QUESTIONS ABOUT RUSSIA
Wiesława Lewandowska talks with Anna Łabuszewska about a portrait of president Putin, a democratic staffage and more and more authoritative methods and the necessity of a new social contract
WIESŁAWA LEWANDOWSKA: – What country is today’s Russia?
ANNA ŁABUSZEWSKA: – As usually, it is difficult to describe it clearly. At the beginning of Putin’s new presidency Russia has not chosen a path yet which it would like to go, there is still a quest of a new social contract. This old one, which was obliging after 10 years of chaos of the 90s caused by the collapse of the Soviet Union and was based on ruling over this chaos before another decade, clearly finished. Within that contract, Vladimir Putin taking over the authority at that time, promised the sense of security, the stability of the country to the Russians, and in return, he demanded that nobody would look at his hands and citizens would care only about themselves, their businesses and interests. And it happened so. After that decade it turned out that this country which was to become stable, strong and help its citizens, is inefficient, full of illnesses which are making it impossible to separate the functioning of the society and the authority which was suggested by Putin 10 years ago.
– So, the new contract can be based on looking at president Putin’s hands?
– Yes. Quite a big and more active part of the society says today: but we must look at your hands because you are doing something which we do not like. This is a new quality in Russia. We do not know whether it will be successful – a demand of a certain social group for participation in political life was submitted, a fight about the rules of this participation is going on.
– Putin’s governing, despite of visible inner weaknesses of Russia, are more and more associated with aiming at the restoring the Russian empire. Is it right in your opinion?
– Russia is a very big country which has ambitions to be a global powerful country. Its influences in comparison with the times of the Soviet Union have weakened, as well as its possibilities weakened, but the same aspirations remained and after the shock of the collapse in the decade of the 90s, they are slowly increasing.
– How real is the possibility of restoring these influences at present?
– It seems that rather not high. It was well shown by the situation connected with the last year’s so-called Arabian spring. Significant influences of the Soviet Union, and later also of Russia in the Near East have clearly been washed away. The last place in which Russia may and still wants to have something to say is Syria. And it is seen again that it is conducting its game against the West. Russia has its last base in Syria (not strictly the military one, but only transhipment and supporting one) which it does not want to lose. However, it has no idea how to achieve it.
– Is it still possible to describe clearly an idea for the foreign policy of Russia?
– For now it is quite difficult. But it is worth noting how chaotic and strange the geography of Putin’s first visits was after his vowing. He paid the first visit in Belarus, then he went to Germany, France and later to the Central Asia and to China. But he did not go to the USA despite of an invitation. It is difficult to interpret this course of events. Is it an idea for a direction of the foreign policy?
– What are the most current intentions of president Putin towards the countries of Independent Countries Community?
– The main intention is the Euro-Asiatic Union which is to unite interested countries into a harmonic organism (to the pattern of EU), through the common market, the common trade, customs and human space. This idea published by Putin before the elections was his method for an electoral campaign. How it will be filled with the content, time will show. The subject of discussions is Ukraine. Ukraine is rather seduced by the process of coming closer to Europe but Russia is trying to attract it onto its side, convincing it of cultural closeness, economic benefits. This pushing away and attracting has been for nearly 20 years…
– How realistic is this project of the second EU (Euro-Asiatic union)?
– The Euro-Asiatic Union is a concrete political project, competitive towards the EU. Russia has an important instrument in this game, that is, raw materials, it can use the instruments of the customs policy. At present there has already been a customs unions of the three countries: Belarus, Kazakhstan and Russia. It is difficult to say whether it will be successful. For, now Russia is worried by the crisis in the European Union. For, the EU is the most important partner in trade. The Russian economy based on export of raw materials is very endangered by any global economic turbulences connected with the decrease of oil and gas prices. It influences the inner situation of Russia automatically, because these social inflated programs have to be cut, which were promised easily during the electoral campaign. Many social issues have not been solved till now. There is a question over today’s Russia: who is to pay?
– For what?
– For example for the communal services, for pensions…..Very few important matters of this kind were arranged for fear of the social discontent. Putin undertook only one attempt; a few years ago he took away privileges from some pensioners which cause mass protests in the streets. It is seen that there is no social permission for these actions of the authority, even of the one which is trusted. At that time Putin was so popular that he was able to enforce many reforms beneficial for the country.
– But in this case it would have irrevocably lost its popularity!
– Maybe but it is going to have bigger troubles.
– Anyway, it seems, president Putin is popular among the social opinion…
– However, his popularity has clearly decreased and also the character of his support has changed. Big cities, especially Moscow and Petersburg mostly oppose Putin. A provincies his support. When in December in Moscow there were demonstrations of president critics, the director of a big factory of carriage production (producing mainly tanks) from the city Niżnyj Tagił said that he would organize a crew and go to Moscow to rescue Putin. The social base of the president (and the burden for the country) are today just these industrial vast giants whose products are no longer suitable for sale in foreign markets.
– Can Putin build anything on this anachronistic base?
– My interlocutors in Moscow say that this support will last as long as Putin will be able to maintain them and no day longer. Anyway it is not a guaranteed support.
– What decided about the loss of a wider support?
– There is such a day when all analysts of Russia – 24 September 2011. On that day during a meeting of the governing party ‘One Russia’ Putin declared confidently that president Miedwiediew would be the prime minister and he would be the president. Even those who had uncritically supported him, stated that it was an extreme cynicism, not respecting people and their opinions. In that moment Putin’s cards might have reversed…Now, although Putin still remains the same in his portrait, the background has clearly changed and the whole picture looks different now. And it is not known whether in a moment this background will not turn out to be more important than the foreground person…
– And president Putin ignores this changed background?
