Shortly before taking off to Japan for the G20 summit in late June, Russian President Vladimir Putin took the time for an extensive interview with the Financial Times. He was asked about current international hot topics such as the Middle East, North Korea, trade relations, and Venezuela as well as Russian domestic challenges. Putin seized the opportunity to comment on the state of Western democracies and proclaimed the end of the liberal idea. While music to the ears of European populists, his words resonate as cynicism, maybe even a threat, with those who believe in freedom and democracy.
It is easy to dismiss Putin’s remarks as regular Russian propaganda; however, this discourse has become mainstream in European politics. In Italy and Austria, pro-Russian, populist right-wing parties are in government. In the European Parliament, the sovereigntist far-right group Identity and Democracy is the fifth largest fraction. The four Visegrad states – Poland, Hungary, Slovakia, and Czech Republic – do not shy away from confrontation when it comes to issues such as Poland’s overhaul of its judiciary or Hungary’s undermining of press freedom. That such aversion of liberal democratic values persists even in countries such as Poland which is very skeptical towards Russia, shows that any country can be susceptible to this normative onslaught.
Given these ramifications it is more important than ever to understand what Putin and far-right populists in Europe are actually advocating. The Russian president’s interview stands out as one of the most explicit accounts of a vision for societies and their relations that is in direct conflict with liberal values and democracy. This is not to say that any criticism of our current system is unfounded. In fact, Putin does raise some important points which the European Union have to face. This article seeks to analyze and separate his main theses to identify where Europeans have to stand up to defend democracy and the liberal idea, and where they are facing legitimate challenges that require solutions.
“Incidentally, the president of France said recently that the American democratic model differs greatly from the European model. So, there are no common democratic standards.”[i]Vladimir Putin
When asked about the situation in Venezuela and humanitarian interventions in Libya and Syria, Putin criticized Europe and the US for trying to impose democracy on other countries and intervening militarily. While there are legitimate arguments against humanitarian intervention and critical scrutiny of the means of democracy promotion is indispensable, suggesting that “there are no common democratic standards” is false and misleading.
Indeed, the 2011 intervention in Libya failed to restore peace to the country and instead left behind a failed state.[ii] Linking the failure of a military mission in Libya, however, to the principle of democracy is a populist gimmick. Just because there can be differences between democratic systems, does not mean that these systems don’t share common standards which set them apart from other forms of government. These standards include the rule of law, an effective mechanism for the people to exercise their sovereignty, and a separation of powers.[iii] Beyond such minimal standards there can be many ways of realizing them which leads to differences in the institutional arrangements of, for example, France or Britain. Nevertheless, they share the minimal standards which distinguish them as democracies from non-democratic forms of government.
For Putin, this statement, even though it is false, serves an important purpose: if there are no common standards for democracy, no one can accuse Russia of being undemocratic. It, hence, legitimizes his authoritarian rulership and undermines Western criticisms of Russia. Such populist rhetoric is intended to distract from the facts that the rule of law in Russia is almost nonexistent, there are no effective checks and balances to ensure a separation of power[iv], and elections are severely impacted by government repression, media biases, and an invented opposition[v].
Therefore, when listening to Putin or populist parties in Europe who have an affinity towards Russia, it is important to remember that there are, in fact, common democratic standards which distinguish democracies from authoritarianism and that Russia is far from being a genuinely democratic state.
“As for the party and the party state building in China, this is for the Chinese people to decide; we do not interfere. Today’s Russia has its own principles and rules of life, and China with its 1.35bn people has its own. You try to rule a country with such a population. This is not Luxembourg, with all due respect to this wonderful country. Therefore, it is necessary to give the Chinese people the opportunity to decide how to organize their lives.”[vi]Vladimir Putin
Non-interference and national sovereignty are recurring themes in Putin’s statements, whether he is asked about China, the Middle East, or Venezuela. On the one hand, greater respect for national sovereignty is a legitimate challenge of the international mode of engagement, especially regarding with what ease Western politicians talk about military or humanitarian interventions in other states.[vii] On the other hand, seen in connection with Russia’s efforts to distort understandings of democracy, it appears more as an attempt to legitimize cooperation with authoritarian regimes.
