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Sunday, 17 May 2015

Crisis by misunderstanding – How the West fails to understand Russia

While the tensions between East and West rise, so does the rhetoric between the two main adversaries (the US and Russia), alongside with the ideologically biased media coverage. Ever since the beginning of the Ukraine crisis in late 2013, the rifts between western and Russian media could not have been increased more. Starting with simple statements: While the West media praises the Euromaidan and the new “democratically legitimated” government, Russian media accuses the change of government as a “Fascist coup d’état”.

Journalists, scholars, and politicians from both sides have come up with their own interpretation of why the tensions are rising. It is popular in the West to blame Russia for its greed for power, while Russia reacts that it was the West’s fault for deliberately keeping Russia week and to impose Western (hence American) rule on Russia. The media do their job to analyse the crisis, either independently or biased – from either side.

Picturing the new “Evil Empire”

It is popular in Western media to blame Putin as the sole perpetrator of the Ukrainian crisis and the demise of the Russian economy, to call President Putin a “small man with a massive ego”, who loves to show himself as the ultimate strong man of Russia. Recent developments in Russia, such as the suppression of opposition movements, or the obscure assassination of Boris Nemtsov in February this year, arouse the sensation that Russia is rapidly falling back to a USSR system, with Putin and his followers undisputedly in charge. Some media even go that far that they compare Putin with Generalissimo Stalin, or even with Hitler, describing the annexation of Crimea as similarly illegal as the annexation of the Sudetenland by Nazi-Germany in 1938.

These comparisons are way over the top. Not only because of obvious personality differences, but mostly because of the changed paradigms ever since. Until 1954, Crimea was a part of the Russian Empire and also of the Russian Socialist Soviet Republic. It was Nikita Khrushchev who transferred the peninsula to the Ukrainian Socialist Soviet Republic. Under Soviet rule, that had no big consequences whatsoever, but it caused trouble in the final stages of the Soviet Union. When the USSR broke apart and the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) was formed, the 1994 Budapest Memorandum on Security Assurances ensured the sovereignty rights of all newly independent states, including the remaining of Crimea to the newly independent Ukraine and the prohibition of any foreign intervention – despite the fact that more than 90 percent of the population was ethnically Russian. This memorandum was also co-signed by the current Russian foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov. For strategic reasons however, the Russian Federation signed a rather costly lease agreement with Ukraine in order to have its Black Sea fleet permanently stationed at the peninsula.

Now, the overall feeling in Russia that the annexation – or “re-unification” with Crimea was the correction of a historical mistake and that “their” Crimea is finally back in Mother Russia. Even though it might be historically correct, Russia has violated existing international laws and has been under media attack ever since, and has been sanctioned by the Western world. Russia’s argument for the annexation was – as a precedent – the independence of Kosovo. As Crimea declared itself independent and then applied for a union with the Russian Federation, Russia quickly integrated the peninsula into the Federation.  Even though the referendum held earlier violated the Ukrainian constitution, Russia could not be blamed for it, as they were not responsible for the Ukrainian constitution at all. From this perspective, it seemed like a logical, though still highly controversial step by Moscow. For the Russian public, it was the only and right decision, and it boosted Russian self-confidence, even despite the following sanctions imposed on Russia and all the economic effects.

But the Western world and above all mainstream media has consistently failed to understand the true dimension of Russia as a country and as a society – or even the historical dimensions of Russia as such. Instead of trying to understand of what the Russian society is about, the Western mainstream media tends to apply Western standards on democracy, free market capitalism and above all mentality on Russia, disregarding the obvious differences in history, culture, or even language. 

The Shock of the Post-Soviet time and its aftermath

Euphoria was huge in the West and so was the anticipation that the end of the Soviet Union and the collapse of Communism in Europe would lead to an overall prosperity and western-like democracy and freedom in Russia. What happened instead was a massive rise of organized crime, hyperinflation and a severe drop of standard of living for the vast majority of its citizens. Russians were now facing the challenge of simple surviving, and under its first President Boris Yeltsin, Russia plummeted from one economic crisis to another, governments were rapidly changing on almost a weekly basis, and a brutal war broke out in Chechnya, violently cracked down by Russian forces and – in the long term – creating the main source for terror attacks in Russia in the following years.

When Vladimir Putin became President in the year 2000, things changed for the better. The economy grew, wealth became accessible to the people – though a number of very influential oligarchs achieved uncanny wealth. A reason for this was that Putin made an end to unlimited American style predator capitalism that engulfed the entire country and opened the flood gates for organized crime, corruption and rapid social decline. Putin enforced a more state controlled economy, but it is still far away from the total state controlled economic system under the USSR regime.

It is a common understanding within Russian society that it is more or less impossible to adopt western standards and values, such as free market economy or western democratic system to a society that was predominantly under authoritarian or even totalitarian rule. As a result, Putin’s so called “guided democracy” which maintain him or his temporary successor Medvedev in power – despite the obvious non-existent democratic legitimacy or the lack of a strong political opposition. For Westerners, this is incomprehensible and does not fit with their century long history of struggle for their values of freedom, hence: free elections, free market capitalism (even with its destructive potential), and freedom of opposition. 

The very very long road to recover

Russia’s economy is heavily dependent on imports and foreign investment. The sanctions imposed by the US and the EU, combined with the import ban on European agricultural goods and above all the plummeting oil price has thrown Russia into its deepest economic crisis since the collapse of the USSR, with a negative outlook. Russia’s rating has been consistently downgraded and the Rubble has massively depreciated, leading to high inflation and a drop into a recession. It might sound conceivable that the west – according to Russian public opinion – deliberately wants to maintain Russian economy weak, knowing that it would never give back Crimea. Nevertheless, Russia knows how to deal with difficult circumstances, and has expanded its trade relations to other regions, such as China, Central Asia, and Latin America. But it doesn’t lead to immediate compensation of the sanctions’ impact on the Russian economy and it will take years to reasonably recover.

Not only has the Russian economy need to recover, but also the relations to the West. For Europe, the impacts of the sanctions are just as severe as for Russia, with Germany for example making a 100 million Euro loss on armament deals with Russia; France was forced to cancel their deliveries of Mistral-Class helicopter carriers, and Greece, Cyprus and Spain are reporting a significant decrease of Russian tourists coming to their countries. Additionally, the import ban on agricultural products has led to a serious revenue drop for European farmers. In essence, there are no winners of the current sanctions, but only losers – except for the US which is the least affected actor in this entire dissent, but it doesn’t do much to ease the tensions either. 

Agreement on mutual misunderstanding

Political propaganda has one purpose: to misinform the citizens and to discredit, or even demonize, the other side. This is not by a single actor; it is conducted by all actors that are involved in a conflict: all involved governments, media, policy makers and army commander. There is very little room for a neutral and completely objective coverage and the more the tensions heat up, the more misinformation the general public receives from mainstream media, the smaller this room gets. Propaganda also has the purpose to create fear of the other side.

Europe has entered a stage where it is on vogue to bash Russia, again. Russia, on the other hand, has re-entered an Anti-West bashing and has gained in self-confidence, disregarding the economic hardship it is facing now. If deliberate miscommunication and misinformation continues, the hardship might become more serious than only economic.

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