REACTIONS TO "THE RUSSOPHOBIA CARD"

 

Johnson's Russia List 2008-#69 4 April 2008
Date: Thu, 3 Apr 2008
From: Andreas Umland <andreumland@yahoo.com>
Subject: Comment on Tsygankov in Moscow Times/JRL #68

The Paranoia Card

I think that Andrei Tsygankov's today article is a rather useful illustration of how current US rhetoric on Russia can be perceived. It would be especially helpful, if this article were reprinted in a major US outlet. Yet, there are, at least, three additions that need to be made to Tsygankov's argument:

First, US "anti-Russian" rhetoric is not that particular. One can hear similar voices in both Western and Eastern Europe. Tsygankov reproduces here a common Russian allegation that the West's current "anti-Russianness" is a sole result of Russia's recent "resurgence" as an international economic and political factor, or even a pathological reaction to Russia's purported "rebirth" as an independent nation under Putin. However, as Tsygankov should know, much of the more competent criticism of current Russia comes from people who not only know and study, but actually like or even love the Russian people, culture and customs - not to mention the various Russians and half-Russians among the critics.

What Tsygankov seems to allege is what one often hears inside Russia too: If you criticize Putin, you are a "Russophobe". And if you are in favour of his policies, you are a "patriot". Tsygankov apparently applies a similar logic: Criticism of Putin's dismantling of democracy is emotional and unhelpful. Ignoring such developments is sober and constructive. Yet, I am afraid, some of those less critical of, or vocal on, recent Russian domestic political developments, simply don't care about Russia and are certainly no "Russophiles". They just want to do business as usual, and Russia to deliver oil, gas etc. in time.

Second, Russia itself has created much of - what one may call - the institutional background of Western criticism of her internal developments. It has entered the Council of Europe, and transformed the G7 into the G8. It is a prominent member of the OSCE, and engages with NATO in a special Council. The fundamental basis of all of these organizations are, however, those principles which Putin has violated repeatedly in recent years. Moreover, the Russian political elite is mocking Western values by making up concepts like "sovereign democracy" - a "democracy" based on half-democratic procedures, pseudo-pluralism, subverted checks and balances, a government-manipulated civil society, etc. If, as Tsygankov seems to think, "Russophobia" is the major problem in Russian-Western relations, then Russia should leave the above organizations. This would immediately cool down Western criticism of Russia. If Russia were an international actor similar to China,  Brussels and Washington would treat Moscow like Beijing - a state different from ours, but one has to do business with and should thus leave alone regarding its domestic matters.

Third, certainly, Western criticism of Russia has become harsh recently, and is, I agree with Tsygankov, sometimes ridiculously incompetent. Yet, this still does not compare to what Russia's most influential political commentators today publicly opine about the United States and NATO, on a daily basis. Whoever knows Russian and had the chance to watch Russian TV for a couple of days may agree that Russian views on Western foreign policies, in general, and the US's role in the world, in particular, are nothing less than paranoid. The bizarre conspiracy theorizing that has taken hold of Russian public opinion nowadays goes far beyond Western "Russophobia". The West is not simply criticized, but made responsible for many of the mishaps of recent Russian and world history. In its daily portrayal in Russian mass media, the US political elite comes across as a bunch of scoundrels whose every word on Western intentions in international affairs needs to be seen as a purposeful lie.

Much of what Putin has recently done to Russia's political institutions is justified by this kind of discourse: Russia needs to protect itself from various foreign agents, national traitors, and Western spies. An open political system is not something that Russians can afford in conditions of massive Western attempts to subvert the nation's independence and uniqueness. In the opinion of people Gleb Pavlovskii, Mikhail Leontev, Alexander Dugin and many other prominent commentators, Russia is fighting a hidden war with the West, and, therefore, needs to become a fortress within which democratic niceties are dangerous luxury.

The core of current Western-Russian misunderstandings lies at least as much in this kind of views as in Western "Russophobia". In the unlikely case that Russia becomes a truly democratic country, much of what Tsygankov laments in his article would simply disappear.

Dr. Andreas Umland teaches at the National Taras Shevchenko University in Kyiv, edits the book series “Soviet and Post­Soviet Politics and Society” (www.ibidem-verlag.de/spps.html) and compiles the biweekly "Russian Nationalism Bulletin" (groups.yahoo.com/group/russian_nationalism/).

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#28
Date: Thu, 03 Apr 2008
From: Andrei Tsygankov <andrei@sfsu.edu>
Subject: Response to Umland

I am grateful to Andreas Umland for providing a useful summary of points that are usually brought up in response to my and others arguments about Russophobia. Let me briefly respond to his three essential claims.

