14/07/2006

Kowtowing to the Petro Czar

Andre Glucksmann on what's at stake at the G8 summit in St. Petersburg

What is the G8? A meeting of the world's major economic powers? Certainly not, because China and others are excluded. A summit of the leading democracies? But then why include Russia and not India? A Euro-Atlantic club of Christian nations, as Moscow has it, forgetting that Japan is a founding member? Let's avoid such inane descriptions that only clumsily mask the lost wager of the post-Cold War era. Boris Yeltsin's Russia was invited to join in 1998 as an encouragement, in anticipation of the blessed day when, democratic and prosperous, it would join the team of leading Western democracies. It was presumed that once the communist ideology had been rejected, no other path would remain open to Russian society, and that a sacrosanct economic providence would lead the country from the abolition of collective property and the liberation of the market to a true-blue political democracy. The powers meeting in St. Petersburg today have to choose: either they prolong an enormous misunderstanding even after its death, or they bury it altogether.

The idyllic fog of the post-Cold War is dissipating. George W. Bush no longer sees the pure soul of the good guy when he looks into Putin's blue eyes. He lets his vice president deplore the Kremlin's anti-democratic tendencies for all to hear. In Russia meanwhile, the officials applaud their leader when he barks at the "comrade wolf" (America), "which devours everyone it wants without having to say a thing in its defence." And the crowd cheers him on. A return to the Cold War? Not at all: the start of the post-post-Cold War.

The Soviet Empire really did break apart, but the consequences drawn by the West are not at all the same as those drawn by Moscow. "The dissolution of the Soviet Union (in 1991) is the catastrophe of the century" Putin dares to utter, as if the tens of millions of deaths provoked by Hitler's adventures or in the gulags and other dungeons of the Cheka counted for less than the "catastrophe" of the lost hegemony over Riga, Vilnius, Kiev or Tbilisi. Where are the cries of indignation? Comparisons don't always make sense, but just imagine for a second Madame Merkel blubbering about the collapse of the Third Reich: impossible. And yet, these are not vain words in Moscow.

All of Vladimir Putin's efforts are aimed at re-establishing a "power vertical" both at home and in the near vicinity. The discrete euphemism does little to hide the return to the brutal autocratic tradition of the Czarist regime, which the Bolsheviks perfected. This involves waging an inhuman war against civilians in Chechnya, quashing civil liberties, re-nationalising either directly or indirectly the major economic sectors, redistributing riches into his cronies' hands – even if it means getting rid of recalcitrants like Khodorkovsky – and using the weapons of natural gas and petroleum to re-establish Russian influence over the surrounding capitals. The scales fall from our eyes! The G7 and G8 see very well that their host no longer finds it necessary to dissimulate either ambition or its arrogance.

To regain the status of major world player, realists in the Kremlin have traded the weapon of ideological Utopia for the more prosaic, but also more effective weapons of natural gas and petroleum. No sooner did it start than this energy extortion paid off. Far from agreeing on a joint reaction, the European Union falls apart. Each European nation runs separately to Moscow to negotiate the price of its weakness alone. Gazprom feels the power, corrupts at will and even buys a German chancellor, and remunerates him for loyal services several days after he loses his post. Schröder's business transactions are bringing in a profit. Why shouldn't they? Didn't he obligingly cede Germany's turn so Putin could preside over the G8 this summer? In his first ten days in office didn't he sign the contract for a Baltic pipeline to circumvent Ukraine, Poland and the Baltic states at considerable expense? Gazprom, the gun-toting arm of the Russian Reconquista, signed contracts with the Algerian firm Sonatrach and with Chavez' Venezuela. It protects Iran and Sudan, seeks to renew ties with Arab petro-monarchies, and leads an offensive in Central Asia. This new energy power is putting the screws to the European Union and threatening to squeeze the West dry. Putin's "liberal" economist, H. Gref, recently declared: "What's Davos but a little village in Switzerland? St. Petersburg, by contrast, is the most beautiful city in the universe." A word to the wise suffices! The man is an aesthete. While flying over the ruins of Grozny in a helicopter accompanied by his master, he exclaimed, "It looks like a Hollywood set for a film about World War II."

Nothing is forcing the Western democracies to crown the Petro Czar. All that supports the Russian economy is the price per barrel. Its industry is stagnating, just the opposite of the boom in China. Its balance of trade – apart from raw materials and armaments – is pitiful. Outside Moscow and St. Petersburg, misery is everywhere. And while the bureaucratic Hydra grows one head after the next, corruption spreads in a stream of Mafiosi wars and settlings of accounts. The "Russian way of life" must import all the amenities of consumer society from the Big Mac to the computer. Russia's new power is an affliction, capable of increasing world chaos but not of forgoing credit and investments from the developed economies. Must we, on the pretext of "not humiliating" the Kremlin, cede to its demands and allow it to regain its hold over its "close neighbours" and blackmail the European Union? Or, as Gary Kasparov and the new dissidents of the "other Russia" demand, is it better not to cede on human rights and liberties, ours as well as theirs?

There is no new Cold War. Putin is not Stalin. He does not hold sway over half of Europe like his much-admired teacher Andropov. The challenge of facing up to Putin only seems frightening in view of our own disunity, myopic rivalries and weaknesses.

*

The article originally appeared in German on Perlentaucher on July 14, 2006.

Andre Glucksmann is a French philosopher who was active in the protest movement of the 1960s and opposed the communist regimes of Eastern Europe. His most recent book is "Une rage d'enfant.

Translation: jab.

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