Summertime: has Europe shut down for vacation?

In Western Europe, political journalists have few hopes of getting away from their desks before mid-August, if not later.  The political season just goes on and on this year.

This past weekend, Greece had its ‘snap election,’ which resulted in a change of government from the nominally far left Syriza to a resurgent center right party. Reams of analysis of the incoming administration are still to be written.

In the United Kingdom, there will be suspense until 22 July over the succession to Theresa May as Prime Minister: the voting of Tory party members to choose between the two remaining candidates, Boris Johnson and Jeremy Hunt, will be finally tallied and announced on that date. The ramifications of their choice go well beyond Whitehall, since the candidates have opposing views on Britain leaving the EU with ‘no-deal.’ All of Europe will be watching closely.

And within the European Union itself, the crucial vote of the Parliament to confirm or reject the nominees to fill the four key positions of the European Institutions proposed by the 28 heads of state meeting in summit – Council President, Commission President, High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Defense, and European Bank President – will come only in mid-July, when decisions will also be taken on allocation of ministerial (Commissioner) portfolios among the leading parties in Parliament. Only after these votes are taken can we draw definitive conclusions on how the pan-European elections of 26 May really played out and what policies we may expect from the EU Institutions over the coming five years.

Against this background of high drama in the West of the Continent, the Russian political world and the state media that follow and report on it has just shut down.  To be precise, on 7 July, the highest official of Russian state news and anchor of its widely watched News on Sunday program, Dmitry Kiselyov informed viewers that he was leaving on vacation and this would be his last show until September. Over the coming six weeks, Kiselyov will be spending his time in the Crimea tending his vineyards.

Before turning out the lights, Kiselyov did one thing that was quite remarkable but seems to have gone unnoticed by our newspapers and electronic media in the West:  he spent about 10 minutes at the start of the show portraying Donald Trump as an idiot.  To be sure, he was not saying anything about Trump that you will not find daily in The Washington Post.  But then the publisher of WP, Jeff Bezos, was never said to be in a ‘bromance” with Donald, whereas we all know that Donald Trump was picked and carried into office in 2016 by the efforts of the Kremlin, just as we know that there is a personal chemistry between Donald and any authoritarian ruler he happens to be in contact with.

Be that as it may, Kiselyov selected excerpts from Trump’s speech on 4 July at the Lincoln Memorial, in particular his mention that America’s magnificent air force had defended the country’s airports since the time of the Revolution. Kiselyov suggested that Trump seemed to have forgotten that airplanes and airports came no earlier than the beginning of the 20th century. Kiselyov also heaped scorn on the military parade which Trump had personally ordered.  The tanks were already decommissioned models or if still current, they were in a pathetic condition as rated by Russian military experts. He chose to feature Trump’s inane remarks on how Americans would soon be landing on the Moon and on Mars, and his claim that in its recent wars no American planes have been shot down because the U.S. controls the air.

Though we can be sure that Vladimir Putin’s press secretary Dmitry Peskov would tell us that the Kremlin takes no responsibility for what Russian journalists say or write, one would have to be naïve to believe that Kiselyov would dare insult the President of the United States, as he did, without a nod from the Boss.

Kiselyov and his colleagues at the top of the Russian journalistic world can take a well-earned vacation, because the month of June kept them on their toes reporting on a succession of major international and domestic events that the Kremlin either initiated or dominated during this period. I have in mind, in particular, the St Petersburg International Economic Forum from 6-8 June which had its largest ever visitor numbers from abroad including even an American business delegation that exceeded five hundred, and where the guest of honor was Chinese President Xi, who had arrived on a state visit that began in Moscow and used his three days in Russia to advance the growing geopolitical alliance with the Russian Federation.

Xi’s presence and the clearly close relationship he maintains with his ‘best friend Vladimir’ provided Russian and foreign commentators with days’ worth of material to speculate on the nature of the binational relationship and on the consequences of Russia’s tilt to the East for Europe, for the world.  The many meetings of Putin with individual state and business leaders at the Forum also received extensive news coverage.

