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Cold again

12 March 2008 By Pierre Briancon

Every five or ten years a new Russian leader enters the world stage, soon becoming the source of much western speculation. From time to time, he has a pleasant face and an easy smile, has done some travelling abroad, and knows a word of English – or two. If you read his former speeches carefully, you may find that he once uttered a few words indicating that he might be open to reforms or at least to some movement. Sometimes he even drinks whisky, instead of vodka.

If most of those boxes are checked, the new man is soon anointed as the West s great liberal hope for Russia. Columnists and think-tankers alike will seriously debate whether reforms will be fast or slow. And some Western leader will go so far as solemnly declare that this new Russian colleague is definitely someone you can deal with.

It may happen that those hopes are founded. They were, for example, in the case of Gorbachev, the Soviet-era leader whose bold reforms started the chain of events that led to the bloodless collapse of communism. But more often than not, the new Russian leader is mainly an old Russian leader with hipper clothes and a younger face. This was most recently the case of Vladimir Putin, the man everyone thought would be an heir to Boris Yeltsin, but who engineered the return of an autocratic regime in Russia.

Dmitri Medvedev, the recently-elected Russian president, is the flavour of the year. The New Cold War, written by Edward Lucas, the central and east European correspondent for The Economist, will help all those interested in the fate of Europe to avoid the same old wishful thinking mistakes. And it will remind Western readers that even if the new Russia doesn t have much to do with the old Soviet Union, complacency would be dangerous.

Russia not only has become a semi-dictatorial regime, where media is muzzled, journalists are killed and opponents silenced or jailed, Lucas argues. It is also trying the same bullying on the world stage, attempting to divide Europe, and using its main natural resource gas as a powerful weapon. Flush with reserves from the $100-plus oil barrel, and careful to keep the door always opened to the West s eager investors and gullible businessmen, Russia now has the muscle to back up its intimidation rhetoric contrary to the old USSR, where atomic weapons could barely hide a fast-rotting economy.

Western businessmen who, as Lucas points out, are as staunch defenders of today s Russia as some European Union leaders were of yesterday s USSR, are quick to laud the investment-friendly atmosphere Putin created and nurtured thanks to his law and order policy. But there is, in fact, no law and little order in Russia, in spite of appearances. Courts are obedient or corrupt, laws are just conceived as instruments of the powerful, and simple democratic principles are demonised by the Kremlin coterie as foreign concepts designed to weaken Russia.

Lucas does a thorough job of taking apart current myths to lay bare what s at the heart of contemporary Russia: a paranoid view of the world on the part of a ruling elite that witnessed the USSR demise as a humiliation. But behind the repeated manifestations of brute and often absurd force lies some ancestral insecurity that could have been explored more thoroughly.

It s not that Russia enjoys playing bad guys especially when it is so obviously contrary to its own, long-term interests. It is, rather, that rulers of such a vast territorial empire have always looked for a unifying principle to keep together a country spanning eleven time zones. They have found it throughout history in force, ideology and populist fears against supposed foreign enemies at times all of the above. But Lucas is right in any case that once again, the best way for the West to deal with Russian bullying is to stand its ground, resist and, as he puts it, believe in itself. Unfortunately, this is a lesson never learned.


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