Russian media’s strong negative reaction to the Estonian foreign minister’s statement that the Nord Stream 2 pipeline is not in the European Union’s interest shows just how important the project is to Moscow, and illustrates a fundamental principle of its foreign policy: size and power matters, laws and alliances do not.
In commenting on 2 July on President Trump’s call to German Chancellor Angela Merkel to stop supporting the Nord Stream 2 project – which would bring gas to Germany directly from Russia via the Baltic Sea – Estonian Foreign Minister Sven Mikser said in an interview with Die Welt that putting the brakes on the project would be in the interest of the EU. According to Mikser, Nord Stream 2 serves not only Russia’s economic but also its geopolitical goals and is a tool for Russia to intervene in EU politics.
This statement caused a storm in Russian media. Within one day, fourteen Russian media channels, including TASS, RBK, Izvestiya, and RIA Novosti, published 26 articles on the subject. Many of the articles reflected the tweet of Russian Senator Aleksey Pushkov, the former head of the Duma’s Foreign Affairs Committee, which ridiculed Estonia’s right to make any statement concerning EU politics. According to Pushkov, Estonia is too small to make any demands, and no one cares what it has to say.
The tweet by Aleksey Pushkov, Russian Senator and former chairman of the State Duma Committee on International Affairs on 2 July 2018. The tweet translates: “Estonian Foreign Minister demanded (!) that the construction of the Nord Stream 2 must be stopped. Estonia cannot demand anything. No one cares what she has to say, and, more generally, she has nothing to do with this – she is No 16 in the whole story. ”
This is not the first time that Pushkov has reacted strongly to Estonian foreign policy statements. In April, both Pushkov and former Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin mocked Mikser’s comment on Europe’s need for a strong and unified position on Russia. In May, Pushkov ridiculed Estonian President Kersti Kaljulaid’s statement on Estonia’s military exercise, codenamed Hedgehog. In June, he criticized former Estonian President Toomas Hendrik Ilves’ statement on Estonian trust in NATO.
All these reactions have one thing in common: they all are derogatory towards Estonian foreign policy goals and its trust in its allies. The essence of the criticism was captured by the title of an article on the website of the TV channel Zvezda, a nationwide network run by the Russian Ministry of Defense. That article describes the general tone of Pushkov’s statements: Pushkov “put Estonia in its place.”
As to what Estonia’s place might be, according to Moscow’s world view, another set of articles gave some insights. The articles on Pushkov’s tweet were followed by articles quoting Alexander Domrin, a frequent contributor for Sputnik and RT, who was described as an American political scientist and professor at Russia’s Higher School of Economics. Commenting on Mikser’s statement, Domrin, following Pushkov’s line, said to Izvestiya that the Baltics, the “Russophobic Russian periphery” and “sixes“ of Europe, are afraid that Trump and Putin’s meeting in Helsinki could bring about concrete results. But Domrin said no one cares about what Estonia thinks or even knows that Estonia exists. In objecting to Nordstream 2, Estonia acts like a little dog that barks at an elephant. After all, Estonia itself has no resources whatsoever. So, despite what Estonia has to say, the Nord Stream 2 will be built.
The article in Izvestiya on July 2.
Domrin’s statement contains two cultural references that need to be explained to understand their meaning – and, possibly, why their statements gained such attention and positive feedback in Russian media.
The “sixes” of Europe, the expression Domrin uses to refer to the Baltic States, is slang expression used by Russian criminal subcultures. It means “one of the lowest grades in the hierarchy of thieves that perform the functions of servants.” Its origins are card games where the lowest-used cards were sixes. Criminal slang is not uncommon in Russian political culture, and is frequently used both by Kremlin and by Putin. Sometimes this slang finds its way into Russian official statements. (Russian linguist Vasily Gatov has noted a Russian Foreign Ministry briefing saying that “Americans prefer to pull down their allies rather than take their interests into account,” the verb opustit (“to pull down”) referring in Russian criminal argot to homosexual rape. Opustit is also used to describe how tougher inmates make weaker ones their “bitches.”)
“A little dog that barks to an elephant” is a reference to Russian fabulist Ivan Krylov’s fable “The Elephant and the Pug.” In the fable, the pug dares to bark at the elephant only because he knows the elephant pays little attention to it, because it is too small to even notice. The message that Pushkov and Domrin are pushing: It is not Estonia’s place to say anything concerning international politics; even if it does, Estonia is too insignificant to pay any attention to; and nothing that Estonia says can change the foreign policy of big counties like Russia or the United States.
In addition to the cultural aspect mentioned here, this worldview can be seen in Moscow’s approaches to international law. In 2007, shortly after the so-called Bronze Night that led to massive Russian cyber and disinformation attacks in Estonia, Estonian scholar Lauri Mälksoo said that Russia considered Estonia its vassal state. Even though the Peace of Westphalia from 1648 states that each sovereign state, no matter how large or small, is equal in international law, Russia has always distrusted the idea that smaller neighboring countries could in fact be independent and sovereign. Rather, Russia views these countries as vassal states: they either belong to Russia, or to somebody else. This worldview leads to the belief that smaller countries are never subjects of international relations, but only its objects. Estonia thus is seen in Moscow as having gained its independence because Russia and Germany decided to let it do so. But when Russia and Germany decided otherwise, it was swallowed up.
According to Mälksoo, Putin’s Russia holds the same view on international relations today. Major powers make deals and small countries are still seen as vassal countries, with limited sovereignty and no right to an independent foreign policy. This aspect explains Moscow’s strong reaction to Estonian politicians’ foreign policy statements and the wish to “put Estonia in its place.”
Estonian journalism students who participated in the Uppsala (Sweden) University International Summer School between 10-16 June discovered that their course was actually pro-Kremlin and pro-Assad propaganda, one that praised the Soviet Union for standing for peace and accused the West of promoting war. The university has apologized to its partner universities, but the problem is wider than just one summer program. Academics who participate in narrative laundering and expose students to Kremlin propaganda justify their approach as providing an alternative to the viewpoint that is provided by Western governments and the mainstream media. But curricula built on demonstrably false “alternative” viewpoints simply give a green light to disinformation and conspiracy theories.
In the course, students from Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania were presented with conspiracy theories and pro-Assad and pro-Kremlin disinformation by Vanessa Beeley, a British blogger and frequent contributor to Kremlin-owned RT and Sputnik. Estonian students who objected to the course asked Beeley to send them the slides she used for the lecture. Even though some of the slides were removed before they were sent, the remaining 66 give an insight into Beeley’s narrative.
The slides show that Beeley asserts that the Soviet Union and its legal successor, Russia, have stood for world peace, while Western governments have fueled the conflict in Syria and conducted war propaganda. International organizations and the Western mainstream media that claim otherwise are not trustworthy, and are less reliable than the Russian media.
Beeley began her presentation with a slide on Soviet law from 1950 stating that war propaganda is the “gravest crime against humanity,” and that a person who is guilty of war propaganda should be punished for having committed a serious criminal offense.
