A Russian immigrant approached me on the metro in Berlin the other day when he heard me speaking Belarusian. He didn’t ask for directions, but rather about my attitude towards Russia.
When I asked him if he thinks Belarusians are afraid to be the next nation on Putin’s list of places to ‘protect’, he replied: “Putins come and go; This is about the Russian World, which Belarusians are part of.”
The “Russian World” is a term which the Kremlin is successfully promoting to describe the roughly 300 million people in Russia, Belarus, Ukraine and beyond, who speak Russian, who are interested in Russian culture, and who share a common understanding of the historic development of the region as well as of its conjoint (sic!) future.
In Russian, the concept is called Russky Mir, which, ironically, also means “Russian Peace.”
This Russky Mir is currently expanding and shrinking at the same time, and so, the story goes, it needs to be protected.
Soon after the EU and US introduced sanctions against Russia, President Putin joined them with a one-year ban on imports of meat, fish, dairy products, fruit, and vegetables from the EU, the US, Canada, Australia, and Norway.
This is cutting off your nose to spite your face. Or, as they say in Russian, freezing your ears to spite your granny.
Russian state TV is gushing with delight that, finally, only good quality, organic Russian products will find their way to Russian stomachs. And certain EU countries suffer economic losses. Which makes even more happy those who love having Crimea back.
But, let’s face it, a revival of local agriculture could be difficult in a country, Russia, where diesel fuel used by farming equipment is more expensive than petrol; where import of seeds has continuously grown, reaching in some categories as much as 100 percent; where the food industry heavily depends on imported ingredients; and where any potential subsidies are likely to be eaten by the moth-plague of corruption.
After cutting off its nose, or freezing its ears, Russia is likely to see food price hikes and shortages of staple foodstuffs. And this in a situation where 30 percent of the population – according to the Russian National Service for Statistics – already suffers from undernourishment.
To borrow a phrase from Mr. Orwell, the “more equal” Russian citizens will continue to eat foie gras, mussels, and prosciutto. Their kids will bring it back when they visit home from their European and American universities.
More food will also be imported from two members of a Russian customs union, Belarus and Kazakhstan which declined to follow Putin’s self-mutilation/food embargo. And are ready to earn with re-imports.
If Putin’s plan is to build some kind of new Berlin Wall around his Russky Mir and its economies, he ought to have the money and modern infrastructure to face the consequences.
But he doesn’t.
It’s not so easy to brainwash people with empty stomachs into thinking they are happy. It’s not so easy to cut off their ears and noses, in a globalised planet where each man and woman aspires to peace and prosperity.
The mythology of the Russky Mir will last until the majority realise that their face is not good enough without the nose. Even if it is Russian.
With the diplomatic rift between the West and Russia growing ever wider after MH17, the rift between Western and Russian societies is also becoming more visible.
Meanwhile, the victims are slipping out of view.
I don’t believe we will ever know exactly what happened with the Malaysia Airlines plane. What walks like a duck, quacks like a duck, and blows things out of the sky will one day be called something by the independent investigators. The rest of the story is already being taken care of by the media in different countries.
Everybody lies. Everybody, be it presidents, political parties, media tycoons, corporations – they all have their own, self-serving agendas.
And the people? They tend to eat from the hands of their governments and listen faithfully to their favourite media. Most people in society don’t contemplate the complexities of domestic and international affairs. Whether they’re in the US, Israel, Ukraine, or Syria.
Don’t get me wrong. Russian propaganda is a special case. Its media publish outrageous stories: about crucified babies in east Ukraine; about MH17 being filled with already-dead bodies with new passports.
Modern Russian media stems from a long tradition of Soviet journalism: It knows what the authorities want to see and hear even without taking direct orders. Russian society is equally neurotic. As the poet Pushkin wrote: “I’m glad myself to be deceived”.
With 91 percent of Russians getting their truth from (state) TV, there is a so-called New Majority in Russia ready to give President Putin carte blanche for any decision he makes. Willing to forgive any collateral damage in the neighbourhood.
