An interview with Marie Mendras by Felix Riefer in three parts.
/e-politik.de/: In the social networks a quotation by the Russian national poet Alexander Pushkin goes around: “My health is well served by the cold of Russia”. Pushkin of course meant the weather, but right now this phrase is intended to symbolize the acceptance of the return to the Cold War atmosphere within the international arena for the allegedly good purpose that “Crimea is coming back home”. Recent Levada polls support this, too. A huge majority of Russian people prefer to be a “great power” to a secure and wealthy life.
Mendras: I think this is the crucial part of our discussion and it needs a little bit of introduction. What we have described earlier in our conversation is a real warscare as in soviet times. When I was a young student of Soviet Affairs at Harvard University, the war scare was a major theme in soviet media. The Soviet people were told every day on Television or in the major Soviet newspaper Pravda that there might be a war tomorrow. This is what we call a warscare. So people had to live with the idea that they have to accept their poverty, their submission to the party, and their misery, because of the threat of war against the capitalist enemy. What Vladimir Putin has been doing is ,to some extent, to resuscitate or revive this instrument of war scare.
The enemy is so close that you have to make sacrifices and that you have to put the defence of the nation before all other tasks. So this is what is happening with an amazingly brutal propaganda machine. I mean brutal in terms of the words that have been used when, for example, you had these big boards for the so-called referendum in Crimea. On the left side you had Crimea with the Nazi banner and on the left a Crimea with a beaming Russian flag. Nazism if you stay with Ukraine, a bright future is you rejoin Russia. This is what I mean by very brutal propaganda, it is using the worst analogies. There are no neo-Nazis in the government in Kyiv. We now know that Putin is more ultranationalist than the nationalists in Ukraine. The second violent aspect of the propaganda and warscare is the physical threat against opponents, independent journalists and the incredible crackdown on media.
/e-politik.de/: Indeed, the domestic situation in Russia is getting more and more authoritarian and is even on the line to become totalitarian. Especially in regard to the latest restructuring, closings and legal treatment of the few left free media such as the Television Dozhd or the Internet news broadcast lenta.ru.
Mendras: It is worse than we had expected. What happened to lenta.ru, the editor in chief had to leave, the beating of journalists, now the opposition parties and independent journalists have absolutely no access to television. When the authorities go that far in the use of threat and deterrence, you should not be surprised that this propaganda hits the Russian public at large.
During the Maidan protest Russian propaganda even identified protesters as terrorists.
/e-politik.de/: Yes. Yanukovych called out the shooting order as an “Anti-Terror-Operation” proclaimed through the Ministry of Defence on the 19th of February.
Mendras: It is often forgotten, because it lasted only 36 hours.
/e-politik.de/: It was removed from the internet very quickly afterwards.
Mendras: I mean, the “anti-terrorist” law was repealed 36 hours later. Maidan was a peaceful place and there has never been any provocation. And Yanukovych did it, because he knew that if the Berkut shoot at protesters they would do it in full impunity: with “Anti-Terrorism” you are in a state of emergency, so you are no longer shooting at a civilian: You are shooting at a potential terrorist. It was a way of anticipating and protecting oneself against possible sanctions afterwards. Yanukovych certainly had been pushed by Moscow.
/e-politik.de/: In Germany, and apparently in France too, the public was told that there are many far right activists within the Ukrainian government. And you were telling that there are none.
Mendras: No, you always have a few. Every protest has its rightwing flank. When I was in Kyiv in December, I did not see or hear extremist slogan. When Yanukovich decided to go for armed clashes, then of course provocateurs were brought in. But the group called “Pravyj sector”, “the right sector”, is small. You have similar groups in Germany, we have them in France. They did not play a leading role in the protest and they do not have much influence on the current government. It was the Russian propaganda that presented them as leaders. The acting government in Ukraine is acting wisely and restraint, but also determination. They are not falling in the traps of provocation. They deserve our full support;
/e-politik.de/: Professor Mendras, thank you for the interview!
This interview was held on the 20th of March in the French National Centre for International Affairs CERI, Paris.
Mendras, Marie (2012): Russian Politics The Paradox of Weak State, C Hurst & Co Publishers Ltd. 288 pages.
Images are copyright of Augusto Zucconi