Slide No. 4 of Vanessa Beeley’s lecture “War Propaganda: A Crime Against Humanity?” given at Uppsala University Summer School “War and Peace Journalism in an Age of Global Instability,” 10-16 June 2018.
Next, Beeley presented a slide showing that the Soviet Union made a proposal to denounce war propaganda at the United Nations General Assembly in 1953, but was blocked by Western states.
Beeley slide No. 5.
Both of these slides – and the title of Beeley’s lecture– refer to Yuri Bobrakov’s article, “War Propaganda: A Serious Crime Against Humanity,” published in the journal Law & Contemporary Problems in 1966. At the time of writing, Bobrakov was a press attaché at the Soviet Embassy in Washington, D.C.
The Soviet Union’s proposal to denounce war propaganda was part of its peace campaign during the Cold War, carried out by the World Peace Council. The Council was set up and directed by the Soviet Communist Party to promote the USSR’s foreign policy goals. The main goal of the movement was opposition to NATO, which – as claimed by leading Soviet ideologist Mikhail Suslov at the third meeting of the Council in 1949 – “represents a threat to all progressive mankind.” In 1947, Andrei Zhdanov, a Soviet Communist Party leader and cultural ideologist, postulated the ‘two camp’ thesis: a world irreconcilably divided between the peace-loving progressive forces, championed by the Soviet Union, and the warmongering capitalist countries, spearheaded by the United States. This sharp dichotomy between the peace-loving USSR and the imperialist war advocated by the West was a cornerstone of Soviet foreign policy and provided the context for Bobrakov’s 1966 article. Beeley’s slides followed the same dichotomy. After claiming that the Soviet Union and Russia have always promoted peace, she presented the tactics that, according to her, the U.S. and UK and their apologists employ in advocating war.
Next, Beeley uses Anne Morelli’s “Ten Commandments of Propaganda” to show how propaganda is developed by the U.S., UK, and other NATO member states.
Beeley slide No. 7.
In later slides, Beeley turned to the ongoing war in Syria and the UK government’s Syria Resilience CSSF Programme, which supports the Syria Civil Defence (SCD) organization – the White Helmets – a volunteer organization that operates in parts of rebel-controlled Syria, rescuing locals trapped by bombing and evacuating civilians from danger areas. According to the Syria Resilience CSSF Programme, Human Rights Watch, and Amnesty International, the White Helmets are the most reliable source for reporting on the war in Syria. But Beeley claimed that neither Human Rights Watch nor Amnesty International are trustworthy and, repeating the statement of Francis Boyle, she called Amnesty International a tool for “the imperialist colonial and genocidal policies of the United States, Britain, and Israel.” Beeley claimed that instead of being a volunteer rescue unit and reliable source, the White Helmets are a propaganda unit and “part of the NATO war machine to justify NATO countries’ war against Syria.”
This false narrative is not new – the Assad regime and Kremlin-linked media have repeatedly targeted the White Helmets with disinformation attacks – and it fitted into Beeley’s larger narrative about peace-loving Russia and aggressive NATO countries.
Beeley slide No. 30.
Another slide deleted from the version of her presentation that Beeley distributed to students alleged that the Human Rights Watch is a fake organization funded by Jews and run by the Washington “elite.” (The Estonian students made a photo of the slide during the lecture.)
Deleted Beeley slide. The photo is taken during the lecture by Estonian students.
After the Estonian journalism students went public with the story and it received coverage in a local Swedish newspaper, Uppsala University said it would apologize to its partner universities. According to the head of the university’s Russian and Eurasian Studies Institute, Claes Levinsson, the institute had no prior knowledge of Beeley’s views and had no reason to believe that organizers would turn the summer program into a pro-Assad and pro-Russian event.
But the program’s organizer, Gregory Simons, assistant professor at the Russian and Eurasian Studies Institute, saw no reason to apologize. According to Simons, Beeley was invited to provide an alternative viewpoint. Simons is a member of the Working Group on Syria, Propaganda and Media, a group of academics (mostly British) that has been critical of the West and friendly to Russia. Members of the group appear frequently on Sputnik, and often cite Beeley and Eva Barlett, both frequent contributors for RT.
After the Estonian students’ story broke, on 29 June, Sputnik published an article in which Beeley and the editor-in-chief of RT and Sputnik, Margarita Simonyan, ridiculed the Estonian students, accusing them of being rude, cruel, intolerant, lacking critical thinking skills, and of trying to create divisions between other Estonian and Lithuanian students at the university. Moreover, Beeley and Simonyan accused Estonia of pushing anti-Russian propaganda.
There are four noteworthy aspects of this case.
First, the students’ reaction to Beeley’s lecture shows that Western countries are not as defenseless against disinformation and propaganda as it may seem. By recognizing them, publicizing them, and debunking them, propaganda threats can be resisted.
Second, the reaction of Kremlin media to the incident showed the role that Beeley plays for Sputnik. The fact that the chief editor of RT and Sputnik took a strong stand in defense of their contributor shows that the Kremlin media considers Beeley to be valuable. The techniques used here – ridiculing, personal insults, and whataboutism – are frequently used by Kremlin-aligned media.
Third, Uppsala University’s Russian and Eurasian Studies Institute, Gregory Simons and Vanessa Beeley happened to participate – knowingly or not – in a narrative laundering process that aims to bolster the academic credibility of Kremlin narratives and conspiracy theories in the West. The academics at the Working Group on Syria, Propaganda and Media do the same, and this episode is simply one example of a much wider problem.
Finally and most importantly: the rule of quality journalism and academic debate that requires that opposing viewpoints be presented has started to work against its original meaning. This rule, based on the idea that diverse opinions are unavoidable, necessary, and can help to reveal the truth, is beneficial only so long as the viewpoints meet some basic criteria: they are not deliberately deceptive, and have some basis in fact. Academic freedom and journalistic rules should require the presentation of different viewpoints, but only if they are factually valid. Beeley’s argument are not. The rule of balance, when exploited by propagandists and conspiracy theorists, is a means of deceiving the audience if it does not provide accurate information.
On 30 April and 7 May, former Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin and Aleksey Pushkov, the former head of the Duma’s Foreign Affairs Committee, mocked Estonia on Twitter. Pushkov ridiculed Estonian President Kersti Kaljulaid’s statement on Estonia’s military exercise, codenamed Hedgehog. Both Rogozin and Pushkov made fun of Estonian Foreign Minister Sven Mikser’s comment on Europe’s need for strong and unified position on Russia. Humor can be used to unify and it can be used as a weapon to create divisions. The Kremlin’s jokes are aimed at the latter.
On 28 April, the Sydney Morning Herald published an interview with Mikser on hybrid threats, Russian aggression against Ukraine, the annexation of Crimea, the downing of MH17, the Sergei Skripal poisoning, and the Syrian chemical weapons attacks. In the face of these challenges, Mikser says unity is vital: “When you talk to a leader like [Putin], and obviously we need to talk with Russia, then you need to talk from a position of strength and unity and determination. Because any sign of hesitation is interpreted in the Kremlin as weakness to be exploited.”
