This is the house that Putin built. A house of cards.
Moscow reportedly calculated that it can afford the launch of the Eurasian Union, as well as the annexation of Crimea and the Western sanctions it entails.
But in recent days – amid the attempted suicide of the Russian rouble, due to Western sanctions and the slump in oil prices – the once-affluent Mother Russia is beginning to look like a wicked stepmother.
Russian politics is contractual. In return for their loyalty, the Kremlin’s supporters want economic benefits.
Russians, as well as Belarusians and Kazakhs, have traded their rights and freedoms for stability and well-being.
But days before the launch of the Eurasian Union, it’s obvious the project will be still-born on 1 January 2015 because Moscow can no longer afford it.
When the EU targeted Russian banks and energy firms, Russia imposed an EU food ban in return. But its brothers in the Customs Union, Belarus and Kazakhstan, were more than quick to profit by illegally re-exporting banned Western foods to Russia.
When Russia also imposed a selected ban on Belarus products, Minsk partially re-imposed customs controls.
This is the reality of Putin’s Customs Union.
The Eurasian Union will come into being: All the founding documents have been signed. But its existence will be just as virtual as the alliances inside the bloc.
The Russian contract is being tested to its limits. The Kremlin can no longer deliver. People are having to tighten their belts and forgo social benefits, while the administration tightens the screw on dissents and civil society.
Relations with Belarus, which will hold presidential elections in November 2015, are also increasingly tense.
The falling rubble of the rouble has had a spectacular knock-on effect on the Belarusian economy: Lukashenka ordered trade with Russia not to be denominated in Russian roubles and froze prices in the country. He also introduced a temporary, but unprecedented, 30 percent commission on purchase of foreign currency.
Probably to stem currency panic, there was a blackout of a dozen independent news sites on 19 through 22 December.
Recent amendments in Belarusian media law will let authorities from 2015 on intervene in the last free space – the Internet – censoring and shutting down websites. They will also filter “foreign” media, where more than 20 per cent belongs to a foreign national or state, including Russian ones.
At the same time, a joint Belarus-Ukrainian TV channel will be launched.
During his end-of-year press conference on 18 December Putin sounded calm, but he didn’t give any ideas on how to overcome the Russian economic crisis.
In the eye of the storm, he will keep reacting to events in an ad hoc way, while waiting for oil prices to go back up.
Russians are proud they can put up with problems that would break any other nation. They think what doesn’t kill them makes them stronger.
But the mood of heroic defiance is mixed with the melancholy of the fin de siècle.
The end of this year looks like the end of an era of prosperity.
The new era could well see the house of cards come crashing down.
A friend from Western Germany was telling me how 25 years ago she was at her friend’s place when his father, who was watching the news, suddenly started to cry…
The fall of the Berlin wall was very emotional. To tear it down was a strong signal and a sign of hope: We want a better world for everyone.
But what are the fruits? What is left of this intention today?
It looks like Moscow is ready to re-build the wall.
It is already tangible on the border between Poland and Belarus, as they have a two-hour(!) time difference.
At the same time, the Kremlin is preaching to the choir: Russians always knew that their problems are the fault of the US/Nato/liberalism/gays. Jews are somehow off this who-is-to-blame-for-everything list… Ah, no: There’s this “Jewish lobby” in America.
Russia insists it is a unique civilisation with its own spiritual values – values which see it cut down on education, healthcare, or social welfare in order to increase military spending. Or which creates a mutual sanctions regime with the West at the same time as a visa-free regime with North Korea.
Writers, musicians, or other intellectual malcontents are free to leave and never come back.
The Soviet Union fell apart 25 years ago. Far too abruptly. There was no time to digest it, to assess, to understand.
Now, Soviet Union is still in the process of disassembling as former USSR countries are trying to make deliberate choices: Do we follow Russia back to a familiar future, or align with European values?
So, the war in Ukraine is about the EU, too. Grandma Europe is failing to defend its ideas in this conflict, while Russian way of dealing with the world wins.
Indeed, EU member states are becoming less sure of their own values. We see the anti-migrant, anti-EU, anti-US, my-home-is-my-castle sentiment becoming stronger than ever.
The EU is also ready to build walls. Just to be on the safe side.
Soft power – rights, freedoms, checks and balances, shared prosperity, high taxes, low-paid jobs, strikes and other opacities – this is not sexy.
Voters want growth, achievements and victories. True citizens of a true republic are becoming an endangered species.
The West is realising it needs more Russian-speaking specialists? So it’s the language of the enemy that should be understood, not of your friend?
Perhaps the old Cold War dichotomy is good for both Russia and the West. It provides a strong framework in which each side can articulate their values before attempting to interact.
