Where is consumer purchasing power headed in Russia? A question raised in Vladimir Putin’s ‘Direct Line’ program on 20 June

One of the key subjects in Vladimir Putin’s 4 hour televised session of Q&A with the Russian public on 20 June was pay levels, family income and purchasing power.  The generalized perception judging by the phone-in and internet communications with the President’s call centers across the country was that living standards have been eroding for the past 3 years or more, with no end in sight.

In response, Putin cited official statistics indicating that real, inflation-adjusted pay and pensions have in fact been going up for more than a year, though due to rising consumer debt on credit cards and easily procured bank loans, disposable family income has been impacted negatively by monthly interest and capital repayment.

 

It would thus appear that the problem in the broad population is rising expectations meeting head on rather modest, almost imperceptible improvements, leading to the grumbling we heard on the Direct Line program. So far this has not translated into any political trends: the latest public opinion polls in fact show a small rise in the popularity of the President, to well over 60% approval ratings.

 

The reasons for the seeming political neutrality of the issue of where living standards are headed is that the situation is genuinely hard to read with any degree of certainty.  In Russia, as most everywhere else, statistics can easily be misleading. And in Russia, the likelihood of error is all the greater, given the vast size of the country and regional variations in cost of living and earning power. The only thing that is certain is that wages are still very low by European standards, and in particular in a country aiming to be the fifth largest economy of the world in just a few years

 

In what follows, I will set out some of the confusing indications on the present condition of purchasing power in Russia, with a focus on the geographical area that I visit regularly, namely St Petersburg and the surrounding countryside of the Leningrad Oblast forming an arc of 80 kilometers from the metropolis. To that, I add some observations relating to spending habits nationally and to the flow of new consumer products to market,  pointing to the degree of optimism among Russian producers of industry, services and agriculture in the future growth of disposable income and future spread of discerning taste and demand.

 

 

Though it is obviously anecdotal in nature, I begin this review with mention of what I consider to be reduced customer traffic in St Petersburg urban and suburban shopping centers over the past year.  This is matched by reduction in the number of cashiers that stores employ, with many cash registers left unmanned.  Is this an indicator of lower purchasing power?  It most certainly is.

 

Meanwhile, I see the counter-indicator of continued expansion of retailing, that is to say the opening of new supermarkets in top, middle and bottom sectors of the consumer market both within the city and extending out into the countryside. To be sure, the biggest change in the retailing landscape here is the proliferation of outlets of an economy level chain called “Fix Price” (written in English, by the way). They are now moving out into the Leningrad Oblast and penetrating towns of 10,000 or fewer inhabitants. This particular retailer offers leading Russian and international brand products at prices suggestive that they “fell off the back of the truck.”

 

In some supermarkets, I see that high value and perishable products like fresh fish have been discontinued; but in others, they are improved with investment into better display equipment to ensure longer salability, and the goods seem to move well.

 

What is most impressive is the continuous expansion of product assortment and upgrading. Allow me to be very specific.  In the past year, I have noted the appearance in supermarkets of locally produced grated parmesan cheese in plastic packets for use with pasta dishes, or rillettes of salmon, of mackerel and other fish in either piquant seasoning or creamy with capers and dried dill.  Without meaning to be condescending, I doubt the average American will know about the French appetizer “rillettes,” which usually comes in the form of a duck spread.  Russians seem to have caught on, however, and a modestly priced and excellent array of such products has been brought to market by a Moscow food producer, sold in chilled displays in supermarkets at about 1.50 euros for a 100 gram jar, and bear the name “rillettes” transliterated into Cyrillic.

 

Then a recent addition to the fresh fish offerings is gorbusha (pink or ‘humpback’) salmon caught in the northern seas by the Murmansk fleet.  These one-kilogram fish which originally grew in the Pacific but more recently are found in European waters are fairly lean, but not dry and make an excellent alternative to the large Scandinavian farmed salmon (entering the Russian market from the Faroe Islands). The whole fish is priced at half the 20 euros per kilogram that the Norwegian steaks now cost.

The Murmansk fishing industry is continuing its penetration of Petersburg and northwest Russia with less elite but high quality wild sea fish such as flounder at often ridiculously low prices.  Their ability to expand in what has traditionally been pork and sausage country comes from the quality and price advantages of their products.

In parallel the fish farming in nearby Russian Karelia provides the Northwest with a steady supply of excellent quality and affordable lake trout weighing between two and four kilograms, making them a festive main course for dinner parties. These may be found on sale even in small towns in the hinterland.  I know of no such comparable fish on West European markets.

The municipal markets here, which had long been controlled by Central Asian and Caucasian traders, have for more than a year shown great commercial flexibility in sourcing, with supply moving from south to north as the season progresses.  A visit to our Pushkin/Tsarsoye Selo market a couple of days ago provided us with a dinner opening with superb wild chanterelle mushrooms brought in from the forests about 150 km southeast of here, in Tikhvin, where composer Rimsky-Korsakov and other notables had their dachas in the late 19th century.  And our meal progressed through baked Murmansk gorbusha, to mixed green salad coming from local greenhouses, to end with very fragrant strawberries coming from growers 100 km to the southwest of Petersburg, northern berries that put to shame the wonderful strawberries from Crimea that were on sale a couple of months ago.

 

The point about the municipal markets is that they are visited by the most discriminating consumers, not necessarily by the wealthiest.  Prices often are not very different from those in supermarkets, but the sourcing is often entirely different. The difference is clearly that the supermarkets are compelled to buy from large-scale suppliers who can fill their retailing networks, while the markets can choose from small-scale growers. And the continuing presence of their customers is another sign that the economic situation of the people on the ground is not really all that bad.

 

I complete this encouraging survey of new and high quality Russian food products put on offer notwithstanding the possibly stagnating purchasing power of the population, by a remark on beverages – on one beverage in particular, sparkling wine.  This category was always a favorite in Russia, firstly among women, but not only.

 

In the past week, I was surprised to discover a new premium Russian sparkling wine sold under the name “Lev Golitsyn” in a special “Coronation” edition and produced here in St Petersburg by the company Igristye Vina, one of the country’s largest and oldest manufacturers in this category. It is available in both Semi-Sweet and in Brut formulations. I bought the Brut and could not believe my good fortune:  this 7-euro wine has a floral fragrance and excellent balance, just as the label informs us (truth in advertising is not a strong point in Russia).  As a professional in the field from my 5 years serving as General Manager, Russia for two of the world’s largest international spirits corporations, I say with hand on heart that the product is superior to most French non-champagne sparkling wines, not to mention Spanish Cava and Italian Prosecco.

 

Why the name “Lev Golitsyn”?  Because that member of a princely Russian family, many of whose descendants ended up in France or in California, had created a champagne empire in the Crimea, at Novy Svet (New World) in the late 19th century and won international prizes for his products before the Revolution.  Why “Coronation”?  This is surely a reference to the coronation of Nicholas II in 1895 and sets the date of origin of the tradition being cited by the producer.

 

The discovery of this new product brought to mind my own experience in 1997 as lead investigator and negotiator on behalf of Joseph Seagram & Sons in a project to conclude a contract with a local co-packer who would produce a premium sparkling wine to our specifications and for sale via our distribution channels. On that mission, I met with the managing directors of several of Russia’s top sparkling wine manufacturers, including the Igristye Vina factory in St Petersburg,

 

At the start of our talks, the manager of Igristye Vina was not interested in cooperation because his operations had fallen to less than 10% of capacity due to the problems handicapping the entire Russian wine industry at the time: the lack of domestic wine stock due to the barbarous destruction of vineyards carried out a decade earlier under the direction of Mikhail Gorbachev in his anti-alcohol campaign, and the massive entry into the market of cheap and untaxed sparkling wines coming across the border from the Ukraine and other former Soviet republics.  With less than 10% of his factory in production, unit costs were prohibitively expensive and the factory had no time for us.   However, at our second round of talks six months later, the refusal to partner with us resulted from the opposite circumstances: state measures to put a halt to untaxed imports and to ersatz, largely German bubbly products, resulted in full occupancy of Russian market players.  Running flat out to supply their loyal domestic customers, they had no time to waste with finicky foreigners who wanted to change the raw inputs and process parameters to produce a relatively small special order in time for Christmas.

 

Now it appears that Igristye Vina have achieved exactly what we were proposing to them in 1997 without Western involvement and in response to an ever more discerning Russian consumer who is ready to lay out twice the price of standard Sovietskoye Shampanskoye for a bottle of premium product that has none of the yeasty flavor and quick spoilage of the Soviet GOST standard product though it is clearly being produced on the Soviet-era continuous production line as opposed to French Champagne’s batch method.  The difference is the quality of the base wines used and the attention to biologicals, including advanced filtration to assure longer shelf life.

 

The label on this product says nothing about the source of the wine materials, which, I assume, are largely if not completely imported – perhaps from nearby, as in the case of Moldova, perhaps from South America or elsewhere in the world.

 

I have taken the time to feature this product, because it makes the contrarian case that Russian consumerism at working class, entrepreneurial and managerial levels is becoming more sophisticated and producers like the wine factory in St Petersburg are moving in to fill demand that may just be starting, but which they expect to grow in the near future. At seven euros, this product is not directed at the affluent who can pay 50 euros for the French original, but to aspirational middle classes.

 

Now let us direct attention to another good indicator of well-being:  vacation travel.  During his televised chat at the G-20 meeting in Osaka last weekend with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, President Putin mentioned that over the past year more than six million Russians have traveled to Turkey on vacation, a new record, and they spent more than 5 billion dollars, meaning more than $900 per capita.  That is to just one tourist destination and it contradicts the notion of economic worries on the mind of the middle class Russian tourist who made that trip.

 

Meanwhile, the large majority of our intelligentsia friends in St Petersburg have this year and last foregone their traditional summer vacations in Western Europe – not because they lack the money but because this is their protest at the Russophobia they know predominates in EU countries today.  Instead they are taking their vacations within Russia, visiting the provincial towns that were long on their ‘to do’ lists. Their travels go well beyond the “Golden Triangle” of ancient Russian cities that foreigners know so well. They take in small towns on the Volga of great historical interest such as Uglich, distant monasteries that have been reclaimed by the faithful and manor houses on former noble estates that have been lovingly restored and often offer lodgings to visitors that vary in price from princely to modest depending on the importance of the given rooms.

Most of our friends come back very pleased with the improved, international level of accommodations and food catering they find in the Russian heartland.  However, some report that the new facilities are still under-utilized. That is to say, investors are pouring money into infrastructure for domestic tourism that is only beginning to gain traction.  This is a leap of faith on the part of investors and runs contrary to the notion of a stagnating or regressing economy.

 

In summation, the Russian economy and the standard of living of the broad population are very difficult to size up with any certainty. But one can say with certainty that there is some actionable optimism about improving conditions on the part of investors, manufacturers and service providers that contradicts the negative notes we all heard during Vladimir Putin’s Direct Line program on 20 June.

 

©Gilbert Doctorow, 2019

Post Script. Results of the European Elections of 26 May 2019 as translated into leadership positions of the EU Institutions

The “Americanization,” meaning the trivialization of European politics, is proceeding apace, as we saw yesterday when Council President Donald Tusk announced the nominations to the four highest positions in the European Institutions agreed by the 28 heads of state meeting in Summit.   Tusk directed attention to one feature relating to the nominees for Council President, Commission President, High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, and President of the European Bank: gender equality. The candidates being put forward to the European Parliament for approval are two men and two women.