On April 30, Mikser’s statement was first picked up by Russian media, and then in two twitter posts by Rogozin. In the first, Rogozin compared Russia to a big hound and Estonia to a puppy, with the caption, “The Estonian Mixer is determined to speak with Russia from a position of strength.”
The tweet by Russia’s Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin on 30 April. (Source: Twitter)
An hour later, Rogozin posted another tweet, this time mocking Mikser for his name: “Fearless mixer. Now on sale.”
The tweet by Russia’s Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin on 30 April. (Source: Twitter)
Rogozin’s tweet was followed by one from Pushkov the same day. In an ironic Twitter post, Pushkov snidely commented that Mikser’s call for the West to talk to Russia from a position of strength should be seen in light of Estonia’s strength and power.
The 30 April tweet by Aleksey Pushkov, former head of the Duma’s Foreign Affairs Committee. (Source: Twitter)
These three tweets, together with Mikser’s interview, triggered a massive flow of articles and comments in Russian media. According to the Estonian anti-propaganda website Propastop, the number of articles set a record for the past six months. Some of these comments dusted off a familiar and frequently used narrative: that Estonia is an unreliable partner for other NATO members. Bogdan Bezpalko, a member of the Russian President’s Council for Interethnic Relations, commented on Mikser’s statement, saying that Estonia, like all Baltic States, sees the confrontation between the West and Russia as beneficial.
The second round of the Kremlin’s Twitter jokes on Estonia followed on 7 May, when Pushkov made fun of Estonian President Kersti Kaljulaid’s statement on Hedgehog, an international military exercise held annually in Estonia. This year, more than 15,000 troops from 15 countries and the Estonian Defense Forces and Defense League took part in the exercise with NATO and other allies. Describing the exercises, Kaljulaid remarked, “When we are like a Hedgehog, nobody can easily harm us – the attacker will get very hurt and nothing in his mouth.”
Pushkov commented on President Kaljulaid’s statement in a tweet, saying that Estonia does not have to worry: either it is a hedgehog, a grass snake, or a ruffe (a freshwater fish native to the region), so no one would bother to harm it and here no reason to overstate its importance. Russia media took up the theme.
Pushkov’s tweet of 7 May. (Source: Twitter)
Since these two cases are similar, they should be analyzed together. There are three noteworthy aspects of each: choice of topic; the narratives used; and techniques employed. Both cases concern Estonian defense policy, the country’s NATO membership, and the presence of NATO allies in Estonia. NATO is a Kremlin sore point; it sees the Alliance as a threat to Russia and seeks to sow doubt and division among NATO member states. Its method: painting Estonia as an untrustworthy ally that exaggerates both its own importance and the potential Russian threat. At the same time, the Kremlin wants to de-escalate tensions with the West, out of a fear that Russia’s geopolitical isolation could lead to “100 years of solitude,” as Russian presidential advisor Vladislav Surkov described in a recent article, a view presumably shared by some Russian leaders.
In the past few months, the Kremlin has repeatedly referred to the countries along its periphery as “Russophobic neighboring countries” or “Russophobic Baltic states” that oppose Russia’s core interests. Russia seeks to show that the potential for conflict along NATO’s eastern border is merely an Estonian fantasy, beneficial to its government but not quite in line with reality; and further, that Estonia is too small to have a say in the weighty matters confronting NATO and Russia. The Kremlin’s intent is to discredit Estonia in the eyes of its allies.
The techniques in this instance, ridicule and humiliation, are consistent with these goals. Humor can both unite and divide; it can both ease and fuel tension. The Kremlin wields humor to accomplish the latter.
The reaction by pro-Kremlin media to U.S. Vice President Mike Pence’s 31 July visit to Estonia was clear: Estonia must stop provoking Russia and trusting the United States because, as with Game of Thrones, every party acts only for its own benefit. Both messages rely on assumptions that may be true in the context of the Hobbesian “war of all against all,” but they are not valid in societies that honor laws and agreements.
While Pence was in Estonia, Kremlin-linked Baltnews.ee published an article containing five false or questionable narratives.
First, Estonia should not put its trust in the United States, the article argued, because the United States sees international relations as depicted in Game of Thrones—a book written by an American author, and a fantasy drama TV series made by Americans—and acts accordingly. For the United States, agreements have no meaning, and every party stands alone, fighting for its own interests only.
Second, the article claimed Pence’s visit shows there is no real solidarity between the United States and its allies, since real solidarity doesn’t require constant reassurances. It said Washington treats Estonia like a “child who needs convincing that daddy will not leave him.” That kind of “solidarity” does not and cannot have a future, it said.
Third, the article claimed that Estonia does not contribute enough to NATO defense and therefore has good reason to fear being abandoned by the United States.
Fourth, it says Estonia has every reason to be concerned, since for many years Estonia has “spit on Russia,” provoking Russia with its behavior. The article gave no examples to support this claim.
Finally, Estonia—believing Russia to be a threat—suffers from “psychological disorder.” Pence’s visit, therefore, was nothing more than “collective psychotherapy.”
Even though all five narratives are either false or misleading, they are worth analyzing because they offer insight to the Kremlin-liked media’s worldview.
Comparing the visit to a Game of Thrones episode is a prime example. According to this narrative, U.S. allies cannot trust Washington because, as in Game of Thrones—written by an American author—the United States follows an “every man for himself” policy. Estonia should therefore put no trust in the United States.
Three aspects of this narrative are particularly worthy of mention.
First, seeing Game of Thrones—or any other book or film—as a representative of a country’s official policy is too simplistic. We do not measure British foreign politics by Golding’s Lord of the Flies or French foreign policy by de Sade’s Justine.
Second, even more interesting is to look how the narrative on the United States as not trustworthy regarding laws and agreements reflects in Russian juridical discourse and in Russian foreign policy. As Estonian scholar Lauri Mälksoo shows in his book Russian Approaches to International Law, for Russia, the United States and NATO have been systematically violating international law since the end of the Cold War. According to Mälksoo, almost all recent Russian textbooks of international law refer to NATO’s 1999 intervention against Yugoslavia (in favor of Kosovar Albanians) and the 2003 U.S. and British-led invasion of Iraq as crimes of aggression. Moreover, the Russians use this narrative of the United States not being trustworthy to justify Moscow’s deeds. As Mälksoo’s book shows, the Kremlin believes that if NATO can violate international law or make new rules and exceptions for itself, Russia has no choice but to follow its example. Hence, the United States can be forced to take multilateral measures only if Russia first copies the U.S. unilateralist “pattern of behavior.”
And third, “trust no one” hardly describes a worldview common to Western societies. Rather it is characteristic of partial or non-democratic countries, where the benefits of civil society and social contract may not yet be a part of common understanding.
