The final piece from the Herald Awards, and my personal favourite. Another full-page profile interview, this time with Edward Lucas of The Economist, published in March of this year.
A New Cold War?
-Edward Lucas, Economist journalist and author, discusses Russia's recent elections and alleged threat to democracy with James Ellingworth
Edward Lucas, the Central and Eastern Europe correspondent for current-affairs weekly The Economist, and – if you believe him – now a veteran of two Cold Wars. He is also the proud holder of the first visa issued by the post-Soviet split Lithuanian government in 1990. Lucas' outspoken attacks on the regime of Vladimir Putin have recently caused controversy through his book The New Cold War.
In a world in which 'Politkovskaya' and 'Litvinenko' have become improbable household names, following their murky yet high-profile assassinations, and an increasingly assertive foreign policy fuelled by an oil and gas boom, the international spotlight has returned to Russia, after years in the geopolitical background. Edward Lucas has garnered a reputation as a hawkish commentator on the subject, describing Putin’s Russia in an uncompromising and, some would say, aggressively ideological manner.
I meet him following a talk in Oxford to promote the book. As the conversation develops, I am struck by the contrast between his slight, sallow-complexioned figure and the anecdotes of bravery he reels off of travelling in places such as the Pankisi Gorge: “a bit of Georgia that was very lawless where no Westerners ever went”, when it was under the control of Chechen gunmen.
He also has a habit of understating events that almost anyone else would see as extreme, even terrifying. For example, his time in the Pankisi Gorge was “quite interesting” and “the Soviet frontier into occupied Lithuania without a Soviet visa and then being deported from the Soviet Union as a result” was “quite fun too.” Either a career spent chasing stories in the remoter corners of Europe has inured him to their drama, or, more likely, Lucas has an overwhelming natural modesty about his accomplishments.
One area in which he certainly does not mince his words, however, is his condemnation of the current Russian regime. In the introduction to “The New Cold War”, which has faced widespread accusations of scaremongering, including a scathing condemnation from Condoleezza Rice as “hyperbolic nonsense”, Lucas aggressively defines his subject:
“The direct menace that Russia now poses, not only to its own citizens, but also to outsiders. Twenty years after Mikhail Gorbachev started dismantling communism, Russia is reverting to Soviet behaviour at home and abroad, and in its contemptuous disregard for Western norms.”
Lucas begins our conversation by summarising his views on Russia today: ““I’ve spent the last twenty years dealing with Eastern Europe and I’ve become increasingly alarmed at the mixture of repression at home and xenophobia abroad. It’s sad for Russians if things are bad inside Russia, but it’s scary for us if Russia is bullying its neighbours, and both in the Baltics and the Caucasus and to some extent in Central Europe, we’re seeing a much more aggressive tone to Russian foreign policy.”
“I’m also worried about the way in which Russia has penetrated Western Europe in terms of political and economic power, of which the most glaring example is Gerhard Schröder, the former German chancellor, becoming head of a Russian gas pipeline consortium.”
He defines his New Cold War in comparison to the previous semi-conflict, conceding the current situation’s limited nature when compared to the “global, ideological and military” Cold War of the 20th century.
“I think the New Cold War is very different, it’s not a military confrontation, at least not yet, it’s a much more subtle ideological confrontation, and it’s mainly, although not wholly, limited to Eastern Europe. I’m calling it the New Cold War because I want people to wake up to what’s happening and to join me in highlighting the danger that Russia poses, which is quite substantial and has been overlooked because we’ve been so worried about other things, such as terrorism and Iraq and so on.”
This description is delivered in Lucas’s impeccable RP, the product of an upbringing as the son of an Oxford don. He is multilingual, with an array of languages including Russian, Estonian and Polish – the last developed during university study in then-Communist Krakow. He feels a strong affinity for what he refers to as the “former captive nations” of Eastern Europe, freed from Soviet hegemony when communism collapsed, and the recent scenes of many diplomatic incidents that form his view of the new Cold War.
He refuses to be drawn on whether he sees himself as fighting in the current confrontation, understandable given the supposed impartiality of his profession. He is, however, prepared to discuss his earlier role: “I was certainly a footsoldier in the last Cold War. I lived behind the Iron Curtain and did my best to subvert the system of Communist totalitarianism, and the day that the ‘Evil Empire’ collapsed was the happiest day of my life, in political terms at least.”
Speaking before the recent Russian presidential election, he correctly predicts the result, in which Dimitri Medvedev was elected as Putin’s successor by a margin that would be unprecedented in most European countries.
