Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Europe and Russia

As I have said here several times, I am bothered by the degree to which the European Union is an elite project carried forward with little regard to what European voters want. This theme came up again in a Vox interview with Russian foreign policy expert Fyodor Lukyanov, who is not in the government but is well connected with it:
Interviewer: Germany’s policy toward Russia seems to be very divisive among Germans. Opinion polls show that many Germans don’t want to take such a hard line on Russia; they don’t want to be so involved in the Ukraine crisis. Former German Chancellors Gerhard Schroeder and Helmut Schmidt have called for a policy that's more cooperative with Russia, more in line with Ostpolitik. What’s the view in Moscow of this split?

Lukyanov: That’s been of very low interest, until recently. When Germany took a [harder-line] position, as it took last year, the explanations [in Moscow] were very simplistic. We wanted to believe that this change was entirely because of American pressure on Germany. I spent two months in Germany earlier this year, and I can say American pressure is there, of course. But in fact it’s much deeper. This is really about Germany repositioning as the European power.

As for public opinion, it’s a very interesting phenomenon that deserves to be studied in depth. On the one hand you see, according to opinion polls, perception of Putin and of Russia is very low. Seventy-plus percent of Germans believe Putin is a bad guy, Russia is going the wrong way. . .  At the same time, if you speak to people and seek more detail, the problem is not with Russia — the problem is the population's growing mistrust of the political leadership in Germany and in Europe at large.

I had a very interesting conversation with the head of the foreign policy committee with the [German] Bundestag. His staffer told me, "You know, it’s such a big problem here in Germany with Putin’s Russian propaganda undermining everything." I was really surprised to hear it, because I didn’t see it, frankly. She said, "We received a lot of emails criticizing our chairman for his policies criticizing Russia on Ukraine, for being too tough, and so on." I said, "Wait a minute, you see people criticizing him as a product of Putin’s propaganda?" She said, "Yes, of course." But don’t you think they might just be disagreeing with him? It’s a democratic society!

She was a bit confused by this, but this shows a key problem. The population increasingly doesn’t trust [Germany's leadership], not because of Russia or because of Ukraine, but because they've lost an understanding of what is going on in the European Union. This is a deep problem with the integration of the European Union. If Putin’s propaganda were smarter, this could be used [in Europe]. "If they tell us all the time that Russia is so bad, maybe it’s actually that something is wrong with them."

Ukraine became a very interesting phenomenon because on the one hand it consolidated establishments [in Europe against Russia], because establishments see an external threat, and an external threat is always a good thing to further certain policies. At the same time, many of the citizens — in Germany, not even to speak of Southern Europe, where they don’t care about Ukraine at all — they don’t understand; they asked, "Why should we suffer for this?" The Russian counter-sanctions hit some areas [in those economies]. People ask, "Why should we suffer for something we don’t want?"
I think this is very astute. Many European feel completely detached from actions taken in Brussels and not the least bit inclined to sacrifice on behalf of EU policy, and we are starting to see some nationalist politicians step up and speak for these sentiments. Leaders with a European outlook want Europe to have a strong foreign policy and speak with a united voice and so on, but many voters don't feel that the EU speaks for them. This sentiment is strongest in the south, but even in Germany and France the feeling that the people have no control over Brussels is widespread.

Is it an illusion, or is it really true that citizens trust their governments much less now than they did 50 or 70 years ago? It seems to me that in Europe, the US and Japan distrust of the government, even disgust at the government, is at epidemic levels. I go back and forth in my head about whether this is dangerous or just a stylistic matter, but on some days it worries me.


G. Verloren said...

Do citizens trust their governments much less now than they did 50 or 70 years ago?

Well I'm not sure you intended those exact numbers, but by chance they coincide EXACTLY with the post-war period of rebuilding, from 1945 to 1965. Aside from overseas situations like the Korean War, it was a time of relative peace and prosperity for both Europe and America. The 50s and early 60s are still stereotypically portrayed as an idyllic age - one in which the average citizen just wanted to forget about the war, to rebuild, to start a family, and to live in comfort. People withdrew from the world's worries somewhat, and they to some degree left the government to run itself.

And it seemed to work - the economies of America and Europe boomed, the birth rate boomed, technology forged ahead, and while there were secondary conflicts and a few hotspots of trouble, there was no war at home. People had very little reason to be discontented up through the mids 60s, and they had little (at least visible) reason to distrust their governments.

G. Verloren said...

Contrast to the current situation.

Both America and Europe have been having economic problems over the past decade. They've both been involved in unpopular and unending foreign wars that only seem to have created a WORSE threat to deal with. They both have a much bigger wealth gap than they did a half century ago. They both operate their political machines on far more money than ever used to go into greasing the wheels. Their politics are both more partisan and knee jerk than before. And on top of it all, they have more alternative sources of information than ever before, making the failings of their governments easier to spot and harder to hide.

It seems pretty natural for people to doubt their governments when there's very little evidence of said governments being willing or capable of operating properly.

pootrsox said...

I think you're a bit rose-colored-glasses about the 50's and 60's, Mr. G.

In the US we had Tailgunner Joe and his commies-under-every-rock campaign. We had the persistence of Jim Crow laws and then the civil rights movement (Travels with Charlie, by Steinbeck, covers a lot of that-- published 1960.)

1963 and the assassination of Kennedy?

1965 and the Selma to Montgomery march?

I remember, in the early '60's, being warned by my education dept professors, at Temple University, *not* to sign anything regarding the civil rights movement b/c it would come back to haunt me when I went to apply for teaching jobs. I also remember feeling brave for signing a post card protesting the use of fire hoses on civil rights marchers.

And then there was this place called Viet Nam.... 4 dead in Oh-hi-oh....

We look back *now* and remember the avuncular Ike as President and "Life with Father" and "The Danny Thomas Show" and other such TV pap and somehow believe that life was good then.

Economically, for vets of WWII, it was good, I agree. Lots of folks became homeowners, in the suburbs. (Levittowns made a huge difference here.)

But many women who had held down very responsible jobs were suddenly sent home, to make way for the returning troops, and women were relegated to the kitchen and the scrub buckets and laundry baskets once again.

We had, at least through 1962, mandatory Protestant prayer daily in the public schools, all over America, and as a non-Christian, I was one of the ones who suffered indirectly and directly as a result.

Not such a wonderful time in too many ways....

G. Verloren said...

Looking back it's easy to judge with modern sensibilities, but despite problems like Civil Rights and overseas wars, if you asked people THEN about their quality of life, the majority would have said it was very good, and that they thought well of the government at that time.

Civil Rights was a major issue, but it was a regional and cultural one far more than it was a governmental one. Vietnam was actually not unpopular until very late in the war, and even then most Americans actually were in favor of it. There were large problems and crises during this time, quite real and present dangers, but they were largely not viewed as being the fault of the government or its failings, and consequently people had a fair degree of trust and faith in the government.