A social contract is a first step in replacing the rule of the strongest with the rule of law. Civil society prevents the rule of law from being turned into the law of the strongest. In political philosophy, this dichotomy between the rule of law and the rule of power is illustrated by the dichotomy between John Locke’s idea of a social contract between citizens and governments—one based on commonly acceptable law or an agreement made by political equals, such as the North Atlantic Treaty—and Thomas Hobbes’ “war of all against all,” or agreements made by more powerful parties over all others (for example, the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact).
As noted above, these five false narratives may not be useful in analyzing the actual state of U.S. relations with its allies. But they do offer a glimpse into the Kremlin’s worldview. Unlike Western societies and their social contracts, laws and agreements that are kept for benefit of every party, the pro-Kremlin media represent a Hobbesian world of “state of nature” and “war of all against all” where there is no equality, no trust, no allies, no contracts and no laws.
We can counter this by keeping the trust, allies, contracts and laws that define the actors of liberal democracy. “The best way of avenging thyself is not to become like the wrong doer,” wrote Marcus Aurelius in Book Six of Meditations. This not only defines Western values but defends them as well.
The term “anti-Russian,” a synonym for “Russophobic,” has a long history. It expresses the self-victimizing and enemy-creating sentiments of the Kremlin and Kremlin-linked media. But “countering Russian mischief” has very different meaning than being “anti-Russian.” The first refers to countering something that Russia does; the second, “anti-Russian,” refers to countering something that Russia is—not only as a political agent but also as a whole country with social-cultural-historical aspects.
According to a recent survey, 48 percent of Estonia’s Russian-speaking population oppose their country’s membership in NATO. Sociologist Juhan Kivirähk says this is because Estonian Russians still see NATO as an enemy of Russia. How can the West counter this perception?
The narrative that NATO threatens Russia has been one of the most frequent topics in Russian state media, especially since NATO’s 2016 Warsaw Summit, when member states approved a plan to rotate additional troops into the Baltic states and Poland to reassure allies in the face of Russia’s aggressive behavior. Since then, Moscow’s media machine has only produced more disinformation portraying Russia as the passive and repressed party, and NATO as aggressive, manipulative and harmful.
To find effective countermeasures to Russian disinformation, we should first ask how sincere Russian state media is in its messaging. Do Kremlin or pro-Kremlin media actually believe their own claims that NATO’s commanders are testing new hybrid warfare techniques on Russian-speakers in Latvia to alter their behavior, or that an American B-52 plane accidentally dropped a nuclear bomb in Lithuania? It is hard to believe that they do.
Do they consider NATO a threat to Russia, and that it is preparing to attack? Probably. If so, why are NATO’s counter-disinformation efforts not more effective?
The answer may lie in the so-called master narrative which forms the basis for other Russian narratives. If the master narrative is that NATO threatens Russia and that Western media aims to diminish this threat perception, then Moscow is simply doing what everyone else, in their view, is guilty of: producing propaganda. Even if the stories pro-Kremlin media tell are not completely true, they justify their lies with the belief that the United States is lying as well. In effect, everything is propaganda.
If so, then two things must be clarified: first, the basis for Russia’s belief that everything is propaganda; and second, the characteristics of the master narrative.
In late May, Elena Cherysheva, editor-in-chief of the Estonian Sputnik news agency, said in an interview that she sees no difference between journalism and propaganda. Since Sputnik is part of the Russian government-controlled news agency Rossiya Segodnya—whose head, Dmitry Kiselyov, also expressed a similar viewpoint—these statements are not simply personal views but the general viewpoint of Russian state media.
Here we come to the concept of master narratives. Also known as metanarratives, these were described in 1979 by French sociologist Jean-François Lyotard as narratives that lie behind other, minor narratives which certain cultures use in everyday practice, and which explain and justify these minor narratives. To understand why Moscow uses anti-NATO narratives, we should find the narrative behind them, and use it as a key. And so, what are the Kremlin’s master narratives?
As mentioned above, Moscow seems to have two: the United States and NATO threaten Russia, and everything is propaganda.
So, even if Kremlin media does not believe many of its published disinformation narratives, it still believes that its master narratives are valid. Therefore, it may commit disinformation, but in its own mind, it is lying because it believes that Russia is at war—and in this war, everybody is lying. This is similar to the idea expressed in 2013 by Dmitry Kiselyov, who said: “Objectivity does not exist. There’s not one publication in the world that’s objective. Is CNN objective? No. Is the BBC objective? No. Objectivity is a myth, which they propose to us and impose on us.”
Unfortunately, one of these master narratives is paradoxical. The idea that everyone commits propaganda is generally known as a liar’s paradox: if everybody is lying, then I’m lying as well (and also lying about lying). The problem with paradoxical statements is that rather than provoking critical thinking, the paradox psychologically exhausts its audience. It causes readers to lose interest and trust in media, while weakening civil society in general. A recent Estonian study shows that people who are exposed to multilingual media and do not know who, if anyone, to believe admit being fatigued from certain topics and tried to avoid them altogether.
If “everything is propaganda” is indeed the Kremlin’s master narrative, then it is difficult to fight against other, derivative narratives as these attempts will themselves be perceived as propaganda. Instead, the West should concentrate on analyzing and fighting the master narrative itself. Assuring the audience that not everything is propaganda by regaining the trust of media consumers should be the first step.
I think Russia is defined by its very fluid approach to ideology. They can jump to any message they need at any particular time. So they have their hands free. In Britain the main line of Russian propaganda goes through the financial elites, preaching the idea of business without politics, business above all else: “Let’s forget about sanctions and concentrate on business” is the message. At the same time, they go as far as financially backing or certainly boosting very leftist groups who are anti-capitalist – while also financing or giving a platform to right-wing groups. So they really don’t care, they just use any narrative they need in order to bolster their own position or just to keep people fighting amongst themselves. The overall strategy with the EU is two-fold. On one hand they encourage Berlin, Brussels and Paris to gang up against America: this is officially articulated by Putin, who says the EU is a potential ally against America. And on the other hand they do anything to undermine Brussels and play different countries off against each other, boosting anti-EU feeling in France and Britain. So basically it’s about building the EU up and making sure it’s very weak, while creating an ideal ally. It’s that sort of dizzying, shape-shifting use of ideology, which can be tactically very agile and very difficult to grasp. But it’s certainly very different from before.
The tendencies you mention are all very good examples of how Russia uses Western liberal-democratic values – plurality of opinions, economic freedom and information freedom – and turns these values against the West by using information, culture and money as weapons. For example, the free flow of information is used to spread disinformation and so on.It is a kind of jiu-jitsu, the strategy of a political power that knows it’s weaker, based on using the strengths of its opponent against itself. Take money, for example: we believe that open markets will lead to peace and prosperity. The more trade we have, the fewer wars we have. That is a very fundamental belief of how we see the world. But what do you do with a power that does the opposite and uses financial leverage in order to launch wars? Theoretically, Russia is heavily invested in Western Europe, so it hopes Europe won’t do anything if Russia invades eastern Ukraine – that’s the idea. The West is thrown completely off balance – what should we do, start throwing out Russian companies? Well, we can’t do that because then we’d have to throw out Chinese companies and Turkish companies. We’ve built everything based on this ideal system of globalised capital and when somebody uses it for politically aggressive ends, we are completely lost. So I think money is an even bigger problem than information.
