A Common Enemy Creates Unity

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Nora Kalinskij

From the rule of Peter I, Russia has been turned to Western Europe rather than Asia as a model to emulate and surpass. Peter the Great spent his youth in Western Europe and, upon his return, engaged in a series of reforms to “europeanize” Russia, breaking with the past. The “revolution” of Peter I touched numerous aspects of Russian society, down to fashion: traditional Russian garments were discouraged in his court and beards had to be shaved off. A large number of Russian nobles admired England in particular, which represented in their eyes the rule of law, political freedom and civil rights. This idealization of England and to some extent continental European society was cultivated up until the Revolution. Though some nobles may have been disillusioned when traveling abroad, many did not come into direct contact with the societies they admired and tried to emulate.

The Soviet political elite did not consider the West an ideal, quite the contrary. Yet, it was the desire to surpass the West, in order to show the success of the Communist revolution and to guarantee Russia’s security and place as a great power in global politics, that drove intensive industrialization under Stalin. This competitiveness motivated the arms and space races. In the 1980s, many young adults in the USSR turned to the West with admiration. They saw in Western democracy and capitalism a promise of freedom, which they perceived a lack of in their system.

This intimate link of Russian identity to Western Europe has led to reforms that render Russian societal organization not so different from that of Western Europe. As an Irish traveler crossing the country commented, Russia resembles much more its European neighbors than it does its Asian ones. Yet, Russia is not Western Europe. Many differences exist between both, some more subtle than others. Russia is predominantly Christian, as is Western Europe, but most Christians in Russia are Orthodox, whereas Catholicism and Protestantism are the main branches of Christianity practiced in Western Europe. Russia is a democracy, but the type of its democracy remains hotly debated in academic and political circles to this day. It is certainly not the type of liberal democracy that France and England qualify themselves as. Some experts speak of Russia as an authoritarian regime, yet elections with a competitive element take place, and the opposition voice is not ruled out.

Because Russia is similar to Europe and yet is not quite European, criticism of Russian politics, economy and society and placing blame on the country, are powerful means for the European governing elite to turn attention away from problems that exist in Western European states and to increase popular support for their domestic and foreign policies.

Western Europe today faces a number of questions. On the political level, Brexit raises the question which development strategy should be adopted by the EU to consolidate itself in face of other demands for exiting the Union, such as those expressed by Marine le Pen in France. In some states, far-right politicians are becoming increasingly popular. This could threaten the place of the currently governing political elite: Austria’s far-right Freedom Party nearly won the 2016 presidential elections. A problem of democratic deficit is faced both in the EU structures but also on state level in France for instance, where the government pushed through unpopular labor reforms, by-passing the parliament. Such a step was constitutional (Article 39.4), but highly unpopular. Hollande’s government had to face a vote of no-confidence in parliament because of this decision. Europe also has to deal with the wave of migrants from the war-torn Middle East that have flooded Europe, in particular since last year. Radical islamists may have successfully infiltrated Europe as part of the refugee flow: little to no background checks have been conducted on the incomers. Besides the fear of radicalization and ethnic tension related to the influx of refugees, other issues arise, such as providing these people with shelter and jobs.

In this context, it is convenient for the governing elite, through mainstream media outlets, to point to the “other” for contrast. There may be issues with democracy in France, but in a not-so-different society, Russia, they are ‘much worse’. Russia has been described as a police state[1], as a mafia regime[2], Putin as a dictator[3]. By using Russia as a “bent mirror” where living conditions appear much worse than in Europe, Europe’s governing elites show their people that despite the difficulties their countries face, their leadership is not so bad as it may appear: their policies are not driving their countries into the ‘Russian scenario’, and should therefore still be supported. Of course, this argument is not stated as such in the mainstream media. However, the continuously negative reports on Russian internal affairs spread this message between the lines to the European electorate. The fact that the Russians are close culturally and historically to Western Europe renders the contrast between their “woes” and the “better” situation in the West, more powerful than when considering other “non-Western” states.

Russia is not only looked at for contrast by the governing elite and the mainstream media outlets, but for blame. General Breedlove, who used to command the NATO forces in Europe, recently accused Putin of “weaponizing” refugees coming into Europe to destabilize the continent[4], despite the fact that no evidence has emerged to establish such an accusation. Similarly, some allegations circulate in the press that Putin secretly supported the pro-Brexit campaign. Putin, the “corrupt dictator” is an easy target to place the blame on for Europe’s woes. By placing the culprit outside of Western Europe, the governing elite take a weight of guilt off their own shoulders for the mismanagement of certain intra-European issues. Blames on Russia do not resound in all mainstream media. However, such articles do appear regularly in the European press. The depiction of Russia as a threat to Europe, writings on its neo-imperialistic tendencies and comparisons of Putin to Stalin and Hitler, creates a sense of insecurity in European society, in particular in post-Soviet countries. One function of this fear of Russian aggression cultivated by the media, is the uniting of people around the governing elite for protection.

Popularization of the image of Russia as an aggressor has another function: anti-Russian sentiment is a means to achieve popular support for policies that are geopolitically useful for the West but are in tension with Russian interests. An example is NATO enlargement. Since the fall of the Soviet Union, twelve states from the former Soviet sphere of influence have joined the Alliance. Prospective members today include Georgia, which borders Russia. Future talks on Finnish membership are not excluded. With the portrayal of Putin as intervening to destabilize or otherwise negatively impact Europe, a “dictator with imperial ambitions”, NATO enlargement appears, in particular in the post-Soviet space, a necessity.

Another example is the Ukraine crisis. Widespread anti-Russian sentiment in the Western European public meant that the majority of Europeans had the immediate impulse to see Russia as an aggressor in issues relating to the Ukraine, sometimes discounting context and even facts. A flagrant example of the impulse to blame Russia is the reaction in Western mainstream media and of the population to the crash of the MH17 Malaysian Airlines flight on 17th July 2014. Russia and the pro-Russian rebels were immediately blamed for shooting down the plane, though to this day, official blame has not been allocated due to lack of evidence. Portraying Russia as an aggressor meant popular backing in Western states of policies supporting the coup in Kiev and the new government that came into power as a result. This is not to say that Russia played no role in the unfolding of the Ukrainian crisis. It is simply to say that Russia’s blame is often exaggerated and disproportionally commented on, with political ends. Where it is useful for the governing elite in Europe to go against Russian interests in the defense of theirs, circulating anti-Russian sentiment in the media offers them a widespread popular support for their policies.

Russia, similar yet different from Western Europe, is useful to the governing elites there both as a point of comparison portrayed as worse than Western Europe and as a target of blame for European problems. Such a portrayal of Russia in mainstream media serves to consolidate the European elite’s power. It unites people around their government and increases support for the governing elite’s policies, an advantage in internal elite competition.

There is nothing like a common enemy to create unity.


[1] Vladimir Poutine consolide l’Etat policier russe // http://www.lemonde.fr/europe/article/2012/06/14/vladimir-poutine-iii-consolide-l-etat-policier- russe_1718667_3214.html

[2] Pourquoi la Russie est un Etat mafieux // http://www.slate.fr/story/104221/pourquoi-russie-etat-mafieux

[3] A day in the life of Vladimir Putin: The dictator in his labyrinth // http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/europe/a-day-in-the-life-of-vladimir-putin-the-dictator- in-his-labyrinth-9629796.html

[4] Nato chief: Vladimir Putin ‘weaponising’ refugee crisis to ‘break’ Europe // http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/middleeast/syria/12180073/Nato-chief-Vladimir- Putin-weaponising-refugee-crisis-to-break-Europe.html

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