On Russia – We Know So Little

Last week I had the opportunity to visit Moscow and Yekaterinburg as part of a political fellowship on German-Russian relations and the intense discussions and observations have left me both overwhelmed and wondering – is the West too superficial when tackling Russia?

Western Media Coverage & Scepticism

The morning after my return: I browse through German and US media as usual and different newspapers report on Putin: Süddeutsche Zeitung, FAZ and Zeit write on potential motives of his foreign policies – starting with the OPEC agreement on the curbs of the petroleum output which is an attempt to increase oil prices, commenting on the economic weakness of Russia as a motive for aggressive international policies and military threats or dissecting the results of the study by the Friedrich Naumann Foundation and the Boris Nemtsov Foundation – two liberal think tanks. The scholars who conducted the survey draw a negative picture of the atmosphere in Russia, claiming that a vast majority fears poverty and unemployment, while being nostalgic about plan business as a system which secured basic needs.

Foreign Affairs included Putin as an example in the piece on “New Dictators” and emphasize the dangers of personalism in political systems – the Russian president is the target of criticism in terms of media control, administrative authoritarianism and cutbacks of the democratic order and human rights. The authors of the article conclude that there are no easy solutions when dealing with such leaders, but one thought got stuck in my mind  – are Western policymakers perhaps reinforcing personalism by deliberately stepping into the trap of solely focusing on the leader instead of the entire country?

During informal conversations with the Russian fellows, it seemed clear, that many parts of this criticism seem to be legit – Putin indeed holds too much power and places his supporters like chess figures across the entire country. In Yekaterinburg, representatives of the academic staff of the Federal Ural University and different businesses people repeated one sentence: “Moscow controls everything.” However, while it is crucial to pinpoint problems and address the reasons for scepticism towards Russia, Western media might be wronging civil groups, critical journalists and opposition movements by constantly depicting Russia in a one-sided and negative manner.

People & Cities

One thing that really stroke me during my visit was the thought that we know so little about Russia in Germany and Western Europe. Hardly anyone seems to have an idea of the tensions with Chechnya, the reason for the rise of the Orthodox Church, the ethnic diversity and the 35 officially recognized languages, the role of the Muslim minority to which 15% of the population belong or the importance of Crimea to the average citizens. At least for my part, I can admit that I am relatively clueless.

Regarding politics and social issues, of course, there are different perspectives. The same educated person can on one hand believe that the Duma elections in the past were doctored, while assuring that the referendum in Crimea was fully legit on the other hand. Frankly, business men can support liberal values in an economic sense, while fully rejecting liberalism in the case of social issues. Nevertheless, it should be clear that not all 140 Million Russian inhabitants are blind Putinists who despise homosexuals and female emancipation. When speaking to Russians, I had the impression that many are tired of being put in one box as conservatively thinking people.

During my short trip, I had the opportunity to actually feel the dimensions of the country and the cities – Russia is huge. Moscow’s impressively massive and large buildings create an atmosphere of power and dignity, every corner of the centre looks clean and neat. However, the distances a large part of the 12 Million inhabitants have to commute on a daily base are exhausting. In contrast, Yekaterinburg which has 1.5 Million inhabitants and is on the other side of the Ural Mountains (two flight hours from Moscow), has a vibrant artsy scene of street art, music festivals and the creative industry. No, Russia clearly isn’t easy to grasp.

I also came across elements of political opposition in both cities. In Moscow, a journalist of the TV channel Dozhd (Eng: rain) explained the difficulties of producing critical media in Russia. Dozhd became popular in 2011 as the first channel to openly cover the protest movement against the ballot rigging during the parliamentary elections. They are one of the exceptions in the country – Russia is being ranked on place 148 out of 180 in the World Press Freedom Index by Reporters Without Borders.

Having worked for Dozhd, I met a bubbly young woman working at the advertisement agency Voskhod (Eng: sunrise). Voskhod has been awarded internationally for their creative and viral campaigns – one of them was produced for the website ura.ru with the theme “make politicians work again”. It’s worth a look, the video is in English:

What I am attempting to clarify is that Russia has more sides than the ones people see in the average media. Russia is more than Putin and more than conservative citizens mourning the Soviet Union. When debating about the implementation of means of political pressure – e.g. sanctions – one must always reflect that they might hit people who are intellectually, mentally and emotionally closer to our ideas, values and aims than we believe.

Sanctions & Investment

In spite of my short stay, I tried to focus on the perceived (!) economic situation in Russia. While I often read that Russia’s reserve funds are slowly drying out and that many products are missing, I had the impression that nobody is actually intimidated or influenced by sanctions as such. Of course, the inflation, the cheap oil price and the stagnation hurt the economy and the citizens, but the overall picture isn’t as severe as portrayed in Western media. What is even more important, the oil price didn’t drop because of the sanctions and poor domestic reforms have been reinforcing the lack of innovation – but this isn’t new.

The Russian market has been adapting to the new settings: the embargo on certain agricultural products has triggered a bigger focus on the domestic market – why would you actually import German apples or wheat if you can grow it yourself? Additionally, the sanctions aren’t impressive because FDI is still flowing and growing again. Although in 2014 the investments dropped, currently new strategies emerge in order to strengthen the trade relations in spite of the Crimea conflict and the EU sanctions. Tradingeconomics.com suggests that the net flows in the first quarter of 2016 were higher than in 2015 in total. More and more German investors are interested in building factories and production hubs in Russia due to the cheap price of the Russian Ruble, as Die Welt reports. Money overtrumps politics.

Of course, the former rates of FDI can’t be reached soon if the Kremlin doesn’t manage to attract new business partners, e.g. from China. Nevertheless, it is worth to think about the effect and the necessity of sanctions by the EU. As a tool they aim to force Putin into comprises, but the impact is only short-term, but provokes deeper diplomatic trust issues between both parties. This is not the best condition for peaceful agreements and fruitful cooperation. If sanctions can’t achieve the promised economic pressure, they are solely an instrument to express moral superiority by the West.

We know so little, but judge so much

Media manipulation, autocratic tendencies, ties to oligarchs, corruption and fraud scandals, and erratic international policies make Putin a difficult dialogue partner. However, one must be careful when projecting his manners to the entire country and reducing complexity by putting average citizens into boxes. Although it might be the easiest to think in broad categories, at least citizens should attempt to prevent emerging threat images against each other. When talking about a new Cold War, it is the rejection of dialogue between two parties which is highly dangerous.


Photo Credit: Pal Sol

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