Medvedev would probably be forced to agree, though not because he has no allies to fight for him. He has no power anyway, so it would be pointless to resist dismissal. As a powerless president, he can do nothing in foreign or domestic politics that would contravene Putin's policy.
Whether there is any point in Putin "dismissing" Medvedev and standing for president once more is another matter. The arguments advanced by those who consider this likely are primarily connected with the problems of the galloping economic crisis.
The situation in Russia is not easy. On the one hand, the government has managed to prevent the most pessimistic scenario that was discussed a great deal at the end of last year. The banking system did not collapse, and the devaluation of the ruble turned out to be quite modest compared with the devaluation of 1998. But on the other hand, preliminary estimates show a 9.5% fall of GDP in the first quarter of this year. Unemployment is rapidly increasing and so far there are no serious grounds for believing that there is any relatively quick fix.
Of course, in crisis conditions like this the economy could be bolstered more quickly by rejecting any sort of populism - state support for inefficient enterprises, acceding to lobbyists' demands or a budget deficit that is too high for the economy to stand etc. Moreover, taking a harsh, non-populist line is always easier when power is concentrated in one person's hands. This is why those who support the theory of Medvedev's dismissal believe the time has come for the reins of power, both formal and informal, to be in Putin's hands.
This may offer an effective administrative solution, but it is unlikely to be so effective in the political sense. It will not be easy to explain to society why a president who is younger than Putin and in excellent health is resigning. Russians regard the relations between the two leaders as being ideal. The older politician has often spoken of the merits of the younger one, and Medvedev has constantly been telling us that he learned a lot from Putin when he worked on his team. However Medvedev's sudden resignation is portrayed, it is bound to leave an unpleasant feeling among supporters of Putin's political system.
Yet the removal of the president would not be particularly dangerous for Putin. The well-developed propaganda machine will find a way of justifying it. But the advantages of this dismissal will still not outweigh the disadvantages, as the concentration of power in Putin's hands is, to my mind, not as important as some commentators would suggest.
In his year in power Dmitry Medvedev has only shown independence in a few symbolic gestures. He has never attempted to change Vladimir Putin's policies in any way. In other words, Medvedev wants society to see him as president and to remember him for some of the decisions he took. But there is no way that these decisions can change the Putin line, which has been developing over the last 10 years.
One of Medvedev's symbolic gestures that received wide coverage recently was his meeting with Mikhail Gorbachev, former president of the USSR, and Dmitry Muratov, editor of the newspaper Novaya Gazeta, one of the few truly independent Russian publications. Whereas Putin frequently talked harshly about representatives of the opposition, Medvedev's symbolic act was undoubtedly a move towards national reconciliation.
However, Putin's use of the media as an instrument of state propaganda remains unchanged. The main television channels have no freedom at all, and no opportunity to express views other than the official one on key issues. It is television, not newspapers or the internet, that determines people's electoral preferences. Controlling television is absolutely essential if Putin is going to keep control politically.
Another symbolic gesture that has been widely discussed in Russia recently is the personnel list which Medvedev has drawn up. He has published a list of 100 relatively young people, whom he says he will draw on to make high-level appointments. This approach is quite unlike Putin's: the prime minister's appointments to posts of any importance whatsoever have gone to acquaintances who have worked at the St. Petersburg mayor's office (where Putin was the first deputy mayor until 1996) or in state security (where Putin began his career in the Soviet period).
In recent months, Medvedev has made two significant appointments from his personnel list: the governor of the Pskov Oblast and the head of administration in a district of St. Petersburg. Both were well-known activists from Putin's United Russia party, and neither position has any real political significance. Functionaries from United Russia have been appointed to such posts before there was any such thing as a presidential list, while high-ranking jobs in politics and business have been reserved for Putin's inner circle. So far no one from Medvedev's list has been appointed to a high-rank post.