The 21st century has failed to offer solutions to the 20th century’s frozen conflicts. Nobody is listening to the other side. The headlines, even in the best media, are becoming increasingly shrill.
Big politics is emotional and cries crocodile tears. It creates useful truths designed to camouflage the reality. Lies and understatements are everywhere, in the East, in the West. Just to a different extent.
So who was missing the world of the Cold War, of goodies vs. baddies? The world of ultimatums, real red lines, and cool-headed diplomats.
The good old days are back.
So now it is finally clear. Minsk can’t meet the EU half-way and release political prisoners, because it knows what demand will come next: this Gayropa will want Belarus to legalise gay marriages, said FM Makey. Oh no, same-sex marriages, quelle horreur!
Lukashenko believes it’s better to be a dictator than to be gay; (bare-chested) Putin says that homosexuals are a threat to national security and compares gay marriages to worshiping Satan.
The Russian Orthodox Church (which in Belarus doesn’t say anything against capital punishment) views gay parades as homosexual propaganda.
Nato used to be the main worry for Eastern Europe. Now the scarecrows are neo-fascists and gays, two “threats” imposed by the West which undermine traditional Christian values and, while they should be mutually exclusive, work together well and reinforce each other as anti-West propaganda.
This Freudian fear of the unknown is very characteristic of post-Soviet societies, which have long refined themselves within hermetic borders with the help of sterile, state-controlled media.
After the Berlin Wall collapsed together with the ruined economies of the Iron Curtain states, Belarusians, Russians, and Ukrainians are not afraid of modernisation, free trade or any economic benefits coming from the West. But homosexuals! And fascists, which were defeated 70 years ago.
The key difference between Eastern and Western Europe? Spirituality and love thy neighbour versus capitalism, where homo homini lupus est … in a nutshell: an orthodox society of happy families versus homosexual fascists, boom!
Russian neo-nationalistic Drang nach Osten drives fellow citizens away from domestic problems and unites former Soviet countries around caring Mother Russia in an emotional, irrational way. Timid tax-payers forget about low salaries, bad roads, corrupt officials, police and courts; their alcoholised, down-and-out populations … and it works! People of different origin and walks of life are conservative and intolerant enough to be mesmerised by the idea that gays are a weapon of mass destruction.
So dear spin doctors, now teach EU representatives not to use words like “reforms”, “freedoms” and “rights”. They are too gay for Eastern Europe.
This is a moment of truth for Eastern Europe.
Society in general and elites are divided over Crimea and over Russia’s new, expansive course.
It is a little conflict within a conflict: colleagues quarrel in the office; friends and family members sulk; some Russian intellectuals sign letters of support for Putin, others strongly disapprove; Belarusians clash with Ukrainian family members, or with relatives in Russia.
What was the whole reason again? That “Russians” must be saved.
And how come it’s legitimate? Because 97 percent of Crimeans asked for it.
The 3 percent of Crimeans who said No in the “referendum” have been oppressing the 97 percent said to have said Yes? As well as the “Martians” – the nickname of the balaclava-wearing, gun-toting, friends of Russia who fell from the sky in February.
And, of course, what about Kosovo?
Putin says the genocidal, years-long, ethnic conflict in former Yugoslavia is the same as Crimea. It’s not. But even if it was, he never recognised Kosovo, so how can he recognise the Kosovisation of Crimea? Propaganda should also make sense.
Same as the argumentation for the EU’s fault in provoking Russia. The West has excluded Russia from European integration, threatened its sovereign democracy, forced it to launch the Eurasian Union, blah, blah…
Obama has called Russia a “regional superpower.” Putin speaks of a “Russian Crimea.” Both are oxymorons. Both are half-true.
Whatever you want to call Russia, it doesn’t have the money for a war or for a normal life for its people.
Maybe that’s one reason for the blitzkrieg: if the West imposes real sanctions, Putin can blame Obama for the dire state of his economy.
Meanwhile, Crimea is a disaster, legally, economically, socially, geopolitically, to say nothing in terms of security.
