Rus­sia’s new kind of friends

The Washington Post Sunday - - SUNDAY OPINION - ANNE AP­PLE­BAUM ap­ple­baum­let­ters@wash­post.com

The World Pub­lic Fo­rum’s “Di­a­logue of Civ­i­liza­tions” meets ev­ery year on the Greek is­land of Rhodes, un­der the pa­tron­age of its founder, Vladimir Yakunin. Un­til re­cently, Yakunin was the chair­man of Rus­sian state rail­ways and a close ally of Rus­sian Pres­i­dent Vladimir Putin. Now he has been ejected from Putin’s in­ner cir­cle, but he still opened the fo­rum in Rhodes this month. When asked, he an­grily de­nied ru­mors that a hushed-up cor­rup­tion scan­dal had led to his fall from grace. Only an “id­iot or a provo­ca­teur” could pos­si­bly say such a thing, he told a reporter from Politico. A few min­utes later, he showed the same reporter his 140,000-euro watch. “If you want to buy some­thing, what’s wrong with that?”

The fo­rum also con­tin­ued, as in the past, to gather peo­ple will­ing to en­dorse Rus­sian views of the world. There was Va­clav Klaus, the former Czech pres­i­dent, who called Putin’s Syr­ian ad­ven­ture a “log­i­cal step.” There was John Laugh­land, po­lit­i­cal di­rec­tor of a Rus­sian-backed think tank, the In­sti­tute for Democ­racy and Co­op­er­a­tion, who ar­gued that the Euro­pean Union was con­ceived by the CIA, as part of a U.S. plot to sub­ju­gate Europe. Plus dozens of oth­ers, from all around the world.

Once upon a time, we had a vo­cab­u­lary to de­scribe or­ga­ni­za­tions like the fo­rum or the In­sti­tute for Democ­racy and Co­op­er­a­tion. Dur­ing the Cold War, we spoke of “front or­ga­ni­za­tions,” such as the World Fed­er­a­tion of Trade Unions or even the Amer­i­can com­mu­nist party, which were al­legedly in­de­pen­dent but se­cretly sup­ported with Soviet money. Such groups were run by “agents of in­flu­ence” — peo­ple who know­ingly pro­moted the in­ter­ests of the Soviet Union in the West — or “use­ful id­iots,” peo­ple who did the same thing, un­con­sciously, usu­ally out of ide­o­log­i­cal naiveté.

But times have changed, and di­rect par­al­lels can­not be drawn. Klaus, who is not an id­iot, doesn’t hide his financial links to Moscow. The fo­rum does not hide its links to Rus­sia, either. In­stead, they both seek openly to le­git­imize the anti-NATO, anti-Euro­pean, anti-Western views of the Rus­sian elite. In a bid for re­spectabil­ity, the fo­rum’s Web site even dis­plays the many lo­gos of its dis­tin­guished “part­ner” or­ga­ni­za­tions from around the world. Not all of th­ese partnerships are real: A spokesman for the Coun­cil on For­eign Re­la­tions, whose logo ap­pears on the site, told me that it does not sup­port the fo­rum at all. But if you were just glanc­ing, you’d never know it.

Even harder to cat­e­go­rize are the ac­tions of some gen­uinely le­git­i­mate politi­cians. For ex­am­ple, An­drej Babis, the Czech fi­nance min­is­ter, and Mi­los Ze­man, the Czech pres­i­dent — once a reg­u­lar at the fo­rum — fre­quently echo or re­peat Rus­sian slo­gans, as oc­ca­sion­ally does the Slo­vak prime min­is­ter, Robert Fico. In Au­gust and early Septem­ber of 2014, all three ar­gued against Western sanc­tions on Rus­sia, us­ing sim­i­lar lan­guage. Ze­man called them “in­ef­fec­tive,” Babis called them “non­sense” and Fico called them “point­less.” Later, they shifted their rhetoric, and be­gan to point to the refugee cri­sis and rad­i­cal Is­lam as the “real” threats to Europe. “The refugee cri­sis threat­ens the Czech re­pub­lic more than Rus­sia,” said Babis in Septem­ber. “Is­lamist ter­ror­ism is a greater threat to Europe than Rus­sia,” said Ze­man in May.

Like Hun­gar­ian Prime Min­is­ter Vik­tor Or­ban, all of th­ese men have do­mes­tic po­lit­i­cal rea­sons for of­fer­ing ver­bal sup­port to Putin: They want to ride the anti-Euro­pean Union, anti-“es­tab­lish­ment” wave that has washed across all of Europe, and to cap­i­tal­ize on eco­nomic dis­con­tent. Since the E.U. be­gan, politi­cians have long found it use­ful to blame “Brus­sels” for prob­lems that they can­not fix. But there may be other mo­tives, too. Ze­man’s close ad­viser ran the of­fice of Lukoil, the Rus­sian oil com­pany. Babis, who is also one of the Czech Re­pub­lic’s rich­est men, owns com­pa­nies that con­sume a good deal of Rus­sian gas.

But I shouldn’t un­fairly sin­gle out Cen­tral Euro­peans, for there are many other Euro­peans who sup­port Rus­sian for­eign pol­icy with sim­i­larly mixed mo­tives. Former Ital­ian prime min­is­ter Sil­vio Ber­lus­coni main­tains both a po­lit­i­cal and a financial re­la­tion­ship with Putin. So does Ger­hard Schroeder, the former chan­cel­lor of Ger­many. Th­ese men aren’t id­iots either — but nei­ther are they se­cret agents, spies or traitors. At the same time, they are work­ing steadily, in their own ways, to un­der­mine Western se­cu­rity and sup­port the spread of Rus­sian au­thor­i­tar­i­an­ism in East­ern Europe as well as the Mid­dle East. So what do we call them? We need a new vo­cab­u­lary for a new era.

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