Another symbolic gesture was the change in election legislation initiated by Medvedev. Instead of lowering the 7% barrier, which stops small political parties from having representation in the State Duma (the lower chamber of the Russian parliament), the Russian president proposed to allow one or two representatives of political parties into parliament who receive more than 5% but less than 7% of votes at elections. There is only one explanation for this strange initiative: Medvedev wants to appear more of a democrat than Putin, but does not want to make any radical changes to the political legacy he inherited from his predecessor.
Over the last year, Medvedev has uttered many fine phrases. That freedom is better than no freedom, for example, and that the state must not make life a nightmare for business. However, no real steps have been made to expand economic freedom. Business is still terrified by the state, as can be seen by the scale of capital flight from Russia during the economic crisis.
But on all fundamental issues of foreign and domestic policy, Medvedev has offered Putin his full support over the past year. The Russian president has been as tough as his predecessor on the conflict with Georgia, as also on the sale of gas to European countries via Ukraine. He has never tried to make fundamental changes to economic policy. He does not support the restoration of gubernatorial elections. Nor is he taking any action to review Mikhail Khodorkovsky's case.
It is true that Svetlana Bakhmina, mother of three children and a lawyer who worked for Khodorkovsky in the past, was released recently. But this is probably just a symbolic gesture. Perhaps it shows the relative humaneness of "Medvedev's time", but it does not show that anything has changed fundamentally in the Russian legal system.So it can hardly be said that serious conflicts have arisen between Putin and Medvedev over the last year. Of course, we cannot rule out the possibility that the Russian president is merely waiting for a convenient moment to strengthen his political position, and that he may get this moment as the crisis deepens. However, it is not likely at present that Putin will want to return to his presidential post to consolidate his own power, thereby destroying the Russians' cherished idyll of his joint rule with Medvedev.
Crisis of mid-1980s
At this time, the Soviet administrative economy was still fundamentally different from the market economy in the West. The problems were specific. We had to increase the effectiveness of the economy, though we lacked the tools used to solve these tasks in a market economy.
The nature of this conflict is still not completely clear. Was Ukraine stealing gas intended for Europe from the pipeline passing through its territory? Or did Russia close the pipe in an attempt to shift the blame for the unfortunate consequences on to its partner? Independent observers do not have any reliable information. Nor do we know important details of the negotiation process between the Russian producer Gazprom and the Ukrainian purchaser Naftohaz. For this reason analysis of the whole gas dispute is as yet impossible.
Vladimir Putin remains the most important person in Russia even though he has moved from the post of president to prime minister. On 29 October he announced that no nationalisation should be expected. Why make such statements 17 years after Russia moved to a market economy?
The fact is that many people in Russia have indeed begun to wonder how committed the present leadership of the country is to the principles of the market economy.
On 22 October 2008 an unexpected initiative was proposed in the Legislative Assembly of St. Petersburg. The leader of one of the pro-Kremlin parties suggested asking the UN to lift the Cuban blockade. In his speech, he constantly criticized a certain large country, which has caused Cuba serious problems.
This initiative is absurd in itself, but it looks especially odd when it comes from deputies from the Russian regions, as involvement in international politics is hardly part of their brief. In view of the imminent economic crisis, representatives of the Legislative Assembly should probably be paying particular attention to the problems of the city budget, rather than to the affairs of an island in the Caribbean. However, anti-Americanism has become fashionable in today's Russia. Anti-American attacks are used on suitable and unsuitable occasions. Almost every politician knows that even excessive anti-Americanism will not spoil your image with the electorate (on the principle that you can't have too much of a good thing, as the saying goes).
Sociological studies by the Levada Centre in July 2008 (i.e. before the war with Georgia) have shown that only 43% of Russians had a positive attitude to the USA, while in February 2000 this figure was 67%. Overall a clear tendency towards deterioration in relations can be identified. The figure may fluctuate significantly from month to month, but attitudes are becoming generally increasingly critical with the most negative attitude towards America on the part of Russians being at the start of military operations in Iraq.
It is, of course, interesting that the deterioration has taken place on Vladimir Putin's watch. And indeed, under Putin, influential Russian mass media began to inculcate a negative image of America in the minds of viewers, readers and listeners. However, these propaganda efforts, in our opinion, would not have found such a strong response in Russian hearts had it not been for certain questionable actions by the USA on the international stage.