1. Putin-phobia should not be equated with Russophobia.

I agree that criticisms of Russia and its political system are entirely legitimate. The issue is how balanced such criticisms are and what political agendas are behind them. Russophobia is not merely a critique of Russia, but a critique that is beyond any sense of proportion and the one that is waged with the purpose of undermining the nations political reputation. I define Russophobia as a fear of Russias political system that is viewed as incompatible with the interests and values of the West in general and the United States in particular. This fear may be cultural or politically motivated or both. My definition is therefore broader than merely an irrational fear of Russia, and it encompasses both cultural and political expressions of a highly distorted critique of my country.

It is legitimate to be critical of Russia and its rulers, but it is equally important to be consistent and self-critical. For example, one cannot present Yeltsin as the father of Russian democracy and Putin as responsible for taking back all political freedoms given by Yeltsin. Any serious scholar understands that the view is a caricature, not an analysis, yet this is largely the view that is fed to the American public by the mainstream media.

The sense of balance also calls to pay attention to the overall nature of Russias current transformation and to how Russians themselves feel about it. Russia has gone a long way from communism and is now rebuilding its state a job that is enormous and should not be reduced to development of pluralistic political institutions and free media, however important they are. Explaining overwhelming support of Putins policies at home by high oil prices and the Kremlins manipulation of the public yet another typical Russophobic move severely diminishes real accomplishments of Russias rulers and makes a mockery of the Russian peoples ability to understand what is good for them at this point in history. Every media pundit wants to discuss high energy prices as the cause of Russias economic success, but few pay attention to Putins remarkably consistent macroeconomic policies and preparations for soft landing of the economy in case of the oil prices downturn.

The same sense of balance requires that those analyzing Russia place its transformation in a comparative context. Many, albeit not all, Russian problems are typical state-building problems that nations encounter, and they should not be presented as indicative of Russias inherent drive to autocracy or empire. Russias foreign policies in the former Soviet region, for example, are largely defensive and driven by desire to secure the nations large borders. If one compares Russias foreign policy record to that of the U.S. using the yardstick of imperialism and expansionism, the comparison is hardly going to be favorable to the United States.

2. Russias America-phobia is even more extreme.

America-phobia in Russia is indeed strongly present in media and cultural products. The phenomenon has some cultural roots, but is also a response to US policies of nuclear, energy and military supremacy in the world. Russian America-phobia is probably more extreme than Americas Russophobia, but not more extreme than American hegemonic and imperial discourse. Power imbalance makes the whole difference here. Extreme hegemonic policies tend to provoke an extreme kind of response, and Russian nationalist movements and commentators react to fears of further unilateral encroachment on Russias political system and foreign policy interests. One may call it paranoia, but even paranoid ones may have real enemies, as the saying goes. America-phobia in Russia will subside if and when Russias legitimate interests are taken into account and more cooperative and multilateral security regimes are devised in Europe, Eurasia and Middle East.

3. Russophobia will disappear when Russia is a democracy.

This I am afraid is a well-intentioned illusion. Russophobia that I describe is a product of a global power struggle, rather than merely a culturally embedded emotion or a dislike of Russias political system. Democracy or not, Russia is sure to provoke some highly negative reactions simply because its potential revival will be viewed as dangerous to certain elite interests. I acknowledge in my piece that many US politicians are driven by the larger objective to control worlds energy and geostrategic sites, rather than by Russophobia. Yet in todays context of Russias growing potential to influence developments in Eurasia the two should not be viewed as separate. Politicians, such as Senator John McCain or Vice-President Dick Cheney, are advocates of American hegemony, but they sound like Russophobes in their public criticisms of Russia because they view it as an obstacle in achieving their foreign policy objectives.

After the end of the Cold War, the American elites have grown accustomed to not meeting a strong resistance to NATO expansion, and they have expected a largely free access to Russias energy reserves and nuclear sites. Keeping Russia weak remains essential for extracting from Moscow important concessions concerning energy resources, geostrategic location and political domination in Eurasia. It is not the first time, and certainly not the last one, that the highly distorted critique of the Kremlin dominates the Western media during Russias economic and military recovery. As this recovery continues and for as long as there is hope for Washington to unilaterally assert favorable geostrategic and energy conditions in Eurasia, we should expect more, not less, of Russophobic rhetoric.