Afterall, China is hardly a democratic state and the recent elections in Venezuela have become a casualty of the government’s struggle to hold on to power. Thus, while national sovereignty should be respected, the international community must find ways to respond when people are denied “the opportunity to decide how to organize their life”.[viii] Putin, however, refuses to accept any responsibility in such cases and, instead, uses the opportunity to advance business ties with other countries: “We have nothing to do with what is happening in Venezuela, if you know what I mean. . . Back under [President Hugo] Chávez we sold weapons to Venezuela without any limits and problems. . . We signed contracts, which say what we have to do when it comes to servicing this military equipment. . . Are we regulating the rebels’ actions as some of our partners are doing, or the actions of President Maduro? He is the president, why should we control his actions? He is in control. Whether he is doing well or not, this is another matter altogether. We do not make any judgments.”[ix] In other words, no matter what is going on in your country, Russia is open for business.
But how serious is Russia about non-interference and national sovereignty? According to a recent report by the Free Russia Foundation, the Kremlin is actively interfering in European politics to undermine the rule of law. From the Skripal affair over attempts to interfere the Dutch election in 2017 to high profile money laundering schemes through Russian investments in Germany, the report presents a large body of evidence which suggests that Russia is far from respecting national sovereignty or the democratic rights of citizens.[x] Additionally, the question of whether and to what extent Russia sought to interfere in the United States’ (US) presidential elections of 2016 is still under investigation.
“Has anyone ever given a thought to who actually benefitted and what benefits were gained from globalization . . .? . . .The Trump team sensed this very keenly and clearly, and they used this in the election campaign. It is where you should look for reasons behind Trump’s victory, rather than in any alleged foreign interference.”[xi]Vladimir Putin
In this statement, Putin advances an important and legitimate criticism of the capitalist economy: there are people who benefitted from globalization, and people who didn’t. The divide can be captured by indicators of wealth and income inequality. For example, in the US only three individuals hold as much wealth as the bottom half of the American society.[xii] In Europe, income inequality has increased by 25 to 40% in nearly every country since 1980.[xiii] These indicators show that globalization, trade liberalization, and economic freedoms have disproportionately benefitted a rich minority in both the US and Europe.
This is a serious challenge which politicians from across the political spectrum have to address. Putin’s second claim, that Trump identified and used this circumstance to his advantage is correct; however, he was not the only one. Bernie Sanders ran a passionate campaign in 2016, which primarily focused on economic inequality. The issue remains salient as a variety of candidates in the current primary election campaign of the Democratic party have addressed inequality as a key challenge. In European political discourse, the unfair distribution of wealth and inequality are subject of heated debates as well. In Germany for example, Kevin Kühnert, head of the Social Democratic Party’s youth organization, provoked reactions from across the political spectrum when contemplating about how to share the profits of a company not only among its CEOs and shareholders, but also among its workers.[xiv]
While Putin is right about the distribution of benefits from globalization and Trump’s use of this issue, this does not warrant any disregard for alleged foreign interference in elections in Europe or the US. What impact any foreign actions had or could have had in the 2016 US Presidential election is unclear. Nonetheless, it is important to know whether it happened to ensure free and democratic elections as well as expose Russia’s ambitions abroad.
“The liberal idea has become obsolete. It has come into conflict with the interests of the overwhelming majority of the population.”[xv]Vladimir Putin
According to Putin, liberalism stands for inaction, elites reaping the benefits of globalization while the people are being left behind, and violent migrants who “kill, plunder and rape with impunity”.[xvi] Meanwhile, Russia actively undermines the rule of law in the West and attempts to distort understandings of democracy.
Putin presents himself as the defender of the “core population” to justify repressing the rights of immigrants, homosexuals, and minorities. Since a purge of people suspected of being gay in 2017, during which more than 100 individuals were arrested and tortured, Russia is experiencing a new wave of state-led discrimination, spearheaded by an anti-propaganda law which allows the state to impose fines on NGOs and individuals who advocate on behalf of the LGBTQ community.[xvii] Putin comments: “I am not trying to insult anyone, because we have been condemned for our alleged homophobia as it is. But we have no problems with LGBT persons. God forbid, let them live as they wish. But some things do appear excessive to us. They claim now that children can play five or six gender roles. I cannot even say exactly what genders these are, I have no notion. Let everyone be happy, we have no problem with that. But this must not be allowed to overshadow the culture, traditions and traditional family values of millions of people making up the core population.”[xviii] In other words, those who do not belong to the core population cannot expect equal treatment.