Then on 20 June, Putin conducted his four hour televised Q&A program with the nation called Direct Line. In advance of that date, Russian news services spent more than a week informing the general public about possibilities for getting their questions, their videos to the attention of call centers across the nation, and interviewing call center staff for updates on the nature of questions coming in. The Q&A was followed directly by lengthy journalistic commentary and by talk-show discussion of what was new in the day’s proceedings compared to previous years, after which came several more days of reporting on how problems aired were subsequently dealt with by officialdom under the watchful eye of the President.

But the biggest and most demanding news event for Russian journalism in June was the G-20 in Osaka, Japan on the 28th and 29th.  Russian journalists at the G-20 provided their audience with one scoop after another.  They were everywhere and took the audience along like flies on the wall.  We followed their lead reporter down the corridors leading to the Trump-Putin side meeting. We saw the rivalry with American journalists to get to the scene of action first.  We heard the claim of victory when the Russian reporter slipped past an American security guard and under the dismissive nose of Mike Pompeo got his microphone over to Trump. Donald called off his protectors and responded to the Vesti question about how the meeting with Putin went: “he’s a great guy!”  This, we were told, was the very first direct “interview” of Trump by a Russian news agency.

Without having to try too hard, the story line that Russian state television presented to their domestic audience was that their President was the dominant personality at the gathering.  Indeed, one brief video was worth a thousand words: they showed Donald Trump sitting by himself contemplating his cufflinks while a couple of meters away Vladimir Putin stood surrounded by heads of state seeking a word with him.

However, the positioning of Putin as the most important leader in the G-20 began before the event opened and was not organized by Russian media. It came in the form of a lengthy interview with Putin by The Financial Times which was featured on page one of the newspaper including a half page photo of the Russian leader on the day the G-20 opened. The interview, which was taken the day before, was led by the newspaper’s editor, Lionel Barber, who has been at the helm there since 2005 and is arguably Britain’s most experienced senior journalist.

A full transcript of the interview was published in Russian and English on the Russian President’s website, It runs to 18 typewritten pages and covers a great variety of international and Russian domestic issues. The interview was video recorded and key moments were put on air by Russian state television.

Of these segments published separately, none was more impactful than Vladimir Putin’s comments on Liberalism, which he described as “obsolete” and “having outlived its purpose.” The comments generated controversy which was heightened still further by the pointed anti-Russian response they elicited from European Council President Donald Tusk, who was also present in Osaka and lost no time defending Liberalism before the cameras of the world’s media.

As Tusk had it: “Whoever claims that liberal democracy is obsolete also claims that freedoms are obsolete, that the rule of law is obsolete and that human rights are obsolete….What I find really obsolete are authoritarianism, personality cults, the rule of oligarchs, even if sometimes they may seem effective”.

The issue of Liberalism’s having outlived its age came up for further discussion on the closing day of the G-20 at Vladimir Putin’s press conference, when he clarified in greater detail what he had meant, namely that after becoming the official ideology in the European Union, Liberalism had shown itself to be intolerant of all other values and sought to dictate its terms everywhere; that Liberalism in power worked against the interests of the great majority of the population under its grip.

It is very interesting that Vladimir Putin has finally decided to weigh in on Liberalism as an ideology ensconced in power.  In the West, Viktor Orban has been the most vocal…politician and statesman on the subject. But the cause “Against Liberalism” has been set out most methodically and persuasively by a French political philosopher, Alain de Benoist, whose book bearing that very title I reviewed here not long ago.

The whole controversy kept Russian news busy for days afterwards and is still reverberating among Russia watchers and pundits in the West who never miss an opportunity to read malign intentions into any political statements coming from the Kremlin.

Lionel Barber opened his interview by asking Vladimir Putin to comment on the present fraught state of international relations so that readers might benefit from his insights as the longest serving head of state at the G-20 gathering. But Putin brought to the table not only experience and dazzling command of facts across the many subjects discussed. The depth of his thinking comes across clearly in many points of the interview.  We may be certain that his understanding of Liberalism as a political philosophy is a good deal more solid than that of Mr. Tusk, not to mention that of the myriad shallow detractors he has in Western media.

It will be interesting to see whether this debate flares up again in the autumn, when the flower of Russian journalism returns from their summer break.

©Gilbert Doctorow, 2019