February 08, 2009 (the date of publication in Russian)


Sergej Chelemendik: Russia and Europe should learn to understand each other

The biased coverage of the Russian-Ukrainian gas conflict in international media and the obvious influence of this orchestration on the European establishment indicate that Russia should undertake special efforts to correct its image in the eyes of Europe. How does Europe (including former Comecon states) perceive Russia today? What games is the new US Administration going to play in Europe? How are these games modified by the global financial crisis? These and related issues were raised by RPMonitor's senior staff writer Marine Voskanyan in an interview in Bratislava with Sergej Chelemendik, a member of the National Council (Parliament) of the Slovak Republic and a member of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE). Sergej Chelemendik is also a well-known journalist and political writer.

Q: In January, the gas transit crisis became the problem No. 1 for Europe, especially for those EU member states that import natural gas solely along the Russian-Ukrainian transit pipeline system. How did the population of Slovakia react to the disruption of gas deliveries resulting from the conflict between Moscow and Kiev?

Sergej Chelemendik: For most of the Slovaks, the Moscow-Kiev conflict is not comprehensible. Major Slovakian mass media, currently owned by US corporations, eagerly joined the anti-Russian hysteria. Russia, as the provider of natural gas, was blamed for pressuring a helpless Ukraine. I challenged this biased "guideline" on air on the national TV.

Certainly, the population was upset with shortage of energy resources in winter time. Still, the anti-Russian guideline was not taken for granted in Slovakia. A lot of Slovaks are able to compare information from European and Russian media. Besides, Slovakia is too close to Ukraine to apprehend the quality of the neighbor's leadership. Finally, Slovaks are well trained in understanding when Western media tell truth and when they lie.

For the Europeans generally, the possibility to understand Russian rules of the game is rather complicated. For Europeans, laws are sanctity. They believe that laws work, as in their nations, laws and regulations are observed, and bilateral agreements are fulfilled. In their view, the situation in which an agreement is signed, the consumer has paid for a basic commodity but it is not delivered, is nonsensical. They just wonder what is going on in Russia and Ukraine. But they have to learn to understand the essence of the problem.

Russia can help Europeans to arrive at this necessary understanding. I must admit that Russia's performance at the front of information war was commendable. The leadership of the state and government provided operative comments. Though they were destined mostly for the Russian and Ukrainian audience, but a part of this argumentation was addressed to Europe. So, we witnessed a real attempt of informational counterattack – which, in the current situation, is inevitable.

Q: In one of your articles, you wrote about technologies of "soft influence" that Russia does not sufficiently used for improving its image in Europe. Do you think this problem is solved?

S.C: I argued that Russia does not possess such technologies and does not hurry to absorb them. The technologies of "soft power", used by the United States, were borrowed from the British Empire. The essence of the method was to invest in overseas elites and pursue the required objectives with their hands. It is noteworthy that when the British Empire was using this approach, media technologies were yet underdeveloped. The Americans have made this old colonial model more sophisticated, using non-governmental organizations for influencing political, journalist and intellectual circles. In every place they are going to guarantee their influence, they buy up local media. They followed this strategy in Russia as well, but Russians eventually ousted these mouthpieces of influence from its media sphere.

At the same time, Russians never seriously tried to use similar methods themselves. I don't mean that Russia, with its absence of such experience, should view this strategy as a top priority. But in a long-term perspective, there is no alternative to soft influence. In fact, the only potential alternative is a global war.

Q: The technologies of "soft influence", used by the United States, are particularly destined to associate the "image of evil" with Russia. What should Russia do to convince Europeans that this view is biased, and that Russia is not a dangerous neighbor but a partner who could and should be involved in mutually favorable cooperation?

S.C.: In today's struggle for power in Europe, struggle for means of influence is most strategic. You can easily notice that in Western Europe, mass media present a diversified palette of views on major issues of global policy, including European-Russian cooperation. In Eastern Europe, most of mass media are under American control, and therefore, these media regularly reproduce the image of an "evil Russia".

Russia's only attempt of foreign informational influence is Russia Today channel. However, to provide content is not enough: it also has to be efficiently delivered. At present, Russia Today is broadcasted through Russian satellites, and therefore its audience is limited.

Even in case an informational product is of high quality, it is sometimes complicated to convey it to the Europeans. My colleague, a Slovakian EuroMP, told me how Giulietto Chiesa tried to organize a presentation of his book and movie on 9/11 in the European Parliament. Only twelve MPs arrived, though several hundreds of MPs were informed. By the way, this movie was broadcasted in Moscow on TV Channel 1.

To overcome this barrier, which rests mostly on fear before Washington, Russia should invest in international media policy. Russia is already capable of providing sophisticated and efficient information products, addressed to the domestic audience. For some reason, it lacks commitment to apply the same skills at the international media scene.

Q: Was the Russian-Ukrainian gas conflict painful for the Slovakian population on the background of the economic crisis?

S.C.: Slovakia is not really affected by the crisis. You see, this country has got a very specific role in the EU. Slovakia is viewed by the EU establishment as a diligent apprentice – kind-hearted, quiet, and not challenging anyone. When Slovaks were told to introduce market reforms, they agreed, but implemented them in a way to avoid indebtedness, and that enabled Slovakia to become a "tiger" in Eastern Europe, similarly to Taiwan and South Korea in South-Eastern Asia. Unlike immigrants who are often utterly illiterate and can be used only for primitive operations, Slovakian workers are highly qualified. Therefore, auto producers like Peugeot, Citroen, KIA, Volkswagen built assembling plants here, while Japanese and Korean companies launched production of electronics. Besides, Slovakia entered the eurozone shortly before a number of soft currencies fell victim to speculators. The Slovakian koruna ceased to exist last summer, when the conversion rate agreement was signed.