It is also interesting to note that Russians mainly support actions by the Kremlin which strongly resemble the very actions by Washington that they condemn. The invasion of Chechnya by Russian troops is seen as an attempt to establish constitutional order; the invasion of Iraq by the Americans, and of South Ossetia by the Georgians (whom many believe to be American puppets) are seen as aggression. The recognition of the independence of Kosovo is condemned by Russians, while there is support for the recognition of the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Many people in Russia are horrified at the possibility of Russia's neighbour Ukraine joining NATO, but meddling in the affairs between the USA and its neighbour Cuba is seen as a fight for freedom.
To understand why Russians have these ideas, we believe it is worth looking at our recent history.
In many ways Mikhail Gorbachev's perestroika was carried out under the banner of acceptance of western values. Soviet people who suffered from a total deficit of goods and services were seriously interested in the possibilities created by the consumer society in the West. Together with the goods and technologies necessary for their manufacture, we were also prepared to accept market economy and democracy as attributes of the prosperous western world. Despite the fact that in the late-1980s and early-1990s in Russia, the largest part of the USSR, anti-market, anti-democratic and nationalist opinions were quite common, Westernization still won the day. The symbol of the move towards closer relations with the West was President Boris Yeltsin, who initially had the clear support of the people.
The reforms of the 1990s meant that Russians were able to enjoy all the benefits of the consumer society. There is naturally enormous social inequality, which strengthens paternalist tendencies throughout Russia. Many people want to increase state protection, believing that this will make them better off. But in general, society has accepted the market economy and does not intend to reject it. This is shown by low support for the communists at elections, and the fact that the communists themselves (with the exception of marginal groups on the extreme left) do not call for a return to the administrative economy and the iron curtain. Russians have practically recognised that the path to the consumer society lies through the market.
On the one hand, of course, there is not much market freedom in Russia. But on the other hand, the lives of Russians in Moscow, Petersburg and other large cities today bear a greater resemblance to the lives of people in other major cities in Europe and North America than to the Soviet way of life. The Russian economy has become part of the world economy. This can be seen very clearly in the downturn of market indexes in the present crisis. In other words, the West has become a much greater authority for us in practice than sociological surveys often show it to be in words.
Russian citizens have accepted the way of life of the consumer society and the market economy as a way of attaining this way of life. It would be logical to assume that they would also accept the western values that regulate international relations. This does not seem to be happening: confrontation is on the increase. To many people, it seems that Russia's present position on the international stage is hardly different from that of the Soviet Union during the cold war.
In fact, however, the current state of affairs is quite different. The USSR expanded its zone of influence, motivated by the need to achieve the worldwide victory of socialism. The "socialist camp", "countries of socialist orientation", "the island of freedom" (Cuba) were terms in constant use in Russia. But as Soviet society no longer took the idea of socialist seriously in the 1970s-1980s, a confrontation with the West did not enjoy wide support among the people. This meant that it was relatively easy for Gorbachev to move to a policy of "new thinking" in international relations, as he put it himself.
Today, the extremely harsh foreign policy of Vladimir Putin really does have wide support among the population. In other words, if Soviet people in the past may have secretly felt nothing but annoyance that our country "was feeding" the socialist regimes of Asia or Africa, while we did not have enough food ourselves, Russians today are prepared to put up with the expense of supporting South Ossetia, and many would even be prepared to support Serbia, pushing it towards a confrontation with the West.
Russians are quite sincere in their wish for confrontation. The leaders of the country who have a good knowledge of politics, such as Vladimir Putin, may have their own personal motives for adopting a hard line position (for example, see my article published by Open Democracy, "Putin: mentality of a street fighter"), but the average Russian simply thinks we must pursue a hard line in the fight for our place in the sun.
Why do people think like this? In many ways simply because Russians continue to imitate the behaviour of Western countries (in this case mainly the United States), believing that this is how a strong state should behave in the modern world if it wishes to prosper and gain universal respect. The American assertion of their interests by force in the Balkans, Afghanistan and Iraq, the expansion of NATO, and support for the "coloured revolutions" in various countries, is seen by Russians as a model to be imitated.
