Brexit: the view from Eurasia

Whether you’re in Mariupol or Margate, politics has become an organic part of the tabloid press. Our media should change to tackle this.

Maxim Edwards Mikhail Kaluzhsky Natalia Antonova Thomas Rowley
28 June 2016

27 June: Vladimir Putin addresses the audience at the United Russia party congress. (c) Ivan Sekretarev / AP / Press Association Images. All rights reserved.Over the weekend, Brexit revealed (or created, depending on your opinion) another crack in Europe’s fundament. Roughly speaking, the regional working and middle classes pushed back against alienation, of being written out of the conversation. In so doing, they aligned themselves with one strand of elite interests. 

As the shockwaves traveled through the UK and beyond, they also made their way eastwards through the continent to Europe’s other frontier, where hybrid conflict, economic downturn and social fragmentation has led to a discord of a higher magnitude in the post-Crimea era.

Across Eurasia, representation in politics and in the media are deeply connected — and the same is true for the UK. We’ve long seen what happens in Georgia, Russia, Ukraine and beyond in isolation — as part of a distant realm beholden to geopolitics and propaganda, rather than local dynamics. 

But the region’s turn towards conservative, authoritarian politics has been enabled by and is, in part, a reaction to socio-economic disaffection. At successive moments, progressive forces here have faced (and ignored) questions now increasingly relevant to the UK: how can we speak to the “other side”? And how can we create a positive agenda out of this wake-up call? 

Patriotism redux

We don’t know whether Putin is truly “happy” with the referendum result, as Cameron claimed he would be — though Europe’s resolve for sanctions on Russia is likely to weaken further. Needless to say, cui bono does not equal causality, and the catchphrase “take back control” takes on a different meaning in the Russian context. With all eyes on Brexit, a new raft of highly repressive laws was passed on Friday

Two weeks ago, we published an op-ed about Brexit Euro-2016 (alas, for our English readers, in Russian). We smiled and joked as we discussed it over Skype, keen to match our enthusiasm for football with our enthusiasm for politics. 

We noted the lack of a real contest between Remain and Leave. As we saw it, UK voters were faced with a crap choice — two roughly-hewn political camps were mobilising identity politics, self interest and popularised economic rationality to consolidate their own power. A referendum about EU membership was clearly no way to resolve genuine questions that face the UK, but, just like the patriotism of national football, it was an opportunity to “join a dimensionless collectivity” and to impact on political decision-making. It was an opportunity for democratic self-expression in a situation where that expression had long been devalued and made difficult.

News from abroad, whether you're in Russia, Ukraine or the UK, is used to bolster existing prejudices and points of view

The UK and Russia, two fading empires on the opposite edges of Europe, have a common cultural and political suspicion of what goes on in the European continent. In both countries, this Euro-suspicion has become a founding part of national identity, and has strong intellectual and tabloid traditions. The latter, in particular, is deftly mobilised by the right-wing press in the UK and Russia, tapping into a certain exhaustion with globalisation, the state’s inability to provide promised services and increasingly socio-economic inequality. 

For years, right-wing press barons have conjured a terrifying image of Europe in crisis (it most certainly is) for their audiences, urging people towards patriotic fear. News from abroad, whether you're in Russia, Ukraine or the UK, is used to bolster existing prejudices and points of view.

Perhaps it is only natural therefore that Russian state media has echoed their British tabloid counterparts. These institutions have so far explained the referendum result via the British electorate’s fatigue with EU dictatorship, immigration fears and a fading national pride.

The infamously tabloid LifeNews positioned the referendum result as a “black mark” against multiculturalism — a cipher for the corrosive western liberal values this media, and the Russian state, seeks to demonise. The tabloid Komsomolskaya pravda delved into the machinations of the “Rothschilds”, the conspiratorial backers of Bremain who attempted to use their behind-the-curtains powers to prevent the people from having their say. 

On the periphery 

Further south, in Georgia, many voters are bitter and disillusioned by both the UNM and current Georgian Dream governments. Writing these words in Akhalkalaki, a small, mostly Armenian-inhabited town in southern Georgia, it's not difficult to see why.

