New-found confidence: Vladimir Putin at the Sochi Paralympics closing ceremony last month. (Photo: Getty)
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Letter from Moscow: the mood turns nasty

In the wake of the Ukraine crisis a rampant chauvinism has been unleashed,  while sanctions on Russia have created the kind of atmosphere dictators love.

As we began our descent across southern Moscow, our plane skimmed just above the blocks that symbolise Soviet-era living, then banked west towards the airport, crossing mile upon mile of “town hauzy” and “kottedzhy” – the gaudy dwellings, replete with turrets and swimming pools and multiple garages, of Russia’s thriving middle classes. We used to call them “New Russians”, but that’s so Yeltsin-era. The people who have feathered their out-of-town nests under Vladimir Putin are a different breed – and there are hundreds of thousands of them. I asked a friend what kind of people lived here. Small entrepreneurs, he said . . . bankers, people from the oil and gas business and government officials: “With the bribes they take, they can live in real style!”

In theory, these are the kinds of people who would have much to lose if western sanctions against Russia were to shake the economy hard. But I doubt it would shake their faith in Putin, who gave them their loot and whose policies they love. I found myself at a barbecue last summer at one of these country piles. All the neighbours came round to meet the foreign guest. A thoroughly unpleasant experience it was, as they began by denouncing the pro-democracy protesters and the central Asians who clean Moscow’s streets, and ended by insisting that we British would never solve our problems until we throw out all our Muslims.

The sanctions announced by the US and EU so far are aimed at much bigger fish – men who own yachts and banks, not a measly five-bedroomed villa and a couple of BMWs. The idea (and one has to assume this has been thoroughly thought through) is to put pressure on Putin not via his natural constituents but his closest buddies: those he helped to become billionaires, with whom he served in the KGB and, in some cases, plotted the invasion of Crimea.

So far the sanctions have been laughed off. In truth, I cannot imagine them reining in whatever further plans Putin may have. The Kremlin, it should be remembered, tends to react to western pressure in what it likes to call an “asymmetric” – some might say perverse – fashion. Take the US “Magnitsky law”, which imposed visa bans and asset freezes on officials said to be involved in the death of Sergei Magnitsky, the whistleblowing lawyer who uncovered large-scale fraud (committed by the same officials who then had him arrested and jailed). If this was intended to force the authorities finally to bring the officials to justice, then sadly nothing of the sort happened. The Kremlin’s asymmetric response was to drop all charges against the only officials being investigated, and to ban the adoption of Russian children by Americans. I would hazard a guess that Putin’s response to the west’s sanctions over Crimea will be something we had never thought of.

It seems to me that the sanctions have produced the kind of atmosphere that dictators love. The Soviet Union used to exploit western pressure to unite the nation against a perceived outside threat and now something similar is happening again. Alexey Pushkov, a TV presenter and Duma member whom I have known for many years, has said that the return of Crimea to Russia marked a quantitative leap in the nation’s self-awareness: “It is overcoming the inferiority complex that was forced on us for years both from within and without the country, when they tried to convince us that Russia was no use for anything other than to be dependent and subjugated, following the ‘real’ leaders of the modern world.”

You need broad shoulders to carry around a chip as big as that. The presenter of a television debate the other day summed up the new situation: “The world has changed. Russia is no longer going to take its orders from ‘HQ’.”

The question is, where will it end, this new-found Russian confidence? The concept of the Russian World (“Russkiy Mir”) has been gaining strength, especially since 2006, when Putin exhorted young people to “use this phrase more often”. Now there is a Russian World Foundation, which aims to promote Russian language and culture, as well as something more amorphous – a sense of “Russianness” and a community that covers the entire Russian-speaking world. That includes territory in Ukraine, Moldova, Kazakhstan and elsewhere. Is that where Kremlin eyes are gazing?

It is only a small step from nationalism to chauvinism. In the wake of the Ukraine crisis, it is rampant – and it already ran deep in Russian veins. I recall hearing a very senior member of Putin’s circle (one of those whom foreign journalists describe as sophisticated and westernised) privately describing the Ukrainians as a nation of devious, untrustworthy crooks.

Aleksandr Dugin, one of the ideologists of the Eurasian movement, wrote this week that “mature Putinism” would be marked by the emergence of “Russia as a distinct civilisation, independent of Europe”, in which the “fifth column” of dissident voices (specifically the liberal radio station Ekho Moskvy) would be “liquidated”.

The atmosphere is about as nasty as I have ever known it in Moscow. There is, of course, another Russia, westernised and outward-looking, that watches all of this with apprehension. Many people have moved on too far to contemplate a return to the isolationist days of the communist period.

Yet the likely beneficiary of recent events will be – who else? – Vladimir Putin, his popularity bolstered by each new western sanction. Do we really want to ensure he is with us for another ten years? 

Angus Roxburgh is a former BBC Moscow correspondent and the author of “The Strongman: Vladimir Putin and the Struggle for Russia” (I B Tauris, £12.99)

This article first appeared in the 03 April 2014 issue of the New Statesman, NEW COLD WAR

ROBERTO SCHMIDT/AFP/Getty Images
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Unlikely sisters in the Gaza Strip

A former Jewish settler in Gaza recalls her childhood friendship with a young Palestinian.

