The Kremlin uses bully-boy tactics to keep other countries in the fold

Putin and his ministers were uncharacteristically polite about Barack Obama, welcoming co-operation with him over Syria’s chemical weapons. Yet only a few weeks previously their relations with Washington had been toxic, with rows over Syria, Edward Snowde

Ever since Vladimir Putin returned to the presidency, in May 2012, Russia’s relations with the west have been fraught. He has become increasingly authoritarian, thwarted US diplomacy on Syria and claimed that he is defending the Judaeo-Christian values abandoned by western countries. But now Putin seems to be softening his approach. This may be because of Russia’s mounting economic problems, the opposition’s surprisingly strong showing in local elections, and the convergence with Washington over Syria’s chemical weapons.

A new-look Putin was on display at this year’s “Valdai Club”, a group of international think-tankers, academics and journalists that meets once a year in Russia. As we gathered by the shores of Lake Valdai in northern Russia, Putin and his senior ministers had a clear message: Russia’s political system is evolving.

For the final session, which was broadcast live on Russian TV, a relaxed and confident Putin sat on a panel with European grandees, including Romano Prodi and François Fillon. They urged him to listen to young Russian protesters and to take seriously “the responsibility to protect” Syrians. In the audience were opposition leaders who questioned Putin about electoral fraud and the imprisonment of activists. He replied calmly that Russia was “on the way to democracy” and reminded everyone that the recent mayoral elections in Moscow had been free and fair.

Given Putin’s track record, one should treat his words with scepticism. But an earlier session with one of his chief advisers had surprised us: “The trend for fair elections will be more pronounced; there will be more political competition in future . . .” The adviser counselled the opposition parties to focus on municipalities, hinting that it was too soon for them to win regional governorships or national elections. I asked opposition politicians what they made of all this. Vladimir Ryzhkov (a liberal) and Ilya Ponomarev (a leftist) told me that the Kremlin did have a new approach – though it could still use the courts to clobber anyone considered a threat.

One reason for this modest political opening may be the economic slowdown, which could spur unrest. Having grown at about 4 per cent a year for the previous three years, the economy may not achieve 2 per cent this year, despite a favourable oil price. Foreigners and Russians are investing less. Brain drain and capital flight continue. The technocrats running the economy know that politics is holding it back. One former minister told the Valdai Club that “the keys to improving the economy are independent courts and the protection of property”. Investment would suffer so long as the courts remained subject to the whim of the executive, he said.

Putin and his ministers were uncharacteristically polite about Barack Obama, welcoming co-operation with him over Syria’s chemical weapons. Yet only a few weeks previously their relations with Washington had been toxic, with rows over Syria, Edward Snowden and missile defence.

The reasons for the shift in tone are unclear. Russians worry a great deal about Islamist extremists fighting in Syria and Afghanistan and then infecting Russia’s Muslim regions with terrorism. They want the Americans to help to manage the situation in both war zones. Perhaps the Russians think they can be magnanimous to those who misread the Middle East: they always said the Arab spring would end in tears and that Arab countries could not be democratic, and they feel vindicated by events in Egypt, Libya and Syria.

In truth, Putin’s entourage is still hostile, if not paranoid, towards the United States. I asked a minister if Nato remained a threat to Russia’s security. “Of course. Why else does it try to creep as close as possible to our borders?” he answered. “It has punished regimes it dislikes – Yugoslavia, Iraq and Libya – without any regard to the UN Security Council.” He accused Nato of deceiving Russia by enlarging after promising it would not (this is partly true) and said that Russia could not be a friend of Nato unless it renounced further expansion.

Most Russians share this suspicion of Nato. They also believe that Nato wants to absorb Ukraine – even though that idea has little support in Kiev or the major western capitals. It is the EU that would like Ukraine to sign a free-trade agreement in Vilnius in November, alongside Moldova, Georgia and Armenia, as part of its “Eastern Partnership”. Putin wants to stop these countries signing, as they then could not join the Customs Union established in 2010 by Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan. Putin hopes that the Customs Union will expand into much of the former Soviet Union and evolve into a more powerful “Eurasian Union”.

The Kremlin uses bully-boy tactics to prise countries away from the Eastern Partnership. In August, it blocked imports from Ukraine for several days, saying this was a “dress rehearsal” for the measures it would have to take if Kiev went with the EU. It told the Moldovans that they would have their gas cut off, their exports blocked and their migrant workers expelled from Russia. What the Russians told Armenia is unclear, but in September it decided to join the Customs Union rather than the Eastern Partnership. Armenia is a special case: it cannot cross Moscow, because only Russian troops prevent Azerbaijan from invading the disputed frontier region of Nagorno-Karabakh.

Besides Armenia, Russia cannot count any near neighbour as a true friend. It has been slow to understand that “soft power” – the appeal of a country’s social, economic and political system, and of its behaviour – may achieve as much as brute force. Russia’s leaders appear to see the value of treating the opposition, and possibly the Americans, with a little more courtesy. They should try the same with their neighbours.

