Cécile Vaissié: “Democratic traditions work only when the government is balanced by an independent judiciary and freedom of speech”
Cécile Vaissié, PhD in political science, is a professor at the University of Rennes 2 and one of the Western authorities on the history of the dissident movement. Her latest book Les ingénieurs des âmes en chef : Littérature et politique en URSS (1944-1986) analyzes the mechanisms of political manipulations in the milieu of Soviet writers. Other topics of interest for the French scholar include women in the dissident movement, propagandist influences in cinema art and contemporary protest movements. In her interview for The Ukrainian Week, Vaissié discusses the parameters of modern dictatorships, shares her thoughts on Ukraine’s European prospects and identifies resources for resisting authoritarian regimes.
THE EU CAN NO LONGER BE A “RICH CLUB”
U.W.: A number of French and other Western politicians are criticizing the Yulia Tymoshenko and Yuriy Lutsenko trials in Ukraine. French Foreign Minister Alain Juppé even said that until Tymoshenko is released and gets a fair trial, France will not ratify the EU-Ukraine Association Agreement if it is initialed. What is your opinion?
Even if the EU is experiencing a crisis today and must carefully consider economic reality, its foundation is common values: respect for human rights and legal standards. The Tymoshenko case falls short of these standards. The Ukrainian government is settling accounts in a less-than-elegant fashion and is bullying everyone capable of resistance.
In this situation, the EU faces a choice which had to be made back in Soviet times: build relations with regimes that are not exactly decent in order to influence them (this is a strategy proposed by Samuel Pisar’s theory) or pursue a hardline policy with clear demands and sanctions (such as visa denials). Each approach has its pros and cons. Personally, I hope that Ukraine’s leaders are responsible people. After all, they must understand that it is not possible to use Soviet methods and at the same time build good relations with the EU. We Europeans will not abandon the principle that every person has the right to go into politics without fearing reprisals or revenge. The right to fair trial is also fundamental.
U.W.: Some people in Ukraine have doubts: Is this fierce criticism coming from Paris a continuation of its partnership with Moscow? If Kyiv fails to obtain the status of the EU's associated partner and form a common free-trade zone with Brussels, will this automatically push it into Russia's hands?
I don't know what personal motivations Juppémay have. But I don't think he has been playing into Moscow’s hands. However, I'm also not certain of the opposite – that Juppé and other ministers of Old Europe are eager to integrate Ukraine into the European Union.
At the same time, there is no doubt that Ukraine is a European state and a part of the common European culture and that it has the right to pursue EU membership on this basis. That is, if it meets two conditions: the majority of Ukrainian citizens have to really want it, and Ukraine must honor the basic principles of the European Union. In other words, it has to be a rule-of-law state. There are also economic criteria that have to be satisfied. The EU is not, and cannot be, a "rich club." Nor can it encourage a country’s expectations and fail to say either ‘yes’ or ‘no’, even though sometimes it yields to this temptation. Membership criteria must be clear. As far as "a sphere of influence" — a concept that is sometimes applied, openly or implicitly, to Ukraine — is concerned, it belongs to the 19th century and has nothing to do with the 21st. But unfortunately, not all politicians have grasped this.
U.W.: On the level of research terminology, to what extent can it be claimed that dictatorships have been established in Belarus and Russia? Can we say that Ukraine is heading for an authoritarian political order?
What criteria are used to define a dictatorship? First, power is concentrated in the hands of one person or a small group of people. Second, there is no division of power. Third, individual freedoms are abolished. This is true of Russia and Belarus, even though their systems are different. Starting from 2000, Putin and his clan have been “holding on” to Russia, and they do not expect to let go of it. Opposition parties are not registered, even those led by professional and moderate politicians, such as Boris Yeltsin’s ex-Prime Minister Boris Nemtsov and Putin’s ex-Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov. The judiciary and the mass media are dependent on the government; civic freedoms are curtailed; and elections are not free.
In Ukraine, Tymoshenko, Lutsenko and many others are stripped of the right to a fair trial. However, unlike Putin and Alexander Lukashenka, President Viktor Yanukovych keeps speaking about the European course of the country he heads. So if he wants to be consistent, he must secure democratic transformations in Ukraine.
“POWER IS USED WHEN OTHER ARGUMENTS FAIL”
U.W.: What resources of resistance have allowed dissidents to hold their ground against much more powerful systems?