In news coverage of the nominations on both television and print media, both in Europe and in the United States, the headline remarks matched Tusk’s, though a few more elements in the horse-trading behind the given nominations were also mentioned, as I will detail in a moment..  We are told that for the first time in its history the EU is about to elevate women to the most responsible positions.

This attention to gender is precisely in line with the evolution on national politics in the United States over the past seventy years or more.  In the person of John Kennedy, Americans elected the first Catholic president. Barack Obama was nominated and was eventually elected as the first black in the nation’s highest office.  Insofar as there was a positive message in her campaign and not merely reproval of the misogynist and hate monger, Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton ran on the expectation of being the long awaited first female president of the USA.

The commonality between the gender politics in the politically correct EU highlighted by Tusk and the promotion of candidates from “minorities” as a token of inclusiveness in the United States is the ad hominem nature of the reasoning.  Planned programs, policy orientation, not to mention relevant professional experience and track record or, dare we say it, competence are nowhere to be seen here.

To put it in a less kindly light, the way the nominations of candidates for the four leading positions in the EU were presented to the public amounts to intentional diversion of the European voting public from the essence of politics, which is how the pie is divided up, who in the population gets what from the economy, that is to say the social and economic dimensions.

In what was intended to be more serious analysis of the nominations in the media, the most critical comments concerned the lack of transparency in the decision-making process, which went on behind closed doors by the 28 heads of state meeting in their capacity as the European Council.  This we heard on the most widely viewed broadcaster in Europe, Euronews, in its “Raw Politics” program. The same commentators also sounded off on the question of non-adherence this time to the practice of nominating for the Commission President a so-called Spitzenkandidat, i.e. the person put forward by the party in the incoming European Parliament with the greatest number of seats, meaning the party able to muster a majority.  In this year, that candidate would have been Manfred Weber, of Germany’s Christian Democrats, within the European People’s Party bloc of the European Parliament. Weber had the backing of German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

However, for reasons that are not yet clear, other than the known opposition to the candidacy by French President Emanuel Macron, Weber was sidelined and other candidates were placed before the Council for review. Among them, the apparent front-runner was the former Dutch foreign minister and current Vice President of the European Commission, Frans Timmermans, who was the Spitzenkandidat of the center-left coalition in the EP.  His appointment would have conformed to another EU tradition of alternation in office of politicians from center-left and center-right.

But Timmerman’s candidacy was opposed by the Polish and Hungarian heads of state, who could not forgive the Dutchman’s rebukes over the alleged recent degradation of judicial independence in both countries, acting in his capacity as Commissioner with responsibility for Rule of Law.

In the event, the Poles and Hungarians won the battle and lost the war. As it turned out, the nomination for President of the European Commission went to a German politician, a member of Angela Merkel’s cabinet and fellow party member of the Christian Democrats, Minister of Defense Ursula von der Leyen. Apart from being a political conservative by her party allegiance, the only political conviction to figure in The New York Times and other mainstream media accounts is that she is a strong advocate of greater European integration leading to the creation of a “United States of Europe.”  Thus, she is pulling in exactly opposite direction of the East European Euro-skeptics and defenders of national sovereignty.

We also hear on the BBC and Euronews, read in the Belgian and French newspapers of record that von der Leyen had the strong backing of President Macron.  But why Macron would have supported a member of Merkel’s cabinet that the Chancellor herself had overlooked is not explained.  Only a few hints are dropped. We are told that von der Leyen is a fluent French speaker, having been born and educated in Brussels. And we know that by promoting a German for the Commission President, Macron could expect to have a compatriot and fellow liberal banker selected to head the European Central Bank as a return favor, which is precisely what happened: the 28 heads of state approved the nomination of former French Finance Minister, current Managing Director of the International Monetary Fund Christine Lagarde to take over the ECB from Mario Draghi.

Intriguing as these personal details surrounding the nomination of Ursula von der Leyen may be, to which I might add, the often repeated remark that she is the mother of seven children, another irrelevancy that our journalists toss into the mix to heighten our appreciation of her femininity, there is a key political dimension to her nomination that they seem to omit systematically:  her position on EU integration and the very concept of a United States of Europe puts her directly in line with the views of the bloc in the European Parliament with which Macron and his République en Marche party is aligned: the Alliance of Democrats and Liberals for Europe, headed by former Belgian Prime Minister Guy Verhofstadt. This is not a small point:  it is crucial for any understanding of how the European Parliament will function in the coming five years during which the traditional ruling bloc of Center Right and Center Left parties has lost its majority in the 26 May 2019 election. They will maintain their control in combination with ALDE, which formerly held about 9% of the seats in Parliament, but now with better electoral returns in several countries this past May and with the infusion of circa 22 seats controlled by Macron, represents about 15% of the Parliament.

Let us recall that ALDE has a longstanding record of calling for the creation of a European Army, that its foreign policy might be described as neo-imperialistic, and that it has been regularly irresponsible in its anti-Russian grandstanding measures, going beyond mere sanctions to the passage of a European version of the U.S. Magnitsky Act.  In this regard, Ursula von der Leyen, who has often spoken out against Russia and might be described as a model Cold Warrior, fits the ALDE political profile to a tee.

Valuable as this insight may be, it does not exhaust the lessons on present-day European Union politics that we saw in the nomination of candidates for the four top executive posts.

In the nominee High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, namely the Socialist Foreign Minister of Spain, Josep Borrell, we see the resumption of an EU tradition.  Prior to the creation of the given office, the EU’s long time head of diplomacy and security was the Spaniard Xavier Solana.  And in the nomination of outgoing Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel to be President of the European Council, replacing Donald Tusk, we see a resumption of a role previously accorded to the Belgian who preceded Tusk in this office, Herman van Rompuy.

Both van Rompuy and Michel are being described by the European press as possessing particular talent in coalition building and striking compromises. Of course, within Belgium Michel is seen differently: as the willing stooge of his French liberal party’s larger coalition partner, the Flemish N-VA.

All of which brings us back to the question of one quality that I mentioned above in passing: the competence of those being promoted to head the key European institutions.

Let us assume that in every respect, Christine Lagarde is fully competent and experienced to fulfill the post of head of the European Central Bank.  About Michel, my negative remark is offset by the nature of Council President’s responsibilities: this is in fact a redundant executive post without any obvious powers. About the Spaniard Josep Borrell, I have no information to judge, as he has not been a prominent figure on the European stage. In his case, time will tell.

This leaves us with Ursula van der Leyen, whose new position as Commission President does have considerable power in setting and implementing the programs of the EU Institutions generally.  Here there are very serious questions that even our somnolent media have detected though they speak about them sotto voce and without drawing the obvious conclusions.

It was remarked by numerous commentators that her nomination received the approval of 27 out of the 28 Member States. The one abstention was her home country of Germany!  What normally would be a red flag was let drop, excused by the observation that there was a dispute within the ruling coalition of CDU and Social Democrats over her nomination.  However, the dispute was precisely over Ursula van der Leyden’s competence if not over her integrity as Minister of Defense.  Her Ministry has come under attack for very poor performance, and there have been allegations of nepotism and misconduct in awarding military contracts.  Thus, it is quite remarkable that she sailed through the nominating process on the strength of Macron’s backing and assorted horse-trading about which we can surmise only after all the Commissioners are nominated and approved in the European Parliament over the coming days.

The dry residue from all the foregoing is that the revolt against the elites, the Euro-skeptic movement that raised anxiety among the defenders of the political status quo in the days before the May elections to the European Parliament have been without effect.  The undemocratic habits of the past will continue unchanged under the new ruling majority hobbled together with ALDE.  And the predisposition of the European Institutions to wage a New Cold War will continue unabated even if we have new faces and new personalities wielding the reins of power.

Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.

 

©Gilbert Doctorow, 2019

Liberté d’expression, la censure et la propagande: la télévision russe aujourd’hui

Discours prononcé au Cercle Gaulois, Bruxelles le 7 juin 2019

 

Nous, les Occidentaux d’un côté et les Russes de l’autre, vivons dans des mondes bien séparés et parallèles.

 

Ici, en Belgique et plus généralement en Europe, les téléspectateurs d’ “Euro News” ont principalement été informé ces deux dernières années des nouvelles et des  spéculations concernant le Brexit quasiment à l’exclusion d’autres actualités.

En Russie la dose quotidienne de programmes d‘actualités’ depuis un ans est principalement dédiée aux risques de guerre et préparatifs pour la guerre.

Les chaînes de télévision russes montrent chaque jour le lancement des nouveaux bateaux sousmarins, le vol en formation des avions de chasse de cinquième génération– le SU 57, la visite de Vladimir Poutine aux usines de fabrication militaire et son discours devant les ouvriers et gérants, l’expansion des bases militaires dans la sud du pays pour mieux protéger la Crimée et le littoral de la Mer Noire, les manoeuvres militaires seuls ou avec partenaires comme la Chine.

Ici en Belgique on ignore les mouvements des forces de l’OTAN sauf s’ils bloquent les routes dans l’est d’Allemagne ou en Pologne et créent des nuisances pour les populations civiles.

Bien entendu, si vous êtes russe et que vous regardez les attaques simulées des armées de l’OTAN contre l’enclave de Kaliningrad, situé entre la Lettonie et la Pologne, cela attire votre attention.

Un événement comparable pour nous serait des exercices militaires russes dans la région de Francfort faisant des préparatifs pour une invasion simulée de la province du Luxembourg ou de l’enclave germanophone d’Eiffel.  Sûrement, cela attirerait l’attention de la RTBF!

 

En Russie, les talk-shows sur les ondes publiques n’ont aujourd’hui qu’un thème: les derniers développements politiques et militaires en Ukraine, un pays présenté comme en crise permanent, avec l’attente d’une faillite et d’une misère totale. Chaque jour on voit à l’écran des images d’échanges d’obus de l’artillerie dans le Donbass, des interviews avec la pauvre population civile près des lignes de combats à Donetsk et Lugansk.

Il ne faut pas être un grand intellectuel pour comprendre le sens d’une telle programmation. Il y a quelques semaines, lors de ma visite à la maison de campagne que nous possédons en Russie, au sud de Saint-Pétersbourg, notre voisin, un plombier, se demandait pourquoi la télévision montre toujours la situation en Ukraine et ignore les problèmes quotidiens des russes. Je reviendrais sur cette question plus tard ce soir pour préciser pourquoi propaganda est devenue la norme dans les médias électroniques russes.

Les choses évoluent partout avec le temps. Ce soir je vais vous montrer la liberté d’expression à la television russe à deux moments différents qui ont eu lieu récemment: en 2016 – 2017, lorsque j’ai pris part à des talk shows sur plusieurs chaînes nationales dans des émissions déstinés à la population russe; et en printemps 2018 lors de la campagne présidentielle russe lorsque j’ai regardé la situation dans les médias russes à distance. Pour illustrer notre discussion je vais vous montrer quelques passages vidéos prises de ces émissions russes. Je  terminerai ce discours par une tentative d’explication sur pourquoi selon moi, la situation a empiré l’année passée.

