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

Getty
Show Hide image

Beyond terror: how are the Paris attack survivors healing their “invisible wounds”?

For many who were present at the attacks in Paris last November, the psychological scars from that night have yet to heal.

Caroline Langlade sips on a coffee on the patio of a Paris cafe. She is smiling but visibly a little nervous, hands shaking as she raises the cup to her lips. She's startled by the low rumble of a passing motorbike and she spins round in her chair to make sure the source of the noise is nothing sinister.

Just a few minutes' walk away is the Bataclan concert hall where, on 13 November last year, gunmen shot dead 90 people in the deadliest of a string of attacks across the French capital that claimed a total of 130 lives.

Caroline could have been among them had she not been on the first floor balcony at the time the gunmen entered the music venue and opened fire.

She managed to take refuge with others in a locked side room.

"Someone, one of the terrorists, tried to get in but couldn't," says the 29-year-old media worker. "I was trembling the whole time. I'm trembling now just talking about it. We were there for three-and-a-half hours before the police let us out."

She escaped physically uninjured but, two-and-a-half months later, the psychological scars from that night have yet to heal. She hasn't been able to return to work since and says she finds it difficult to read a book, watch films or do anything that involves "letting herself go" mentally.


Caroline Langlade. Photo: Sam Ball

Crowds in the street, along with sudden noises like the aforementioned motorbike, make her nervous. Wherever she is, the first thing she does is look around for possible hiding places.

"We have invisible wounds, we were injured in the attacks but they're mental injuries," she says of survivors like herself.

Sometimes, those wounds can remain hidden even for those who bear them.

On the morning of 14 November, Laure Dumont (not her real name) woke up, went to buy groceries at her local market in northern Paris where she lives and then went to a bookshop – a fairly typical Saturday morning.

The evening before, she had been lying motionless on the patio of a bar targeted that night, Le Carillon, trying to play dead in the hope of avoiding the attention of the gunmen spraying the bar with bullets.

"I hadn't been hurt. I didn't really even cry," she says of the day after the attack. "I had things planned so I just continued life as normal."

Some of what Laure saw at Le Carillon, where she had been drinking with friends on the night of 13 November, was horrific.

She recounts how she was shocked at the strong smell of blood from the dead and injured that filled the bar; how she, along with another woman, tried to administer first aid to a girl who had been shot in the chest.

"I tried to help her but there was nothing I could do. She died," she says.

But it wasn't until some time later that she began to realise that what had happened to her had left a bigger mark than she had first suspected.

"As time passed, it started to affect me," says the 29-year-old administrative assistant for a concert production company. "Now it makes me nervous when I drink on the terrace at a bar or a cafe. I have moments of paranoia, like on the metro, for example. I ask myself where would I hide or run if something happened."

Sometimes the psychological wounds manifest themselves in unexpected ways. Laure says she can't stand the smell of alcohol spilled onto the floor, because it is strangely reminiscent of the smell of blood.

Both Laure and Caroline both make regular visits to the psychologist, part of the free services provided to victims of terror attacks by the state.

But for Caroline, it was the discovery of an online victim support group named "Life for Paris", founded by a 28-year-old childcare worker and Bataclan survivor named Maureen Roussel, which has proved to be the biggest aid to her rehabilitation.

The Facebook group, which now also has an accompanying website, was created on 1 December. Caroline joined the next day and soon became close friends with Maureen. Now, she is the group's vice president and effectively runs it alongside her.

"The idea was to create a group by and for the victims," says Caroline. It provides a platform for survivors to come together to provide each other with emotional support, find people they may have met on the night of the attacks or simply share their experiences.

They also help one another with practical tasks, such as accessing the free healthcare and other services on offer for every survivor of the attack – something that can prove particularly challenging for those from outside France who may not be aware that such help exists at all.

There has been an overwhelming response: the Facebook group has more than 500 members at last count, including some from as far away as the UK, Brazil, the US and Venezuela.

Members' experiences and the impact they have had on their lives are wide-ranging. While some have been able to return to normal life relatively quickly, others, says Caroline, have been unable to leave their homes since the attacks.

But one recurring theme is the phenomenon of survivors' guilt, something Caroline personally struggled with in the weeks following the attacks. She found solace in talking to other people in the group who lost loved ones on 13 November.

"They told me 'it's not your fault, no one deserves to die', and that really helped me a lot."

Above all though, the group has allowed her simply just to "make sense of things". For example, just swapping stories with other Bataclan survivors, she says, allows her to fill in holes in her memory about what happened that night.

"It helps to piece together the puzzle: there might be a person who will remember something you don't and that helps you to understand better, to put together the story so that you can digest it and put it aside."

Laure is also searching for missing pieces of the puzzle. Shortly after the attacks she returned to Le Carillon. "I just wanted to see the layout of the bar, the physical distances," she says. "After the attacks, I remember running for what to me seemed a long time. When I went back, I realised it had only been for three metres."

Like Caroline, she has found that connecting with other survivors has helped her come to terms with what happened.

She managed to get in touch with the woman who had helped her administer first aid to the injured girl, something that eased the guilt she was feeling about not being able to do more to save her.

"We exchanged some messages. She helped me remember what had happened. It was good to talk," she says.

For Caroline, the most important thing now is focussing on what can be done for those who escaped with their lives, but who will forever be touched by what happened.

"People died, but others are alive today and suffering – the families of those who lost their lives, victims with visible injuries, victims with invisible ones," she says. "All these people need to heal and it's important that we do it together, united."