Opinions - 14.02.2012 - 00:00 

Putin’s dream, Syria’s nightmare?

Ever since the UN resolution on Syria failed, Russia has been criticised on account of its “nyet”. Putin thinks that Syria needs a “steered democracy” based on the Russian model. A commentary by Ulrich Schmid.


13 February 2012. Whereas every bit of provincial buffoonery from the American election campaign hits the European headlines, incidents in the run-up to Russia’s presidential elections of 4 March arouse hardly any interest. Naturally, the main reason for this is the fact that the winner in the contest for the highest Russian government office is a foregone conclusion.

Renaissance of the political joke
However, the protests that started after the controversial Duma elections have radically changed the situation. By now, political jokes are again doing the rounds in Moscow – a novelty since the collapse of the Soviet Union. The latest joke goes like this: “On 4 March, an advisor goes up to Putin and tells him that he has some good news and some bad news. “The good news: you’re the President of the Russian Federation. The bad news: no one voted for you.” Sly Putin immediately realised that his net worth was rapidly declining. For this reason, he has been on a veritable publicity marathon since the beginning of 2012 – largely unnoticed by the world’s general public.

Every week, one of the big Russian daily newspapers in turn carries an article penned by the prominent presidential candidate. A proud review is usually coupled with a feisty call to master future challenges – electioneering pure and simple. However, it is still worth looking at these texts more closely: what Putin applauds as his greatest achievement is the emergence of a new middle class which has an excellent education, purchasing power and career opportunities. The fact that Russia would undergo such dramatic developments in the twenty post-communist years had been inconceivable in 1991. This is why it was a sign of strength if today, Russia’s democracy and constitutionality were being measured against the most demanding yardsticks. Here, then, Putin turns a necessity into a virtue and even dreams of an internet democracy.

Russia as a model for “multipolar states”

From Putin’s perspective, the national contrasts in Russia must also be considered to be favourable. Whereas Europe was announcing the end of multiculturalism in a defeatist way, Russia was able to look back on its long tradition of a multinational empire. Russia was neither a nation state nor a “melting pot”, but a historically grown unit in which Russian culture served as the bonding agent. In Putin’s view, Russia may therefore be regarded as a model for other multinational states. This is where we find one of the reasons for Russia’s uncritical loyalty to Syria that has not been paid much attention to date: in Syria, Sunnis, Alawis and Kurds constitute an explosive ethnic mixture. Putin views Russia as a model for a federal and democratic social order in which national contrasts are overruled by a shared history. Undoubtedly, Russia’s “nyet” in the Security Council was first and foremost a vote for foreign non-interference, which is informed by a kind of autocratic solidarity between the two presidents.

Uncritical loyalty to Syria
In the Middle East, the role that Syria plays for Russia is similar to the role that Saudi Arabia plays for the USA: this is about military bases, arms supplies, economic treaties and energy policy. Moscow’s breaking ranks with the international coalition against Assad is also an expression of a principle of foreign policy which Putin has repeated like a mantra ever since assuming office in 2000: he calls for a “multipolar world order” in which Russia is on an equal footing with the USA, China and Europe. Putin reproaches the West for pursuing a Syria policy like an “elephant in a china shop”.

From Putin’s point of view, Syria is a country that must be protected against anarchy and chaos by means of a “steered democracy” and national cohesion based on the Russian model. Just as Putin protected his country from the colourful revolutions in the Ukraine, Georgia and Kyrgyzstan, he now wants to prevent the Russian winter from turning into an Arab-inspired spring. To this end, winter must also continue in Syria.

Photo: Sandstorm over Syria’s capital, Damascus. Photocase / Mickmorley

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