Cambridge University student, Intern at Rethinking Russia
Rethinking Russia is first and foremost an international platform of dialogue between experts interested in Russian domestic and foreign policy. Through this dialogue, we hope to produce a more balanced view of Russian politics than is currently present in the mainstream media, as well as in academic writing. We believe in particular that international dialogue is the best way to erase the stereotypes prevalent in political writing on Russia.
In the light of our project, our experts have collected a series of interviews with leading experts on Russian, European and American foreign policy.
Three main themes are addressed in these interviews:
First, the origins and evolution of political tension between the Russian Federation and the West since the 1990s,
Second, which state and non-state actors benefit from this tension and why,
Third, the desirability and viability of cooperation of Russia with Western Europe and the United States.
The questions in each interview are purposefully similar: the aim of this series is to compare the points of view of experts from different countries on the relation between Russia and the West.
Interview with Alexander Tevdoy-Burmuli, Associate Professor of the European Integration department of the Moscow State Institute of International Relations (University) MFA Russia
Rethinking Russia: What are some of the reasons you would give for the political tensions between Russia and Europe?
Alexander Tevdoy-Burmuli: Let us look at the past 10-20 years. A lot of geopolitical issues were left unregulated after Cold War. There was in the early 1990s an illusion that geopolitical differences would go away because Russia was becoming part of Europe. However, Russia was not integrated in all the structures it wanted to be integrated in. The chosen ‘Western democracy vector’ is compromised by social-economic problems.
Russia’s opinion is not taken into account in Western political circles, which leads to frustration. The end of the 1990s was marked by a change of elites in the Russian Federation. These new elites took a different political course. During the entire 2000s, Russia took Europe to be not as much a partner as not as an opponent in terms of influence in the post-Soviet space.
This geopolitical misunderstanding comes on top of a difference in values. In the 2000s these differences came out and became very important, rendering cooperation more difficult, despite the existence of agreements. There is a different understanding of priorities in Russia and in Europe. Where the primordial concern of Europeans is human rights and the rule of law, the primordial concern of Russians is security and stability. These concerns are not mutually exclusive but they certainly are in tension with each other.
Political and culture differences can be made central or not: there enters the manipulative element of politics. The line of Russian politics is to make these differences obvious. Multi-culturalism and having numerous identities are highlighted as the opposite of Russian traditional values. This opposition is as a means to unite the Russian people. Western stereotypes are exploited.
Historically, Russia has always been an actor in European politics, but its relation to Europe has remained ambiguous: is Russia an insider or outsider?
In terms of reasons underlying the tension between Russia and Western Europe, we must also take into account the religious difference.
RR: What groups of state and non-state actors would you say benefit from a tense relations between Russia and the West, cultivated both in the political elite and the general population?
AT: The current government exploits phobias against foreign values to first, render support of itself more monolithic, two, to link the opposition with these anti-national values. Tension with the West is part of the government’s internal political project.
Tension with the West is useful for groups that feel more comfortable in a ‘closed regime’ situation. These groups include first a large part of the bureaucracy, which can get economic advantages out of governing and second, a large part of the agrarian business. Opening the country up politically is related to opening it economically. Economic openness means additional competition. Closing the country economically means a cut in investment, which limits the sector’s expansion. The opinion of whether tension with the West is an advantage or not will vary depending on which of these two points is stressed.
The Church is rather archaic in its structures and supports traditionalism. The Church is under strong state influence: if the political stance of the Kremlin will change, the Church’s stance is likely to change as well.
There is great dependence between society and state in Russia. This is a political particularity of the country. There are only quasi-interest groups that exist. The rough societal structure can be described as the state governing a mass of individuals. Group interests, such as those represented by NGOs, are seen by the government as a threat.
RR: Does the Russian population mistrust the West? Why?
AT: There is a long tradition of mistrust of the foreigner in Russia, which dates back to 16th century. Some stereotypes are taken up from century to century. The ‘foreigner’ for a long time was the ‘German’. The ‘German’ is not seen as an enemy but is also not understood. The ‘German’ is seen to have particular skills that Russians do not, but which remain lower in standing to the Russian ones.
Russian experiences of geopolitical contact with the West have been those of waves of invasion that have swept over Russia and have been pushed back. The Russians do not see the West as posing a critical threat to them. However, they do perceive the West as having hostile intensions.
In the post-soviet times, socio-economic problems have been related to Western influence. The West is seen as a breaker of the status quo and of the rules of the game. Kosovo is strongly remembered. The West opened the Pandora’s box in Balkans. The Balkan interventions are still commonly referred to in the Russian media when discussing current affairs.
RR: Do you think this weariness renders peoples’ choice of the media they read/watch selective?
AT: Media is relatively monopolised in Russia. Some outlets take a more neutral position: a small niche for them is allowed. These outlets are not completely marginalised, but they are not easily accessible. For example some alternative TV channels may appear high up the list, where most people will never turn them on, or they are not included in the general package of TV channels. The mainstream is monopolised and this is done on purpose. The average person will not bother to search for alternatives. The mainstream is quite aggressive in its position.
As people watch the main channels, they start taking the point of view of these channels as their own. Then, even if they encounter alternative points of view by chance, they will simply not want to be exposed to information that is different from their understanding of current affairs. People need psychological comfort.
There is a tradition in Russia to trust the state and mistrust foreigners. The ministers may be criticized, but the President and his cabinet will not be.
The political regime in Russia today is hybrid. There are some authoritarian elements, but there is also a democratic process. The state has to have some legitimacy. The level of falsification and instances of decisions bypassing the constitution and the law is very high today, but there is still a legal framework that is upheld. If you can safely play by the rules, why not do it? For example, the government knows a governor is corrupt: if he can be taken away without destabilizing the place of the political elite, he will be sacrificed to the public opinion, to maintain the legitimacy of system. It is a gambit that is profitable.