Since the annexation of Crimea in 2014, many academic and political observers agree that Russia has not given up on hegemonic ambitions and strives to be a political heavyweight on the global scene.[xix] As an economic lightweight, however, Russia’s political strength depends on its military and diplomatic influence.[xx] In this realm, a united foreign policy of the European Union (EU), a proactive US diplomatic strategy, a European defense union, and the normative power and attraction of liberal values and democracy championed by the EU and the US would be significant obstacles for the Kremlin to exert significant global influence. Therefore, it is in Russia’s best interest to divide EU member states, to bring populists into power, present those advocating for democracy and the liberal idea as hypocrites, and have a president Donald Trump in the White House who alienates the US in the most important global forums and debates. In this onslaught on democracy and liberal values, Putin presents himself and his ideas as a normative alternative. He claims to represent the people and presents the liberal idea and cosmopolitanism as elite projects. This divide in his rhetoric between the people and the elites is a classic example of populism.
The liberal idea is neither dead nor obsolete. Instead it is under attack. Whether those trying to advance an illiberal order in the West will succeed, however, depends on the people in Europe and the US and whether they remind themselves of what these values mean to them and their lives. There are common democratic standards which are minimal requirements for a people to rule itself as opposed to being ruled by an authoritarian leader. The rule of law is indispensable to enjoy freedom and not be subjected to the arbitrary authority of government. Democracy is the only way in which societies can address the challenges our generation faces such as the fair distribution of the benefits of globalization, climate change, or state sovereignty. Therefore, these issues shall not be exploited to divide societies and distract them from the fundamental value and benefit of the liberal idea, which has inspired people globally, from the Magna Carta in 1215 to the French Revolution.
[i] “Transcript: ‘All this fuss about spies . . . it is not worth serious interstate relations’ – The Russian president on globalization, China, Trump and the end of the ‘liberal idea’”; Financial Times; retrieved on 02.07.2019; https://www.ft.com/content/878d2344-98f0-11e9-9573-ee5cbb98ed36
[ii] England, A., Saleh, H.; Lybia: the battle for peace in a failing state”; Financial Times; retrieved on 05.07.2019; https://www.ft.com/content/993cb870-0d2c-11e9-a3aa-118c761d2745
[iii] Schumpeter, J. (2003). Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy. London: Routledge
[iv] Remington, T. F. (7th ed.) (2012). Politics in Russia. Longman
[v] Sestanovich, S. (2007). Another Russia? Putin’s Invented Opposition. Journal of Democracy. 18(2), p. 122-124
[vi] See [i]
[vii] Hayward, T.; “The Epistemological Deficit of Liberal Interventionism”
[viii] See [i]
[ix] See [i]
[x] “Misrule of Law – How the Kremlin Uses Western Institutions to Undermine the West”; Free Russia Foundation
[xi] See [i]
[xiii] Blanchet, T., Chancel, L., Gethin, A.; “Forty years of inequality in Europe: Evidence from distributional national accounts”; retrieved on 04.07.2019; https://voxeu.org/article/forty-years-inequality-europe
[xiv] „Was heißt Sozialismus für Sie, Kevin Kühnert?“; Die Zeit; retrieved on 05.07.2019; https://www.zeit.de/politik/deutschland/2019-05/kevin-kuehnert-spd-jugendorganisation-sozialismus
[xv] See [i]
[xvi] See [i]
[xvii] “Russia: New Wave of Anti-LGBT Persecution”; Human Rights Watch; retrieved on 11.07.2019; https://www.hrw.org/news/2019/02/15/russia-new-wave-anti-lgbt-persecution
[xviii] See [i]
[xix] De Grauwe, P.; “Why Russia is economically weak and politically strong”; retrieved on 09.07.2019; https://blogs.lse.ac.uk/europpblog/2018/04/28/why-russia-is-economically-weak-and-politically-strong/
[xx] See [xviii]