Crimean people are waiting to see which planet they live on when the dust settles.
A planet where people are getting Russian passports registered in Russia’s Far East. Where there are no salaries. No pensions (Kiev stopped paying, Moscow has not begun). No visitors (tourists used to come from Ukraine). No news (Russia is also protecting Crimeans from independent media). And, tomorrow (?), no electricity or running water (Ukraine controls all the infrastructure).
Mainland Ukrainians are shocked.
But they have another problem: There is no one to trust.
Their political high-flyers are more popular in the West than at home. They have done – quite literally – nothing about Crimea. What are the chances the post-May president-parliament-government-circus will be truly reformed and free from corruption?
Over in Minsk, as Putin’s geopolitical earthquake shakes the cutlery on the table, Lukashenko sits morbidly silent.
Just you dare say “EU” and Martians will also come to save Bela/Russians from Van Rompuy, who wants to make everyone gay, including Lenin.
Crimea is an expensive mess. But an important one.
Ordinary Russians who already felt the US sanctions (some people suddenly couldn’t use their credit and debit cards in ATMs), or who encountered hostile questions while on vacation in Europe, are surprised: What do I have to do with it?! I didn’t annex anything. Get me a drink.
Sorry. But it’s time to realise that you are responsible for your President.
Whatever the psychology of autocracy – fear, pride, sado, maso – Belarusian people are also responsible for their fate and what is done in their name.
If the Ukrainian revolution has taught anything it has taught us this.
Belarusians are envious of Ukrainians, who have already had four bad presidents. We’ve had just one and it’s the same one for almost 20 years now.
What’s happening now in Ukraine should not be underestimated.
Some 20 years ago, Ukraine and Belarus automatically became independent countries, without any kind of struggle, as the Soviet Union ceased to exist in legal terms.
But the Ukrainian nation is only just now coming of age, having its say, and dying for it.
It is not an easy process, not at the very start, and certainly not in what comes next.
We will definitely see a fight between the various camps on the winning side, radicals versus moderates, and some form of revenge against the losers. While the oligarchs circle, like crows, before deciding where to land in the new order.
There will be tensions between Western Ukraine (source of national identity, pride, history) and Eastern Ukraine (the industrial engine of the economy, joined at the hip to Russia). Russia will try to abuse it.
The success of the 2014 revolution is just as uncertain as that of the 2004 edition.
Can the former Soviet system – corrupt MPs, corrupt judges, economic dependence on Russia – finally be changed? Will a feasible and effective government emerge?
Ukraine is being carefully watched. In Minsk. In Moscow. Their rulers are watching for ways to avert a Ukrainian scenario at home. Their people are looking at a new horizon of possibility.
The EuroMaidan in Ukraine was never anti-Russian. The windows of Russian banks in Kyiv city centre have not been smashed. The billboards advertising Russian brands have not been defaced.
The main source of suspense is what will the Kremlin do? But until today, 26 February 2014, its reaction has been… strangely moderate.
Analysts talk about Russian intervention to split Ukraine in half, or other fractions, for example by snatching Crimea.
But breakup is not in Moscow’s interests: Logic says it needs good relations with the new leaders in Kiev. It certainly does not need the huge financial burden that would be caused by the division of its most important neighbour, because, financially speaking, Moscow ain’t doing that well.
But who says Putin is a man of logic?
Whatever else he may be, he is first and foremost a man of power and the show of power.
What the Ukrainians have just shown is that the king is stark naked.
They have shown, on the horizon, a house: Putin’s residence. It is just the same as the house of Yanukovych: a Fortress of Power, turned into Museum of Corruption.
When a compromise is impossible, people take up arms.
Ukraine has descended into civil war. A street warfare that began and escalated because of the inability of the elites to find common ground.
And a lot of other reasons that came together. A poor economic record, desperate oligarchs opting for the Russian offer of cheap loans and bad peace instead of a good war. Not to forget the East-West division.
War is never fair, it is just mayhem: Who is shooting, who is being killed? Who are the bad guys, who are the good guys, can you trust any news source? Are there any clear aims either side is pursuing?