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Tout d’abord je dois vous dire un mot sur les “talk shows” politiques. C’est un genre très répandu en Russie sur toutes les chaînes nationales, les chaînes d’état comme les chaînes privées.  D’habitude ces émissions sont diffusés le soir, lors de “prime time,” quand Monsieur est rentré de son travail et a terminé son repas. Mais depuis quelques années, par considération pour les téléspectateurs d’après-midi qui ne sont pas seulement des mamans et des pensionnés, mais également des indépendants qui régardent les émissions sur leurs lieux de travail, on les diffusent à partir de midi et les talk shows peuvent être trouvés sur la télé russe 12 heures sur 24.

Ils sont presque tous diffusés en direct. Mais puisque la Russie est le plus grand pays du monde et compte 11 zones horaires de Kaliningrad dans l’Ouest jusqu’au Kamchatka dans l’Est, cela est plus compliqué qu’il n’y paraît. Midi dans le studio à Moscou c’est 19.00 heures à Vladivostok. Il y a des talk shows qui sont diffusés en direct vers Vladivostok et les pré-enregistrements sont rediffusés à toutes les autres zones horaires, une après l’autre avec le décalage adapté. D’autres talk shows sont diffusés en directe à Moscou et rediffusés aux autres zones horaires. Pour l’étranger on les diffuse via satellite à l’heure de Moscou. C’est ainsi qu’à Bruxelles je peux capter les principaux talk shows russes via mon antenne parabolique.

Il faut souligner que chaque émission enregistrée est re-diffusée sans coupures ou rédaction. Ensuite les émissions sont mis en ligne, très souvent en utilisant youtube.com.  Pour ceux que cela interesse, les émissions sont destinées au public russophone, sans traduction, ni titres.

Je vous rapelle que ce soir nous parlons du degré de liberté d’expression et/ou de censure dans les médias électroniques russes. Et pourtant les méthodes de production et diffusion sont restées inchangées sur la période 2016-2019. Pas de coupures. Diffusion directe.

Pour comprendre ce que cela signifie, il faut savoir que les talk shows, interviews et programmes similaires aux Etats Unis sont toujours pré-enregistrés et subissent un grand processus de filtrage et réduction.  Un ami à New York, professeur d’histoire avec une certaine notoriété, et qui est de temps en temps invité aux débats ou interviewé seul m’a expliqué que pour une émission sur CNN ne seront pris en compte des 50 minutes d’interview, que 2 ou 3 minutes. Les monteurs choisissent soigneusement ce qui’ils préfèrent entendre.  Alors, où se trouve la censure?  Autrement dit, le problème avec la télévision russe d’aujourd’hui est plutôt au niveau de la matière traitée, et non pas de censure dans le sens stricte.

Mais me répondez-vous, les participants à ces talk shows russes sont sélectionnés pour éviter toute possibilité de faux pas, donc – c’est de la censure.  Non, c’est beaucoup plus nuancé, je dis.

En 2016 quand je faisait mes débuts sur les talk shows russes, j’ai pu constater la présence obligatoire des “enemis” et l’exclusion des “amis” parmi le quart de participants qui sont étrangers. Aujourd’hui en 2019 c’est à nouveau le cas: c’est presque exclusivement des enemis qui sont présent parmi les étrangers.

Il y avait et il y a maintenant des raisons très claires pour cela. Premièrement, les talk shows ont deux facettes: ils traitent des actualités du jour et ils sont un divertissement durant lequel il faut un duel. S’ils présentaient uniquement des gens qui récitent la ligne du Kremlin, cela devient très vite ennuyant, avec risque de perdre des téléspectateurs.

Les russes aiment beaucoup les combats sans règles seul à seul, comme la boxe, comme les arts martiaux venus de l’Orient. Ils aiment aussi les joutes verbales. Les talk shows télévisés montrent chaque jour des spectacles féroces entre les défenseurs de la ligne du Kremlin et des opposants. Une bonne partie des invités-opposants sont des étrangers installés longtemps en Russie– des Polonais, des Ukrainiens et des américains.

Vous serez peut-être étonnés parce que dans les émissions sur RT, les invités sont tous de grands amis de la Russie.  Mais la chaîne RT est produite pour nous les belges, les britaniques, les allemands vivant à l’étranger.  Pour les russes mêmes, en Russie, les étrangers participants dans les talks shows étaient en 2016 et sont maintenant, de manière caricaturale, de grands méchants.

Le journaliste David Filipov du Washington Post, dont j’ai fait la connaissance dans les pauses d’un talk show a écrit plus tard que c’est une espèce de propagande de les présenter comme les imbéciles de l’Ouest. Cela démontre que le monde est contre la Russie, qu’il faut se défendre et se rallier autour du pouvoir.

Le problème avec ce raisonnement, c’est que les étrangers invités ne se montrent pas tous comme des imbéciles. Ils maîtrisent pour la plupart très bien la russe. Ils sont soit des émigrés du temps de l’Union Soviétique vivant dans le diaspora, ou des non-russes comme M. Filipov, qui réside en Russie depuis des décénnies pour des raisons professionnelles.

Le plus charmant, celui qui est le plus invité de tous les étrangers sur les talk shows était et reste un américain, un certain Michael Bohm, qui vit à Moscou plus que 25 ans. Il est marié deux fois là-bas, et il a récemment demandé la nationalité russe. Il était établi au départ comme journaliste, mal-payé dans le journal anglophone The Moscow Times. Grâce à ses contrats comme conférencier dans les talk shows de plusieurs châines russes, il est maintenant mieux payé que certains hommes d’affaires à Moscou.

La popularité de M. Bohm est telle parce qu’il joue bien l’américain méchant qui répond à chaque question avec la ligne du Pentagon ou CIA. Mais il est linquiste de haut vol et il réussit à faire des répliques en utilisant le folklore et vocabulaire de la Russie profonde, ce qui amuse beaucoup les spectateurs.  Dans quelques instants je vais vous montrer M. Bohm dans une émission ou j’étais aussi participant.

Et si les invités de l’Occident ne sont pas des imbéciles, ils ont la possibilité d’exprimer des points de vue en contradiction directe avec les propos du Kremlin.  Ainsi, la population russe est exposé aux arguments des “adversaires” –  beaucoup plus que nous dans l’Occident sommes exposés aux arguments des russes dans nos médias électroniques.

Alors qui sont les panélistes russes dans les talk shows?  Ils représentent un mélange des législateurs de Duma et de la chambre supérieure, des professeurs d’universités et directeurs de think tanks. Ils sont pour la plupart membres du parti du pouvoir, la Russie Unie, bien sûr, mais aussi des partis d’opposition, et même des partis miniscules. Gennady Zyuganov, leader des Communistes y participe de temps en temps.  Vladimir Zhirinovsky, leader du parti ultra-nationaliste LDPR est un participant très fréquent. Il faut savoir que l’opposition en Russie ne constitue une opposition au Poutine, au gouvernement que dans le domaine de politique domestique – c’est-à-dire les priorités budgétaires, les réformes dans le système d’éducation, les soins medicaux, etc.  En ce qui concerne politique étrangère ils sont tous “patriotiques” – alignés avec Poutine et le parti de pouvoir.

Comment me suis-je retrouvé parmi les invités, si je suis ‘étranger’ et pas méchant envers la Russie?  C’est une question de conjuncture ponctuelle qui commença avec la campagne éléctorale de 2016 en Amérique et termina juste après l’inauguration de Donald Trump en janvier 2017.  Durant cette période, les autorités russes ne savaient pas comment interpréter les développements politiques aux Etats-Unis. A mon avis, et contre toutes les théories courantes à Washington de collusion entre Trump et Poutine, l’entourage de Poutine était divisé sur la question de savoir quel candidat serait mieux pour la Russie – l’élection de la démone bien connue, comme ils disaient, Hilary Clinton, ou l’élection de l’amateur en politique, le très volatil Donald Trump.  C’est pour cette raison qu’on a invité à prendre part dans les talk shows des personnes d’avis neutre et/ou positif envers Trump, comme moi.

La population de participants dans les talk shows en générale est très petite. La plupart vivent à Moscou.

On peut se demander comment j’ai rejoint cette poignée des étrangers?  C’est une question de la chance.  J’ai fait la connaissance ici à Bruxelles d’un des grands conférenciers de la télévision russe, un certain Yevgeni Popov en avril 2016 dans une grande salle de réunion du bâtiment du Parlement Européen. Nous tous ont dû assister à la projection d’un film documentaire de grande importance politique pour la Russie. La projection était annulée au dernier moment à cause de l’intervention des opposants au plus haut niveau de la Commission. Nous étions 12 personnes dans une salle pour 200. Yevgeny me demanda de faire un commentaire en russe sur l’annulation. Son équipe a bien enregistré mon petit interview et Yevgeny était content. Deux semaines plus tard il m’invitait venir à Moscou pour participer dans son talk show “Envoyé spécial,” sur la chaîne des actualités Rossiya-1. Très vite j’ai reçu des invitations d’autres chaînes à Moscou, qui sont en chasse permanente de “viande fraiche.” Comme Popov, ils étaient prêt à m’offrir billet d’avion allez-retour Bruxelles-Moscou, en classe économique, bien entendu.

J’ai ainsi participé sur cinque chaînes différentes une ou plusieurs fois. C’était très interessant, pas tellement pour l’opportunité de dire quelque chose de non-standard devant un public de millions de russes.  Franchement, mon temps devant le micro sur chaque show était entre une minute et dix minutes en tout.

Comme nouvelle personne, comme étranger qui parle tout en étant pas un natif, j’ai profité d’une certaine indulgence des modérateurs. On m’a permit de terminer mes phrases sans m’interrompre ou me contredire, une luxe de laquelle les “natifs” ou habitués n’avaient pas.

Cette expérience m’a permit de mieux comprendre de l’intérieur comment les talk shows fonctionnent, qui est qui, à quel point les modérateurs sont libres, à quel point sont-ils les poupées de fontionnaires supérieures qui leur soufflent à l’oreille via des écouteurs-boutons ce qu’il faut demander, ce qu’il faut dire.

Voici les conclusions que j’en tire:  les restrictions imposées aux modérateurs sont très variables et beaucoup dépende de l’autorité du conférencier et de la politique de chaque chaîne ou groupe de production à part. Il n’y a en tout cas personne de Kremlin qui donne le scénario.

 

Nous allons maintenant regarder quelques courts extraits des talks shows. La première émission, du 20 octobre 2016 est du meilleur show de ce genre, “Le soir avec Vladimir Soloviev.” Soloviev est un proche de Poutine. Il l’a interviewé plusieurs fois et il a fait un film de campagne éléctorale. Aujourd’hui il est aussi modérateur d’une émission hebdomadaire intitulée “Moscou, Poutine, le Kremlin” – le titre parle pour soi.  Le mois précédant j’étais sur son show – pour 2 minutes, pour lequel j’ai dû voyager toute une journée. Mais l’expérience en valait la peine.

  1. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rXA0gZBqeRw

00.00 – 00.35

 

Soloviev 20 octobre 2016

 

  1. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xejLyhkjqek&list=PLAe6Au-aKEc9TYn9Gdyqn3aivM4qMwAaE&index=1

03.00 – 05.20

 

Vremya pokazhet  (L’avenir nous le dira) –  20 janvier 2017  je suis là. Le sujet est l’inauguration de Donald Trump plus tard le même jour. On me donne le micro et je dis exactement ce que je viens de vous expliquer concernant la pratique traditionelle des chaînes russes de n’inviter que les américains méchants en disant qu’ils seuls représentent le Washington officiel, l’interlocateur unique du gouvernement russe. Notez que M. Bohm est assis en face de moi. Je dis que maintenant nous le people américain ont un président qui rompe avec la politique hostile envers la Russie. Dommage, car je me suis trompé!   .

