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The Limits of the US as Teacher

"Ivan average consumer supports the new self-confident policy of the Kremlin and hardly worries about democracy and human rights. The West must free itself from the illusion its own values can be forced on countries. The change must come from within."

While life improves in Russia, Europe increasingly sees Russia as a threat

By Sonja Margolina

[This article published in: NZZ Online, Neue Zurcher Zeitung, Feb 13, 2007 is translated abridged from the German on the World Wide Web,  http://www.nzz.ch. Sonja Margolina is a free journalist focused on Russia.]

Russians are more optimistic about the future than in a long time. The living standard has improved for a large part of the population. Ivan average consumer supports the new self-confident policy of the Kremlin and hardly worries about democracy and human rights. The West must free itself from the illusion that its own values can be forced on countries. The change must come from within.

Igor Awerkijew directs the civil division in the industrial city Perm, an institution called into being by President Putin. Many regime critics see this as an attempt to create a substitute for civil society.

In Germany where many associations are engaged for Russian civil society, the authoritarianism growing in Russia is seen apprehensively. Awerkijew does not understand this pessimism: "When I am afraid," he said at a Berlin meeting about xenophobia in Russia, "I have the feeling that I come from a fascist state and am a victim. One should stop giving us money. We can manage ourselves."


Some reacted with annoyance to such self-righteousness. To one, he seemed an engaged human rights activist, a megaphone of the regime. Others were frightened they could lose their right to exist as "democracy promoters." A new self-assurance and a trust in his own powers were expressed in Awerkijew's irritating reply. Awerkijew shares this confidence with a growing number of his compatriots. Many in the West cannot make head or tails of this.

The increasingly critical attitude of the western public to development in Russia is actually in crass contradiction to the self-assessment of the Russian population. According to surveys of the Lewanda center, 2008 was one of the most peaceful and happiest years. 46 percent of Russians look optimistically to the future. The reason is a real improvement of the living standard of a significant part of the population. The results of the reforms initiated at the beginning of the nineties finally benefit the average person. Ivan average consumer who can now realize his long pent-up consumer dreams thanks to cheap credits is hardly interested in democracy, human rights and western criticism. After the defeat in the Cold War, he has gained self-confidence and approves the policy of the Kremlin, even its superpower gestures.


In the perception of the western public, the successful year 2006 from the Russian view seemed like one of the most alarming years after the disintegration of the Soviet Union. Many events in such a short time triggered so much worry about Russia and doubt in its foreign policy calculability.

After turning off the gas tap for the Ukraine, the conflict with Georgia was accompanied by a trade blockade against the small territory and a deportation of Georgian citizens from Russian cities. At the same time there was a hostile Gazprom takeover of parts of the energy consortium led by Shell. Since the middle of the 1990s, this consortium had invested in oil and gas production near Sachalin. At the end of the millennium, Russia had cut off the oil production of European refineries for three days on account of the conflict with Bylorussia. The dubious law that set foreign and Russian NGOs under state control, the murder of critical journalist Anna Politkowskaja and the Polonium affair have damaged Russia's reputation.

Western reporting is more critical, the more the real life of the vast country disappears behind the political crime series and the more incomprehensible seems the attitude of people like Igor Awerkijew. The normative point of view oriented entirely in "values" impairs understanding the other. Since the Enlightenment, the western view has claimed a universal authority. When Europe and then the US dominated the world, their view prevailed as without alternative. Today the influence of the West shrivels along with the appeal of its values.

"Special way" is not a mere label for a development deviating from democracy. "Special way" is seen as a legitimate characteristic of modernization for many nations that are successful without worrying about separation of powers and human rights. The oil-socialism of a Hugo Chavez, the Chinese communo-capitalism, many pseudo-democracies and state capitalist autocracies (which are often the same) are judged by their own population and their neighbors on whether they can show successes.

Most of these countries are civilized in a different way than Russia at the European periphery, which has tried for centuries to catch-up to the West. The Russian elite has adopted western education and science and defines its identity with view to European culture. Out of this cultural affinity, Russian "westerners" dreamt of the "common house of Europe." From Russia, the West demands a transformation that should climax deterministically in its Europeanization. The recently deceased Moscow sociologist Juri Lewada questioned this kind of development teleology. "Transformation," he said, " is a state, not a process."


Russian conditions are distorted when measured with the western surveyor's rod. EU politicians seem to believe Russia's "integration" in the West will lead to a "value-based partnership," that is to relations based on Western norms. The integration of an enormous community like Russia in the EU could massively accelerate the import of its "values" concentrated in the political and economic culture. The best-known embodiment of this culture is Gazprom led by the Kremlin.

Russia is a hard morsel. The West would do well to no longer throw its weight around as teacher, demanding the Russian population adopt western values and not become indignant when the value transfer does not occur easily. Igor Awerkijew and his like seek to advance Russia. In his city, he is successful. He knows only too well that he can fail.

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