This resource is love for their country. Who wants to live under a totalitarian regime and see how his own children and grandchildren are suffering from dictatorship? The strength of dissidents is a striving for the truth, rejection of lawlessness and an abandonment of violence. These people have managed to overcome fear.
Some of them understood that the Soviet Union was doomed. Remember the book by Andrey Amalrik written in the late 1960s? It was entitled Will the USSR Exist to 1984? Solzhenitsyn also kept saying he would return to a liberated Russia.
Many are aware of Russia's vulnerability today. The country lives by selling raw materials. It sells wood to buy paper. What's next? Belarus is faring even worse. It has isolated itself from its neighbors and historical progress. Waking up will be brutal in the economic, social and political senses. Ukraine and Belarus will have to carry out reforms, one way or another. Delays will only add to the pain.
Authoritarian regimes seem strong, because they are based on brutality and systematically use power structures against their citizens. But this is essentially proof of their weakness, because force is used when other arguments fail. The USSR, which appeared to be so powerful, fell apart because its economy could not hold together, and no one ever thought about the reforms which should have happened several decades earlier. I'm afraid that Russia may soon find itself in a similar situation.
U.W.: In the 1970s, dissidents demanded the Soviet government follow its own declared principles. However, after the fall of the Berlin Wall many of them realized that the very nature of communism contradicts humanistic values and that communist crimes must be condemned on the highest level. Now Eastern European countries are sharply criticizing the brutal consequences of oligarchic capitalism. Are there good reasons to believe that a new wave of dissidents will soon rise in Ukraine, Russia and Belarus?
First of all, not all Soviet dissidents demanded the government follow the ideals of communism. This situation was characteristic of the 1960s, when quite a few dissidents and, in a broad sense, representatives of the intelligentsia believed that, just like in Czechoslovakia and other European countries, "socialism with a human face" was possible in the countries of the Soviet bloc. Later, up until the 1980s, some dissidents identified themselves as Marxists, but they were not in the majority. Throughout the 1970s, the dissident movement began to gradually distance itself from communist views which were not shared by everyone anyway.
Think about the Ukrainian General Petro Hryhorenko. He was born in 1907 and became a convinced communist at 20. In 1964, he was imprisoned and then thrown into a mental hospital for what he had set up – the Union for the Revival of Leninism! Convinced in the correctness of Lenin's discourse, this man undertook a fight against bureaucracy and the absence of citizens’ rights. This honest and courageous man began incredibly complicated moral work on himself which eventually led him to declare at 70: “I stopped being a communist even though I had defended this doctrine almost my entire life.” He did not conceal how “painful the separation was”, but said that he no longer believed in “any communist theory – neither Marxist, nor Leninist, nor any other.” He declared at the time: “There is no communist state that would not have crushed its people, deprived it of every human right and destroyed freedom and democracy.”
U.W.: It is true — not all dissidents were waiting for the fall of the Berlin Wall to condemn communist crimes…
Of course! Many had very close relatives who suffered. Most importantly, however, an active movement began with a resolute rejection of a return to Stalinism and its methods. Thus, the slogan of the 1960s was really “No to Stalinism, Yes to Leninism.” However, many of them experienced an internal evolution like Hryhorenko did. So they gradually renounced all kinds of -isms – ideological systems which in the name of economic or intellectual benefit or political gains mutilated human lives and sacrificed people.
This is the reason why the dissident struggle is an inalienable part of the struggle for human rights even if it is not limited to this struggle alone. For example, does contemporary Russia respect its own laws? Unfortunately, it does not. The Russian Constitution permits free rallies, but in practice local administrations often prohibit them, even though the Constitution makes no mention of any such “permission”! Remember how rock singer Yuriy Shevchuk asked Putin about the Dissenters’ March? Putin said at the time that there are rules that you can't march past a hospital. But no-one was going to do that! Putin says the government will listen to constructive criticism, but in fact those who participate in protests are regularly subjected to pressure and bullying. However, this did not stop the Russian prime minister from telling Shevchuk that “Russia will not develop without normally developing democracy.”
The situation in Belarus is even worse. After a wave of political arrests in December 2010, the government targeted those who were applauding, clapping their hands, in the streets. Human rights champion Ales Byaletsky was put in prison on truly absurd charges. The situation in Ukraine is deteriorating with each passing day.