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#29
Date: Thu, 3 Apr 2008
From: "Lyndon Allin" <AllinL@law.georgetown.edu>
Subject: Response to Tsygankov/JRL#68

The Russophobia Scarecrow

In his column in today's Moscow Times, "The Russophobia Card," Andrei Tsygankov uses recent negative comments by Hillary Clinton and John McCain about Vladimir Putin as a launching pad for an attack on alleged Russophobia in American political and media circles.  The premise that criticism of Putin equates to condemnation of Russia is a flawed starting point - as Anders Aslund recently noted, taking a dim view of the former does not have to mean one has given up hope for the latter.

After all, the harsh criticism to which Prof. Tsygankov refers has been chiefly of Putin and his signature style - and is it really surprising that individuals who are vying for the votes of American citizens would criticize someone who has sought to score political points internationally and at home by employing anti-American rhetoric?  Furthermore, while McCain's criticism of Russia has been something of a minor campaign theme, one can discount this at least a bit if one recalls that one of McCain's main goals at this stage is to differentiate his approach to the world from George Bush's in the eyes of the voters.  As for the implication that Hillary has been "increasingly" talking about Russia in any way whatsoever, I believe that's simply not the case.

Ironically, Tsygankov seems in a sense to be accusing McCain and Clinton of filching a page from Putin's campaign playbook. In making the largely unsupportable statement that "[t]he U.S. presidential candidates are increasingly playing the Russophobia card in their campaigns," he suggests an atmosphere which is the mirror image of the crescendo of anti-Americanism which accompanied Russia's recent Duma and Presidential elections.

Tsygankov asserts that Joseph Biden's recent Wall Street Journal column "admitted" that "Russophobia is truly back into fashion" in the U.S.  That is an interesting gloss on Biden's column, which actually observed that "[b]y suppressing dissent, fueling suspicion of the West, and bullying smaller neighbors, the Putin administration has managed to undermine Moscow's prestige and bring Russophobia back into fashion." Far from being the reluctant admission of Russophobia implied by Tsygankov, Biden's column was at least the second in the last month to appear in a major American newspaper with proposals on how to improve the bilateral relationship - and, more importantly, acknowledging that "[w]hatever the American strategy has been, it clearly isn't working."  This suggests that, instead of the monolithic Russophobia implied by Tsygankov, the American establishment's thinking on Russia can be characterized by a growing recognition that each side bears some of the blame for the dysfunctional relationship and that a search for new solutions is necessary, but that an optimistic approach to the future is still possible.

Tsygankov criticizes American political and media elites for their ignorant and arrogant approach to Russia. I don't disagree with his assertions in this regard, but I don't understand how Americans applying an approach to Russia which is sadly typical of the American approach to all foreign lands adds up to "Russophobia." Unfortunately, it has often seemed that simple neglect and short-sightedness have been to blame for America's policy missteps with regard to Russia, rather than the sort of anti-Russian conspiracy suggested by Tsygankov. And when Russia's head of state goes out of his way to be stridently anti-American in his public statements, is it any wonder that Americans who are not specialists in foreign relations - and even some who are - fail to see how the US-Russian relationship could actually be a fruitful one for both sides?

I tend to agree with Tsygankov that the rapid expansion of NATO represented a triumph of interest group lobbying over what should have been seen as one of the US's overriding national interests - a cordial relationship with Russia.  Interestingly, Tsygankov laments the lack of a Russia lobby but does not note the cause. In Alexei Pankin's words, "People inside the Russian president's administration or the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, whose professional duty makes them responsible for shaping Russia's image" display "the distinctive characteristic of the current regime's mentality, utterly suspicious of independent initiatives and those who are not asking for money but offering all kinds of opportunities. It freely allocates funds as a form of reward for some sort of service to the administration, but not a means to achieve a goal."  The ineffectual attempts to create a Russia lobby showcase the downside of having the unbridled accumulation of personal wealth as a substitute for a national idea.

I couldn't agree more with Tsygankov's observation that "Russophobia is not in U.S. national interests and is not supported by the American public."  This suggests, though, that his concern may be misplaced and that Americans don't actually listen too closely to what our presidential candidates say about issues like Russia policy.  And why should we?  It's not as though most Americans decide who to vote for based on foreign policy issues, with the notable exception of Iraq.

Tsygankov suggests a need for a "fundamental psychological adjustment in Washington away from Russophobia" and cautions that "the healing of the U.S. Russophobic mindframe is going to require a lot of time."  But no matter who is elected US president, "Russophobia" will not have been a major plank in their campaign platform, nor is it quite the central element of the DC zeitgeist that Tsygankov suggests.  Even McCain could be expected, optimistically, to allow cooler heads to prevail and avoid sudden moves.  Anti-Americanism in Russia, on the other hand, is a defining characteristic of the country's foreign policy and was a key element of Putin's public statements during the recent electoral cycle.  Based on this, healing would seem to be more urgently needed in Moscow than in Washington.