He uses the election as an example of what he sees as a culture of secrecy that has grown since Putin, an ex-KGB officer, entered the Kremlin. “The point about the election is that it’s both predictable and mystifying. It’s predictable because we know who’s going to win it and it’s mystifying because we don’t know what it means. That’s very different from, say, America, where it’s totally unpredictable who’s going to win, but pretty clear what the differences will be if they do.”
“Certainly Medvedev doesn’t use the very abrasive rhetoric that Putin and some of the people around him have used, and he’s explicitly distanced himself from the use of the term “sovereign democracy”, which is a nascent ideology that’s been growing over the past few years. So there’s at least a chance but I would be very cautious about believing that, and I would want to see some quite substantial proof before my basically sceptical posture changed.
“I think it’s more likely that Medvedev is a plausible front-man for the chekisti, the former secret police people who will continue to run Russia, largely in their own interests and with a nasty dose of nationalist ideology thrown in.”
When asked if he sees any hope for the demise of the authoritarian structure he envisages, he replies: “[The regime] is not just corrupt and authoritarian, it’s also incompetent. Oil and gas production is flat or falling, they are not using the tremendous windfall of the past few years to modernise Russian public services or infrastructure, so there’s a lot of shortcomings which are being disguised by the lavish use of state propaganda, particularly on television.”
“I hope eventually a Russian middle class will emerge, which will be frustrated by the lack of political freedom and also dismayed by the continuing backwardness of their country, and will want something better, but I think that’s not going to happen soon.”
Lucas reserves especial condemnation for those he sees as facilitating the international actions of Putin’s, and now Medvedev’s, Russia. He portrays a system of double standards in Western behaviour in dealing with criminals with stolen goods and financiers with recently nationalised Russian “stolen companies”.
Companies such as the state gas giant Gazprom are listed on the London stock exchange and using their muscle to buy into European markets, but their growth is often shadowy and seen as dubiously legal. For example, Gazprom acquired many of its most valuable gas fields after the state auction of another company, Yukos, that was forces into bankruptcy after court proceedings often accused of being politically motivated.
In his earlier talk, Lucas drew another analogy with the 20th century: “During the Cold War, we had a fifth column, which was Communist trade unionists, and that was quite manageable. Now the fifth columnists aren’t wearing boiler suits, they’re wearing pinstripes and working in the City of London.”
The image of city high-flyers as traitors to the cause seems somewhat extreme, but the point is persuasive if as Lucas says, Russian state companies have been behaving illegally.
I put the case to him that, as many senior Russian politicians have claimed, political stability may be more valuable to Russia that a stronger democracy. In reply, he compares the current situation to the 1990s under Boris Yeltsin, which were democratic, but famously unstable and chaotic, bordering sometimes on anarchy.
“Although the 1990s were bad, I don’t think that Putin has addressed the real shortcomings. The real shortcomings were not political instability, which I think is a symptom of political pluralism, actually, but corruption. That’s got worse under Putin, not better, and there was lawless behaviour by the state, and that’s got worse under Putin, not better, and there was increasingly unpleasant foreign policy, and that’s got worse under Putin, not better.”
This emphatic denial of what Putin, and many Russians, regard as the triumph of his presidency, showcases perfectly Lucas’s stand on the issue. He sees the situation idealistically, in terms of values, highest of which are representative democracy and due process. The theme continues when I ask Lucas how he believes the increasing confrontation between Russia and Western Europe should be fought:
“It doesn’t have to be uniformly confrontational, but we need clarity in the sphere of values. We need to say: ‘We believe in political freedom, the rule of law and multilateralism. We negotiate as the European Union, we believe that signatures on documents mean things, and we believe political choices have to be contestable.’”
“Now, how that works out in practice varies hugely. Italy does it one way, Britain does it another, and so on. You can’t be a member of a club unless you sign up to the rules and the principles of the club, and to some extent Europe is a club.”
This image, of Russia barred from the European ‘club’, summarises perfectly both Lucas’s stand on the issue, and his strongly confrontational and controversial approach. Whether he admits it or not, this slight, well-spoken man is fighting the New Cold War, in his books and columns. But to win, first he has to prove that it exists.
Edward Lucas is an excellent writer, a thoroughly decent person, and a shrewd analyst. I agree with him that there is an economic, political, and now (by proxy) a military conflict between the Russian government and much of the West. I also agree that however imperfect the system in various Western countries may be, it is infinitely better than the 'managed democracy' (actually closer to political gangsterism at home and abroad) that Putin and the other ex-KGB siloviki (his circle) favour. Where I disagree with Lucas is on how this should be tackled. He has become increasingly hawkish on the issue - he recently advocated stoking separatism in Russia's regions, which would be a bloodbath and alienate half the globe - but I understand his frustration at the lack of concerted action from truly democratic nations.
More on Russia - a country I love passionately - to follow.