 

  1. Encore Vremya pokazhet du 23 janvier 2017.   On discute les circonstances de l’inauguration – les manifestations féministes contre Trump, etc.. Je suis là avec les collègues Michael Bohm, David Filippov du Washington Post.

 

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7D9f4cLVdZU&nbsp=

 

13.20 – 14.40

 

 

  1. Un peu plus tard, début février 2017 je suis encore la saveur préférée de la saison et reçoit l’invitation à participer dans les débats d’un talk show basé en Saint Pétersbourg. Cette fois il y a un split screen pour montrer également les participants à distance. Dans le cas j’étais sur ligne avec skype pour ma première intervention sur “Studio Ouverte”, Pyaty Kanal, le 2 février 2017. Notez que c’était bien un talk show “low budget”.  La question du jour concernait l’OTAN et les craintes de l’OTAn          Otkrytaya studia «Чего боится НАТО?»

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ByWQbHoUYKY

09.15  – 09.45

  1. Deux semaines plus tard, j’étais à Saint Pétersbourg pour raisons personnelles, et je fus invité à me rendre au studio du Pyaty Kanal pour une émission concernant l’Ukraine.. Le prix à payer pour eux était assez faible – les frais d’un taxi pour le trajet entre mon appartement dans le banlieue et le studio.

Cet épisode clôture ma période de participation directe dans les talk shows russes.

“Ограбление по-украински» Открытая студия 16.02.2017

A noter:  sur le split screen avec Moscou – un analyste assez jeune mais bien connu M. Delyagin

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=A55CP4Dzs5o&t=4s

11.20 – 12.14

 

 

* * * *

La deuxième période que je présente ce soir, c’est le mois avant les éléctions présidentielles russes le 18 mars 2018. Selon les règles de jeu, chaque candidat a reçu un certain nombre d’heures guatuites sur les ondes publiques, télévision et radio pour diffuser ses messages aux élécteurs. Et en supplément, ils ont été invites aux débats télévisés sur les chaînes nationales, chaque jour pour presque deux semaines..

J’ai suivi très attentivement les débats d’ici en Belgique une partie du temps. Par ailleurs j’ai regardé la télé dans ma chambre d’hôtel à Moscou et en Crimée les jours juste avant et après le 18 mars quand je me suis rendu en Russie en qualité d’observateur international du scrutin. Mais, il était aussi possible de regarder les débats quand et où on voulait, parce que ils étaient tous postés sur l’internet directement après les émissions “live.”

 

Le format et les heures de diffusion dépendaient des directeurs des chaînes. Je vais vous montrer deux passages de ces émissions de débats. Sur la chaîne Pervy Kanal on a donné à chaque candidat une allocation de six minutes dans chaque émission:  deux minutes pour présenter sa position sur la thématique du jour, par exemple, le développement des régions de la Russie; deux minutes pour répondre à une question spécifique adressé par le modérateur, et deux minutes pour ses conclusions.

 

Vous trouverez que les modérateurs sont…les mêmes conférenciers que nous avons vu dans les talk shows ordinaires.  Et exceptionellement l’un entre eux, M. Vladimir Solovyov, ne se permet d’agir pas comme simple chronomêtreur mais comme interlocateur en conversation libre avec les candidats.

Je voudrais souligner que le mois avant le scrutin présidentiel russe était sans doute la période de la plus grande liberté d’expression sur la télévision russe depuis 25 ans ou même plus. Même les observateurs de l’OSCE dans leur rapport après le vote l’ont confirmé avec deux qualifications que je vais vous communiquer dans quelques minutes.  Ça veut dire que s’il y a une réstriction ou suppression de liberté de presse en Russie depuis l’accession en pouvoir de M. Poutine, comme insiste la grande majorité de nos politiciens et médias ici en Europe et en Amérique, les réstrictions n’ont pas évolé dans une ligne droite. Pas de tout.

Deuxième remarque:  la participation des partis russes dans les débats télévisés était énormement plus généreuse et, j’ose dire démocratique que chez nous, en Belgique ou aux Etats-Unis. Chaque parti qui satisfait aux conditions d’enregistrement pour le scrutin avait une place dans les débats, même partis qui ne comptent pas plus qu’un pourcent des élécteurs éventuels.  C’est comme si M. Mondrikamen du Parti Populaire était invité à prendre place à coté d’Olivier Maingain sur les ondes publiques en Belgique, ou si le candidat des Greens aux Etats-Unis Jill Stein figurait à coté de Donald Trump et Hilary Clinton dans les débats présidentiels en outre-mer en automne 2016..

 

Les candidats et ses représentatives ont critiqué à la télévision tous et tout qu’ils voulaient, sans mincer leurs mots; ils ont pu faire des promesses les plus extravagantes s’ils étaient élus sans peur d’être punis. Leurs comportements envers les autres participants étaient parfois sauvage, avec des insultes des uns envers les autres, et de tous envers Poutine. On le verra voir dans une des deux passages que je vais montrer.

Alors en considérant ces circonstances vous comprenez pourquoi le président Poutine a decidé de ne pas participer dans les débats. Il a fait son message éléctoral télévisé lors de son discours annuel sur le statut de la nation devant les deux chambres du parlement russe le 1 mars.  .

Une critique de l’OSCE était la domination par Poutine des ondes publiques jour après jour avec le reportage de ses activités en qualité de président.  C’est une critique juste si on oublie le fait que M. Poutine est un des Chefs d’Etat plus actifs et conséquents du monde qui est toujours en rencontres avec ses pairs internationaux et en visite partout dans le pays.

L’autre critique de l’OSCE, c’est que la liberté d’expression ne doit pas être une chose réservée aux éléctions, mais doit se faire toute l’année.  Aussi une remarque juste.  Et nous pouvons discuter de cette question à la fin de mon discours.

 

Nous allons maintenant regarder deux passages de vidéo de mars 2018

.

Débat sur Pervy Kanal

 

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=u4mDLSec66o

 

13.03.2018   –  5 jours avant le scrutin du 18 mars

 

00.00 – 01.15

 

Débat sur Rossiya-1

Zhirinovsky insulte Sobchak – cette prostituée – et elle répond en jetant sa verre de l’eau sur le visage de son adversaire.  Regardez qui est le modérateur – notre Soloviov

 

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6rmP_S7QZho

00.00 – 01.00

 

 

** * * *

La troisième période de mes observations sur le degré de liberté d’expression sur la télévision russe c’est aujourd’hui. Les aspects négatifs sont celles que j’ai déjà mentionné lors de mes premiers remarques ce soir: la concentration d’attention dans la programmation vers les préparatifs pour une guerre, et la thématique de l’Ukraine comme l’état en faillite, vu comme un voisin très dangereux dirigé contre la Russie par les Etats-Unis et la Union Européenne. Jour après jour les mêmes panélistes adressent les mêmes questions. Au-delà du fait que c’est ennuyeux, c’est aussi une forme de propagande.

Mais la situation est loin d’être sans espoir.  Les talk shows ne se prennent pas toujours au sérieux. Au contraire, ils montrent de temps en temps un bon sens de l’humour comme je vais vous montrer dans deux minutes. Et du fait qu’ils existent permet de donner au téléspectateur russe des points de vue sophistiqués et raisonnés. Ils peuvent écouter les meilleurs academiciens américains qui ne sont pas ni méchants, ni amis, ni propagandistes. Je parle maintenant du show “Le Grand Jeu” (The Great Game) présenté cojointement d’un coté à Moscou par Vyacheslav Nikonov, le petit fils de Molotov, membre du parti de pouvoir la Russie Unie et parlementaire dans le Duma et de l’autre coté à Washington par Dimitri Simes, l’ancien collaborateur de Richard Nixon, longtemps président du Nixon Center, maintenant renommé le Centre de l’Interêt National (Center for the National Interest).

Maintenant nous allons regarder passages des ces deux tendances qu’on peut considérer comme positives.

Video clips:

Sixty Minutes, Rossiya-1   24 mai 2019    édition du soir.   Yevgeny Popov, Olga Skabeeva

00.40 – 2.00

00.40 – 2.00

Le sujet – le nouvel président de l’Ukraine, M. Zelensky. Dans une émission de son Reality Show avant son élection, il a promis de se promener nu si le taux d’échange de la monnaie ukrainien baissait.

Note – Popov est le protégé du chef de toute programmation “actualités” de la télévision étatique russe, Dmitry Kiselyov

 

 

Bolshaya Igra

22.05.2019   Nikonov dans le studio – on montre l’image de Simes sur un grand écran – émission directe depuis Washington

Le sujet, l’Ukraine et les nouvels membres d’administration de Zelensky – ses anciens amis dans les Reality Shows

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1YvWtEikVGE

00.00 – 01.00

 

En conclusion, je me démande pourquoi la télévision russe est pour le moment moins libre, plus patriotique que par le passé.

A mon avis, c’est une question de conjoncture internationale, de la forte pression que nous, Occidentaux, appliquons contre le Kremlin, contre les Russes et son économie. Après cinq ans de sanctions, après l’annulation des conventions pour limiter les armes stratégiques nucléaires, tout cela finalement donne un effet sur Poutine et son entourage.

Je souviens bien les discussions en Amérique, en Allemagne lors de la première Guerre Froide, en particulier lors de la présidence de Richard Nixon et le lancement de la politique de Détente,  lors du lancement de la Entspannungspolitik du chancelier allemand Willy Brandt.  Les défenseurs de la détente disaient que le résultat de la pression contre l’Union Soviétique au nom de défense des droits de l’homme était toujours la dimunition de la liberté et non pas l’augmentation de liberté pour les russes.

C’est avec cette pensée que j’ouvre la conférence à vos commentaires et questions.

The 2019 European Parliamentary election results: an analysis from the perspective of peace on the Continent

During the run-up to the continent-wide elections to the European Parliament that just took place, our European press and electronic media sounded the alarm over the threat of a populist, nationalist, Eurosceptic tide overwhelming the “peace project” that the European Union is said to be.  The great fear was that the Center would not hold, that the alliance between Center Right (European People’s Party) and Center Left (Socialists and Democrats) which has held a majority of the 751 seats and set the agenda for the European Institutions over the past 40 years would be swept away while irresponsible fringe parties would carry the day.

As it turned out, in elections which culminated with voting day in most Member States on Sunday, 26 May, the two-party centrist majority heavily lost seats and no longer can rule alone.  However, the insurgency of nationalist parties led by Italian deputy premier Matteo Salvini and backed by France’s Marine Le Pen of the National Rally and Holland’s Geert Wilder of the Freedom Party, which our journalists were watching with hawk-like attention brought their bloc (The Europe of Nations and Freedom) only modest gains, yielding a total of 58 seats versus 40 in the 2014 elections, and not the 75 or more hoped for.  Salvini’s ambition to enjoy a bigger say in the Parliament, and consequently in the allocation of ministerial portfolios in the Commission will depend on whether he can draw into a working alliance the deputies from Viktor Orban’s party (presently still EPP) and deputies from the governing Law and Justice Party in Poland, among other nationalists, and so rise to over 100 seats on votes of common interest. If these and the other small parties of the same genre were to pool resources, then, in the analysis of The New York Times, populists and eurosceptics on the whole “increased their seats in Parliament to 25 percent, up from 20 percent five years ago.”

