We have to admit that we, Balts, are keen on historical observations and comparisons. Some of them work, others don’t. A strong sense of history coupled with a sharp feeling of the dramatic character of modern social and political change in a small country is our asset. However, when it comes to Russia and its perception, we succumb to some clichés and simplistic interpretations, out of our wish to overreach and over-generalize.
A mechanic comparison of Russia and the former Soviet Union is a good example. In fact, Russia under Vladimir Putin bears much more family resemblance to African cleptocracies, such as Nigeria, or to South American authoritarian populist regimes like that of Chavez in Venezuela, than to the former Soviet Union.
It was with sound reason, then, that Andrei Piontkovsky, a noted and subtle Russian political analyst, and also a caustic and merciless critic of Putin, once pointed out that whereas Soviet crimes and nightmares were something out of Shakespeare’s tragedies, Putin’s regime was hardly anything more than farce. You can apply such terms as “sinister figures,” “single-minded fanatics,” “villains” or the like to describe people who had an ideology and who made an impact on a big part of European and North American intellectuals, not to mention the Middle East, but how can you apply these to the folks who are simply thieves and whose only ideology is oil and gas…
Many people from my generation would depict themselves as political Russophobes and cultural Russophiles
Therefore, we urgently need a shift in paradigm as regards to Russia and its assessment. It will not vanish into thin air leaving no trace; nor will it become something profoundly different in the near future. We are bound to live side by side with Russia as a problematic neighbor and partner, rather than a fatal, sinister, and once-and-for-all foe to the Baltic States. Among the strong sides of Russia, we can easily mention its enormous intellectual potential, creativity, and one of the greatest cultures in the modern world.
I have to confess that once Adam Michnik, a great Polish journalist and dissident, a legend of the Solidarity movement in Poland who acts now as editor-in-chief of the biggest Polish daily, Gazeta Wyborcza, hit the bull’s eye describing himself as an anti-Soviet Russophile. It was a timely and accurate note, as quite many people from my generation would depict themselves as political Russophobes and cultural Russophiles, political Russophobia clearly stemming from a potent anti-Soviet sentiment.
Much to my delight, there are many indications that present Russia is head and shoulders above its president. If Vladimir Putin cannot define himself other than through his nostalgia for the former Soviet Union, whose demise was, as the saddened former KGB colonel put it, the worst “geopolitical catastrophe” of the twentieth century, the younger generations of Russians have nothing to do with this sort of Soviet jingoism. Imperial patriotism and revenge-seeking may be something that motivates the Russian power structure elite (siloviki), but it means nothing to young Russian middle class people who are at best indifferent to, if not overall sarcastic of, the Soviet Union and “the paradise on Earth” it created in Eastern and Central Europe.
A powerful anti-Putinist sentiment which came out manifestly in Moscow during the rallies shows that Putin won the battle, but he lost the war.
A powerful anti-Putinist sentiment which came out manifestly in Moscow during the rallies shows that Putin won the battle, but he lost the war. What happened on 4 March was as predictable as the beginning and the end of a day. He was elected president of Russia for six years, holding a possibility to rule the country until he reaches 90.
So what? What kind of surprise is this? What else could we expect of the candidate who had 70 percent of TV time in the state-run TV channels and who simply banned Grigory Yavlinsky from the election? Most regrettable is the fact that Mikhail Prokhorov was not the candidate able to defeat Putin. Two other rivals of Putin, the ferociously xenophobic and anti-Semitic communist, Gennady Zyuganov, and the political buffoon with fascist inclinations, Vladimir Zhirinovsky, leave the question open as to whether Putin or they would have been a lesser evil for Russia and for the world.
Putin’s victory is a passing victory in the losing war that he is waging against democracy and liberty in Russia. Having started his assault on the rule of law and fragile elements of democracy in Russia, this nostalgic, colourless, faceless and soulless figure, who walks in disguise of a strongman, a Rambo-like macho with some qualities of the Agent 007, ended up as a comical character.
People poking fun of him and comedians making jokes about his split into the strongman and a lovey-dovey character sentimental about the most vulnerable things in the world remind us of the atmosphere in the Soviet Union in the 1970s under Leonid Brezhnev, where fear of repression was intertwined with political anecdotes and humor targeted at the grotesque Soviet leader.
Therefore, we need a new paradigm to deal with Russia. It will change one day. It is learning how to live without Putin. And that day is coming.
Leonidas Donskis, Ph.D., is a Lithuanian Member of the European Parliament.