Tuesday, April 15, 2014

A new Cold War—a new political alignment?

I rarely drink and can count the times I have been drunk on my fingers, but one of those few times was the night the Berlin Wall came down.  On champagne, no less.  I had such high hopes that night.  We could stop terrorizing each other with nukes and we could put our industrial muscle into solving real problems instead of building ever more insane weapons with our genius.  But mostly, I hoped we could finally stop hating on the Russians.  I was a crazy Cold Warrior in my youth, but by 1989, I had come to admire Russian culture very much.  After all, we were winter people and trust me on this, there are places like Minnesota where winter so powerfully influences the culture, almost nothing else really matters.  Russia is such a place.  I had also come to loathe people who wanted me to hate them and want them destroyed.  So on that November night in 1989, I mostly wanted an end to the corrosive lies of the war-and-fear-mongers directed at USSR.

A someone who claims to understand Institutional Analysis, I should have known better.  All those people who had literally invested their lives and careers  in the Russia-hating business weren't going to disappear simply because some Berliners rearranged some concrete in a fit of drunken joy.  Prime example would be that old war-monger Zbigniew Brzezinski whose hatred of USSR / Russia is in keeping with his roots in the Polish nobility—arrogant and deep.  This is the guy who convinced Jimmy Carter that a good response to the USSR invasion of Afghanistan would be to arm an earnest group of patriots who called themselves the Taliban.  He considers himself a genius—an opinion shared by his very rich patrons but few else.  The Cold War never ended for Brzezinski—not for one day.  And this crazy idea that we should still encircle Russia so as to contain them from doing (what?) has his fingerprints all over it.

Anyway, so long as a Cold War is starting again it is interesting how the sides are being chosen.  What the establishment press calls the "far right" in Europe is in fact the designated enemy of "respectable" Europe mostly because almost all their members detest the EU.  So now that the EU is in open warfare against the Russians who have slowed their plans for a takeover of Ukraine, the Euroskeptics (which by now includes most folks with a pulse) have discovered they might have a new nuclear-armed pal.

It all seems to be a bit far-fetched.  Putin's main supporters in Russia are at least as neoliberal as anyone in Brussels.  The economics of grab and plunder has served many of them very well.  Besides, the Russians LIKE being invited into clubs like the WTO so there is no shortage of social-climbing suck-ups who want the respectability the rich believe they are owed.  Even so the Russians are well schooled in the tale of how they threw back the mighty German army on the outskirts of Moscow in Dec 1941.  My guess is that the events in Ukraine have stiffened Russian resolve and the days of them backing down are over for a long while.  As for the EU, their days are probably numbered as well—at least as an organization for the enforcement of neoliberalism.  So we will see.

'A Partner for Russia': Europe's Far Right Flirts with Moscow

By Charles Hawley in Brussels

Putin is looking for allies within the European Union. Right-wing populists are answering his call.

Right-wing populists stand to gain seats in the approaching European Parliament elections -- which is good news for Moscow. Russia and the European right have been courting each other recently as mainstream Brussels has kept Moscow at arm's length.

During the Cold War, left-wing parties were often viewed with no small amount of suspicion in the West. Fear was rampant, if perhaps overwrought, that they could act as a political beachhead for the Soviet Union and the communist East Bloc in their presumed quest for global domination.

Times have changed. While relations between Moscow and the West are once again tense due to the ongoing tug-o'-war over Ukraine and the Crimea, it is Europe's right-wing parties that are showing an affinity for Russia. And with European Parliament elections quickly approaching in late May, right-wing populists -- with parties in several countries well positioned to make gains in the coming vote -- are being increasingly open about their desire to act as an advocate for Moscow in Brussels.

"I think we can be a good partner for Russia in the European Parliament," says Filip Dewinter, a senior member of the right-wing Flemish party Vlaams Belang in Belgium. "And Russia sees us as a potential partner."

Russian voices have been no less supportive. "We hope that the results of the coming elections will give these people more power," says Sergey Markov, a conservative political scientist with close ties to the Kremlin. "We need to move forward to further develop this cooperation" with the European right.