For cases that are not essential to the system, the general opinion and procedures can play a role. If the system is endangered, no procedures will be followed. If elections can be won fairly, they will be. An impression of free competition is upheld. In Barvikha, a suburb of Moscow, local elections were cancelled because of voter fraud allegations and the head of the electoral commission was fired.
RR: Has the perception of the West changed in Russia since 1991?
AT: In the beginning of the 1990s, there was a very positive opinion of West. Gorbachev had ideas of the end of geopolitical concurrence with Europe, and of a European community extending to the Ural. The political elite was tired of the soviet system, and turned to Western Europe as an alternative. A major factor for the positive view of the West that prevailed in political circles was foreign investment through credits. In this context, it was difficult for the elite to be anti-Western.
People also had illusions about the West being a better alternative. However, these illusions were quickly dissipated when socio-economic problems rolled in, caused by shock therapy and other policies supported by European councilors: socio-economic problems became related to Europe in the minds of the people.
Public opinion shifted against the West as early as in 1994. Pro-Western sentiment in the elite persisted longer, till 1998-1999. With the advent of the Kosovo intervention, where Russian interests were not taken into account, as well as the expansion of the EU, it became clear to Russian elites that they would not be integrated into the European ones as equals.
After the default, the economic situation changes: the economy starts to grow, and oil prices increase. There is an economic basis for political change. Settling Russia’s debts creates a feeling that the Russian elite can independently achieve its objectives. Russia’s geopolitical position is strengthened. The 1990s were a window of opportunities. The West apparently did not understand fully what was happening in Russia in 1990s: it helped, but was not committed enough. Not enough resources were given, and the Russian opinion was not taken into account. Some of the Russian interests were supported: through the 1994 memorandum the US helped Russian regain control of nuclear weapons positioned in the Ukraine. But this was not sufficient.
During his first mandate, Putin had a pro-Western stance. He minimized Russian activity in Central Asia and in the Far East, giving space to the West to spread its influence. 2004-2005 was a watershed in Russian-Western relations. The West first became worried about Putin’s internal political course. At the same time, colored revolutions in post-soviet space shifted Putin’s stance on relation with the West: in balance, the latter proved to be more of an enemy. Escalation of tension has followed.
RR: Do you think that cooperation with the West is desirable? Is it viable?
AT: Partnership is not only desirable but unavoidable. There was always some cooperation between Russia and Western Europe, with only rare intermittences. Russia today needs new tech, investment. It also needs the possibility of geopolitical maneuver. Tensions with the West leave only one vector left – China. China is difficult partner. To have a better political dialogue with China, Russia needs a Western vector. In order to cooperate with the Western Europe, the Ukraine problem needs to be solved. The Ukraine problem has become an internal political problem of Russia. Since 2014 some high officials periodically state that they want to develop links with Europe. More than 40% of Russian exports flow to the West.
The Shanghai partnership faces many integration issues: Belarus and Kazakhstan have a post-empire phobia towards Russia; Armenia and Azerbaijan are in discord; relations with China are difficult… After two years, the partnership is still at a project stage, at a stage of wishful thinking for 2 years already.
RR: Do you see any impediments to cooperation? Which ones?
AT: Cooperation was problem before the Ukraine because of divergent values, tensions over influence in the post-soviet space. The Ukraine crisis is the coronation of these problems. In addition, there is divergence in energy strategies between Russian and Western Europe. There strategies can be described as divergent.
Ukraine is now a problem of internal Russian politics. Crimea is in part a consequence internal politics. There is an internal viability crisis in the government since 2011, which comes on top of the economic crisis. The government hopes to reorient the general attention away from this issue, and to consolidate patriotism. Crimea was used to these ends. At some point, it had to backfire. Crimea is an economic difficulty for Russia: it is one of the reasons for sanctions and an economic drain. Russia has to invest heavily to raise the standard of living there. In terms of the Donbass region, it is a stalemate: Russia can neither take it, for external reasons, nor return it, for internal ones. Europeans play the role of the middleman. They too are at loss with what to do. If Europeans will take an aggressive stance, then solving the Ukrainian problem in the interests of the Kremlin will not be possible. Putin will be a ‘loser’ in the eyes of the elite if he compromises with an aggressive Europe.
RR: Is a change of the political elite in Russia foreseeable in the near future? What format would cooperation with the West take?
AT: The internal political situation in Russia is difficult. It is hard to foretell a non-catastrophic change of elites. If a catastrophe does occur, we cannot foretell who will end up at the top. And so it is unclear what relation with Europe Russia will have.
If a pro-European elite comes without conflict – highly unlikely – this does not mean a sudden improvement in European-Russian relations. There are objective limitations to de-escalation. European fear of neo-imperialist expansion will not go away quickly. Europe will be wary of Russia even if there is a change of elite. They will fear that an anti-European elite may reemerge in a few years.
How can Brussels guarantee Russia as an ally for itself? One the one hand, it can integrate Russia, that is ‘buy’ Russia with bonuses and guarantee for Russia the place of a stakeholder. This option is hard and expensive. On the other hand, it can weaken Russia in a confrontation scenario. This scenario, which rejects Russia as an outsider, can happen even if a pro-European elite comes to power in Russia.
To conclude, I will say that the current global political situation is very unstable. There is a profound systemic crisis that has to end as a collapse — regionally and internally. There are mechanisms to lower risk of open conflict. A chain of small conflicts in various points is an optimal path to take, in opposition to one large-scale confrontation. A major problem in all of this is that most people in the global North have forgotten the horrors of war.