The Kremlin almost systematically x-rays not Western weaknesses but Western strengths … x-rays the Western underbelly, as you put it.
Exactly; it x-rays the Western underbelly, in order to use its strengths against it.
Information is another very easy tool. In the Western information system the whole idea is that the more points of view we have, the more debate we have, this leads to peace and prosperity. So what do you do if someone uses information to spread disinformation? And much more than just disinformation, much more than just lies – the Kremlin is using it to “divide and conquer” and make the sides fight each other, to undermine the West’s alliances.
These are fundamental problems which I don’t think would stop with Russia. It just sniffed out a method anyone could use.
Another good example I found in your report is people’s freedom to choose their own path as a country – again, one of the most basic democratic values, used by the Kremlin to justify its decision not to choose democracy.
That is used a lot. Look at Russia Today. Its whole ideology is that it’s all about choice, about “why can’t we show the Russian point of view?”. The thing is that they abuse the whole idea of journalism. The question is how effective this approach is. It has been very effective in countries with large groups of Russian-speaking population, but I still don’t know how effective it has been in the West. We’ll see how much they can actually achieve with these methods because, for example, in Britain they say they will not put finance above security, and the Americans just don’t care. The real hot spots are Bulgaria, Serbia and the Baltics. We will see if it extends towards which of these weapons are actually targeted or whether they end up destroying Russia itself, which might be the biggest problem. It’s the sort of weapon that ends up consuming the person who uses it; because if you use lies all the time, if you misuse the financial system, if you throw away the means by which society became prosperous … There’s a reason people have freedom of information, there’s a reason people have open markets, and if you start throwing that away then maybe your own society is going a bit mad. So the biggest danger of these Russian weapons would be if Russia itself started making incredibly bad decisions with consequences for everyone in the region. Rational Russia wouldn’t invade the Baltics. Irrational Russia would, because they overestimate the power of propaganda or the power of corruption. They use very odd weapons and who would be the biggest victim of these weapons is not yet quite clear. Does that make sense?
It makes a lot of sense. So, let me try to join this up to your book Nothing Is True and Everything Is Possible and the report we were talking about. In the report, you mentioned how not only money and information but also culture has been weaponised. The idea of weaponising culture wasn’t quite clear for me until I read the chapter where you described Vladislav Surkov’s interest in postmodernism, especially that of Jean Baudrillard. The core of postmodernism is something very Western, post-Enlightenment European: there is not one truth, given to us by a higher authority – even by God or the Tsar – but several, which we have to figure out by ourselves. But the way, Surkov using the idea made me re-read Simulacra and Simulation to make sure it was the same book I once read. If I tried to express my feelings, then “perverting” the whole idea of postmodernism would be the accurate way to put it.
I think Baudrillard and postmodernism suits Surkov very well. Baudrillard was the key person whose texts were translated into Russian in the late nineties and this immediately fed into Russian political culture, and also into journalism. But I think the reason for that is that Russia has had its own journey to postmodernism, which in many ways has been far more extreme than the West’s. Actually, you could take Baudrillard and Foucault as if they were writing about the Soviet Union rather than about American capitalism. That would reverse the subject and everything would become more vital. The idea that there is no truth starts to dominate Russian culture much more than Western culture in the 1970s. The idea that communism was a lie but we keep on pretending it was the truth, with people living in simulated realities, this was a much more vital form of everyday lying and fragmenting consciousness than it was in the West. Look at the literature written at that time – it is all about the fracturing of identity. Or look at Russian avant-garde art in that period – it’s all about broken consciousness. So Russia actually had the idea of a split self and fragmented reality so much more intensely in late Soviet culture than in Western culture. Russia actually had its own radical journey to postmodernism and Surkov recalled that, because he had lived it. If you look at Russian novels from the 1990s, they are all about how life is a giant collage. Russia is a place of a much more radical explosion of the idea of postmodernism than the West. And then, in the late 1990s, it suddenly discovers Baudrillard and Guy Debord and the language to talk about it. And then suddenly it’s all about “simulacrum” because it all fitted in powerfully with their experience.
But there is also something else that Surkov is doing, which is exploiting the very lazy late postmodernism. The beginnings of postmodernism were about being a liberational project, discovering new truths, exploding authoritarian systems. It was quite an idealistic, revolutionary project in the 1960s. It wasn’t about the kind of late postmodernism that doesn’t bother with the truth, which thought “there is nothing to fight for anyway” and was deeply relativistic, believing that everybody lies. But Surkov exploits that. So Russia’s own journey to very destructive postmodernism is one thing, and the other is just very cynical calculation and exploitation of the zeitgeist of the West.
Russia Today is a wonderful example of that. They call it “the other news”. It’s almost like an undergraduate humanities course in a liberal arts university somewhere: “The Other”. In Germany they call it “the missing part”. This is all about the idea that there is another truth, which means there is no such thing as an objective truth. That is an interesting argument philosophically but, in news practice, it means you can make a crackpot conspiracy theorist as legitimate as an academic. If there is no such thing as an objective truth, why can’t we have someone on screen who lies? When we can’t prove the truth, why we can’t just make things up? So they play on that. But that is a very calculated game.
I would separate Surkov’s very genuine research into post-Soviet consciousness and the very crass exploitation of the West’s laziness. It is just laziness, really, not some kind of philosophy. If you look at Foucault’s interviews, he is very clear about the philosopher’s duty to peel away lies. He would be disgusted by this idea of people just giving up. Postmodernism has become perverse and Surkov knows how to use that – and so does Russia Today, which is taking up that kind of trend. But we can see how successful they are. What is happening in respect of Russia Today and what Russia is doing is quite worrying in general, because we see the fracture of the idea of reality so it’s very worrying. Statistics say that 43% of Germans don’t believe their own media over Ukraine. We see the rise of conspiracy theories and parties that promote them in France, Hungary etc. Conspiracies are always the sign of a breakdown of discourse and trust in the institutions. So it is part of a very general trend, the breakdown of faith in institutions, of reality-based discourse, turning away from the mainstream media to bullshit online media; these are all very worrying trends in Russia. And if one thinks of the future – if Russia is exploiting it now, what happens if China or terrorist groups are starting to exploit it? That makes for a very worrying 21st century. Everybody would lie and push emotional buttons. That’s what Russia is doing now. Reality-based conversation is dissolving into impulses, emotions and irrationality, which is guided in a very chaotic way by whoever wants to guide it.
