Europe pivots to Russia as capitalist dreams turn to revenge

The tide of populism, realpolitik and post-truth politics will not retreat with Donald Trump’s US election win. We examine how ‘we’re all Russians now’ in a post-globalisation era.
Crowds in Moscow protest against an attempted military coup to oust Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev in 1991. Boris Yurchenko / AP Photo.
Crowds in Moscow protest against an attempted military coup to oust Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev in 1991. Boris Yurchenko / AP Photo.

This time next year, the United States and probably France, two of the world’s great democracies, might be led by admirers of Russian president Vladimir Putin. These countries will follow Hungary, the Czech Republic, Slovakia and most recently, Bulgaria and Moldova: Eastern European nations that have elected leaders advocating closer ties to Moscow, a mere quarter-century after breaking free of Soviet domination. In the remaining liberal strongholds of Germany, Italy and the Netherlands, the leading opposition movements all favour lifting sanctions. What is fuelling this apparent wave of Russophilia across much of the world?

Three main factors have created the conditions for Russia’s re-emergence from international isolation: the growing distrust of liberal elites, the increased power of the internet and a disillusionment with the perceived ineffectiveness and unfairness of democratic politics. Having driven Putin’s own rise to power at the turn of the century, today these factors are becoming increasingly salient in the West of today.

Following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, president Boris Yeltsin embraced liberal institutions and radical free market economic reforms. The policies created untold wealth for a tiny elite and the massive erosion of living standards for the vast majority. By 1994, Russian life expectancy had fallen by five years. As Soviet factories were taken over and their assets stripped by new oligarch owners, unemployment and poverty soared.

The new dawn ushered in by Yeltsin, with its hallowed commitments to free speech and free markets, did little for those unable to take advantage of these freedoms. For many people, liberal democracy remained theoretical, while their destitution and degradation were real. The European Bank for Reconstruction and Development found that Russians born during the years of transition were on average 1 centimetre shorter in height than their older and younger peers – comparable to the effects of living through wartime. Indeed, wrote the Nobel laureate Svetlana Alexievich in her latest book, Second-hand Time, “The discovery of money hit us like an atomic bomb”.

But it was not just the physical hardships that tarnished the liberal idea of newly-found freedom. In addition to deindustrialisation and an explosion of inequality, people lost meaning. The old way of life was not merely gone but discredited. What’s more, through their conspicuous consumption, the oligarchs and their liberal enablers appeared to show open contempt for the common people and their experience.

Putin came to power on a wave of resentment of the inequality, chaos and decadence of post-Communism. He offered to make Russia great again: restore the country’s international standing, crush terrorism in Chechnya and usher in economic justice by cracking down on the despised oligarchs. It was in many ways a backward-looking plan. But having benefited little from the freedoms of the past decade, the population largely regarded Putin’s authoritarianism as a small price to pay for the country’s promised renaissance.

Though of a different magnitude, the parallels with today’s western democracies are stark. Like their Russian counterparts in the 1990s, blue collar Americans struggle with deindustrialisation, declining wages and a falling life expectancy relative to their wealthier and more educated compatriots. Former manufacturing strongholds are now a rust belt. President-elect Donald Trump was widely criticised for comparing the capital of Pennsylvania to a “war zone where you once had these massive plants”, yet all too often the obliteration of industry through globalisation does resemble the aftermath of a foreign invasion.

Most of all, Middle America faces a loss of hope in the future. The country feels under threat from immigrants and terrorism at home and appears to have lost its ability to control events abroad. This anxiety is accompanied by the sneering of a seemingly smug and self-righteous elite, for whom life has never been better because of the unprecedented flowering of liberal freedoms, usually defined in the language of minority rights.

In France, economic woes have been compounded by numerous terrorist acts and the erosion of traditional ways of life. The malaise and disillusionment has ejected moderate candidate Alain Juppé from the Republican party primaries in favour of the pro-Russia right-winger François Fillon, who once referred to Putin as “my dear Vladimir”. Fillon’s biggest rival in April’s presidential election, Marine Le Pen, is even more of a Russophile, all but guaranteeing the country’s eastward turn whoever the winner.