A bipolar world has very clear rules. Ideological enemies can find a common language. And be more direct in their dealings with each other than with their ideological friends.
Ideas, goods, and capital will continue to flow. So will gas and oil.
After all when relations hit rock bottom, the only way left is up. The nadir is a place where creativity, and hope, are born.
Have you ever heard of Babruysk?
It’s a regional town in Belarus which once had an important river port and a fortress. Jews used to live there since the 16th century; 100 years ago there were some 40 synagogues.
But my story is different. By 2016 Babruysk will host a Russian airbase with 24 Sukhoi Su-27 fighter jets.
There are already two Russian military facilities in Belarus: One has an Antei long-range naval communications station, and the other has a Volga missile attack early warning radar station.
If extraterritorial jurisdiction is to apply to the base in Babruysk, Russians could even place nuclear weapons there.
Possibly a very new chapter for this little town. And for Belarus, which in 1996 completed its nuclear disarmament programme.
But until the Sukhois arrive, this Babruysk arrangement is up in the air.
Belarusian president Lukashenka always wants to know what he gets in return for his brotherly help. And 2016 is still some way off.
After the Eurasian Union is launched on 1 January, in 2015 Belarus can keep its revenues from export duties on Russian petroleum products, securing at least $2.5 billion for its budget.
That’s a good cushion for Belarusian economy. And for November 2015, when the next presidential elections in Belarus are expected to take place. Not that there will be any surprises: Lukashenka’s rating recently mushroomed to 45.2 percent. The opposition is talking of having a symbolic joint candidate, Mikola Statkevich – a prisoner of conscience who ran for the presidency in 2010 and who is still behind bars.
Now that Minsk is also a theatre for international talks on Ukraine and Belarus has increased its trade with Ukraine, Moldova, and several EU member states, Lukashenka has only one difficult partner – the big one in the east.
His loyalty to Russia was in the past portrayed in an aria on how not even 40,000 brothers, with all their quantity of love, could equal the sum.
This time, it’s a new tune.
The Belarusian brother at an annual press-conference for 100 Russian journalists reminded them that parts of the Pskov, Bryansk, and Smolensk regions in Russia used to be Belarusian. He also refused to recognise Crimea, Abkhazia, or South Ossetia. And dismissed Putin’s politics as imperial ambitions, unquote.
Now Minsk can talk. But next year it will launch a new round of negotiations on further support from Moscow.
Yes, Russia is ready to pay for its allies.
But what happens when Moscow runs out of economic carrots? Needless to say: It also has sticks.
I was talking to my Scottish friends the other day. They are so looking forward to the referendum to resume their normal lives. Having their hopes and doubts, but being very tired of the endless discussions, quarrels, protests, articles, TV shows…
So now you know how we feel out there in Eastern Europe, with our authoritarian regimes and wars. Having our hopes and doubts, and these endless discussions and quarrels and protests. What we don’t have is an end date.
The crisis in Ukraine vividly demonstrated the helplessness of professional civil society, of the opposition, detached from their constituencies. As well as the helplessness of the EU, devoid of an adequate long-term country strategy. Chaos in Donetsk and Luhansk are still ongoing, but also in Kiev. The events are often difficult to believe and hard to follow.
Belarusians don’t have any more relevant entries in their political calendar. Lukashenka rules the most stable country in the region and will win elections even if the votes are counted properly. A lot of dissidents fled, civic structures have been driven underground and don’t know/have a way to talk to the public.
And all domestic and outside conflicts make the country’s regime even more stable. It gets solid political capital as peace talks are held in Minsk and EU commissioners travel there to shake hands with the (ex?!) last dictator of Europe.
But there are also economic benefits: after Russia slapped sanctions on Moldova, Belarus intensified trade with it. Ukraine is sanctioned? Not by Minsk, it stretches out its helping hand. And in the fight of Russia vs. the rest of the world Belarus gains through intensified agricultural processing, heavy industries, and the service sector.
Meanwhile, don’t forget the twilight economy and European imports that reach Russia through Belarus illegally.
In this new round of relations with Belarus, Brussels again expands its critical engagement with Minsk. But the dilemma between independence and democracy of this country is still the same: more engagement or more transformation will provoke the Russian bear (see Ukraine).
But shush, it’s a lot worse in Russia. All those with European education and a very clear understanding of the destruction – or re-invention? – feel the same helplessness. Famous writers (“Who would grasp Russia with the mind?”) are ready to pack up and leave. They say there is a civil war in Russia, not Ukraine.
So the Scots will be over the top after 18 September. And Freedom March on 21 September in Russia will be just another of the numerous unhappy entries in the political calendar in Eastern Europe.
A step on the way, where each step counts.
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.