During almost every event on the situation in Russia or ways to respond to the next steps of Putin in relations with the European countries, I have to remind the speakers that when they talk about Putin’s politics they should not say “Russia’s politics” or, especially, “Russians’ politics,” but every time I face their incomprehension and astonishment. That is why I decided to specifically explain why such distinction is important not only for us, Russians who live in Poland and belong to the diaspora of “free Russians”, but also for Europeans: politicians, experts, and ordinary citizens of the European countries.
Vladimir Putin came to power 17 years ago. It happened as a result of the deal stricken between the elites, reinforced by oligarchs’ money and security services. The money spent on creating the image of his image as a young and active politician, as well as operations by the security services have helped to convince the Russians that Putin was the best possible candidate as the President of Russia. Over the next four years making up for his first term, Putin successfully cheated on all those who invested in his victory. He compromised his obligations towards all the members of the deal and deceived the Russians. Together with his gang, step by step he took control over different spheres of political and economic life, mass media and economic assets of the great oligarchs and businessmen, as well as obtained full control over different state institutions, law enforcement structures, spheres of education, science and culture. He took over the control over companies (both public and private) involved in production of oil and other natural resources which constitute Russia’s major source of income and the financing of development and catching up modernization.
Year after year, Putin and his gang took over more new parts of Russia, sold all of its resources to Europe, invested the profits in assets in the West, and with the help of European “friends and partners” corrupted Europe. They took the money from me and my compatriots, and used this money to corrupt journalists and experts, to be able to effectively cheat Russians by the means of propaganda. They spent this money to accuse my friends and colleagues from the democratic movement of spying and working against their own country. They spent this money to create the impression of legitimacy of rigged elections and the authenticity of the political discussion in the puppet parliament. They led Russian society to such a state that in the conditions of full lack of the public policy sphere, the Russians almost lost the political will, never developed their grassroots political activity habit, and eventually lost the ability of critical thinking.
Now we see how deplorable are the results of seventeen-year-long tolerating gangs of thieves who got in their hands one of the largest countries of the world and button to the atomic bomb. Even Putin’s supporters would not dare to call Russia a democratic country with developed institutions of civil society and free media. Moreover, in the official rhetoric of Putin and his people the very idea of the democratic representation is undermined.
It brings the question why the European experts and politicians so often put an equal sign between Putin with his gang and the whole Russia and all the Russians? After all, the same people do not say “the Belarusians” referring to the Lukashenko’s activities. In 2013, they did not say: “Ukrainians withdrew from the intention to sign the association agreement with the EU”. They do not say “Syrians” talking about Asad’s actions. What is the difference between the situatuation with Russia from the one with Belarus? Would the reaction of the Ukrainians to the Yanukovych’s decision be so quick and overwhelming if all the European media were writing constantly in the headlines “Ukrainians” instead of “Yanukovych”? Would the Syrians feel they had support of the entire civilized world if experts talked about the “politics of Syria” instead of “Asad’s activities”? I think that the answers to these questions are obvious.
I know what will be the main objection to my remarks: quantitative surveys show that 86% of Russians endorse Putin, and supported inclusion of Crimea to Russia in 2014. There have been a lot written about reliability of the quantitative surveys in authoritarian regimes and how they become an instrument of propaganda. I can only add to this that even if you trust the polls, there are these other 15-20% people in open opposition to Putin, and they are at least about 10 million – as many as a population of a small European country. Besides, I am sure that among these 80-86% of those who theoretically support Putin only about 1/10 would be ready to stand in his defense and no one would be ready to die for him. I also know very well that most of these 86% immediately will cease to support him as soon as they feel that Russia might choose a different path which we are not allowed to see now.
The Russian democratic movement works today in such an environment that every day it has to prove that this movement exists and can make a difference. It needs to prove to itself and its ideological allies who lose their faith and burn out. It needs to prove to the Russians who are constantly told by the state propaganda, with its much more resources than anyone else can have, that all fighters of democracy and human rights are “Western spies” and traitors acting for money from enemies. But the most discouraging is that it has to prove also to the European partners and, it would seem, friends. Instead of supporting us as friends and increase faith in our own strength, European politicians, experts and journalists say that the Putin’s rule is legitimate, and Russia and the Russians equal to Putin and his friends. It looks paradoxically, but illustrious propagandist indicator – 86% support for Putin in Russia – hypnotizes all wise and critically minded people in Europe, makes them behave like mice following flute, humbly bow to Putin, and admit that he is a legitimate, democratically elected leader and representative of the Russians. And yet the same people somehow are able to distinguish between president Lukashenko and the rest of the Belarusians, and do not recognize him as a democratic leader, despite the fact that, according to the opinion polls, he has support of 97% of his countrymen. The same people somehow do not put an equal sign between the leadership of the Central Asian dictatorships, and residents of these countries. Similarly, by a simple change of rhetoric, the same people could provide a huge support to hundreds of thousands Russian activists.
Let us say “Putin”, not “Russia”, when we are talking about politics and the attitude of Putin. Let us stop talking about “Russian propaganda”, “Russian aggression” and “Russians posing threat”. Millions of Russians do not want to be a threat. They are not the owners of the media conglomerates and cannot influence them, and when they hear how they are equated with Putin they lose faith in each other and the motivation to act. During the last 17 years, they have been deprived of everything: natural resources, money, freedom, sense of pride in their own country, possibility to develop and create. They are being deprived of the right to education and medical treatment, and even roads and houses. They have not a slightest hope that there is someone out there who sympathizes with them. They feel that no one cares about them. What revolution is possible here? What protest? What will it change if everyone in this world is indifferent to what will happen to a hundred of millions Russians?
Our stereotypes are stuck deeply inside and it is always very difficult to admit that they distort reality like a distorting mirror, showing us the flat and distorted picture of the world. But if we are to refuse them, if we stop to think according to old decals and habits, maybe the world around us will become different. And perhaps there will be no need to fight with the illusory threats and it will turn out that you can find reliable partners to fight the real threats.
Anastasia Sergeeva is a political scientist, a graduate of the State University of St. Petersburg. In the years 2007-2015 has worked in the International Republican Institute, has the experience in implementation of social campaigns, opinion polls, training of leaders. She was the leader of a youth organization “Oborona” and conducted programs for young leaders in the Russian regions. Member of For Free Russia Association.