In Italy, the resignation of prime minister Matteo Renzi following a constitutional referendum has emboldened the main opposition bloc, the Five Star Movement. Its populist leader, former comedian Beppe Grillo, is widely believed to be sympathetic to Moscow. This is also true of Germany’s right-wing, anti-immigrant Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) party, whose recent electoral gains have threatened the dominance of Angela Merkel’s centrist government.

As with Russia’s transition from Communism, growing numbers of people in the West are experiencing the downsides of the liberal order. As the success of anti-immigrant parties appears to show, the pain from free movement of labour and capital is being absorbed by the average citizen while the benefits accrue to an ever-shrinking elite. Increasingly, the major cleavage emerging today is between those nimble, educated and well-connected enough to take advantage of the more open world, and those left behind.

The sociologist Zygmunt Bauman described the distinction as that between tourists and vagabonds: we are all on the move, but “the tourists travel because they want to; the vagabonds – because they have no other choice”. And now, the vagabonds are reaching for the emergency brake.

In many respects, their personal lack of agency is reflected in western foreign policy’s apparent inability to shape global outcomes. After more than a decade of war in the Middle East, the US has failed to curb radical Islam or to bring peace to the region. The EU has likewise made little discernible impact on the Syrian conflict or the waves of immigrants or refugees crossing its borders.

Compared to the tortured inertia of the West, Russia can act with much greater decisiveness. Lacking democratic constraints, it was able to orchestrate a surgical annexation of the Ukraine and turn the tide in Syria.

The Kremlin’s unabashedly 19th century-style realpolitik is seeing a revival, from Washington to Paris to Manila. Alongside Trump, both Fillon and the newly-elected Philippine president Rodrigo Duterte – another Putin fan – have spoken out in favour of independent foreign policies that privilege national interest over normative considerations such as shared values. In part, this reflects a backlash against previous doctrines of humanitarian intervention and democracy-promotion that became synonymous with the Iraq War and international chaos.

But values and norms are themselves becoming questioned as another Russian import finds increasing resonance in the West: the mixing together of true and false information with the help of the internet. This has shaken the elite media’s former monopoly over the tone of debate. The new opportunities for propagandists to manipulate information and discredit the value of facts have spawned the concept of post-truth, which the Oxford English Dictionary selected as its Word of the Year for 2016.

Yet post-truth is nothing new in Russia. Since the 1990s, Russia has pioneered the sphere of virtual politics, a term coined by the academic Andrew Wilson for the use of fake institutions, media and even candidates, to mimic and subvert the democratic process. For example, an oligarch might hire someone to start a fake political party, or a reporter paid to write so-called “black PR” to discredit a rival candidate.

Five years ago, the journalist Peter Pomerantsev described Russia’s contemporary ideology as a “fusion of despotism and postmodernism, in which no truth is certain”. Perfected by so-called political technologists such as Putin’s chief ideologue Vladislav Surkov and exported by state-owned outlets like Russia Today, the tactics have become adopted by a wide range of disruptive political forces in the West, from the American alt-right to followers of Italy’s populist Five Star Movement.

Struggling with an economic, political and foreign policy morass left by successive waves of liberal technocrats, western voters are coming to resemble the Russians of the early 2000s. Establishment warnings about the dangers of trading an imperfect and messy liberal democracy for a return to (imaginary) past greatness are falling on ears long-ago deafened by economic and spiritual decline.

The liberal establishment is right about the virtues of tolerance and diversity, the dangers of populist nationalism and the fact that freedom can only really be appreciated when confronted with its absence. But the reality is that many people have nothing to lose. Their jobs, dignity and with it, the opportunity to use the freedoms they theoretically had, have already gone.

Sadly, these the voices are telling the truth at the very moment that they have lost their moral authority. Moscow has wasted no time in stepping into the breach, and its populist march appears unstoppable. Perhaps it’s time to learn to stop worrying and love the Kremlin.

Vadim Nikitin is a journalist and Russian analyst based in London

Published: December 14, 2016 04:00 AM


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