However, that hypothetical formation of what is called the ‘extreme right’ pales in comparison with the rise of two other blocs in the latest elections, both of which have the potential to consolidate the Center if they join forces, which is more than likely.  I have in mind the two greatest winners in the latest EP elections:  the Alliance of Democrats and Liberals for Europe (ALDE) and the Greens.

From its 68 seats in 2014, ALDE is now forecast to hold 106 seats in the new Parliament. The increase is in good part attributable to Emmanuel Macron’s taking the 22 or so deputies of his new République en Marche party into the bloc but also reflects a broader swing in favor of the Liberals in several countries. Long-time leader of ALDE, former Belgian prime minister Guy Verhofstadt, was quoted as saying when the election returns came in Sunday night, “No solid pro-European majority will be possible without our new centrist group.”

Meanwhile, one of the Greens’ leaders, Belgian MEP Philippe Lamberts, issued a similar claim: “To make a stable majority in this parliament the Greens are now indispensable”  Indeed, the Greens rose from 51 seats in 2014 to 67 seats in the new Parliament, much of the increase coming from Germany, where the Greens almost doubled their result from the previous election.

The Belgian daily La Libre Belgique summed up the situation succinctly with the headline “In the European Parliament, the Liberals and the Greens are positioned as king-makers.”

The above correlations constitute almost the entirety of mainstream analysis of the 2019 elections to the European Parliament where the focus of attention has been on what the electoral outcome means for institutional stability and continuity of policies. The European Union is deemed to be a “peace project” precisely because the ever growing integration of Member States into a supranational entity comes at the expense of the prerogatives, or sovereignty if you will, of Member States. And nationalism, in the view of these integrationists, is what accounted for Europe’s bloody history over the past two centuries.

However, this concept of a peace project is as unfounded and purely ideological in nature, as the Neoconservative notion that only democratic nations can live together in peace.  These are the Hail Mary’s of a secular religion. They are unproven and taken on faith.

 

I propose a very different frame of analysis to understand the degree to which the results of the latest European elections work in favor of peace or the contrary.

To be sure, there was no “War Party” and no “Peace Party” on the ballots. But let us remember that the Centrist parties of the EU Parliament steered Europe along a course of collision with Russia over Ukraine going back to the fall of 2013 when their foreign and defense negotiators gave Kiev a flat choice of aligning itself with the EU economically, diplomatically and militarily or maintaining ties with its single biggest trading partner and banker, the Russian Federation. And when the Maidan crisis broke in February 2014, the EU reneged on the compromise agreements it had just brokered between then prime minister Yanukovich and his opponents, allowing nationalist militants, including neo-Nazis, to come to power in Ukraine on a violently anti-Russian platform.  Then, when the United States began the unending process of punishing Russia for its intervention in Ukraine by sanctions, the European Union, under the guidance of these same centrist parties, EPP and S&D, unflinchingly followed suit. When the United States mobilized NATO,  began moving military personnel and equipment close to Russian borders, began holding highly provocative war games simulating the invasion of Russia’s Kaliningrad enclave, on the logic of dissuading Russia from committing further “aggression,” the EU Member States, led by the Centrists, did its fair share of saber rattling in Moscow’s direction. If all of this does not constitute a “War Party,” what does?

With the results of the latest vote for EP deputies, the picture becomes even more ominous.  The Liberals and Democrats (ALDE), who are now the king-makers, have been among the most irresponsible voices in the Parliament these past five years with respect to Russia-baiting and imposition of sanctions against Russia. Their aforementioned leader, Guy Verhofstadt has been the European partner of Neoconservative think tanks and lobbyists in Washington formed and directed by Robert Kagan, the political pamphleteer who assisted John McCain’s presidential campaign in 2008 and is the husband of the notorious Victoria Nuland, the key State Department officer who ran the Ukraine putsch and distributed cakes to the radicals on the Maidan Square. France’s Emmanuel Macron has chosen well the war-minded devils he will be supporting in the new European Parliament.

Add to that the newly victorious Greens, whose core group, the German Greens, have in the last European Parliament been among the most vituperous Russia-baiters. It is one thing to favor Environmentalism, which is the current flavor of youth politics in Europe, or to stand up against nuclear power generation.  But politicians in the Parliament have to take positions on more than one issue, and the German Greens have never hesitated to move the Continent into direct confrontation with Moscow, whatever that may bring in terms of destabilizing security and heightened chances of war, including, paradoxically, nuclear war. If I may name one Greens leader who has personified this short-sighted policy, it is Rebecca Harms, who was from 2010 to 2016 President of The Greens – European Free Alliance in the European Parliament.

Moreover, the Cold War orientation of the German Greens did not come from nowhere. It did not depend on any actions from Russia to be manifest but was embedded in their DNA from the very founding.  A reading of the Wikipedia entries of Its long-time intellectual leaders Joschka Fischer and ‘Danny the Red’ Cohn-Bendit make this clear. They maintained an unholy alliance with the Liberals on issues of Euro-integration. Cohn-Bendit, after all, was co-author with Guy Verhofstadt of the book Debout l’Europe (Stand Up. Europe) which advocates a good measure of Euro-imperialism. So much for the peace project….

With allies such as these needed to restore control over the legislature, hence over the European Commission, the European People’s Party – Socialists and Democrats coalition looks distinctly warlike in fact if not in name.

Otherwise, the balance of forces in the incoming Parliament which we may identify as standing for Peace has seen changes in the shares of individual parties within the same overall number of approximately one-third of the 751 deputies who from 2014 to present stood for common sense, fact based construction of relations with Russia, and may therefore be called the Parties of Peace.

Nearly all of the parties that our journalists have labeled nationalists, Eurosceptic and populist have taken positions against sanctions on Russia. A few among them openly call for disbanding NATO. Meanwhile, the Party in this camp which did most poorly on the 26th happens also to bear the name “Greens” but within the broader name of “Nordic Green Left Alliance.”  Over the past several years I had occasion to meet with members of this group who sponsored round tables within the European Parliament to consider or reconsider relations with Russia. They were open-minded and serious people, and it is a pity they have fared poorly in the latest elections.

In closing this overview of the 2019 elections to the European Parliament, I direct attention to results here in Belgium, where the most striking development was the surge in support in the North of the country (Flanders) for the Extreme Right nationalist party Vlaams Belang, who took votes away from the leading Flemish nationalist party, the N-VA which was positioned more to the center and had been the power behind the throne in Belgium’s coalition government  with the French-speaking liberals of the Mouvement Réformateur (MR) till they forced the government to fall over immigration policy last December. The virtual doubling of the vote for the Vlaams Belang have made it the second largest party in Flanders, with approximately 20% support, and a force to be reckoned with at the federal level as politicians try to hobble together a new coalition to run the country.

When viewed from the perspective of Europe and of the War Party-Peace Party analytical frame, the rise of the Vlaams Belang adds another two MEP seats to the pro-détente Europe of Nations and Freedoms bloc (now totaling 55 seats) in the European Parliament. A little more than a year ago, a legislator in the federal Chamber of Repreentatives from the Vlaams Belang was the initiator of a motion calling for an end to sanctions on Russia, which, of course, failed to gain traction in the MR and N-VA dominated house.

Meanwhile, the leader of the Francophone populist party Michael Mondrikamen, the coordinator of pan-European populism designated by Steve Bannon to head his “Movement” failed miserably at the ballot box. His party will lose the one seat it had in the Belgian federal Chamber and has none in the European Parliament. Bannon’s inability to understand who is who in Belgian politics and to back those who ultimately triumphed last Sunday, the Vlaams Belang, shows yet again that the Masters of the Universe residing on the other side of the Atlantic should not try to run European politics but would do better to restore order in the presently dysfunctional American political system.

 

©Gilbert Doctorow, 2019

Book Review: Alain de Benoist,”Contre Liberalisme. La société n’est pas un marché”

When I published my travel notes on a nine-day visit to Hungary several weeks ago, readers may have been perplexed over why I bothered.

See https://gilbertdoctorow.com/2019/04/26/hungary-testing-the-waters-notes-from-a-week-of-wellness-and-political-tourism/

My concluding point was that the controversial populist, authoritarian prime minister of Hungary Viktor Orban draws his power from the strong national, ethnic identity of his compatriots. That seems, by itself, an unexceptional observation. However, when I made it I had in mind a very specific intellectual context of “illiberal democracy” which I will now spell out in this essay reviewing the latest book by the notable French political philosopher Alain de Benoist, Contre Liberalisme [Against Liberalism].

The book is unlikely to figure on your list of summer reading. Firstly, because it exists only in the original French edition. Secondly, and more importantly, because it is highly technical, the oeuvre of a first-class Philosopher with an encyclopedic knowledge of the subject who is addressing his peers, not the general public. Alain de Benoist, to those unfamiliar with him, may be described as a consummate bibliophile, dedicating his life to reading and writing books.  He is said to have the largest private library in France numbering more than 200,000 volumes.

Being a philosopher does not mean one is cut off from contemporary life. Quite the contrary in the case of de Benoist, who in this volume casts an occasional eye at Mitterand, at Macron and at ….Viktor Orban who is the main figure in a chapter towards the end of the book entitled “Liberalism and Democracy.” De Benoist tells us how these statesmen do or do not fit into the philosophical profiles he is drawing.

However, his book caught my attention for its direct relevance to what I believe is a much more significant issue of our international relations landscape: it bears directly on the supposedly missing ideological dimension of the ongoing Cold War between Russia and the West. Why that is so I will explain in due course.  But first, I offer a brief overview of de Benoist’s reasoning in this book.

* * * *

 

Contre Liberalisme comprises over a dozen related essays.  Several, such as the “Critique of Hayek” will be of interest to a very few specialists. Others are more accessible and provide a very interesting analytical framework to what we see around us in political, social and economic life, bringing together seemingly very diverse and unrelated phenomena, many of them highly troubling, and highlighting the common thread of causality driving them all.

Because this is not a monograph but a collection of essays, there is a certain amount of overlap and repetition of key points. Since these points are quite subtle and embedded in a dense web of literature going back a couple of centuries if not to Antiquity, the repetition from slightly different angles may be helpful to comprehension.

I found particularly valuable the first 143 pages, followed by the essay on “Liberalism and Democracy” mentioned above and the essay entitled “Representative Democracy and Participative Democracy.”

In his underlying thesis, Alain de Benoist tells us that the common denominator in all strands of Liberalism, both political and economic, is the exclusive focus on the individual and his/her rights at the expense of all else. Society, nation do not exist: they are merely aggregations of individuals.

The trappings of this individual-above-all approach are ‘free movement of goods, capital and people,’ the ultimate primacy of ‘the universal rights of man,’ denial of national sovereignty in the name of those rights, the call for minimal government, turning the state into nothing more than a ‘night watchman’ while the discrepancy in wealth across the population grows and grows, and the middle class melts away before our eyes.

Globalism is a natural expression of the tenets of Liberalism. Open borders, the absence of any restrictions on migration are also part and parcel of Liberalism. An individual has the right to live and work anywhere he pleases.

Nation, ethnicity, history have no value in Liberalism. They are only impediments to the individual’s freedom to create his or her own identity. This identity is as an economic unit, a participant in the market as producer and consumer. One pursues profit, one indulges in unrestricted and unapologetic consumerism. Unbridled egoism is justified by the mythical ‘invisible hand’ first described by Adam Smith whereby serving oneself necessarily leads to the most efficient and fair solutions for society as a whole.