Have you read Marshall McLuhan? Sure you have. He is a charlatan, of course, but, like many charlatans, very sharp in his charlatanism. What he said about TV actually came true in the 21st century. We are moving away from a rational society to one which is all pure images, impulses, emotional collections.
That reminds me of two Italians: Maurizio Ferraris and his Manifesto of New Realism – which, as understood, would help Western continental philosophy to come out of the impasse of postmodernism – and Umberto Eco and his worries about the future of facts (if we are not careful with facts, new forms of media could mean the eventual demise of the common encyclopaedia, replaced by six billion encyclopaedias, each individual constructing his own). That would mean the impossibility of truth, the impossibility of universal knowledge and, eventually, the inability to communicate. So we need to find a way to save the facts.
What we need is a “Helsinki moment” in the media. At some point countries gathered together and agreed what constituted human rights. We need a similar agreement in the media. We need big media companies – the BBC, Al Jazeera, anyone who claims to be a big international news corporation – to get together and create a charter, saying that this is what we do and this is what we don’t do. It’s even more about what we don’t do. We don’t do lies, we don’t do conspiracy theories, we don’t do uncontrolled information etc. But that needs to be a consensual decision.
Probably there is no such thing as an objective truth. But we need the rules to deal with it to function as a society.
Beautiful! That’s the scientific method. We can’t prove the truth, but we can prove if something is not true.
Popper! Popper is really useful here. I just thought about him on my way here. We can’t prove the objective truth but we can prove the lie. Somebody should hit Russia with that: we can so prove that you lied here.
But for that kind of charter, we also need a new glossary. Information, misinformation, public diplomacy, propaganda … There is nothing wrong with Russia doing its propaganda and having its own propaganda channel. There is nothing wrong with Russia Today criticising the West. Let them find stories that make the West look bad. That’s fine. The problem is that they make up the information – telling stories that didn’t happen. And making things up is easy. What worries me more is how the media create a mixture of truth and lies, facts are turned into the opposite of what they were, using false logic and conspiracy theories. So I think we need a better definition of how this kind of reality is constructed.
I think the media organizations need to agree amongst themselves, to have a Helsinki moment, and on top of that we should have a ratings system – if a media organization doesn’t agree to the rules it loses its status. One can’t stop people from broadcasting, one can’t just shut things down, but they could stop being considered serious media organizations.
Russia on its own is not a big problem, but if this is also a trend in the Middle East, that would become really serious. It also seems to be a growing phenomenon in Asia. If we admit that it is a huge problem and that it is always going to be, at least for the next century, then maybe we need a big moment like this before it gets too serious.
We also need public campaigns to help people distinguish between different types of media. I think of it as a venereal disease. We use condoms to protect ourselves against viruses, but there are also informational viruses. So we have to teach people to use information condoms to protect themselves.
How do you achieve that agreement? Knowing the media organizations, it is not going to be easy …
Media organizations have to agree amongst themselves; they have to recognise by themselves that this is a problem. What really scared me is the 43% of Germans not believing their own media right now. That’s a problem. Of course we have to understand that the lack of trust is a symptom of a bigger problem. Societies have lost control over governments; decisions have been made elsewhere, that’s the consequence of globalisation. Conspiracy theories and lack of trust are on the rise when people stop trusting their own institutions. So it’s not only about the media, it’s a much bigger problem.
Here we should come to your book Nothing Is True And Everything Is Possible, where you describe the Russian media response to the problem – yes, we are naughty, but the Western media lie as well. That seems to be a rather convenient response – “look at what the others are doing”. How does one overcome that?
Cynically I would say that, if one keeps equating autocracies and democracies, one should try living in an autocracy for a while.
A big help would be the new glossary I mentioned earlier. I was giving a lecture in the university here and a girl stood up saying that a shampoo ad is propaganda as well. The problem is that the word “propaganda” has almost become pointless. In Jacques Ellul’s definition of propaganda as the formation of men’s attitudes, literally anything is propaganda. A shampoo ad is propaganda, getting you to stop smoking is propaganda, getting people not to kill each other is propaganda. One of the classic ways of defining propaganda is sorting out its intent: buy shampoo or stop killing people. But it is also about the linguistic function of what it’s doing: information, misinformation, spin, PR, public diplomacy. For that we need a more sophisticated glossary of what we understand as propaganda, so that people would understand that there is a difference between what Russia Today is doing and what Fox News or CNN are doing. Western networks may have ended up wittingly or unwittingly repeating White House lies, but they do not systematically use lies as weapons. Iraq is always used as an example here. There is a huge difference between what the Kremlin does on this and what the Western media do. Iraq was a huge failure of the Western media investigating government lies. It is one thing for your government to sell you a lie and you being a bad journalist not investigating it. But it is another when your government invents a TV channel for the purpose of spreading disinformation. We need a more sophisticated intellectual approach to propaganda, which would help people to start sorting out its different types. The Russian TV channel looks like a real TV channel – presenters are sitting at their desks with a blue screen behind them – but nothing beyond that has anything to do with the Western concept of journalism. There is no strong Russian tradition of journalism. And they haven’t discovered it.
There is a discussion going on in the Baltics concerning the Sputnik media channel. Basically, there are two views: one says we should stay true to our values such as freedom of speech and media freedom, and the other says that we should treat it like, for example, the Ku Klux Klan.
In Britain there is a similar thing about Russia Today – should it be banned? The thing is, it would get far more PR by being banned, and maybe that’s what they want: to get banned. But what if it’s all double-bluff? This is an endless game of shadow boxing. I think we have something to learn from Soviet thinking. If you were caught by the KGB, the first rule was: don’t say anything. The minute you start a dialogue you are in real trouble. Sure, you don’t want to let them spread lies but you also don’t want to give them PR. So all you can do is just stick to the rules of your country. If the rules say they should be banned, they should be banned; if not, then no. No exceptions.
If we already had a convention about what media is and isn’t, it would be so much easier. But I think it’s very dangerous to try to second-guess what the Kremlin would like us to do or what they will do. So just follow your laws and see where they’ll take you.
Talking about Russia, PR and your book … Vladislav Surkov, the so-called hidden author of Putinism, the fan of Baudrillard and postmodernism – who is he?
Surkov is very typical of people in power systems. Politics needs sociopaths. But Surkov also has a post-Soviet mentality. What is interesting about Surkov is that he also writes novels about that, and analyses himself without emotion. It’s like holding a mirror and looking at himself while he is doing it. Goebbels used to write novels as well, so it’s not completely new in history. What is fascinating about Russian political culture is that it is sociopathic but at the same time intellectually interesting. It knows what it’s doing.
Surkov consciously makes himself a hero of the age. He is playing on that. It’s a performance. But he is just a reflection of what everyone can see every day in Russia, a sort of triumph of cynicism – nothing is true, there are no values, life is an endless masquerade, we are evil but the Americans are just as bad.
Is Surkov the mastermind behind the information war? Or is he just a PR person?
