Fool me once

Russia seems to be winning the fight against the liberal order. Even if the foundations of the Russian state are rotten and there is growing discontent in Russia against the crumbling economy, this does not seem to have shaken Russia’s rulers. The fact is that if anything, Vladimir Putin and his allies make a splendid illusionist: they make their domestic and foreign audiences believe that today’s Russia is a normal state and its leaders are presentable politicians. What we actually see is a peculiar form of anarchism. 

Legend has it that it was during a flight over Hungary, then a communist state, which gave Bernie Ecclestone the idea of bringing Formula 1 to a country behind the Iron Curtain. In 1986, the first race was held in the picturesque natural amphitheatre near the village of Mogyorod, broadcast by the Hungarian state television; a broadcaster that in every year, even in 1989 had also to broadcast the quiz show “Who knows more about the Soviet Union?” a symbol of the big brother’s dominance over education and entertainment.

Thirty years later, neither the Iron Curtain, nor Bernie Ecclestone are around anymore (at least not in Formula 1), both of which are positive developments. The Hungarian Grand Prix, however, is still there. In the 1980s and even the years after the Iron Curtain was demolished, the “flying circus” of Formula 1 represented a bit of the welfare and opulence of the West in the former Eastern bloc. Like many of my fellow citizens, I was in awe of the circus. So much that even in 2001, as a teenager, I felt privileged to do a week of summer work at the racetrack, cleaning up before and after the race.

But in fact, the role of such symbols changed too: it became inverted. What was a glimpse into the riches of liberal democracies for a small country under the yoke of communism has become, with the antagonism of the Cold War behind us, a showcase of the wealth and chicness of certain host nations. Formula 1 races in Sochi and Baku. Winter Olympics and an upcoming FIFA World Cup in Russia. Ice Hockey world cup in Minsk. Even the Eurovision Song Contest in Azerbaijan. Opulent these countries are not. Neither are they chic. Yet, this is the image that they radiate and sell to the rest of the world.

New perseverance, new anarchism

Behind this façade of success and coolness, Russia’s economic perspectives are, of course, rather grim. Alexey Kudrin, a former finance minister, confidant of Vladimir Putin and the head of the Centre for Strategic Research estimates that without an ambitious structural reform plan, Russia’s economy will do a little more than stagnating over the next couple of years. Kudrin has these ambitious reforms prepared, but they are not likely to be adopted. As The Economist pointed out, Vladimir Putin and Russia’s political elite see no need for accepting liberal recipes any more. The liberal world order is failing, thus the thinking goes, and the process is actively helped by Russia. Why bother reforming?

Complacency? Yes. But expecting that this smugness will necessarily backfire on Russia and thereby lead to the collapse of Putin’s political system is just another kind of complacency.

With the introduction of the first sanctions on Russia almost three years ago, the myth of the persevering Russian also immediately appeared. Both Russian media and those in the West sceptical about the sanctions called the siege of Leningrad into memory, a 28-month-long mayhem that has become a symbol of Russia’s will to withstand an enemy, even at the cost of its descending into hell. The comparison, however, is flawed. Never before have Russians had access to such welfare, mobility as they do now and never before have they been exposed to the rest of the world as they are now – even if this does not always concern the whole population. Most people will not be ready to make similar sacrifices for the glory of the state. In fact, there is already a certain degree of discontent. The number of workers’ protests, usually unsung by national media, grew exponentially last year. Governors are frustrated by a shrinking of their revenues and a proliferation of their duties. Somehow, nonetheless, things do not seem to ignite. Perhaps there is, indeed some sort of perseverance in Russia. A perseverance of apathy. The same apathy that kept people away from the voting booths in the meaningless legislative election in 2016 keeps them at home, too.

Surely, there is a way out of this apathy. In fact, many suggest, Russia may as well fall victim to the same anti-establishment populism that it is promoting all over the world. However, they miss an important point; namely that what Russia is promoting is not anti-establishment populism. It is anti-rules populism. And here is another popular misconception.

Conventionally, people associate Russia – the Soviet Union or contemporary Russia – with statism. In fact, today’s Russia, despite its sprawling secret agencies and intrusive institutions, is best described as an anarchist power. This may seem contradictory at the first sight, but ask one of the best-known and most successful agents of Russia’s anti-rules populism, Steven Bannon who described himself as a “Leninist” who wants to “destroy the state”.