The comments from Dewinter and Markov came on the sidelines of a conference held in the European Parliament that marks the most serious attempt yet by European right-wing parties to court Russia. Called somewhat awkwardly "EU-Russia: De-Escalating the Crisis - Roadmap for Peace in Europe," the conference was organized by Fiorello Provera, a senior member of the Italian right-wing party Lega Nord and deputy head of the Foreign Affairs Committee in European Parliament, together with David Lasar from Austria's Islamophobic Freedom Party (FPÖ).

The parallels between the political stances of President Vladimir Putin's Russia and European right-wingers are as numerous as they are varied. Skepticism of immigration and a keen worry about the threat posed by Islamist extremism make Putin a natural ally for a xenophobic right whose political bread and butter is their vociferous attacks on European immigration policy. His heavy-handed leadership style and homophobic stance likewise don't hurt.

Fueled by Anti-Americanism

But it is European right-wing populists' skepticism of the EU and its close ties with the US which provides perhaps the broadest foundation for cooperation with Russia. Vassily Likhachev, a Russian parliamentarian who is deputy chair of the EU-Russia Parliamentary Cooperation Committee, blasted the EU at the Wednesday conference, calling EU resolutions relating to the Ukraine crisis "shameful" and said it was "clear" that the protests in Kiev were "a project developed by NGOs in the United States."

Other anti-US sentiment was echoed by several at the conference, and included comments delivered on behalf of Heinz-Christian Strache, head of the FPÖ, who was unable to attend. "Instead of playing the stooge of the US in the encirclement of Russia, Brussels must finally be able to build positive relations with Moscow and show understanding of Russian interests," Strache's statement said.

On Friday, Strache traveled to Geneva with Lasar for a meeting with Russia's UN ambassador, Alexei Borodavkin, during which Strache once again condemned Western sanctions against Moscow.

For right-wing parties, shining a spotlight on their preference for closer ties to Russia -- even as Brussels has rushed to support the new government in Kiev -- has clear advantages. Recent surveys have shown that, while concern about Russian aggression on the Crimea is widespread, the appetite for challenging Moscow and supporting Kiev is also limited. A YouGov poll from the end of March found that only 42 percent of British and German people, and just 35 percent of the French, are in favor of sanctions that might hurt their own economies. Support for providing financial aid to Kiev is even lower.

Indeed, there has even been some talk among right-wing parties of following the Gerhard Schröder model, whose come-from-behind re-election to the German Chancellery in 2002 came largely as a result of his promise late in the campaign to refuse to participate in the US invasion of Iraq. While surveys show that far-right parties in European Parliament are likely to gain seats in this year's election, a clear rejection of Western measures against Moscow, so the theory goes, could result in even more votes.

The cooperation between the European far right and Russia has been developing for some time. A report published by the Budapest-based Political Capital Institute in March, called "The Russian Connection: The Spread of Pro-Russian Policies on the European Far Right," notes that Moscow has shown an interest in Eastern European right-wing parties for several years now. The paper notes that, while admiration for Russia is not universal in Europe's ultra-conservative scene, there is a widespread "ideological and political affinity" between the far right and Russia.

Finding Weaker Allies

"Russia would like to destabilize and weaken the European political scene, and these parties are all anti-EU. They want to burn down the house," says Peter Krakow, one of the authors of the study. "I think that's the obvious goal. That and weakening the European-American alliance."

And Ukraine? The fate of the country would not seem to be high on the right-wing's priority list. There was not a single Ukrainian on Provera's panel in the European Parliament this week and the Kiev government was only mentioned to highlight the problematic participation of the virulently anti-Semitic party Svoboda. But even that brief mention is a self-serving one: Right-wing populists are eager to jump at every opportunity available to distance themselves from the extremist rhetoric further to the fringe (and, for some, in their own pasts).

It remains to be seen if the pre-election efforts will bear fruit at the ballot box or if the developing ties to Russia will have staying power. Duma representative Likhachev, for his part, seemed optimistic. "This crisis has led to an increase of Russophobia in Europe and to tensions," he said at the gathering in European Parliament this week. "This event demonstrates that there is interest among some politicians to hear both viewpoints."

But can Moscow's new friends do much to help? Peter Krakow of Political Capital isn't so sure. "If you feel that you don't have strong allies, you try to find weaker allies," he says. "And that is what we can see here." more

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