He is not behind it; he is pretty much in front of it. We should not exaggerate his role. Even if he is running the Russian political system, parties and media, he is not a “shareholder”, he is just a manager. He is the director. But not the owner. He is a servant – maybe the ultimate servant, but still just a servant. He is only as good as his last show.
There is a good example in your book about how Putin’s image was created: one part “sugar daddy” – someone that every girl needs – and another part “gangster” – someone that every guy respects.
Actually these two images are pretty close. Putin is designed to be all things to all men. That is not new in politics, but Putin is extreme. There is a sugar-daddy culture in Russia – a big guy who protects you. And then there are these pop songs like “I Want A Man Like Putin” – irony is a big part of Russian culture, and this is what the West does not understand. Irony and autocracy go hand in hand. Putin is the sugar daddy, the father to all these fatherless girls who need a daddy, a sugar daddy. So that’s one image he projects very much. Also all these stories about his younger lovers and how he goes to gyms and is physically in good shape – this is part of the image.
The gangster image is related but very different. Putin has often imitated the language of a gangster, but he is a law graduate who entered the state bureaucracy and became an intelligence officer who speaks several languages. He is not a gangster at all. He worked with gangsters – secret services often work with criminals. However, in the 1990s in Russia, gangsters became a glue of society, economically but also morally – they had values. Russian prison culture is very strong; it’s probably the dominant culture in Russia today. It’s about the way of behaving, the way of walking, the way of talking, everything. Russian values are related more to its prison values than to its religious ones. In prisons, a passive gay is at the bottom of the hierarchy, so Putin launches anti-gay campaigns. This has nothing to do with religious values. Russia is actually one of the most atheistic cultures in Europe – with a very strong prison culture.
So Putin acts and talks like a gangster because that is something people respect. He takes on the role of gangster – the language he uses, the way he dresses, how he behaves. It’s like something straight out of The Godfather orKill Bill. But behaving like a gangster is not the same as being a gangster.
You have seen in Russia how this new reality is created with the help of TV. Can you describe the technology behind that? How exactly is the simulacrum created?
It is created top-down. In terms of current affairs, news is structured in a certain way. At the top of the news, Putin’s always doing something, no matter what it is: Putin visits the zoo, Putin goes flying. That’s number one. He is a star, he comes first. Then comes something quite serious from inside Russia, let’s say, a hospital crisis – to show that we do do serious news. The next one would be a similar crisis abroad, but much worse – for example a complete collapse of healthcare in the US. That shows that we may have some minor problems, but it’s much worse in the US. That’s how the news is choreographed, in order to give the audience a very specific journey through what’s happening. Recently, there have been fewer and fewer domestic issues, and more and more about Ukraine: to show how the neighbouring state is in chaos.
There are other simple things, like debating shows. These are designed in such a way that they choose puppet opposition parties who end up making Putin look better by comparison. Putin doesn’t even need to appear, but everybody thinks, “Thank God we have Putin, he is quite sensible compared to these guys because they are simply mad”. This is a classic trick. And then non-stop conspiracy theories. It’s basically to turn people’s brains into mush. First you turn off the critical thinking with conspiracy theories, and then comes non-stop use of fear – murders, rapes and gangsters. That pushes you to think, “Oh my God, we really need a strong hand, we need Putin, there are spies and gangsters everywhere”. It’s basically like a cult: first they turn off critical thinking and then they start stressing traumas. We are humiliated. We were treated like shit in the 1990s. No country understands us. We are in so much pain. And then in the end you have delivery of a promise, some sort of catharsis, by conquering Crimea, for example. So it’s basically like a cult. First, it turns off critical thinking, then exploits traumas and makes you emotionally very vulnerable, and then gives you the promise of salvation. That’s the pattern that Russia’s television uses and that’s far more nasty and manipulative than any obvious kind of stuff about how America is evil. This is very structured and, after being emotionally manipulated, people believe whatever they are told. When people ask “How could Russians believe that?” they should realise that these people are deeply emotionally manipulated, first, on a very fundamental personal level. And after that you would swallow anything.
The last European Parliament elections showed a rather worrying tendency: far-right parties attracted more and more support, not only in Greece but also in central Europe. What does that mean for national minorities and immigration?
Minorities are not the only reason the far-right movement is growing stronger all over Europe. The far right is a reaction not only to minority issues but also to the economic crisis and the austerity measures that followed. Minorities become a far-right issue only after politicians start to use them as part of the problem.
But there is another side of the story. In 2008 people started to talk about the need to change the way the economy functioned. But what has changed? Not much. The result is that more and more people are dissatisfied with politicians and their policies; they feel that there are no ideas, no prospects, no future. Of course the frustration caused by the economic situation and the gap between society and the political elite could in some way be directed against otherness, and that was exactly what happened: societies started to see the “Other” as a threat. For many western European countries, the Other is Muslims.
That can be seen as a reason politicians in Europe have portrayed immigration as the greatest problem European countries face. Look what is happening in the United Kingdom, in France, in Italy and in several other countries—immigration is seen as the biggest threat. I’m not saying that immigration is not part of the problem Europe is facing, but in fact the roots of the problem are more general and mostly lie elsewhere.
That brings us to an even more interesting topic: when we look at the rhetoric nationalist parties use, we can see that they tend to claim immigration is not a problem because of the economic crisis but that we have economic problems mainly because of immigration: immigrants don’t only take our jobs, but they also drain our social security system. Ukip in the United Kingdom is a good example of that. Could it be that politicians use minorities for their own benefit and make it out to be a bigger problem than it actually is?
Yes, of course. They are using immigrants and of course people are grateful that the reason for all their problems is finally clear. Finding more complex explanations is not in their interest. It would be too complicated to think that we live in a globalised world and that we are less and less able to control our economy, the financial markets. It is easier to refuse to admit that politicians’ ability to regulate the whole process has become more and more limited. But when you are unemployed, or a middle-class person trying to change your social status but you have found it impossible because of the general economic situation, then it is far easier to find one reason that could explain everything, one source of all the difficulties. You need somebody to blame, somebody to be responsible. So here we can see a shared interest: the politicians’ interest is to give a simple explanation, and people’s interest is to find somebody to blame their difficulties on. Immigrants are an easy target here.
Here we can see a more general issue, interesting both in political and symbolic terms: seeing the “other” as a threat is somehow universal. We have seen in political history how very different groups have been put in the position of the other, but the characteristics they have shown are not that different.
You are absolutely right. Otherness is needed because without an “other” there can be no identity. Without the other, “we” do not exist. Each identity defines itself in reaction to another. There can be no nation without a national “other”. When we feel in need of stronger national identity, that also means we are in need of the other, to distance ourselves. “We” and “other” are constructed simultaneously. Identity cannot exist without some other identity. Being Estonian means you are not French. The situation becomes more interesting when you have more others: French, Finns, Swedes, Russians, British. But usually one of the others is a significant other, for example Russians. And that significant other is usually seen as a threat.
