Russia generously helps the EU. If we needed proof that swiftly deteriorating human rights record in Russia coupled with intimidation and blackmail campaigns it launches from time to time against its neighbours are not a fantasy of the Baltic States and Poland portrayed by Russian propagandists as the leaders of international Russophobes, we got it at last.
The Magnitski case, the Bolotnaya case, the Khodorkovsky saga (October marked the 10th year that Mikhail Khodorkovsky spent behind bars), and the Pussy Riot story, were all followed over the past weeks by the ghosts of Soviet propaganda and oppressive practices. These included an overt denial of the universal validity of human rights and civil liberties, and political abuse of psychiatry – it suffices to recall Mikhail Kosenko who will undergo compulsory psychiatric treatment outside Moscow only due to his participation in the Bolotnaya Square events.
In addition, recent ethnic riots in Moscow signal the awakening of official xenophobia as a state policy. Instead of protecting innocent migrants and workers against the mob, Sergey Sobyanin, Moscow’s new mayor, ordered to arrest hundreds of migrants. Coupled with fascist rhetoric of the political clown Vladimir Zhirinovsky, it leaves a bitter and unpleasant taste of the rise of fascism or at least of irresponsible playing with the fire.
This is not the end of the story, though. The piracy charges dropped and then replaced with hooliganism charges against Greenpeace activists clearly mark Russia’s positioning itself beyond international law. If present Russia under Vladimir Putin has decided to “adjust” the entire system of international relations to its foreign policies and domestic political needs, we have to call a spade a spade. We are at the new cold war – undeclared, ignored, written off as a Russophobic fantasy or else dismissed, which nevertheless is there, no matter what they say.
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Therefore, Edward Lucas wrote smart prose and talked sense in his perceptive book The New Cold War. We simply chose not to name what was, and continues to be, obvious. We are at cold war with the Kremlin which regards all those who joined the EU and NATO as traitors and enemies. We have to be blind and deaf not to identify the political will to resurrect the Soviet Union in a new and slightly modified hypostasis (as an Eastern European version of successful authoritarian modernization after the Chinese pattern, or, better still, after the Chilean experiment – no wonder that Pinochet was praised up to the skies in Russia even by its “liberals”).
On a closer look at the massive blackmail and intimidation campaign targeted by Russia at Ukraine and Lithuania, it appears that the third Eastern Partnership Summit to be held on November 28-29 in Vilnius is not a headache, but rather something tantamount to an existential threat to Russia. How else can we understand the malicious actions of Russia vis-à-vis Lithuania, its truck drivers on the border, or dairy products? It is a massive attack against what is still regarded as their zone of interest.
I will never forget how once my friend Edward Lucas reacted to a remark made by a high-ranking European Commission official in an informal meeting of political experts, opinion and policy makers.
To the point made by a colleague concerning some neighboring countries as objects of special Russian interest, Lucas reacted by asking as to what kind of interest Germany has in, say, Denmark. That was the end of the debate, as it was becoming increasingly clear that no neighbouring country, no matter whether big or small, is a property of a large country which claims an exclusive right to form a regional political landscape in accordance with its wishes and urges.
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By blackmailing neighbouring countries, Russia is not doing itself a good service. Ukraine is big and strong enough to ignore Russian pressure. The paradox is that Russia needs Ukraine much more than Ukraine needs Russia. Russia is still inclined to see Ukraine as its Significant Other, and therefore the Kremlin cannot conceive a Russian empire without Ukraine. All paths to any form of the restoration of the Russian empire lead through Ukraine. Full stop here.
This relationship is based on incomparably more than pragmatic interest. It is more complex than a sheer love-hate relationship so characteristic of Eastern and Central Europe vis-à-vis Russia, as Ukraine is a significant part of Russia’s historically formed identity. If the Baltic States are little more than a historical sentiment and a jingoist reaction to what once was the North-Western region of the empire, Ukraine is at the heart of Russian identity.
And yet Ukraine and Russia are bound to bid farewell to one another. Ukraine will remain a precious friend to a democratic Russia in the future. Not now, alas. Every move towards a dignified way to live and choose one’s priorities freely is met by Russia with paranoid suspicion, anger, and frustration. Instead of thinking about its decreasing population and changing demographic situation which makes it quite possible for Russians to end up as a minority in Siberia with an overwhelming Chinese majority, or about how to win respect and friendship in Europe, Russia is till fighting with the ghosts of its past.