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The Complicated Charm of Mr. Putin

Frustrated leftists and disaffected rightists see a standard-bearer in the Russian president.

by Boyko Vassilev 3 April 2014

Nobody was prepared for such an opening.


The guests on a recent edition of Bulgarian National TV’s debating program Referendum included politicians and experts. The most vocal among them was the leader of the nationalist Ataka (Attack) party, Volen Siderov. Yet suddenly, it was the ruling Socialists’ representative, Nikolay Malinov, who made the headlines.


“I’d like to congratulate all Orthodox Slavs around the world on winning the Third Crimean War,” Malinov’s first words were, “and remind them that in history the Balkans come next, in the southern direction.”


Malinov, a Socialist member of parliament, publisher of the party newspaper Duma, graduate of a Kyiv university, chairman of parliament’s Bulgaria-Russia Friendship Group, and president of the influential Russofili organization, made little effort to clarify his baffling statement.


History records just one Crimean War, so at least one is missing. If Orthodox Slavs are the victors in “the third one,” who is the loser? Surely not Ukrainians – they are also Orthodox Slavs. And why do the “Balkans come next”? The Crimean War of 1853-1856 was followed by the Russo-Turkish War of 1877-1878, which liberated Bulgaria from the Ottoman Empire. But whom will Bulgaria be liberated from now? The EU? NATO? Other Bulgarians?


This small confusion points to a bigger one. Malinov’s party has a problem. Its leader, Sergei Stanishev, presides over the Party of European Socialists, so it has to subscribe to the common EU stand against the Crimean takeover. However, in the campaign for seats in the European Parliament, the Socialists have to please their hardcore Russophile electorate. So Bulgaria’s Socialists are stuck with a dual message. Foreign Minister Kristian Vigenin takes the pro-Western position, while Malinov pays homage to Russia.


Bulgarian Russophile Socialists exemplify the type of people Vladimir Putin’s policy targets in Central and Eastern Europe, where pro-Russian feelings mix with leftist sympathies and communist nostalgia. All over the region extreme lefties cheer on the strongman in Moscow. He reminds them of the old days, when they were “The Second World” facing “the First;” a major player in the Cold War, which they lost spectacularly. Now they can retaliate.


Yet Putin also has a message for the West, where he targets the far right. His propaganda has something to say to the anti-multi-culti, anti-gay, and anti-immigrant tide in Western Europe: “We can openly say what you are not allowed to say. We do not shy away from hard words like nationalism, pride, and force. We symbolize values you have forgotten. We are strong and the future is ours.”


In Putinist propaganda, the European Union is a laughable weakling. The real players are Russia and the United States; Europe is either America’s lackey or dependent on Russian gas. It not only lacks a telephone number, as Henry Kissinger famously put it, it is a decadent society doomed to perish by ultra-liberal excess. The EU lacks the passion of Eurasia. And those who have passion have the future.


The expression that Eurasian propaganda has coined for Western European decay is unpleasant. You can hear the nasty slant in Moscow and Kyiv, Sofia and Budapest: “Euro-gay.”


Consider notorious geopolitics writer Alexander Dugin’s most recent provocation, proposing that Russia take over Europe. Europeans would like this Byzantine Empire revisited, he said, because the Russians would protect them. You have problems with immigrants? OK, we know how to deal with them: the suitcase, the railway station – and back home. The “liberal censorship” in Western media would be replaced by “a conservative” one.


If you still think this is far-fetched, think of the career of Vladimir Zhirinovsky, a clownish nationalist who is on his way out but who in the 1990s made his party a force in the Russian Duma.


Think also about the famous poem written around the time of the October Revolution in which Alexander Blok declares to the West: “Millions are you – and hosts, yea hosts, are we, / And we shall fight if war you want, take heed. / Yes, we are Scythians – leafs of the Asian tree. …” The meaning is clear: an energized Eurasia will conquer the sophisticated but tired West.


That rings in the ears of people like Marine Le Pen in France, Geert Wilders in the Netherlands, and Nigel Farage in the UK. They also think the EU an unnecessary weakling – and want to abolish it. They also talk about values lost and national pride rediscovered. And they often find an excuse for Putin’s deeds.


So let’s imagine Putin is a car. He gives a right-turn signal to the West – and a left blinker to Eastern Europe. The Russian president is a natural mixer. He brought back both the Soviet anthem and the remains of White Russian General Anton Denikin and philosopher Ivan Ilyin from their burial places in the West.


Experts say if you understand Ilyin, the ideologue of the post-revolution Russian All-Military Union and Putin’s favorite philosopher, you will understand Putin.


“And the Russian president has become more of an ideologue himself,” political scientist Ivan Krastev says.


You can hear echoes of Putin’s flair for synthesis in Bulgaria. Siderov, of the Ataka party, has both nationalistic and leftist sympathies. He holds aloft Bulgarian pride and Orthodoxy but also demands renationalization and praises leftist U.S. economists Paul Krugman and Joseph Stiglitz. So both of Putin’s blinkers signal to him.


The Russian president presents a double ideological challenge to Western “liberalism” and the Eastern path to Europe. He might be successful, but there’s a rub. Normally, only a broken car can have both blinkers on. Let’s see which direction it ultimately takes.

Boyko Vassilev is a moderator and producer of the weekly Panorama news talk show on Bulgarian National Television.

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