Under­standing Russia

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A Russian agent who switched sides is attacked with a military-grade nerve agent in a provin­cial English town. Prime Minister May holds Moscow respon­sible for the attack. Are we back in the Cold War, or have we somehow inad­ver­tently landed in a James Bond film? By Ralf Fücks und Marieluise Beck

The Scripal case is not a one-off incident. Alexander Litvi­nenko, a former Russian secret service officer and a fierce critic of Putin, died in London of polonium poisoning in November 2006. The prime suspect is former KGB officer Andrei Lugovoi, who left an actual trail of polonium behind him on his London visit. Lugovoi now sits in the Duma as a member of the Kremlin’s United Russia party. The Russian author­i­ties have refused to extradite him to face British justice.

A number of Putin’s adver­saries have been murdered or died of myste­rious diseases over the past years. In October 2006, the jour­nalist Anna Politkovskaya was shot dead in the lift at her block of flats in Moscow. Her research on the human rights viola­tions in Chechnya had crossed the “red line”. Five other oppo­si­tion jour­nal­ists who had reported on the atroc­i­ties committed by the Russian army in Chechnya had already lost their lives in 2000. Sergei Magnitsky, an auditor who uncovered a large-scale fraud scheme involving state officials, died in prison, after criminal proceed­ings were launched against him on trumped up charges. In February 2015, Boris Nemtsov, former Vice Premier and a figure­head for the oppo­si­tion to Putin, was gunned down in the street within sight of the Kremlin. The list could go on and on.

The murders of renegade secret service officers, oppo­si­tion figures and jour­nal­ists serve as a signal: those who cross the people in power are living danger­ously. No one who does so can hope for protec­tion from the police or the justice system; on the contrary, these are the instru­ments of that power. Legend has it that lovely facades were once hung before the wretched­ness of Russian villages to prevent their dismal reality from marring the view of Catherine the Great; now, a backdrop of democracy hangs across the landscape of today’s Russia. There are political parties, parlia­ments, courts, private media and even commis­sioners for human rights. In reality, they are merely simu­la­tions. The Duma is a machine designed to generate acclaim for Kremlin policy, the parties, like the media, are controlled by those in power, judges and public pros­e­cu­tors are subject to instruc­tions from above. Putin has his hooks in the provin­cial governors as well: they are no longer elected officials but Kremlin appointees. Putin once called this regime a “guided democracy” – an elegant euphemism for an author­i­tarian system of gover­nance aiming at absolute control.

In such a system, pres­i­den­tial elections are simply an exercise held to confirm the power of the supreme ruler. Where there is neither political compe­ti­tion nor a free press, where oppo­si­tion candi­dates are not allowed onto the ballot and state employees are under enormous pressure to vote for the right candidate, elections are nothing more than a farce. Two people might have posed a serious challenge to Putin: Boris Nemtsov, the head of the liberal oppo­si­tion, and Alexei Navalny, who has voiced the senti­ments of many Russians with his anti-corrup­tion campaign. The one was murdered, the other barred from candidacy.

We still struggle to find the right words to describe the “Putin system”. The regime evokes a modern-day feudalism, in which high state offices are benefices granted to loyal henchmen. The system also exhibits some of the features of a klep­toc­racy, in which political power and personal enrich­ment go hand in hand. Putin is thought to be one of the world’s richest men, one who uses front men and dummy corpo­ra­tions to conceal his assets. The “Panama Papers” shed light on one corner of this shady empire. Cellist Sergei Roldugin, an old friend of Putin, figured as the owner of various accounts through which 2 billion dollars were shifted. Govern­ment func­tionaries who take home modest pay-checks own flats in London or on the Côte d’Azur and send their children to pricey private univer­si­ties. Political power is serving as the mechanism for the redis­tri­b­u­tion of societal wealth. Successful private entre­pre­neurs have every reason to expect a hostile takeover of their busi­nesses by the state cliques. Where there is no legal certainty, there is no guarantee of private ownership either. Those who wish to gain an impres­sion of this atmos­phere of abuse and violence should watch Russian director Andrei Zvyagintsev’s film “Leviathan”.