Why people have to die? To protect the corrupt government? Realise ambitions of the opposition leaders? Or just fight back in the existential clash of opposing views?
The centre of Kyiv is ablaze, the city can be closed for cars, trains arrive with delays. People in the regions arm and ally themselves with protesters or government. Some hope, some are afraid that Russia will commit troops to the Eastern, pro-Yanukovich part – to divide and rule.
Above all, the incumbent Ukrainian president is responsible for the violence. But also the opposition that couldn’t retain control.
Several dozen shot in a European capital within 24 hours. What has Europe, the Nobel Prize winner, done so far? Is there anyone to broker immediate ceasefire, to sit all sides down at the negotiating table and help mediate a deal? Are there any international observation missions deployed? Or sanctions introduced against those who shoulder arms?
The unsustainable political system of Yanukovich and his hardliners aim at a zero-sum, time-winning game. But at what cost?
What is now happening and will follow in Kyiv is of immense significance for the region. It demonstrates the resources of all parties: what the EU is able to offer in a joint effort, what Kyiv/Minsk/dissident Moscow is able to defend, and what Kremlin is ready to do to keep post-Soviet countries in its orbit.
There have been weeks of informational chaos around Ukraine. Who? When? Why?
What started in November 2013 as a peaceful pro-European demonstration escalated in January 2013 into real street warfare, clashes between protesters armed with fireworks, cobblestones and Molotov cocktails, and riot police units, using water cannons (at 10 degrees below zero), tear gas, rubber bullets and stun grenades.
Reports show police guys on fire, wounded journalists, dead civilians. Blood on the snow.
The protests are no longer localised, government buildings have been stormed in the regions: It is Ukrainians against Ukrainians.
Revolutions occur when democratic instruments fail to be effective, but they are not necessarily effective themselves. Thus the Orange revolution in winter 2004/05 brought in a new political leader, but failed to reform the corrupt system of power.
Yanukovych is now playing for time and trying to keep a balance within his kleptocratic clique. He has the resources: His party has the majority in the parliament. He controls the executive branch. Law enforcement agencies and courts under his rule are ready to protect the authorities from the people.
Irrespective of the opposition demands to steps down, he won’t.
Firstly, he is an elected leader and secondly, he doesn’t have much of a choice between being a President and a jailed former president, the kind of political revenge he has practiced himself.
As he won’t resign, he can try to form a new government and employ opposition figures to appease the streets and the regions. But his offer to the opposition is also an attempt to put at odds the leaders, who are not too united anyway.
The opponents of Yanukovych have rejected his offer already. They have to play for time too: Polls show 5 to 10 per cent of their supporters among those in the streets, which is not really a landslide number. Their main demand is the release of detained protesters, and Yanukovych has promised to take it to the parliament. It has already repealed a series of restrictive lawshe signed on 17 January.
And what about people at large?
Ukrainians blame opposition groups for loss of control over the protests, for the inability to act coherently and consistently. Authorities are held responsible for the enormity of corruption, low living standards, the current economic problems in the country and for the escalation in violence, including deadly violence, during the protests.
Ukrainians took to the streets in despair, they feel helpless.
Unlike in 2004/05 there are no unified messages, no leaders, just the enormous frustration with the political elite.
It remains to be seen how far the government and opposition groups can go to resolve the conflict and deliver on their promises: Their talks have yielded no results yet.
As intervention from Moscow (which out-bargained an EU-Ukraine integration agreement with a $15 billion bailout package) might only further fuel the protests, the EU doesn’t really have anything to offer to Kyiv in the short-term perspective. The carriers of hope are formal and informal political leaders (..if they are leaders!) who should act wisely and in the best interest of the Ukrainian people.
So that the deaths of the protesters have not been vain.
Eastern Europe has been a big news-maker recently. As a Belarusian I say: been there, seen that.