– It seems that he does not feel moods well, basing only on a province and people who are afraid of any changes. He assumes optimistically that people in Russia are generally afraid of any changes.
– And aren’t they afraid?
– In majority they are afraid though, because they assume that these changes will always be worse. They appreciate the first 10 years of Putin as the time when they could be engaged only in their own lives, their own businesses. Therefore they do not want any changes but on the other hand they know that ‘concentrating on their own businesses’ in the scale of the country led to mafia contracts and corruption. They express their outrage against it, especially on Internet – which has already achieved its aim! It seems that the barrier of lies was exceeded and it became somehow obvious that people do not believe the authorities. What Putin says is one thing but the theory of grapevine is going its course and they dominate over what is official.
– Can the state supervision over Internet take place in Russia, as it happened in China?
– Putin, certainly, is not going to give in. Definitely, he is not a man who withdraws. He has his own tactics. During last meeting of the spring session Duma a few acts or novelisation of acts were introduced which give a possibility of closing internet sites under the allegation of spreading harmful content. Moreover, the regulations about public meetings were tightened as well as the regulations concerning criticising the authorities. Every unrighteous speech can be referred to an act about slander which belongs to a criminal code. One can be imprisoned for criticising the authority, which is just threatening the punk’s singers – and for the insult of religious feelings! – who in the Moscow orthodox church of Christ Redeemer sang the song ‘God’s Mother, chase away Putin’.
– Did it blow with fear in rebellious big cities?
– For now it is not seen. Surely, the social tension has not decreased and discontent people started to be content for fear. There will probably be more ideas for omitting these regulations.
– And the Russians can suffer a lot…
– It is not so any more now. For example, the situation during the flood in Crimean showed it where people openly demanded respectful treating. Slowly, but there is a social process of becoming mature in giving requirements to the authority, social control. Russian sociologists who are not afraid, because a generation not remembering the fear of the Soviet Unions has grown up. Spreading fear is still a method of the authority but there is no certainty that it will bring expected results.
– Is a revolution possible?
– Rather not. It is clearly seen that protesters – both these young from big cities and communists fighting for maintaining the old law and order – do not want a revolution. Will and how will the purpose be achieved – it is difficult to say.
– What are the minimal expectations of the Russians towards the new presidency of Putin?
– It seems that the Russians do not have any illusions any more. Putin is not a novice, he has his unchangeable way of thinking. It is also known that he behaves in crisis situations very skilfully which he proved many times. He can use the democratic staffage very cunningly, when it is known that he inclines towards the methods which are more and more authoritative. Nothing is known about the process of the situation in the world and how Putin will be welcomed in the West.
– Now he states that there is nothing of EU to talk about because there is chaos in it.
– Yes but he also said that he is not pleased about the EU problems. However Russia can look down onto Europe, it needs it, though. For many years in Moscow there was a kind of consolation that is Europe does not want our gas, we will sell it to China. However, all main pipelines have been leading to Europe till now.
– The patriarch of Moscow and whole Rus – Cyril I is paying a visit to Poland. Do you agree with the opinion that it is a very unusual, nearly an event of epoch?
– This visit seems very valuable and significant. For, the patriarch Cyril is an unusual person. Before he became a patriarch, he had been dealing with the relations of the orthodox church with abroad in the Moscow Patriarchy for many years; he was a spokesman of its opening to the world, not only to other orthodox churches but also to other Christian religions, including Catholicism. The Russian orthodox church had an anti-Polish attitude earlier. Before his visit in Poland, the patriarch sanctified a chapel in Katyń, remarking that this place is a terrible symbol of the common tragedy of the Poles and the Russians. He expressed his hope that a new epoch in relations of our countries will start from this place, through the awareness of this tragedy, through the common pain. It is an important visit and a gesture.
– Patriarch Cyril supports the Russian policy in its many dimensions – which he does not conceal – because he cares about Russia being a strong country. How can we understand his statement that the cooperation of the state with the orthodox church is to take place ‘on the principles of symphony’?
– According to the constitution, Russia is a secular country separated from churches, including the orthodox church. However, the orthodox ceremonies, religious life in the times of the Soviet Union pushed aside onto the margin or prohibited, entered the public space in Russia. In the channel one of the Polish television every Sunday the patriarch proclaims God’s word, politicians participate in divine services broadcast by television. Undoubtedly, the orthodox church supports the authority in various difficult situations. It refers to this tradition in certain situations now like it used to be a pillar of the tsar’s throne.
– Hence there is an official support for president Putin from the patriarch?
– Certainly. However, it is worth noting that it is not unconditional or ruthless. When the patriarch of Georgia did not acknowledge the separation of the Churches of Abchazja and Oseta, leaving them under the jurisdiction of Tbilisia, patriarch Cyril accepted it. In this way he exposed himself to the official policy of the Russian secular authorities which separated Abchazja and Oseta from Georgia as a result of the war in 2008.
– Is contemporary Russia a religious country again?
– There was a wave of demonstrative religious conversions in the 90s, but the pendulum started to deviate again into the opposite side. The orthodox church is a transfer of important values for quite a big group of people, but some opinions are very ant-clerical. It is the residue after the Soviet Union to much extent, but not only.