By setting as its highest good the liberation of the individual from all societal, religious and governmental restraints that do not infringe directly on the rights of others, Liberalism underpins extreme feminism, which claims for women full control over their bodies, meaning in practice unrestricted abortions. Liberalism promotes minorities such as LGBT and transgender, including the right of homosexuals to civil marriage, to adoption, to surrogacy. Liberalism is comfortable with gene editing. Liberalism has no objections to narcotics use. It endorses the right to ownership of firearms. Liberalism is the guiding principle for the “progressive” changes in social mores that are taking us to a brave new world, in the views of some, or to Sodom and Gomorrah in the views of others.

Politics as such disappear under Liberalism. Politics imply competition between a variety of different policies serving different end values.  Under Liberalism, it is not the function of the state to determine or serve end values, only to protect the people in their territory as they engage in free exchange from which outcomes emerge spontaneously. Liberalism puts in power technocrats who are not answerable to the people, and who know best by definition. Thus, as Margaret Thatcher famously said to her opponents “there is no alternative.” The role of the state is to administer not govern.

* * * *

In his chapter on “Liberalism and Democracy,” Alain de Benoist notes that Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban was the first European leader to apply to himself the label “illiberal.” This was during a speech at the Summer University of his Fidesz Party in 2014:

“The Hungarian nation is not an aggregation of individuals, he declared, but a community which it is up to us to organize, to strengthen and to raise up. In this sense, the new State that we are building is not a liberal State but an illiberal State.”

In this speech, Orban remarked that a democracy is not necessarily liberal: “One can be a democrat even without being liberal.”

Then, in September 2017, Viktor Orban told the Hungarian Parliament that for a Central European people to adopt Western liberalism “would mean spiritual suicide for the Central Europeans.”

And, one month later, on 23 October, the national holiday of Hungary, Orban again singled out “the global force which would like to turn the European nations into a standardized heap” and denounced “the financial empire which has imposed on us new migratory waves, millions of migrants and new invasions of populations to turn Europe into a land of mixed-bloods.”

Taken by themselves, the statements by Viktor Orban might seem inexplicable and extreme. But placed with the context of the abhorrent excesses of Liberalism described by Alain de Benoist and promoted to a large extent by the European Institutions in Brussels, Orban’s positions are logical and brave. It is not for nothing that he is a significant contributor to the populist, Eurosceptic movements of the Far Right not only in Central Europe (the Vysegrad Group and Austria) but also today in Western Europe, where his allies are Matteo Salvini in Italy and Marine Le Pen in France.

It is a pity that Alain de Benoist does not extend his examination of illiberalism in Europe beyond the borders of the EU further to the East, because everything he is saying has great relevance for our understanding of Vladimir Putin’s Russia.  To be sure, Putin never used the precise terminology of illiberal democracy, speaking instead of managed democracy.  And Putin had his long period of flirtation with Neoliberal economics as practiced by several leading members of his team, most particularly his long time Minister of Finance Alexei Kudrin and the Yeltsin-era implementer of privatization, Anatoly Chubais, whose career continued to flourish under the new president.

Putin’s efforts at befriending global capital going back to the time of his accession to power produced very modest results and were largely curtailed after he imprisoned Mikhail Khodorkovsky in a struggle to establish central government power over private interests and essentially nationalized Yukos – to the chagrin of the Western oil majors who had hoped to acquire a major stake in the Russian industry via a deal with the oligarch and so continue their accumulation of Russian raw material assets.

However, from 2007 Putin emerged on the world stage as the leading defender of national sovereignty against American global hegemony. Putin has placed great emphasis on the Russia’s national history, on the Orthodox Christian faith, on every country’s right to uphold its own traditional values. In a word, Putin has championed national diversity as opposed to standardization and anonymity of some aggregation of individuals.  He has brought back and modernized many of the collectivist obligations of the Soviet, now Russian state including free higher education, affordable universal medical care, heavy state subsidies to all institutions of Culture and Sport. He has thumbed his nose at the Liberal West.

Taken by themselves, and Western analysts of Russia almost exclusively take these pronouncements and policies of Putin by themselves, as something unique to the authoritarian ensconced in the Kremlin, Putin’s political, social and economic pronouncements are denounced as idiosyncratic, eclectic and self-serving, invented on the fly to prop up what is claimed to be a shaky regime, lacking democratic legitimacy.

However, when put in the intellectual analytical framework provided by Alain de Benoist in his latest book, Putin may be seen as entirely aligned with what Viktor Orban and the illiberal democrats of Western Europe are thinking and saying. They have arrived at common positions independently of one another. This commonality includes by the way, state promotion of child-bearing and of family values.

Why is this important?  Because, taken altogether, the talking points of Anti-Liberalism or illiberalism, if you will, constitute an ideology.  It is the great merit of Alain de Benoist’s book that he demonstrates this even if he does not say so explicitly. And ideology is the one component of the first Cold War said to be absent today, now that Communism has been vanquished and both Russia and the West share market-driven economies and democratic political values. This ideological dimension of the New Cold War places Russia alongside political forces in the European Union that challenge the ruling ideology in Brussels called Liberal Democracy.

Regarding those democratic political values, it is very instructive to read attentively de Benoist’s chapter on “Representative Democracy and Participative Democracy.”  In that chapter, the author takes us back to the Age of the Enlightenment to show that from its very inception, the representative democracy which we take as axiomatic was criticized by thinkers like Rousseau for constituting a forfeit of political power by the people to a political class that would finally conduct its business in defense of its own interests, not in fulfillment of the popular will.

In addition to parliamentarism, Benoit elsewhere in the book reminds us that Rule of Law and Separation of Powers, two additional principles that are held up as fundamental by our Liberal minded elites, were put in place by Enlightenment thinkers precisely to dilute the possible exercise of power in conformity with the popular will.

Good, you will say.  These are our bulwarks against monarchical or executive despotism and against mob rule.  However, what do you say when these mechanisms are used by our political class in the United States, in Belgium and many other European countries to enact laws and implement policies which work directly against the interests and against the clearly expressed will of the people for the benefit of themselves and their financial backers? What do you say when these anti-popular elites hold onto power for decades notwithstanding the nominal alternation of parties forming the government?

In his examination of how popular will can actually determine policy at the governmental level, de Benoist promotes the notion of participatory democracy. This goes beyond holding referendums to decide contentious issues. It takes us to less obvious channels by which those in power are informed of the people’s interests and priorities.  It is precisely here that de Benoist is knowingly or unknowingly describing what Vladimir Putin has put in place in Russia to achieve what political analysts in the know appreciate to be one of the most effective systems for inclusiveness in political decision-making in any major state today.

The Russian parliament is clumsy, often not very professional in the drafting of laws and is dominated by one party, United Russia, which is self-dealing as all ruling parties tend to be everywhere. For that reason, in parallel, in 2005 Putin and his entourage created a  Civic Chamber, described by Wikipedia as “a consultative civil society institution with 168 members…to analyze draft legislation and monitor the activities of the parliament, government and other government bodies of Russia and its Federal Subjects.”

In 2011, then prime minister Putin added one further forum for participatory democracy, the All-Russia People’s Front (ONF).  According to Wikipedia, the ONF is supposed to provide the ruling United Russia party with ‘new ideas, new suggestions and new faces. It is intended to be a formal alliance between the ruling party and numerous Russian nongovernmental organizations.”

Then there are the annual “Direct Line” televised interchanges between Vladimir Putin and interested citizens from across Russia. Lasting three or four hours, these programs are an institutionalized mechanism by which the head of state hears and responds to the vox populi without the intermediation of the bureaucracy or legislature.

The end result of all these mechanisms of participatory democracy are policies by the Russian government which are rather closely in harmony with the popular will, more so than in most Western countries. This provides the government with stability, and the leader with ratings far and away above the level of most Western leaders, putting aside that other illiberal democrat Viktor Orban, who is doing very well in his own ratings.

There is always a price to pay for stability:  the inability to put through fundamental reforms such as the Neo-Liberal economists say Russia needs to raise its GDP performance significantly.  But fundamental reforms always sacrifice the interests of one part of society to the interests of another part, and populist leaders like Vladimir Putin try to avoid doing that wherever possible

For all of the above reasons, I hope that those who have proficiency in French will take a look at Alain de Benoist’s latest book Contre Liberalisme. And for those who cannot consult his book, I suggest you pick up copies of Rousseau, Montesquieu and their followers and continuers in North America, such as Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton, to reconsider afresh the merits and demerits of “liberal democracy.”

 

©Gilbert Doctorow, 2019

March of the Immortal Regiment, St Petersburg, 2019: reflections of a participant

This year Marches of the Immortal Regiment held by the Russian diaspora in New York, Washington, D.C., Paris, Athens and a host of other cities around the world mean that a great many people everywhere have read reports about the phenomenon from Reuters or seen some brief video coverage on their television news.

This year was my fourth March in St. Petersburg, where my wife’s family is from, where her father got his training to serve in the Navy before he was sent off to what the Russians call The Great Patriotic War, and we know as WWII. She considers it her filial duty to carry his portrait in the March and I am the accompanying spouse. I have already written extensively about the March in previous years and I refer the reader to my first such entry in 2016.

Russians Remember Their WWII Vets

For these reasons, in this essay I will cut generalities to a minimum and focus on personal impressions of what was different and noteworthy this year. Politics intrudes inevitably, but that will be in the concluding section.

 

What was different this time?  

 Firstly, in St Petersburg, the number of marchers reached a new plateau. Official reports put it at over one million.  The last record was around 750,000.   I have no reason to doubt the accuracy of the official figures, because this year the procession from Staronevsky Prospekt to the Palace Square went on for at least a third longer than last year as I witnessed with my watch in hand.

This number means that one in four residents of St Petersburg took part. Meanwhile, the number of marchers in Moscow, a city with more than double the population, was reported as 700,000.  The number of marchers across Russia as a whole is said to have been 10 million.

How can we explain the relative inversion of numbers between the two capitals?  Weather may have been a factor.  There were rain and heavy winds at times during the Moscow march. In St Petersburg, the sky was cloudless and the temperature was a pleasant 15 degrees Centigrade.

However, in practice good weather could just as easily account for a low turnout given that one in two Russian city dwellers are the owners of country houses (dachas) where this is just the time to plant seeds in the vegetable patch and to invite the family over for a barbecue followed by a session in the sauna.  That could be still more likely given that this year, by official directive, Russians were encouraged to move part of their vacation time from the first two weeks in January to the period between May 1st and 10th.  Indeed, my usual sources of intelligence, taxi drivers, told me that this year many of their customers and the flow of traffic they encountered was from the countryside to the city on the 8th as people returned from their dachas precisely to be able to participate in the march.

The high number of marchers in St Petersburg is especially notable because of what it tells you about the Immortal Regiment phenomenon.  One has to bear in mind that the Northern Capital is probably the least supportive of the Kremlin among Russian cities.  Therefore, high turnout suggests that the March is genuinely a grass-roots movement rather than some political trick manipulated from on high.

No doubt a contributing factor in distinguishing St Petersburg is that apart from Stalingrad (modern day Volgograd) it suffered the most in the Second World War, losing a very substantial part of the civilian population to the Siege. To this day, the “blokadniki” are given the same official preferment in housing and pensions as the government allots to its veterans.