Tbilisi recently signed an association agreement with the EU alongside Moldova and Ukraine, and there was hope that the population would feel some tangible benefits. Investment has not led to the economic growth local people here expected, while urban and rural lives have polarised. The local economy has never quite recovered from the closure of the nearby Russian military base in 2011, though Russia still pays its way here in the form of remittance payments. Europe is great, so they say, but Russia is closer, and to be a Eurosceptic in Georgia usually means (or is seen as) being pro-Russian. 

This is the question that matters when demands for representation are made: who is speaking?

The question now is whether or when Georgian patience for visa liberalisation will last, as the country faces a parliamentary election in October. Is the EU taking Georgia's enthusiasm for granted? The heady idealism of the Saakashvili era may have waned, but the major contenders, whether Georgian Dream or UNM, at least pay lip service to European integration. With negotiations with the UK a pressing priority for Brussels over the next two years (or longer), the risk is that Georgia's European integration could simply be put on hold.

Discussions over the past few days show that Georgians are either ambivalent about Brexit or completely perplexed. Despite simultaneous alarmism (and foot-dragging) from Brussels and Washington, Georgian society remains broadly pro-European. But Brexit could be a coup de grace for pro-Russian narratives: “Europe will unravel long before Georgia can ever join”. In parliamentary elections this October, Brexit may merit a small footnote.

Tabloid politics

Just like the results of the EU referendum in the UK, first Maidan, then Crimea’s annexation in 2014 actualised socio-economic differences in both Russia and Ukraine, leading to the surge of “patriotic majorities” in wartime conditions. But while a certain strand of western commentary ignored this, they and others repeatedly talked of how propaganda “zombified” certain citizens of the Donbas in eastern Ukraine into irrational, atavistic acts of separatism against the state.

As the story goes, the Donbas found itself alienated in the course of the 1990s and 2000s — the gradual erosion of industrial pride actualised by oligarchic politics. For years, it appeared, Russian propaganda had shaped the views of people “in the east” in favour of Russia, against Ukraine, and now it was time to pay the price. 

When people took to the streets in March-May 2014 to occupy administration buildings, this move was seen as the natural result of this kind of identity politics. (In actuality, the loss of “eastern Ukraine”, as Andriy Portnov explains, was a combination of state failure and elite indecision.) As separatist conflict began, the region responded by calling for the centre to “Listen to the Donbas”

Whether it’s in Mariupol or Margate, we should embed journalism into the fabric of communities, empowering them through listening and then telling their stories, rather than speaking for them

This phrase quickly went viral. The figure of the Russian-speaking, leather-jacketed worker from the east had long been maligned by Ukraine’s liberals, the press included, for his “Soviet” values, the desire for the comfort blanket of the Soviet empire. As destabilisation degraded into a civil, and then proxy conflict, it was time for understanding between this class and the Europe-oriented national intelligentsia. 

This is the question that matters when demands for representation are made: who is speaking? Writing for Krytyka, Oksana Forostyna highlights that it was Rinat Akhmetov, Ukraine’s richest oligarch, who spoke on behalf of the Donbas, to make the call for the Donbas to be “heard” in 2014. “How can we listen to the Donbas when the loudest voices in the room belong to the elites, to the clans, to people who can set the agenda?” Forostyna asks. “How can we differentiate between the different voices?” 

What we learnt last Thursday was that “marginality” is no longer a matter of perception — the UK cannot ignore the call for democratic and economic empowerment that lies behind the slogan “Take back control”, however distasteful it might be for the metropole. Yet when a former commodity broker popularises (and then capitalises on) an idea first sponsored by the one of the most successful asset-strippers of the 1970s, you can’t help but think of a certain oligarchic politics. 

There are, of course, significant differences: Akhmetov is a businessmen with a past; the UK has some semblance of working political institutions; Russia and Ukraine’s patriotic majorities are (currently) very much pro-establishment, unlike the UK. Instead, this echo across the continent is merely to suggest that the strength of tabloid politics is a common challenge, and that two questions — how can we speak to the “other side”, and how can we create a positive agenda out of this wake-up call — are worth asking ourselves at length. 

More pressingly, it is to suggest that a democratic deficit in our media contributed to this sense of alienation. This is something that we can act on quicker than governments or political parties change policy. Whether it’s in Mariupol or Margate, we should embed journalism into the fabric of communities, empowering them through listening and then telling their stories, rather than speaking for them.

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