"Why are Americans rich?" the average Russian wonders. "Because they always fight for their interests. The modern world is a constant struggle for survival. In a market economy there is competition, in international politics there is expansion of zones of influence, creation of military bases and control over territories rich in resources. Democracy and peaceful existence is just idle talk for weak fools, a consolation offered to them like social welfare. The strong must survive by constantly elbowing everyone else out of the way."
In other words, in the modern world, the Americans are our teachers, not our friends. They have enormous authority, and we constantly copy their actions, but certainly not their words. Words, for Russians, who are used to constant propaganda, are just another way of fighting for a place in the sun. "If we believe that Americans are fighting for democracy all over the world, and if we don't oppose them, then we will become weaker and make a place in the sun for our enemy."
Many Russians remember from school that Tsar Peter the Great, who fought the Swedes in the early 18th century, also learnt from them. Almost every school pupil has read the lines by Russia's most revered poet, Alexander Pushkin, describing the actions of Peter after the historical victory and capture of the Swedes in the battle of Poltava:
"In his tent he entertains
His own chiefs, and the enemy chiefs,
He comforts his glorious captives,
And drinks the health of his teachers."
Russian anti-Americanism is seen by some analysts as a rejection of western values in general. It seems to us that this is a completely false understanding of the problem. On the contrary, these values are accepted, but the actions that make it possible to attain them are in many cases copied without understanding and without any attempt at a correct interpretation.
Ethnographers have a famous example that demonstrates the fundamental difference between the formation of ethical ideas among peoples in different stages of development. An American Indian was asked for his definition of good and evil. "Evil is when someone steals my horse," he replied. "Good is when I steal." A similar approach predominates in Russians' ideas about international policy. Evil is when the USA expands its sphere of influence, and good is when we expand ours.
In this situation, it seems that the extremely important discussion about what western countries' current policy towards Russia should be ignores a fundamental point. The issues that are mainly discussed are whether Russia should be treated more harshly or more mildly, whether there should be an attempt to isolate her, or draw her in to various forms of international cooperation. There is not often any discussion of how Russia is affected by the actions of western countries that formally have only an indirect relationship to the country. In the modern world of globalization and the swift spread of information, it is this that sets the standard of behaviour for Russia.
Russians' ideas about the USA comprise three main components. At any rate, it is these components that are actively used by Kremlin propaganda to achieve its desired result. They are the war in Iraq (along with the war in Afghanistan and the war in Iran which some suspect is in preparation), the expansion of NATO to the east, and the support given to the "coloured revolutions" in the post-Soviet space. This creates an image of the USA as an extremely aggressive nation. So if aggression and expanding spheres of influence are an important element of foreign policy for the USA, then for Russia, from the average person's point of view, they should be no less important.
If the ideas we have expressed above are correct, then unfortunately in our relations with western countries, many of which are seen as American puppets in the mind of the average Russian, neither the policy of isolation nor the policy of involvement in cooperation will have much effect. Other factors are much more important.
Firstly, Russia's economic development is in many ways determined by oil prices. The country's wealth gives rise to an illusion of strength. An extremely popular idea in Russia today is that the country has risen from its knees after the humiliation of the 1990s, when the West pushed us around. However, if Russia's economic situation deteriorates (and this is the way things are going at present), the illusion of strength will vanish. The aspiration to imitate America will not go away, but people will take a more balanced view of the relationship between the possible and the desirable.
Secondly, the kind of example for imitation that the United States will give. It is, of course, difficult to expect that even such radical actions as the withdrawal of troops from Iraq, for example, will seriously affect the situation. Russian views are already formed and it is unlikely that they can be radically changed. However, the American model will be extremely important for the development of ideas among young Russians. If new generations too learn to believe that all strong countries should fight for a place in the sun and expand their sphere of influence, then aggression in Russian foreign policy may remain an element in the system of international relations for a long time to come.
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