As you said, the significant other has changed through history; it depends on time and context. In Romania there was a time when the significant other was Ottoman, then it was Turkish, then Austrian, then German, then Russian, then American. Every historical setting gives birth to new significant others.
We sometimes tend to see things in terms of oppositions, but not always. In fact, a culture can have many others at the same time. An other can also be seen as an ally, and sometimes as an ally against another other which we both see as a threat.
One of the oppositions we tend to use is that between East and West. For example, the understanding about how the concept of identity differs—we used to tend to think that in the West national identities were not as important as in the East. But recent developments in Scotland, Belgium and Spain have shown that this is not quite true.
That concept of East–West difference is based on the situation we experienced during the Cold War, just like a difference of civic nation and ethnic nation. The civic nation was mainly in the West, the ethnic nation mainly in the East. Of course, it was partly true: yes, there was a difference between East and West, between French national construction and Romanian national construction, for example. But when you take a closer look, there is a similar need for historical narrative in any national construction. Any national construction seems to need continuity; each nation needs ancestors.
Of course, if you look at the way citizenship has developed in France or Germany, there are differences. But no nation is entirely civic; there is a piece of ethnicity in each national construction. So from this point of view I don’t believe we could put East and West in opposition as civic and ethnic nations. If we believe that, then we are still influenced by the Cold War. Neither West nor East is a monolith or homogeneous entity. Denmark and Spain are very different, just like Poland and Bulgaria.
So the picture is far more complex. As a concept this can be interesting, but we should be aware of the constructed character of this opposition.
The question of minorities is certainly complex—starting with the fact that the Council of Europe sees it as a human rights issue, whilst the OSCE sees it as a security issue.
For the Council of Europe it was clear that we have to think of minorities in terms of rights—individual rights or group rights. For example, access for minorities to schools is not about individual rights but rather about group rights, so if there is only one person who wants to study, let’s say, in Turkish, the state is not obliged to finance it. But seen in terms of individual rights, one could argue that everybody should have the possibility to study in their own language. Nevertheless, from the beginning of this century the main idea has been anti-discrimination.
The difference between the Council of Europe and the OSCE is not so much about minorities but about how these institutions define themselves. The OSCE was created in order to open the dialogue between East and West. Nowadays the organisation has needed to redefine its role. On the other hand, what happened in Yugoslavia has shown that minorities can mean war. The OSCE defines its role as being to prevent such conflicts. That’s why for the OSCE the question of minorities is also a question of security.
The problem is that what is good in terms of security and preventing conflict is not always good in terms of human rights.
Talking about the Council of Europe, one of the main criticisms has been that it uses double standards concerning the rights of minorities—so-called Old Europe has to follow slightly different rules to New Europe.
Of course it does. There are no standards about minorities at the EU level; for example, Sweden and France deal with the question differently. That’s why the EU based its requests on the rules of the Council of Europe.
In order to integrate new member states in the EU there are the Copenhagen criteria, [which include] the protection of minorities. There was some pressure put on Estonia and Latvia, for example, to give citizenship to the resident Russian population, but at the same time there was no such pressure on Germany concerning the rights of Turks. The Council of Europe does not place the same demands on Estonia and Germany, or on Slovakia and France. So yes, there are double standards. But we must remember that the problem was politically more sensitive in Estonia and Latvia than in Germany. Politics is not only a question of big ideas and principles, but there is also a question of pragmatism, and there are always some countries more powerful than others. The result is that most of the Eastern European countries adopted legislation that favours minorities. Even if we understand that there were double standards, the result is not that bad, is it?
What is happening in Hungary? As I understand things, it is slowly moving away from Europe.
Yes, it seems so. Right-wing Prime Minister Viktor Orban is a very authoritarian type of leader who does not have much in common with democratic values. This can be seen even in small things, like who will become the director of the National Opera—the decision was made in Victor Orban’s office. It’s not a dictatorship, far from it. But he rules in a very authoritarian way, his party is strong and functions well, and the opposition is very fragmented. Of course that is nothing like we what can see in Russia—in Hungary the opposition can protest without consequences, but since it is, as I said, very fragmented, Orban was able to change the constitution. He has a theory that Western Europe is declining because of demographic changes: fewer and fewer children are being born, immigration is increasing, European values are disappearing, traditions and faith are fading. Orban is very critical about what is going on in Western Europe; he does not see it as the right way for Hungary. Hungary is not an open democratic country anymore, and the doors are closing. Twenty years ago, Budapest was an open city. It is very different now.
The arguments Orban uses to criticise Europe are not new. It seems that he has got the premises right but has drawn the wrong conclusion: problems he mentioned don’t make Europe weaker; on the contrary, the ability to learn from them makes it stronger. Europe is aware of its own problems—that’s why Jose Manuel Barroso started the New Narrative project, for example.
Yes, I believe Europe needs a new narrative. The world has changed and we have to change as well. China is not waiting for French investors or German investors, it is thinking in terms of Europe. The rules of the game have changed both demographically and economically, and we need a powerful actor. France, Germany or Italy alone is not able to take part in this big game.
We have had a rather Eurocentric image of the rest of the world because that is what Europe was—the centre of the world, the centre of civilisation, and the centre of enlightenment. But of course at the same time other histories existed.
Nowadays, when each nation has its own difficulties and its own problems, we need something that is bigger than one nation, bigger than one state. We need states that can participate on the same level in discussion about Europe’s future, about the future of humanity, about human rights. We need Europe to have a future. The problem is that, at the moment, Europe is unable to propose something sexy. Austerity politics isn’t the sexiest topic imaginable. A lot of people think of the EU in terms of burden rather than possibility. There is no European dream today. To the younger generation, war is an abstraction, even after events in Ukraine. So we can’t see preventing war as a major goal for Europe. It is also difficult to talk about European memory—we have one version based on the Western European version of history where Nazism played a big role, and another based on the Eastern European version, where communism played a big role. The idea of having unity in diversity is not that easy to achieve.
And of course there is also the problem of political elites: if something goes wrong, they tend to blame the EU rather than admit to their own mistakes.
The question is, what kind of society do we want? Maybe it could be the society where cultural differences are accepted without a naïve “everybody loves everybody” attitude. Because we know that it’s not true—we don’t, and even can’t, love everybody. But we can accept them.
Is this similar to the idea you have expressed before that in an ideal world there would be no minorities?
In an ideal world there would be no minorities, but no majorities either. There would be symmetry of power—every individual could choose their own way of being. In an ideal world each identity is allowed to be pluralistic. For example, I’m not only Hungarian or only Romanian or only French, I am all of these. But I am also a woman, I am a teacher. I have a lot of different professional or national identities at the same time. To ask someone to choose only one would be cruel.
During the war in Yugoslavia, there was a young man from a mixed family, with a Serbian mother and a Croatian father. He had to choose. Whatever he chose, half of him became an enemy of the other half. You can imagine the sadness of the situation. You asked how things would be in an ideal world. Here, let me tell you. They would be the opposite of that sadness. In an ideal world you wouldn’t have to choose.