It was well after midnight, one summer night in 1995, when Inbar Rozy, a 13-year-old living in the former Israeli settlement of Alei Sinai in the northern Gaza Strip, heard her parents answer the phone. Sitting up in bed, surrounded by potted plants, candles and fairy dolls lit by shafts of light from a nearby security outpost, Inbar listened closely.

“I could hear everyone talking around me, making calls,” Inbar said when we met recently in Nitzan, southern Israel. When she got up to find out what was happening, her parents told her to make up a second mattress. As dawn broke, they led into the room a young woman carrying a small bag and wearing a black shirt and jeans. “She had shoulder-length dark hair dyed with red henna and beautiful eyes – big, black with thick eyelashes,” Inbar told me, smiling. “[She was] quiet. She looked scared.”

The woman was Rina (her surname cannot be given for security reasons), a talented artist in her early twenties studying at a local art college, where she had fallen in love with a Christian boy. For Rina, coming from a traditional family, marrying a non-Muslim would be strictly forbidden.

When her parents found out, they were furious and forbade her from seeing her boyfriend. But her male cousins felt this wasn’t enough. Earlier on the day the girls first met, Rina’s cousins had attempted to kill her in retribution for her perceived “honour crime”. Seeing that another attempt on her life was likely, Rina’s father called a relative, who in turn called Inbar’s father, Yossef, a friend of many years. There was no doubt she had to leave. Ironically, a Jewish settlement protected by the Israel Defence Forces was the safest place in Gaza for her to be.

In 1967, Israel seized the Gaza Strip from Egypt during the Six Day War. In time, it settled 21 communities on a third of the land, with a population of 8,000 by 2005. Soldiers guarded the settlements from 1.5 million displaced Palestinians, tens of thousands of whom were displaced in 1967 and moved to live in nearby refugee camps. In Gaza, before Israel’s ultimate withdrawal from the Strip in 2005, relationships between Israeli settlers and Palestinians were fraught. True, many Palestinians worked in Israeli settlements, earning wages higher than elsewhere in the Strip, but the two communities lived largely separate lives.

In the mid-1990s, even after the Oslo Accords, violence was simmering. Israeli military incursions increased with the outbreak of the Second Intifada in 2000. Thousands of home-made Qassam rockets were launched by Palestinian militants at settlers and those living in southern Israel. Security measures hardened. The veteran Israeli journalist Amira Hass, who spent several years living in Gaza, describes neighbourhoods that were “turned into jails behind barbed-wire fences, closed gates, IDF surveillance, tanks and entry-permit red tape”.

And yet, in spite of the forced segregation, Inbar’s family enjoyed close links with their Palestinian neighbours. Inbar’s father worked as an ambulance driver, and on several occasions he helped transport those who lived nearby for emergency medical treatment in Israel. “Every Tuesday, my father’s Jewish and Arab friends would come to our house and we’d eat lunch together,” Inbar remembered.

Given the gravity of Rina’s situation, she couldn’t leave the house. Secrecy was paramount. The girls spent weeks together indoors, Inbar said, chatting, watching TV and drawing. “I’m not sure that as a child I actually understood it for real,” she said. “She taught me how to paint and sketch a face from sight.”

Almost as soon as Rina arrived, Inbar’s family began receiving anonymous phone calls asking about her. “My dad told me, ‘Don’t mention anything about Rina. Say you don’t know what they’re talking about – because otherwise they’ll come and kill us,’” Inbar said.

While the girls got to know each other, Inbar’s mother, Brigitte, found a women’s shelter in East Jerusalem for Rina. Whereas today Gaza is closed off by a military border under heavy surveillance, at that time it was porous. Brigitte drove Rina in to the capital, where she was given a new name and identity that would enable her to begin a new life, on condition that she contact no one in Gaza.

Today Inbar, who is 33, works at the Gush Katif centre in Nitzan – a museum dedicated to the memory of the Israeli settlements in Gaza. Despite her parents’ objections, the family was evacuated in 2005. Unlike most settlers in Gaza, some residents of Alei Sinai were determined to stay on, even if that meant forfeiting their Israeli citizenship. “I have no problem with living as a minority in a Palestinian state,” one of Alei Sinai’s inhabitants, Avi Farhan, told the Israeli daily Haaretz at the time.

Inbar now lives in Ashkelon, a city of 140,000 in southern Israel, and finds the big city alienating, especially when she recalls the warm relationships that once existed in Gaza. “I’ve never felt less secure,” she told me.

Years later, she learned that Rina had developed cancer and died. “The day before Rina left . . . she drew a portrait of me,” she said, describing how her friend had outlined, in charcoal strokes, the features of the teenager. Her parents packed the portrait with all their belongings in a shipping container the day they left Gaza. Soon after, the container was destroyed in a fire.

“I think if people had given it a chance . . . they would have had these kinds of friendships,” Inbar said, looking back. “We’d get along fairly well if we didn’t look at others as the monsters over the wall.” 

This article first appeared in the 27 August 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Isis and the new barbarism