The great divide: Post-communist Russia was never going to become just another Western state, as the world is learning to its cost


Friday 20 February 2015 23:31

They were heady days when communism collapsed in Europe a quarter of a century ago. The star political scientist of that period was the American Francis Fukuyama, who wrote an essay in 1989 entitled The End of History?, then removed the question mark when he expanded his ideas in book form.

Mr Fukuyama was not claiming that the “end of history” meant that nothing else significant would ever happen, but he did claim that liberal democracy as practised in the West had proved its worth so conclusively that all other systems would have to “end their ideological pretensions of representing different and higher forms of human society”.

Even Russia, where Marxist revolutionaries made the first attempt to consign capitalism to history’s dustbin, was assumed to be finding its way into the family of liberal democratic nation states. G7, the club of the world’s richest nations, invited Russia to make it G8. Tony Blair saw in the recently elected President Vladimir Putin a potential ally in the “war against terror”. As recently as 2011, the Foreign Office pulled the plug on the BBC World Service’s Russian and Ukrainian language broadcasts. Challenged about this in the Commons, the Foreign Secretary, William Hague, replied that a Labour government had ended the Polish, Bulgarian and Croatian broadcasts, as if one former communist state was politically much the same as any other.

But Poland, Bulgaria, Croatia and nine other former communist states are now EU members, whose populations have broadly accepted Western liberal values. That is manifestly not true of Russia, or the Russian-speaking parts of eastern Ukraine. As yesterday’s report by a House of Lords committee, “The EU and Russia: Before and Beyond the Crisis in Ukraine”, pointed out: “The EU’s relationship with Russia has for too long been based on the optimistic premise that Russia has been on a trajectory towards becoming a democratic ‘European’ country. This has not been the case.”

The report argues that Russia’s government is building up an ideology that sees itself as “independent of European tutelage”, based on Russian nationalism, conservative values, and the Russian Orthodox Church. According to one of the expert witnesses to appear before the committee, Russia sees itself as a “morally exceptional civilisation beset on all sides by decadent enemies”. While the world outside condemns Russian interference in Ukraine, the crisis drove President Putin’s approval ratings in Russia to levels elected Western politicians can only dream of, around 83 to 85 per cent.

Their lordships are not holding Western policy-makers responsible for what has happened inside Russia, but they are rightly condemning the EU’s and Britain’s gross failure to understand what was going on east of Kiev. There used to be an entire industry of diplomats and academics devoted to studying communism, and sometimes issuing semi-hysterical warnings that the “red menace” was about to engulf as all. When that particular threat evaporated, the people who guide foreign policy, here and in the UK, seemed to give up subjecting Russia to proper analysis, on the blithe assumption that their political system was converging with ours.

The Tory MP Rory Stewart, who chairs the Commons Defence Committee, painted a picture last year of a Foreign Office in which officials are “tied to their desks”, swamped by emails, to the exclusion of cultural knowledge and strategic thinking. “Reforms in 2000 reduced the emphasis on historical, linguistic and cultural expertise, and instead rewarded generic ‘management skills’,” he warned.

This is not to say that we need to channel extra billions into defence spending. The sighting of a Russian bomber off Cornwall does not mean the Russians are coming. But there is a conflict of values, which is having dangerous consequences in places close to Russia’s borders, and which may spread to places once under Russian rule that are now under Nato’s protection. At the very least, we need to understand properly what confronts us.

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