The key influence wielded by the intel­li­gence services is largely undis­puted. The “siloviki” form an informal frater­nity in control of large portions of the state apparatus and the economy. Putin came from the ranks of the KGB; his own personal ascent is closely bound up with the secret services’ trans­for­ma­tion into the strongest power in the state. For those shaped by this envi­ron­ment, there is only the hammer or the anvil – one either strikes the blow or takes it. Those fighting for the great cause of Russia are bound by no law. This applies to both internal and external action: not the slightest doubt about the legality of the violent takeover of Crimea exists in official circles in Russia. Nor is there criticism of the bombing of schools and hospitals in Syria or shock about the devas­ta­tion of entire towns. On the contrary, the prevailing emotion is one of patriotic satis­fac­tion over Russia’s return, finally, to its role as a strong military power that is feared by its adversaries.

The Kremlin no longer sees itself as bound by any inter­na­tional law or treaty, annex­a­tion of Crimea and the war in East Ukraine made this clear, if it was not already. Who cares if Russia is one of the powers committed to guar­an­teeing the inde­pen­dence and terri­to­rial integrity of Ukraine? “Might makes right” is once again the order of the day. Putin’s message: We are no longer playing by your rules. The system­atic mixing of truth and lies ties in with this as well. After initially denying that Russian troops had occupied Crimea, Putin went on to award them medals for this great patriotic feat. Foreign Minister Lavrov has no problem asserting publicly that Russia has nothing to do with the war in East Ukraine. What have facts got to do with anything? Truth is that which best serves the Kremlin. The Russian Govern­ment has raised this tactic to a masterly art. An army of Internet trolls and computer bots is loosed to sew hatred and strife in the West under the concealing cloak of false iden­ti­ties, but offi­cially Moscow has nothing to do with any of it.

Why then, despite all this, is Putin met with so much under­standing in Germany, while the demo­c­ratic oppo­si­tion in Russia elicits hardly any interest at all? Is it the sense of guilt about the barbarism with which Nazi Germany raged through the Soviet Union? If so, surely the empathy for the victims would apply for Poland, Ukraine, Belarus and the other former Soviet Republics as well. But of this there has been little sign. Is it the supposed spiritual kinship with a Russia perceived as a counter-pole to Western indi­vid­u­alism and the culture of consump­tion? Is it fear of the threat­ening military posturing by the Russian lead­er­ship that drives us to avoid any conflict? Or is it the tempting prospects offered by Russia’s raw materials reserves and sales markets? Probably a mixture of all those things.

Every realistic policy towards Russia starts with the recog­ni­tion that the Kremlin sees itself as an adversary of the West once again. The elites ruling present-day Russia no longer see their country as being on a long path towards the West. They have no interest in democracy; on the contrary, they see it as a threat to their power and their benefices. Not content to stop at shielding Russia from the “colour revo­lu­tions” in their region, they have turned to the offensive. Ukraine is to be brought back under Russian hegemony, the rifts within NATO and the European Union should be deepened. It is not on a whim that the Kremlin is supporting nation­alist, xeno­phobic and anti-Western forces all over Europe. Seeking to placate Putin by being yielding is pointless. It only whets his appetite for more. Human rights, the equal sover­eignty of all states and the renun­ci­a­tion of violence are the foun­da­tion of the European framework for peace. Construc­tive coop­er­a­tion with Russia on that basis is welcome. As long as the Kremlin keeps playing the role of an antag­o­nist of the liberal order though, firmness is called for.

Marieluise Beck was the Green Party’s Eastern Europe policy expert in the Bundestag, Ralf Fücks served on the Board of the Heinrich Böll Foun­da­tion for many years. Last autumn they founded the Center for Liberal Modernity, which is intended to serve as a gathering place for liberal thinkers from all political camps.

On 18 March 2018, this article was published at the German Sunday paper “Welt am Sonntag”.


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