Today, the crisis in Slovakia is visible only in a few cases of enterprises that were closed. Prices haven't yet risen, as inflation a bit slowed on the background of the general depression. Thus, Slovakia is still lucky.

As the auto industry is shrinking, German corporations close enterprises in their country and in Czech Republic but not in Slovakia. Firstly, the Slovakian atmosphere and mentality attracts producers with its stability. Secondly, Slovakia's geographical situation is optimal in terms of logistics. And thirdly, the Slovakian labor force is relatively cheap. Plants will be closed here later than in Germany and France at least for the reason that in these countries, a worker is paid 2000 Euro per month, while in Slovakia the average monthly payment is 700 Euro.

But in a long run, the crisis will definitely affect Slovakia, especially its eastern, less developed regions.

Q: In Russia, the global economic crisis caused a broad public discussion that exceeds the framework of economic affairs. Russians are focused on basic issues: how, generally, they should live, which principles should statehood be based upon, what is the mission of the middle class, and what is to be changed in world outlook at the face of crisis of liberal ideology. Is such kind of discussion taking place in Slovakia, and generally in Europe?

S.C.: These subjects are generally interesting for Czechs and Slovaks. But major Slovakian media cannot take a lead of such discussion on a required intellectual level. These media are managed mostly by young laymen, fed upon coca cola instead of milk. The utmost task these guys are able to fulfill is corporate advertising. Serious intellectuals, capable to ascend to the level of strategic thinking, are missing.

That is why modern Russian thought is of great demand in Slovakia. Recently, we translated an interview with Moscow economist Mikhail Khazin, who had acquired a domestic reputation of an "alarmist" due to his radical views on the origin and prognosis of the ongoing crisis. His approach fascinated both for the mass audience and the Slovakian establishment. In fact, that was a shock.

Thus, naturally, the crisis is conceptualized also in this country. Unfortunately, recognition of the gravity of a disaster usually happens only after an individual is directly affected with its implications.

Q: In Russia, part of the middle class is just dreaming of such unawareness, imagining a quiet European lace-curtain community, a small town with clean pavements, superb roads and developed social infrastructure, away from political life and global problems.

S.C.: Russia is a civilization of fighters and survivors. Russians haven't got used to comfort, and never feel protected and secure. A Russian’s dream of European comfort it is similar to a soldier's dream of a health resort. That is a natural dream. However, Russians will never become European burghers.

Europe has a myth about Russia, and Russia has a myth about Europe. This is a myth of European culture. It is true that streets, yards, stairs and elevators are cleaner in Europe. But the explanation is not the European superiority in way of life. The secret is that Europeans have used to live densely, close to one another, not changing the place of residence for centuries. In Slovakia, families reside in one small town for 800 years. Meanwhile, Russians permanently relocate in space and time, and the skill of tidying homes just could not develop in this kind of culture.

Russians generally misinterpret European culture. They usually idealize it, believing it to be more complicated than it really is.

Q: Don't you think that this Russian myth about Europe is actually associated with the old, classical Europe that does not exist any longer? Today, Europe is greatly influenced by other cultures because of immigration. Will Europe manage to maintain its cultural identity?

S.C.: It is true that Europe has greatly changed. The old Europe is not there: it was invaded by barbarians, and gave up. But Russian émigrés represent a bright hope in the darkness of this invasion.

Today's Europe is a victim of its own liberal myth about itself, routinely identified as political correctness, tolerance, or multiculturalism. In fact, what we are facing is a catastrophe of the European liberal mind.

Recently, I joined a group of MPs visiting an event in Manchester on the subject of multiculturalism. The mayor was proud to report that his citizens speak one hundred languages. Tolerance was exemplified by a schoolteacher who reported that as her pupils, originating mostly from Somali (in fact, 800 of them!), are not much interested in studying English, the teachers decided to study Swahili to establish better contact with the kids. This is what liberalism degenerates into at the last phase of its development.

Curiously, the liberal ideology that was once born in Europe and encouraged such great events as the French Revolution, with the same nice words about freedom and equality, was put out to "nurse" to the United States, and returned in an "upgraded" version that now destroys Europe as a kind of recurrent infection or virus.

But what I am describing is typical not for the whole of Europe. For instance, Slovakia is a traditional Catholic country, and excesses of liberalism have not become epidemic on its land.

Q: Can we generally speak about European unity? Are the EU mechanisms sufficient to keep the member countries together, facing a global crisis or military challenge?

S.C.: The January gas crisis has in fact demonstrated that as soon as the situation becomes really worrisome, every member nation cares only about itself, and all the items of unity vanish away.

Such a condition of Europe is geopolitically favorable for the United States. Washington has got a number of ways to solve its existential problems; one of this ways is a war in Europe. I think we should attentively study the experience and the model of the US intervention into Yugoslavia. Do you know why the Americans chose the time to replace the government in Slovakia in 1998? At that time, Meciar's government was reluctant to allow US military aviation to cross the Slovakian border. Austria resisted as well, but it was more convenient to arrange a "colored revolution" in Bratislava. Similar methods are going to be used in case of a new war, no matter whether the battlefield is: the Caucasus, Ukraine, Hungary, or Slovakia.

Most Slovaks don't realize that it was not Belgrade that was bombed in 1998. The real target of the air attacks was the European currency. Other bonuses, like drug traffic and gas pipelines, were secondary. It was enough to broadcast the burning Belgrade on the TV to dump the euro/dollar rate to 1/2. Similar wars may be unleashed again. I believe this to be the best explanation of Ukraine's irrational behavior. The essence of the US policy in Ukraine is to create a locus of instability at the EU borders.

(To be continued)

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