Charles Grant is the director of the Centre for European Reform

Vladimir Putin has shifted his tone - but the reason why is unclear. Image: Getty

This article first appeared in the 11 October 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Iran vs Israel

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Yanis Varoufakis: The left never recovered from the fall of the Soviet Union — yet there is hope

A radical internationalism is needed to democratise the EU and breathe new life into the left.

The left has been in disarray since 1991 – it never fully recovered from the collapse of the Soviet Union, despite widespread opposition to Stalinism and ­authoritarianism. In the past two decades, we have witnessed a major spasm of global capitalism that has triggered a long deflationary period across the United States and Europe. Just as the Great Depression did in the 1930s, this has created a breeding ground for xenophobia, racism and scapegoating.

The rise of centrism is also partly to blame. For a period in the late 1990s, it seemed that this had become the new doctrine of the left. In Britain, New Labour under Tony Blair was never part of the left. Margaret Thatcher was delighted by the manner in which his governments copied her policies and adopted her neoliberal mantra, though she did ask the question: if you want to vote for a Conservative, why not vote for a real one instead?

Parties such as New Labour, the Socialists in France and the Social Democrats in Germany might have called themselves the radical centre, but that was just labelling. What was happening under the surface was that the progressive parties of the left were being lured into financialisation. In the 1960s and 1970s the centre left was aware of its duty to act as a mediator between industrial capital and labour. Harold Wilson’s Labour Party, Willy Brandt’s Social Democrats in Germany and others understood that their duty was to strike a grand bargain whereby industrial capital ceded to workers’ demands for higher wages and better conditions, while they agreed to help fund the welfare state.

From the mid-1980s onwards, the left-wing leadership abandoned this duty. Industrial capital was in decline and it was much easier to look towards the super-profits of the City of London and the global banks. A Faustian pact was made with the financial sector – European governments turned a blind eye to what the bankers were doing and offered them further deregulation in exchange for a few crumbs from their table to fund welfare. This is what Tony Blair and Gordon Brown did in Britain, Gerhard Schröder did in Germany and the Socialists did in France. Then the financial crisis struck. At that point, social democrats throughout Europe lacked the moral strength and analytical power to tell bankers that although they would salvage the banks, their reign was over.

The best hope for the left is to come together to defeat the worst enemy of European democracy: “Euro-tina”, the reactionary dogma that “there is no alternative” to the continent’s current policies. Hence the EU’s true democratisation is the only alternative. This is what my collaborators and I hope to achieve with our new Democracy in Europe Movement 2025 (DiEM25). We are compiling a new economic agenda for Europe, which will answer the question I am asked on the streets everywhere I go, from Sweden to the UK: what can we do better within the EU? If the answer is “nothing”, the Brexiteers have a point – we might as well blow the whole thing up and start afresh. The alternative to the “Year Zero” approach is to recalibrate European institutions in the context of a practical and comprehensive agenda comprised of policies that will stabilise Europe’s social economy.

The EU institutions are anti-Europeanist and contemptuous of democracy. People might wonder: if that is the case, why am I arguing to stay in, but against the Union? In response, I ask those who support the left-wing argument in favour of Brexit: since when has the British state been a friend of the working class? Never. And yet their argument is: do not dismantle it. The nation state was created to promote a fictitious notion of a national interest to co-opt labour and those on the fringes of society – the “lumpenproletariat”, as we once called them. The left understands that it is not our job to destroy institutions. Instead, we struggle to take them over and use them for good. I cut my political teeth protesting against the Greek state but I do not believe that it should be dismantled and the same argument applies to the EU.

Good people who are motivated to change society often fall out with each other. I am reminded of a scene in Monty Python’s Life of Brian – when the Judaean People’s Front confronts the People’s Front of Judaea and the Popular Front of Judaea. DiEM25’s task is to try to convince our fellow left-wingers that the solution is a pan-European unity movement. A concrete example of the power that this can have is the election of Barcelona’s new mayor, Ada Colau. A DiEM25 supporter, she won the race against the odds,
having started her career running a protest movement that championed the rights of citizens threatened with eviction because they were unable to pay their mortgages.

The Syriza government, in which I served as finance minister from January to July 2015, failed to achieve change because we ended up disunited and the prime minister capitulated to the EU at the moment when he had a mandate from the Greek people to do the opposite. My hope was that if Syriza had carried on with the struggle, we would have been a catalyst for movements across Europe (such as the one that has fuelled the rise of Jeremy Corbyn) to join us.

The capitulation of Alexis Tsipras was a hefty blow to the concept of radical inter­nationalism, but I still believe that internationalism offers the solution to the problems facing Europe in this deflationary era. The number of good-quality jobs has decreased, investment is depressed and optimism about the future is being destroyed. It is the left’s duty to do all we can to end this. If we can explain to the masses what the sources of their discontent are, we have a chance to breathe new life into the left. There are no guarantees – just a chance.

This is the latest article in our “New Times” special series

This article first appeared in the 29 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, May’s new Tories