Is the political leadership trying to sell their loyalty to Moscow amid massive protests in Kyiv? Yes, crowds are a perfect scarecrow, a bargaining chip to press for solid support from Russia. It’s not about the long-term future of Ukraine, but about the short-term well-being of the political elite. Yanukovich is even clever enough not to try to disperse the demonstrations any more. Why? One day they will get tired, cold and leave by themselves. They don’t hurt anyone.
Khodorkovsky gets released? Sure, why not. Together with all those whining girls and activists. Putin feels like the king of the world, he can act generously, forgiving. But he is not. He just knows that none of them has ever posed any kind of threat to his regime. It was symbolically important to lock them up back then, now it is important to set them free. It’s Christmas after all, no? And Putin is a leader with a big heart.
Belarus has an exceptional experience with protests and political prisoners; Lukashenka has been perfecting the craft of making advances towards the EU and Russia one after the other, playing them against each other for his own benefit.
With political power being a lot more consolidated and for some 20 years already, Belarus is an bad example, a political deadlock, a case of “What happens in your neighbouring country if you don’t care enough.”
Lukashenka would also be happy to put all dissidents on planes and let them disappear. Belarusians know already that it’s impossible to judge a political prisoner, who sought pardon. They are doing it in Russia now? They will come to understand it too.
So the news is: there’s no news from Eastern Europe. No new tendencies, no positive signs. Yes, civil society is invigorated In Ukraine, yes, a bunch of people are being released in Russia. But apart from that, the EU hides behind declarations and still has no idea how to deal with this part of Europe.
Dear Europe, don’t be hoodwinked. Partners who can’t be trusted should be treated accordingly. With respect, caution and a lot of strategic thinking. Please.
100 Ray-Ban points goes to Moscow for the illustration that realpolitik is more effective where it comes to corrupt governments and political clans.
On the eve of EaP summit in Vilnius it is obvious that Eastern Partnership programme has failed in its today’s format. The “EU soft power” currently goes without the last word.
Backsliding of Kiev is basically a logical and pragmatic move for the post-soviet space where states are competing for the same shrinking resources of Moscow and Brussels.
Their political elites (or rather: clans) are used to balance between the EU and Russia to maximise their short-term gains. Approaching either side is a means to pressure the other one.
The EU also has a tool box with good old double standards and knows to justify them. And its failures in Eastern Europe illustrate how little is the actual interest in the region.
Enough said about the importance of cooperation and values. Especially in the light of its internal crisis, it is logical and pragmatic for the EU to have effective strategies and real success stories. Otherwise: why bother at all?
It is not a zero sum game. And if the Russians are able to penalise their special partners with carrots, the EU should be ready to reward its with sticks.
Belarusian writer Svetlana Alexievich has been shortlisted this year for the Nobel prize for literature.
She has long deserved it. Having started as a journalist, she fleshed out and elaborated her own documentary style to give a voice to those who are rarely in the spotlight in the post-Soviet world. Be it victims or soldiers, their families, their mothers – people who never make it onto the front pages of newspapers.
Her books are audio guides to personal stories through the dark tunnels of Soviet history.
Incredibly moving, very subjective, full of pain, love, anger, helplessness, courage, human dignity, despair and hope. Full of contradictions, but at the same time explicit and definite. So very human.
Alexievich talked to people affected by the Chernobyl disaster, whose lives have been metamorphosed by something invisible. She talked to those who were able to return from Afghanistan, families of those who didn’t. She looked for women, who, during the time of the Soviet Union, fought in the Second World War, but never mentioned it as the story of the war is a male domain.
Her latest book “Second-Hand Time” is an exploration of the vast heritage of the USSR – these four letters and 70 years, what did they do to so many nations? Why has globalisation brought back nostalgia for homo sovieticus?
Alexievich gives an insight, a glimpse, into subjects which are impossible to grasp in their entirety.
There has been a discussion in Belarus if she is a Belarusian writer, as all her books are in Russian. She was born in Ukraine and seems not to think too highly of literary merits of the Belarusian language.
But the stories she retells with such breathtaking brilliance belong to the whole world. With or without the Nobel prize.