I found this column worthy of such a lengthy response because it appears in the Moscow Times at a moment when the bilateral relationship appears to be at a fork in the road, and some in Moscow may believe that Tsygankov's kaleidoscope - in which isolated critical comments about Putin by McCain and Clinton are multiplied by reflection into a full-blown campaign of "increasing" Russophobia - is a valid lens through which to view the American political and media scene, which could bolster the arguments of those in Russia who would prefer to prolong the nostalgia-inducing atmosphere of Cold-War-style posturing which has gone on for too long already.

As a linguistic aside, it is interesting to note the origin of the phrase chosen for the title of Tsygankov's column (whether by its author or by the MT opinion-page editor).  According to Wikipedia, when we suggest that someone is "playing the race card," what we mean is "that someone has falsely accused another person of being a racist in order to gain some sort of advantage."  Since accusations of Russophobia are often trotted out in an effort to deflect attention from legitimate criticism of Russian policies, the title seems unintentionally apt.

 

Johnson's Russia List 2008-#70 7 April 2008 #23
Date: Fri, 04 Apr 2008
From: Stephen Shenfield <sshenfield@verizon.net>
Subject: Contribution to the debate on "Russophobia"

I agree with Tsygankov that the propaganda war between Russia and the West reflects a real conflict of material great power interests, although many of the foot soldiers in this war are no doubt perfectly sincere in their concern for human rights, democracy, and so forth. But I would like to clarify what I see as the essential nature of the great power conflict.

Yeltsin enjoyed the full support and indulgence of Western ruling circles not because he was such a great democrat but because he obeyed the dictates of the IMF, allowed Western "advisers" to take control of domestic economic policy, and kept Russia open to Western capital as an export market and field for investment. When keeping Russia on this course seemed to require firm action, they encouraged Yeltsin to stage a coup and shoot up his own parliament. So much for democracy!

At this time it appeared that Russia was going to be absorbed into the brave new world of capitalist globalization as one local administration among many others at the beck and call of supra-national Western capital. In this context it was possible to indulge Russian pretensions to a sphere of influence in the post-Soviet space. After all, what difference did it make if all the post-Soviet countries were to be open to the "globalizers" in any case?

Putin has, in essence, withdrawn Russia from globalization and established national capital, based on an alliance between the state and "patriotic" oligarchs, as master in its own house. Conditions have been created for Russian firms to compete on the home market and the role of foreign capital in key fields of investment has been drastically curtailed.

So now there is a real question about the position of Ukraine, Belarus, the Southern Caucasus, etc. Will they be extensions of the newly independent Russian market or will their ties with Russia be severed in order to facilitate their globalization? The conflict of interests in this zone has become much clearer.

Looking to the future, it must be borne in mind that the US is quite incapable of sustaining the global role it has assigned to itself. For some decades the US has been a declining power in relative terms. This is a long-term trend. The contrary impression caused by the collapse of the Soviet Union was largely an illusion, because the decline of the US has little to do with whatever happens in Russia: it is a function of the rise
of Europe, Japan, China, India, etc.

The US decline is now accelerating. It could have been spread out over a longer period, but Bush in his wisdom decided to act in such a way as to accelerate it. The dollar is rapidly losing its position as the world's trading and reserve currency. Together with the massive and still growing national debt, this is right now triggering a recession on a scale unseen in the postwar era. Nor is it only a matter of a bankrupt economy. The
long-neglected domestic infrastructure (bridges, etc.) will be undergoing progressive collapse. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have already exhausted and demoralized most of the army, and if Iran too is invaded that is sure to finish the job.

So however self-deluded some US politicians may be, they will have no choice in the matter. They will be forced by events to abandon the dream of globalization and world power and pull back from all areas of the world except those they regard as most vital (which does not include Russia or the former USSR) -- and perhaps even from those. "Russophobia" will no longer be relevant. They will have many much more pressing things to worry about than Russia (actually they already do).

So in the unlikely event that the Russian rulers and those who advise them were to ask for my advice, I would say this. Stay calm. Play for time. If together with China you can deter Bush from attacking Iran in the next few months, many people throughout the world will be greatly beholden to you. By this time next year you may well be facing a very different US -- much chastened, much less cocky, much more inward-looking (a very suitable orientation in the circumstances). It is high time to start giving serious thought to what the "post-American" world will be like and how we are going to cope with its problems.