Another difference with years past was the obvious presence of non-Russian ethnic groups and nationalities among the marchers.  Whereas the first marches I took part in were lily white, this time there were official reports of a Kyrghizstan contingent from Central Asia parading in native dress.  I did not see them, but in the masses around me I spotted a group of a dozen or more marchers from predominantly Muslim Tatarstan. The men wore traditional embroidered silk caps.  All of this argues for the greater inclusiveness of the Immortal Regiment event, and for what is a tolerant variety of nationalism under its umbrella.

Also near me, I saw a fellow in a Jewish kippa.  Otherwise, this year’s fashion item was WWII period soldiers’ caps, which were worn by men and women alike.  However, there was nothing approaching uniformity in dress of the marchers.  One little kid was wearing his Burger King crown proudly.  Some few women were chicly dressed. Most people wore what they could otherwise be seen wearing on the metro weekdays or out at the dacha: fresh looking but inexpensive clothes of the masses.  This was true both of those holding aloft photographs of medaled fathers and grandfathers with officer’s rank and of those holding aloft photos of their relatives who were simple enlisted men.

By age, the marchers this year did not differ greatly from years past. Perhaps more dating young couples than I noticed before, though the greatest numbers were family groups bringing together three generations.  And judging by what I saw looking in the windows of restaurants after we left the march, a goodly number of these families concluded their march with a meal together. Others still surely did as we did and joined friends and family around a banquet table at home.

In the past, there had been live entertainment from little stands posted every few blocks where singers belted out WWII favorites. This time the music was nearly all “canned” marches blaring from street loudspeakers that otherwise are part of the civil defense system. This was a throwback to Soviet times.  However, there were also some amateur musicians who came to spontaneously entertain us: I think of a group of six, led by two accordionists, who played their songs in the middle of our marching column.

Another throwback to the Soviet years was the sprinkling of portraits of Joseph Stalin carried by some marchers. I had seen none in the past. But it would be risky to draw any conclusions about this, just as it would be risky to draw conclusions from Vladimir Putin’s mention in a televised interview the next day that all those who fought in WWII were rightfully considered heroes by their children and grandchildren, because with cries of “For the Motherland! For Stalin!” they rose from their trenches and faced the blazing guns of the enemy.  That is the historical reality which cannot be airbrushed away.

One other thing that seemed to me to be different this year occurred on the television broadcast of the formal celebrations in Moscow in the morning.  Amidst the customary coverage of the military parade, there was the video feed from the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier by the walls of the Kremlin when President Vladimir Putin laid a wreath.  Two steps behind the President was a burly security officer carrying a briefcase.  Obviously from his demeanor, the briefcase – with the nuclear button.  That matches up nicely with the coverage of the latest Russian strategic nuclear-armed missiles that passed through Red Square with the morning parade. Given how these things are stage managed, I take it to be a not too subtle message to Washington.

 

* * * *

 

Arguably, May 9th is the most important holiday in Russia’s annual calendar. Some people rate it more highly than their own birthday.  But it took the invention of the March of the Immortal Regiment to give a family dimension to the group commemorative activities.

During the forty-six years following the end of WWII when Russians lived under the Communist regime of the Soviet Union, people did not talk freely about their family histories, including what they did during the War. This was true even in the last five years when Mikhail Gorbachev’s Glasnost’ opened the media to publication of most everything that had been kept under seven seals until then. The great fear handed down from the period of Stalin’s terror enforced prudence and secrecy at the family level.

What the March of the Immortal Regiment has unleashed is honesty among people about their family past, which now is shared with friends, neighbors and relatives. The March has exercised a cathartic effect on the nation.

A few days before 9 May, the Russia-expert, former CIA officer Paul Goble published an essay in which he asked, condescendingly,  why Russia makes such a big deal out of WWII every year when most countries do not, when the rest of the world rolls its remembrance of its veterans of all wars into one day.

Yes, in Russia, May 9th ranks as the national, family and personal holy day. Why?  Because of the body count. Russia lost 27 million dead in WWII. Hardly a family in the country was spared grief.  Moreover, in Russia today there is genuine pride in the knowledge, little shared in the West, that the biggest contribution to the defeat of fascist Germany in WWII was made by Russia (the Soviet Union). This is a purely objective reckoning based on the numbers of German soldiers who were killed on the Eastern, not Western front. In this context, the Allied landing in Normandy, which is what most Americans know best about the war, was an appendage to what was basically a life or death struggle between Hitler’s Germany and Stalin’s Soviet Union.

The same logic explains why in Western Europe there is particular attention even today to Armistice Day, November 11, commemorating the end of their Great War. WWI cost Western Europe an entire generation of young men and had enormous impact of the civilian population lasting right up to the second world war.

However, when people like Goble pose their question about Russia’s veneration of its dead in WWII, they show their ignorance of and insensitivity to Russian mentality

The March of the Immortal Regiment has tapped into another set of Russian traditions that preceded all its wars: respect for the dead.

Perhaps the Slavic country with greatest reverence for the departed is Poland, where to this day family members will go to the cemeteries to visit gravesides and leave flowers several times a year and almost without fail on All Saints’ Day, November 1st.

In Russia, visits to cemeteries are rarer, but in the cemeteries themselves there is a great resemblance to what you find in Poland:  nearly all tombstones bear an image of the departed, a photograph, often taken in their youth, set on an enamel plate.

The Immortal Regiment, a veritable sea of photographs of dead relatives who were veterans of the war or who served on the home front, or who lived and died in the Siege of Leningrad, may be understood as a cemetery on the march.

To a large extent, this is a reaffirmation of the popular Christian belief in the Resurrection of the flesh.  I make reference to my Russian wife’s sincere feeling that as we carry her father’s portrait in the March, he is making one more appearance down the city’s main artery, Nevsky Prospekt.  It is not for nothing that in Russian cemeteries, those who can afford it install a stone bench next to the grave so that they, together with family members and friends, can sit down, perhaps quaff a shot glass of vodka and commune with the departed.

All of which leads me back to politics.  In the United States, ‘Russia experts’ like Goble are legion and shout down those who are not Putin-bashers.  They do not visit Russia, often do not have a good command of the language and arrive at their pronouncements from abstract considerations of how things should be.  They lack entirely Fingerspitzengefuehle.  Even if they are writing their personal beliefs and not what their sponsors want them to publish, they are out of touch.  And they are one more reason why our Russia policies are so misguided and unproductive if not counterproductive.

©Gilbert Doctorow, 2019

“Foreign Affairs” magazine at a turning point on U.S. global hegemony?

I have not critiqued articles in Foreign Affairs magazine for at least two years because it seemed pointless to whip a dead horse.  Dead intellectually I mean. I regretted the loss of a sparring partner given that FA was and remains broadly representative of the US foreign policy establishment.

FA was for a long time stuck in the rut of democracy promotion and cheerleading the unipolar, America-dominated world.  Every article celebrated the ‘public goods’ delivered to a world in need of leadership by the United States of America through the international institutions and the “rules based international order” that it created and ran.

The villains on the FA stage were external to the United States, the revisionist authoritarian countries, Russia and China: Russia by its weakness and irreversible decline which prompted Moscow to bursts of aggression against its neighbors to keep its citizenry in line; China by its growing economic and military might which are projected to bypass the United States in the coming twenty years and already threaten freedom of navigation in the South China Sea.

When Donald Trump won the November 2016 election on a campaign platform that challenged directly all the tenets of this foreign policy establishment, the initial reaction of the Foreign Affairs editors was incredulity that a renunciation of the globalist world order which brought the lion’s share of financial and geopolitical benefits to Washington could happen in their America.

And so, it now appeared that the greatest threat to US hegemony could come from within the United States, by the fortuitous election of the incompetent and intellectually blinkered real estate mogul from New York City, Donald J. Trump. To their credit, FA did not pursue the Russia-gate explanations for the defeat of Hilary Clinton and overturning of the bipartisan values-based foreign policy in favor of Realpolitik hard power and naked selfishness of ‘America First’.

Trump was denounced by FA for populism. Articles in the November-December 2016 “Power of Populism” themed issue reminded us of how badly populism had played out in South America in the hands of autocrats. In the immediate aftermath of the election, alarm at FA was tempered by the belief that this aberration would not last, that Trump would be impeached, forced to resign for one reason or another. Efforts should be made to hold the hands of our Allies, to reassure them that the American people do not support isolationism, and to prepare for the restoration of the status quo ante following the 2020 elections, at the latest.

However, now, midway through Trump’s mandate, when the Mueller investigation clearly was not producing any “smoking guns” that could bring down the imposter in the White House, when the 2020 electoral campaign is getting underway and the Democrats have not produced any candidate capable of vanquishing Donald, the editors of Foreign Affairs have finally decided to take a fresh view of what the future holds for US foreign policy, namely downsizing.

That is the task of a set of four articles in the May-June 2019 issue as introduced by FA Editor Gideon Rose under the overarching title “Searching for a Strategy.” Rose calls this “a sobering message to someone in real trouble who refuses to admit it.”  His first author, Daniel Drezner, “tells us it is time to face the facts: American hegemony is not coming back; U.S. hard power is in relative decline; U.S. soft power has taken a huge hit.”

Next, Mira Rapp-Hooper and Rebecca Friedman Lissner in a jointly written article offer what Rose calls ‘tough love.’ Per Rose, their message is that “Washington has to abandon its post-Cold War fantasies of liberalism marching inexorably forward to certain global triumph. It should temper its ambitions, lower its sights, and focus on promoting freedom and openness within the international system where it can.”

In light of where Foreign Affairs has stood for the past 25 years, this surely sounds like a turning point. However, a close reading of these two essays suggests that it is a bit early to celebrate the triumph of common sense Realism over blind Wilsonian Idealist ideology. The problem is with the quality of their thinking, which is as superficial and insubstantial as the thinking of Dr. Rose himself.

These authors are all working at the level of academic games, without any concern over the real world consequences of the foreign policy that has been in practice for the last 25 years of unending US military action abroad, and in particular the consequences of a war of aggression against Iraq in 2003 that may have caused the deaths of as many as one million civilians and has brought havoc to the entire region which we feel to this day.   All they can say about the past policies is that they were “misguided” or “wrong” by misjudging the ability of the United States to re-order the world in its image.  And so, there were “screw-ups.”

They hold no one to account for this. But without house cleaning, without application of the good old American principle of ‘throw the bums out,’ how can we move forward to new policies based on new operating principles?  We cannot….That this is so is proven by the featured space also allotted in this issue to one of the greatest culprits in the Neo-Conservative inspired foreign policy debacle, Robert Kagan, as I explain below.

Moreover, the three authors suffer from the hot air syndrome.  Like all too many contributors to Foreign Affairs magazine they are generalists who build their argumentation out of off-the-shelf, commonly accepted and never challenged notions. I will mention only several points which fall within my area of expertise, Russia.  They are at best debatable and at worst totally ungrounded in fact.  Notion 1: that Russia is only a spoiler, that it is failing economically and suffering a demographic crisis.   Notion 2: that it was Russian policies which made Ukraine hostile to it. Notion 3: that Russia massively interfered with the 2016 American elections.

My point is that the authors have not personally tested any of these and a great many other propagandistic items of pure fantasy that they deal in as solid facts.  It is impossible for political scientists of this caliber to provide a new strategy for U.S. foreign policy when all they are doing is rearranging the cards in the deck of conventional wisdom.

