How to bypass Putin



How to bypass Putin

If the Russian president does not value the talent of his own people, the European community should.


6/3/15, 11:49 AM CET

Updated 8/11/15, 3:19 PM CET

“Instead of seeing Russia as a democracy in the process of failing, we need to see it as an authoritarian system in the process of succeeding.”

These words didn’t come from a historian reflecting on Tsarist rulers or communist dictators of the past. This was Karen Dawisha, a distinguished Russian expert, speaking about the Russia of today. As Vladimir Putin tightens his stranglehold on the Russian people, it’s more important than ever for us to speak out and defend progressive, liberal values, while standing by those fighting for fundamental rights in Russia.

In Putin’s Russia, members of the LGBT community and other minorities  have good reason to fear for their lives, as they are forced to hide from mobs who hunt them down in the streets of Moscow and Saint Petersburg. Putin must be the world’s only head of state who is an honorary member of a motorcycle gang, the Night Wolves. Its leader, Alexander Zaldostanov, is a personal friend of Putin and a fierce defender of Stalin’s political heritage. He is the driving force behind the anti-Maidan movement, who has previously declared “death to faggots.” Putin regularly shows up at Night Wolves events, giving implied support to this kind of hate speech.

Those who dare to disagree with the Putin regime end up fearing for their life or their freedom. Worrying developments from Russia pour in every day: Activists are arrested, opposition leaders jailed or poisoned and critical journalists killed in cold blood. These are not exceptional events, but everyday headlines. The Russian economy is hitting rock bottom because of its over-reliance on gas and oil exports. “Innovation” is nothing more than a punchline of the regime, because the reality is that Russians are not free to express new ideas. Russian people are getting poorer by the day, but continue to support Putin because every single media outlet is controlled by the Kremlin, the Internet censored, and the elections rigged. Welcome to Russia in 2015.

The EU and Russia are in a stand-off, launching measures and counter-measures. Europe must not back down. This is the time to stay united and strong. Bullies like Putin do not respect weakness. All too often, the European Council has been slow to react to Russian provocations, resulting in sanctions that are agreed on too late or too hesitantly. Regrettably, the extension of sanctions linked to the continued Russian military presence in eastern Ukraine is still pending. The EU must be more proactive and should develop a clearer strategy. There is little hope that Putin will change his behavior. We have to plan a tough joint response to further provocations, which are now extremely likely.

We must never forget that the true victims of the regime are the Russian people themselves. On a daily basis, Russian citizens are bombarded with Kremlin propaganda, declaring the wickedness of the West. We have to rebut these lies more effectively, by engaging with the people of Russia directly, many of whom are enormously talented in a wide range of fields: arts, music, science, technology. The Russian regime is suppressing the country’s talented people, as if they were under communist rule. If Putin does not value the potential of his own people, we should.

The European Commission should come forward with a proposal to set up a vast program of scholarships for Russian artists, scientists, and students. The European Council has a duty to provide the necessary funding for this. If each of the 28 member states contributed, the costs would be minimal and the benefits — helping to win the hearts and minds of the Russian people — would be invaluable. We could help give talented Russians the funding they need to flourish, while providing more lenient visa conditions. It would enable Russians to see Europe for what it really is, not as it is portrayed by Putin’s regime.

The EU should also do more to support civil society in Russia, by actively participating in peaceful human rights protests. Putin can make as many blacklists as he wants, but he will never be able to silence those who stand united against his vile nationalist rhetoric and his regime’s uncompromising  suppression of fundamental internationally recognised rights.

Loudly and with conviction, we must reject Putin’s narrow authoritarianism and boldly offer the people of Russian an alternative liberal vision of a global society based on freedom, democratic values, equality and opportunity. Sanctions may hurt Putin’s pocketbook, but offering a positive alternative vision for  Russia, to her people, will hit Putin where it really hurts.

Guy Verhofstadt, European parliamentary group leader for the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe (ALDE), was prime minister of Belgium from 1999-2008.

Guy Verhofstadt