Economist on Russia’s “Values Gap”

In this week’s Economist: influence.gif

In their early enthusiasm for Mr Putin, some diplomats clearly made a classic error in Western thinking about Russian leaders: wishful thinking. What some saw as a strategic choice for partnership with America seems, for the Kremlin, to have been instead a tactical alliance. In return for what the Russians saw as concessions—tolerating America’s military presence in Central Asia; swallowing NATO’s expansion to Russia’s Baltic border—the Russians expected something back. Instead, they feel, there was mounting criticism of their domestic affairs, disdain for their views on Iraq and resistance to the international ambitions of Russian companies. Mr Putin’s assault, from 2003, on the Yukos oil company and its boss, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, helped to bring these resentments to the surface. But the most important watershed came in autumn 2004. After the Beslan school massacre, something in Mr Putin seemed to snap; he denounced unnamed foreign powers that, he said, were intent on weakening Russia. Then came the Kremlin’s cack-handed efforts to intervene in Ukraine’s presidential election. The Russians saw their defeat in Ukraine as evidence of perfidious American meddling in Russia’s sphere of influence. For the Americans, the debacle showed that a truth plain in Mr Putin’s domestic policies—that he was not a real democrat—would affect his country’s foreign behaviour too. … But there are two reasons to fear that the relationship is more likely to get worse than recover. One is what is sometimes called the “values gap”. Mr Putin exposed this gap in Munich, when he aired some very Russian neuroses along with his standard critique of American power. He said the OSCE—an international body that has mildly and correctly criticised rigged elections in some ex-Soviet states—was becoming “a vulgar instrument designed to promote the foreign-policy interests of one or a group of countries.” He again insisted that non-governmental organisations active in Russia but funded from abroad were the tools of foreign governments. In an interview this week with al-Jazeera, Mr Putin made plain the basic conviction underlying these moans: that all American talk about Russia’s democratic failings was so much realpolitik. Critics of Russia’s human-rights record, he said, “are using this kind of demagogy as a means to pursue their own foreign-policy goals in Russia.” The other worry is that this gap applies not only to Mr Putin and the other ex-KGB types who make up much of his entourage, but to many ordinary Russians too. General Russian attitudes to America are hardening, and suspicion of American motives spreading, even as American-style comforts and living standards become more accessible. Alexei Levinson, a Russian sociologist, says many Russians exhibit a “deep ambivalence” towards America, which has persisted after communism’s collapse. In fact, admiration and revulsion have always co-existed, albeit in varying proportions: Stalin himself recommended “the combination of Russian revolutionary élan with American efficiency.” In a country whose media is as tamed as Russia’s, public opinion is largely formed by government propaganda. But there is evidence—on the streets, as well as in opinion polls—that the crescent nationalism of Mr Putin’s foreign policy is catering to the Russian mood as much as shaping it.