The third article in this section is by Harvard professor Stephen Walt, the one Realist in the panel whom Rose describes as ‘gloating’ that his past warnings about overreach have been proven prescient. Walt, he tells us, is advocating ‘offshore balancing’ as the better way to go if the United States is to continue to play a determining role in international relations.

Actually, there is a lot more to Walt’s article than an argument for offshore balancing. Walt has used his rare allocation of space in FA to address the issue of unaccountability of foreign policy thinkers and practitioners that I mentioned above, as well as the absence of debate, of challenges to prevailing policy in publications like FA, in think tanks, in universities. It has to be said that Stephen Walt and his fellow Realist, and sometime co-author John Mearsheim of the University of Chicago, are almost the only dissenting voices on the broad outlines of U.S. policy that are given the microphone at FA from time to time.

Good for them!  By I am unsure how their occasional chance to speak out helps the rest of us “dissidents.” I am skeptical of the degree of free-thinking that they themselves would allow if they had the power. I say this in the knowledge that going back three years my colleagues in the U.S., senior academics holding similar views to mine about the need for open debate on our Russia policy, appealed to Walt to arrange round table discussions at Harvard, at the Kennedy School, and received no support from him whatsoever.

Moreover, granted that Stephen Walt’s intellectual courage is far greater than most academics, considering his once taking on the Israel Lobby, that does not make him an expert on Russia, the country that has greatest bearing on U.S. foreign policy today along with China. Consequently, he was as prone to making ignorant pronouncements on Russia in his essay as the other American generalist academics in this issue.

My point is that there can be no true Realism absent an in-depth knowledge of history, culture, language of given regions.  It is for the Idealists to coast along on universalist principles. The Realists are obliged to know their stuff or forfeit that label of honor.

* * * *

Apart from the several essays at the start of the issue commissioned by the editor to deal with the cover page theme, each issue of FA also consists of self-standing articles dealing with a great variety of subjects. Many are written by specialists who have done their own research and are making an original contribution. Sometimes they even challenge directly the conventional wisdom in their field. One such article appeared in the January-February 2019 issue of FA, a harsh and extensively documented critique of UN peacekeeping missions:  Séverine Autesserre, “The Crisis of Peacekeeping.” Not surprisingly, that article brought down on the author’s head a number of outraged Letters to the Editor.

In this May-June 2019 issue, I would mention two essays that justify buying the magazine:  Calvert W. Jones, “All the King’s Consultants. The Perils of Advising Authoritarians” and James D’Angelo, Brent Ranalli “The Dark Side of Sunlight. How Transparency Helps Lobbyists and Hurts the Public.” These prove that the American school of political science is not without its redeeming practitioners. Who knows? They may even be in the majority, but they are not favored by the powers that be in the foreign policy community.

Then there is one further essay worthy of our attention:  Robert Kagan’s “The New German Question. What Happens When Europe Comes Apart?”

I call attention to this piece because Kagan is precisely the troublemaker political scientist who incited some of the worst crimes committed by the United States abroad in the past two decades and walked away from the debacles unscathed, his reputation intact. From the end of the 1990s, he was a key contributor to the thinking of the Neocons, a major advocate of what became the disastrous US invasion of Iraq in 2003. He was foreign policy advisor to McCain during his 2008 electoral campaign and he has been an active publicist for waging the New Cold War on Putin’s Russia.  I devoted a chapter to Kagan in my 2010 book Great Post-Cold War American Thinkers on International Relations. I included him alongside Zbigniew Brzezinski and Samuel Huntington not because I believed he is “great” but because I believed he was highly influential and inescapable in any review of the intellectual forces guiding foreign policy at the time.

Kagan is yet another foreign policy generalist with a skill for writing that by far exceeds his concern to get facts straight or to consider other sides to an argument. Now in the current issue of FA, we find him making his case for American globalism by stealth: without the firm presence of an American security commitment, Germany may go rogue.

It is not my intention to trash Kagan’s article.  He has done his homework here and presents us with important and justified questions. He even offers some valuable insights into Germany. I have in mind in particular his mention that Germany today has achieved the domination of Central Europe that was the Mitteleuropa aspiration of Wilhelmine Germany before the First World War. This is something that your average reader of The New York Times would not find in his newspaper, and it is such readers Kagan is pitching to, not some lofty academic circle of specialists who need no such discoveries.

What is missing in Kagan is an analysis of what exactly that domination, which I would rather characterize as economic colonization, means for the rest of Europe today, what it means in particular for relations with France, with Russia. This, by itself, should be a matter of concern for students of Europe as it raises the question of the solidarity and notional equality of EU Member States. So we have a potential problem with Germany, even putting aside the question of America’s firm guiding hand being present or not on the Continent. Germany is too comfortable with the countries it can dominate and correspondingly uncomfortable with the big neighbor to the east which it never could and cannot today dominate. Germany gives too close an ear to the Russophobe rantings of the Poles and of the Baltic States.

Almost every one of Kagan’s points in the article calls out for a corrective context to make sense of what he is stringing together like beads to get to his end conclusion that weakening US presence in Europe may lead to all hell breaking loose as Germany reverts to its uglier traditions of the past.

This is so from the very get-go when Kagan tells us that “Germany has been one of the most unpredictable and inconsistent players on the international scene.” He takes this back to the wars in the 1860s and 1870s by which Bismarck forged the nation, and then to the German striving for empire, for its ‘place in the sun’ in the period from the 1890s to WWI.  However, most European nations were forged in the 18th and 19th centuries in the same way, and Germany’s imperial ambitions from the 1890s were entirely in keeping with the spirit of the age, when all major powers including the USA were engaged in the same game of territorial expansion either within Europe or overseas. The question of Germany’s responsibility for WWI is an open and shut case only for those who swallowed Anglo-American jingoist propaganda from the pre-war years and have never looked back.

On the third page of his 12-page article, Kagan sets out his main thesis: “The democratic and peace-loving Germany everyone knows and loves today grew up in the particular circumstances of the U.S.-dominated liberal international order established after World War II.”

Kagan points to the U.S. commitment to European security that protected France, the United Kingdom and Germany’s other neighbors so that they could welcome its postwar recovery and integration into what was becoming the European Economic Community, then the European Union. Moreover, Germany could devote its resources to economic expansion without having to pay for its defense.

He might, of course have dotted his i’s: modern Germany grew up under U.S. military occupation, with more than 50,000 soldiers on the ground in Germany, an occupation that continues to this day and compromises German sovereignty as much as its integration into the EU does.

To this Kagan adds the benefit of US led free trade policies that enabled Germany to become the world’s biggest exporter and enjoy extraordinary prosperity, which tended in Germany, as elsewhere, to prop up the existing democratic political order. The United States acquiesced in trade imbalances for the sake of peace on the Continent.

Then Kagan reminds us that the new Germany was created under conditions whereby Europe suppressed nationalist passions by erecting the transnational institutions. This is particularly relevant in Germany, says Kagan, because “no other nationalism had played such a destructive role in Europe’s bloody past.”  Touché!  At this level of argumentation, it is hard to disagree with him. The possible disagreement comes at a different level over why exactly Germans might become more nationalistic in future.

Kagan goes on to tell us that Germany does not really need NATO for its defense. It needs NATO to reassure its neighbors and to reassure itself: the Germans voluntarily accept shackles because they still harbor fears of old demons.

So what could threaten Germany’s peace with itself and with its neighbors?  Firstly, Kagan names the Eurozone crisis of 2009 and the aftermath of German dictated policies of austerity that turned Southern European nations against Germany and riled up Germans over their own government’s bailing out profligate Member States. All of this was disruptive, but still only economic in nature even if it touched off a wave of nationalism on the Continent.

Now, per Kagan, Germany and Europe are facing a new challenge to the peaceful status quo, namely the policies of Donald Trump which undermine all of the circumstances which Kagan says combined to create the peaceful Germany we love. Trump speaks against the European Union and for sovereign nations. He supports Brexit. He is against free-trade and sharply criticizes the German trade imbalance with the United States. He opposes NATO and those who are not paying their way, and he wants to withdraw from Europe.

Meanwhile Germany appears to be experiencing a renaissance of nationalist politics as seen in the electoral successes of the Far Right Alternativ fuer Deutschland.

Kagan closes by warning darkly about the risks of a rearming Europe, the risks of the rightwing nationalists who might put an end to democratic and peaceful Continent of which Germany has been the single most powerful member.

Everything Kagan has set out is within the realm of the possible, though I would call it improbable. In worst-case scenarios, the nationalist and populist parties may win a third of the seats in the European Parliament in the upcoming pan-European elections of May 26. Meanwhile on the Left, the assorted Green parties are likely to surge. In Belgium, where there are concurrently elections to the national parliament, the Greens may even constitute a majority, if not the lead party in a coalition. Yes, the gains by the anti-elite parties on the Left and Right will overturn the center right and center left bloc that has dominated politics for the past decades and with which people like Kagan feel comfortable. However, that is not the end of democracy, only its best expression in peaceful change of leadership and policy direction.

More to the point, it is arguable that NATO and the American presence are becoming a destabilizing rather than stabilizing force in European politics.  When speaking of the Alternativ fuer Deutschland, one must remember that their power base is in the former East Germany, which is one of those Central European states that was colonized by West Germany following the fall of Communism and has suffered from lustration that decapitated its intelligentsia and from de-industrialization.  The AfD, like a large part of the former GDR population, is anti-NATO, which it sees as an infringement on sovereignty, and for some accommodation with Russia.

And most important of all, Kagan only touches on the one aspect of German national egoism that has touched off nationalism at home and around Europe when he mentions the austerity program and debt reduction.  Far more important for the unleashing of nationalism across the Continent was Merkel’s  ill-considered insistence on open borders to the 2015 flood of illegal migrants into Europe.  Yes, German has a labor shortage for which the incoming migrants were viewed there as manna from heaven. Yes, Germany also had at the time a deficit of good will arising from its hard hearted economic dictates to the rest of the EU. Clearly Merkel sought to make amends by her newfound humanitarianism .  But the empty-headed “Wir schaffen das” [we can manage] from Merkel while opening the floodgates to Muslims enraged a great many Europeans outside of Germany who had high unemployment and no desire for their communities to be overrun by unvetted economic migrants from the Middle East.

It is arguable that the German policy on migration gave the Brexit movement in Britain that small nudge over the 50% line that made the difference and put Europe in full crisis mode.  The reverberations are still being felt in terms of support for the Euroskeptic nationalist and populist parties as we head into the May elections.  Whatever Trump and his erstwhile Alt Right campaign adviser Steve Bannon may have contributed to the unwinding of Europe by their various America First policies is insignificant by comparison.

In conclusion, I find that the May-June 2019 issue of Foreign Affairs magazine has several excellent entries but their merits are outweighed by weak to poor entries featured at the start and introduced by the Editor, not to mention by the lengthy article from the irredeemable propagandist Robert Kagan. Taking the publication for a representative marker, I believe that the U.S. profession of international affairs has unrealized potential to be a useful advisor to policy makers. But it is being held back by the senior editors, by think tank and university department chairmen and women who are wedded to failed policies and ideology for which they never paid a price. What we need at the helm are experts guided by intellectual curiosity who follow Truth wherever it takes them and not generalists guided by ambition for political preference.

 

©Gilbert Doctorow, 2019