So will a new wave of the dissident movement rise anytime soon? Maybe, maybe not. Opposition does exist in Ukraine, Belarus and Russia. But it is very heterogeneous in its demands and political likings. Does it fit the definition and principles of classic dissidence? Perhaps it does, but not always. At one point, Ukraine proved that society can stop — through joint action — the falsification of elections. Many politicians are scared to death of “orange revolutions.” Fair elections are not a panacea, of course, but still…
REALPOLITIK VERY OFTEN TURNS OUT TO BE UNREAL IN PRACTICE
U.W.: Addressing Tunisians, Libyans and Egyptians, Nicholas Sarkozy said he regrets having had good relations with dictators who ruled these North African states and apologized for having failed to “see the sufferings of Arab nations” in due time. Nevertheless, the good relations between Paris and the Kremlin are improving with each passing day. Does Sarkozy “fail to see” the sufferings of the Russian people, or does he fail to understand the nature of Putin's regime?
The cynicism of politicians is a bottomless pit. We keep finding ourselves faced with a classical choice between realpolitik and respect for moral values. And everyone has to make their choice themselves. Personally, I believe that realpolitik very often turns out to be unreal in practice, and life sooner or later shatters all its excessively pragmatic constructions.
In June 1977, French President Valéry Giscard d'Estaing welcomed Leonid Brezhnev in the Élysée Palace. That same night, French intellectuals met with dissidents (Vladimir Bukovsky and Leonid Pliushch) in the Récamier theater. In August 1991, precisely on the day when the GKChP staged the coup in Moscow, French President François Mitterrand spoke about "his friend Yanayev" on French television. The president and the public may, of course, have different roles. But wouldn’t it have been more "realistic" to side with Soviet dissidents back in 1977 and with Yeltsin in 1991? Rousseau explained the French to us a long time ago: "The strongest is not always strong enough to always rule if he does not convert his power into law and subordination into duty."
Remember the reaction of Rama Yade, a young French Secretary of State for Human Rights, when Muammar Gaddafi was welcomed in Paris with great honors in December 2007? "Colonel Gaddafi should know that our country is not a rag with which a national leader, whether he is a terrorist or not, can wipe his blood-covered boots," she said. This means more than the insincere apologies or faked naivety of Sarkozy and the likes of him – those who are always on the side of the strong.
French leaders are absolutely indifferent to the Russian people. They want gas, oil, access to Russian business and crowds of rich tourists in Cote d'Azur. I'm not sure they truly realize that as long as Russia is not a rule-of-law state, French investors will not be protected and will always depend on the whims of a leader, big or small. It is time to end an intolerable variety of “racism” – the claim that some peoples are “by definition” incapable of freedom, equality and respect for law. This reasoning is used to claim that nations like that “are asking for” an iron hand.
U.W.: Some Russian artists, such as director Nikita Mikhalkov, are actively promoting precisely this view…
Of course! The reason is that the source of privileges for such people is a theory of incapability. The Arab Spring has proved the opposite: every person wants to be free, dignified and protected by law. Noted dissident Sergey Kovalov does not tire of repeating: “States must serve citizens, not the other way around.” In my opinion, at a time when shortsighted politicians are playing with realpolitik illusions, civil societies in various countries of the world must act, tell the inconvenient truth and join forces.
U.W.: In your opinion, what are the possible mechanisms for cooperation among those who try to keep their countries from slipping into dictatorship and like-minded people abroad?
First of all, they need to communicate and speak about what is going on. We Westerners need to understand a lot more about the processes that are happening in the East. Your reality is a reminder to us that without the free press and independent judiciary, the French, just like Ukrainians, would not be spared authoritarianism. “Democratic traditions” work only when the government is balanced by the independent judiciary and freedom of speech.
I think that those in the West who really care about human rights must support the opposition forces in Eastern Europe which defend very similar principles and feel extremely isolated. Civil societies in the countries of the former USSR must know – it is important! – that the Russian, Ukrainian and Belarusian governments have failed to delude all of the West. Many people understand what is happening despite the obvious information war, particularly on the Internet.
I teach at a university, so I am always happy to welcome students from former Soviet republics. I believe that it is equally useful for our young Bretons to study abroad. It is a treasure trove of new knowledge for my lectures. We have no taboos; we debate about the Holodomor, Stalin’s repressions, the conquest of the Baltic states and collaboration – not only in the USSR but also in France. French, Ukrainians, Balts and Russians participate. This exchange of experience is extremely important to all of us. We are all Europeans. We must know our common culture and common history in all possible dimensions in order to write the next pages of it together.