Institutions, including sets of rules, only matter as long as they are backed up by resources, are functional and trusted. It is institutions and rules that shelter the individual from the excessive power of the state or from another individual. It is institutions and rules that guarantee that minority rights are respected and guaranteed. It is institutions and rules that make the economy predictable. When institutions and rules do not exist, or are hollow, as in Russia, it is the sheer force that will ultimately decide arguments. This is what is conventionally called the Russian state.

The key to such anarchism is to create illusions. The state-run television network RT’s slogan – “Question more” – is often interpreted as a call to believe in murky conspiracy theories. In fact, the channel (along with the rest of Russia’s media army) only sends the message to the viewer that her opinion is just as good and valuable than the facts or expertise presented by a certified expert. The echo chambers created by social media and the virtual liberty offered by the internet greatly contribute to this illusion.

Another facet of this illusion is the illusion that today’s Russia is a country neither better nor worse than any other country; or perhaps, a little better. Just like one never sees Vladimir Putin heckled or embarrassed on television, one rarely sees Russia itself presented in a bad light. International sports events and festivals are an important part of this illusion, this reverse Potemkin village where the ruler erects papier-maché houses to show the people how well they live – or to foreigners what an amazing and normal place Russia is, if a bit rough around the edges. And it is working. Just like Azerbaijan’s caviar diplomacy made an ugly autocracy seem an attractive, wealthy and important partner in the eyes of European audiences, it is today not a shame for a politician to associate herself with Russia. Rather, it is almost chic. It is definitely not something that might hurt a politician in the eyes of the public. See Donald Trump. See Marine Le Pen. See Francois Fillon.

The real thing

To fight Russia’s anti-rules populism, it is important to stop the spread of fake news masquerading as real facts and the devaluation of expert opinions. It is important to make media ownership rules in the EU, presently a messy and intransigent patchwork of national rulebooks, more stringent and more homogenous. It is also important to institutionally fight propaganda, similarly to the EU’s Disinformation Review or to what the Czech Republic has recently started by setting up the Centre Against Terrorism and Hybrid Threats within the Ministry of the Interior, an institution designed to fight disinformation and manipulation. It is also important, as Mark Galeotti pointed out, to fight endemic corruption. This is the poison that allows Russia’s agents to influence weak institutions; it is also an important source of public distrust. But these are not enough.

Perhaps we should reach back to the 1980s when Formula 1 drivers took their first laps in Hungary and bring back “Who knows more on the Soviet Union?” – but in a different form.

Instead of portraying Russia as the glorious country that it wants to look like, or the almighty villain that fans the pride of its leaders, the pro-democratic media and political forces in the West should take away Russia’s false national pride built on lies and pretension. They should finally present facts about Russia. They should tell the tale of endemic corruption and its consequences. They should talk about Putin’s ill-gotten wealth and fund journalism that explores and exposes it. They should sing the song of the workers’ protests that rock the Russian countryside. They should show the extreme degree of social inequality in Russia, which has long since been the world’s most unequal state. They should show the horrific – and in a developed country, unprecedented – HIV epidemic that risks turning into a public health catastrophe. They should show documentaries about the hopeless depopulation of the Russian Far East, about Russia’s scattered rust belt, the ailing “monotowns” where up to one-sixth of the Russian population lives. They should shock audiences with the incredible cruelty and unabashed crimes, against honest citizens, of authoritarian leaders like Ramzan Kadyrov, Chechnya’s president. They should speak about the insecurity triggered in Russia’s own leaders by the realisation that in a global environment where rules can be ignored or treaties do not exist, China can place as many rockets on the Russian border as it wants.

Also, they should slap strict and heavy sanctions on a deeply corrupt Russian state. Sanctioning or boycotting the events that make Russia and its like-minded allies maintain the Potemkin facades must be part of this strategy. Governments – and perhaps even businesses – that believe in the benefits of a rules-based order must boycott the 2018 FIFA World Cup. They must boycott the European Games to be held in Belarus in 2019. They must boycott Formula 1 races and, should Russia, Belarus or Azerbaijan win it, the Eurovision Song Contest.

The simplest rule of any institution is that only compliance leads to a reward. In Russia’s anti-rules anarchism, only sheer force or manipulation does. This manipulation and force has led many to believe that Russia is winning and therefore its rules must be observed or at least taken into consideration. But those believing in a rules and facts-based global order need to know that they have the upper hand. For now.

This entry was posted in Policies, Society and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.