Justitia, Old Bridge of Heidelberg

Justitia, Old Bridge of Heidelberg
Justitia, Old Bridge of Heidelberg © Gernot Keller, 2007
Blinkered Justice articles also appear on CrimeTalk and Government In The Lab

Saturday, 22 October 2011

Putin and the stereotyping of Russia

Kremlin Wall (c) Mark Gee
Latest article re-published from The Pryer. 

The Hindustani Times reports that Russian Prime Minister, Vladimir Putin, has appeared on three national television stations refuting suggestions that he is reviving the Soviet Union. Recent articles on the BBC and The Guardian have noted Putin’s designs on establishing a Eurasian union from amongst former Soviet Union republics.
Notions of a re-constructed ‘Soviet Union’ are evident in the stories. Lazily, western critics have submitted to it and the negative stereotyping associated with it. Must we always refer to Putin as ‘former KGB agent’? For the west, ideas of a re-constructed Soviet Union represent a threat. Whereas the threat once emanated from diffuse ideological philosophies and nuclear war, now it comes from the west’s need for energy to fuel its economy, and by default, its way of life.
For Putin, the stereotyping has positive connotations. As my time in Russia drew to a close in 1998, many Russians decried the end of the Soviet Union; pensioners knew that they would receive their pensions, the general public knew that they could afford food, even if they had to wait in line for several years, and crime, in its local context, was non-existent. For the Russian people, ideas of the Soviet Union represented stability and security, after the mid-90s free market chaos that former President Boris Yeltsin and the oligarchs had wrought upon them. Consequently, they became disillusioned with perceptions of the west, and its way of life. Putin brought stability and order to their lives when he succeeded Yeltsin.

(c) Ivan Vasilyevich Simakov

At the end of last month, Putin confirmed that he will be standing for the presidential elections again in 2012. The recent announcements on the Eurasian union are the first that he has made on foreign policy since declaring his intentions to run for president. Although the context of this succession is markedly different to the last, I think that the use of stereotyping works on two levels. There is the western view, as highlighted above, that affects international affairs, and there is the local stereotype, which I think that Putin is using in terms of national security. More than that, I think that Putin is playing with this stereotype. His pre-empting of criticism of a ‘new’ Soviet Union was meant to concern us, as much as it is meant to reassure and order the Russian populace.
The Eurasian union is currently based around a customs agreement between Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan, with Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan expected to join shortly after. This is a far distant cry from the original formation of the Soviet Union. As the editor of Russian Global Affairs, Fyodor Lukyanov, points out:
"The logic behind it is primarily economic, and in this sense it is different from previous attempts, which were political or just decorative, to show Russian leadership."
Russia faces its own economic problems. Russian blogger, Alexey Navalny, believes that the current Russian political system is unsustainable and will collapse at some point in the future. Moreover, Putin has noted the Occupy Wall Street movement. Unlike his western counterparts, he will use public funds to maintain the Russian economy and internal security. Hence, his use of a ‘Soviet Union’ that brings order and stability, at least in the short-term.
Whilst the west fears a future ‘Soviet Union’, modern Russia is a unique geopolitical space that we have to learn to interact with on its own terms. As the western media remind us, there are civil and political human rights concerns, but we have always prioritised these rights over economic, social and cultural rights that the likes of Russia and other countries put first. I am not dismissing these problems, but it would be contradictory not to engage with modern Russia, when we interact with other oppressive regimes with scant regard for the same issues.  

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