Marie Mendras at Boris Nemtsov Forum, Brussels

November 25, 2016

Marie Mendras summarises the discussion of the working group on Governance and Politics

The first group of questions really relates to Russia, and what’s happening inside Russia, and the second is what we tried to do with, think about the future: what next? Chto delat’? Which, of course, was the much tougher part of our discussion.

First, Russia. We were all pleased, I think, to hear from our Russian colleagues that Russia is not one: Russia is plural, is diversified, divided, and those many Russias have different expectations. And this really came from several of our Russian colleagues, and I’d like to stress that this is probably one of the most important arguments that we can make, also in looking to the future.

Many of us mentioned federalism, mentioned local politics, social issues, and stressed – exactly as Vladimir just did when he introduced our session now – is we have to be very cautious when we say “Russia” or “the Russians,” and we should always say “the Russian leadership,” or, you know, “Russian ruling elites,” and, you know, “Russian society,” or “that part of society,” to always stress that the Putin regime does not represent Russian society and doesn’t decide everything. It is an authoritarian system that does not control its society and resources the way it’d like to control it, does not govern its society, and doesn’t offer the 140 million people that live in the federation of Russia any prospects. The Duma elections showed that there is no programme for the future.

So I think it was important to say this, because it led us to a second argument where I think we more or less all agreed – although, strangely, Europeans were more direct about it – which is that the Putin regime has no legitimacy. You know, rigged elections do not buy legitimacy. In fact, I even tried to make the point about the Trump presidency, that we can question the legitimacy of the new president.

There are all kinds of ways… but we cannot assume that because there was an election that there is legitimacy, and I think we as European citizens could stress that an election first is not only about expression, political expression, but it’s about the right to call for accountability, to sanction, and to have a direct impact on where government policies go. Without any effectiveness those are not true elections, and I think there was an agreement about the low legitimacy and the low trust in Russia towards the capacity of the government to improve their situation.

Quite a bit was said also about internal conflicts inside the inner circle, and that that was a sign of vulnerability and weakness of the leadership, and very, very difficult to know where it’s going. It was also stressed that sanctions have an impact, because they are personal sanctions, they are sanctions targeted at individuals, but that there is a lot of work to be done inside Russia to explain to the public that they are sanctions against corrupt members of the leadership at various levels.

And so of course there we stumbled into the number one challenge for all of us in Russia and outside Russia, which is information, disinformation, propaganda. I think it’s still very much on the table, I don’t have time here to summarise what’s said about it, except at the end where I’ll make a proposition that was agreed on in our group.

I’d like to respond to what was said about sanctions. Sanctions were not meant to punish Russia or the Russians from a European perspective.  Different from the US perspective at the time, and I’d like to stress this. Sanctions were also meant for Europeans to stay together. Sanctions, we devised sanctions also for ourselves, to have a line, to build solidarity, and this was very important, and this is working. Sanctions will not be lifted. As long as the leadership in Russia doesn’t change its position – and I don’t think it will anytime soon – sanctions will stay, and they will stay in the US, because Trump doesn’t decide, but Congress is more powerful in keeping sanctions or not keeping sanctions.

Now, what next, and what can be done? It seemed to me that we also came to a consensual conclusion in our group about the fact that as long as the Putin leadership is in power, there is not much that we can expect, that you can expect in Russia, and that we can expect in Europe or in the Atlantic Alliance – that is, the Putin leadership’s behaviour considerably limits our room for manoeuvring, our alternative path, let’s say. We have very few options, and what was stressed by the several European participants was the eye-opening of the Ukraine conflict, that for us started with Maidan, that is that Europeans understood that Ukraine was a real country, was again going for a positive change, and then understood that Moscow would even resort to armed force to stop this democratisation process.

And this made a big change in European societies, and European politics, and NATO policies. I’d like to stress this very much, because we rarely speak of France – and look at it, it’s very weak and, you know, because of Germany. I think this is not quite the reality. I think what happened in France was very strong, in the awareness of the corrosiveness of the Putin regime as much as in Germany, and that the Putin – excuse me – the Merkel-Hollande tandem was effective for what it was a mission to do, and it was a tandem, it was not Germany alone.

And so in our countries, in Europe, I think in most countries of Europe, there is no way back to pre-Crimea, pre-Donbas attitudes towards Russia. And I think it’s important for our Russian colleagues to understand this. This is not the danger; the danger is elsewhere, but it’s not Europe going back to a sort of pro-Putin or Putin benign neglect attitude. We can, I guess, say more during the discussion.

We also discussed the issue of divisions inside the democratic opposition in Russia. I think it was the only rather painful moment of our discussion, and where we could see that there still are those inner divisions, and … we tried to say that it’s difficult for Europeans and Westerners to cooperate and work with the democratic part of the Russian society if they don’t get their acts together.

And so finally we came up with a good proposition, that we create a platform, a working group, transnational, where we actually all work on information together, information then leading to propositions. And we Europeans stress that we need information from the Russians, we need informed analytical studies, and we need you to give us not only materials and information that you work together on, or with us, but that also gives us more legitimacy to defend your positions when we write our own analytical arguments about what’s going on in Russia.

And finally – but I’m not going to expand on this – we had a discussion on the term “populism,” and I questioned the sound use of the term. I am concerned about this, because it tends to beat to the sort of politically correct argument that we are all threatened by a huge populist wave. This is not the case, and what happens in each individual country certainly shows similar symptoms, but the roots of the problems – but more importantly the ways we can deal with those trends – are very different in a democratic society or in a non-democratic society. So that is, I think, an open discussion for our next meeting. Thank you.”