Stanislav Bishok: Moscow will remain Belgrade’s natural ally who will never betray Serbia

The Russian President is not obliged to be more Serbian than the Serbian President who did, indeed, communicate with Mr. Thaci, said Stanislav Bishok in an interview with Milos Milojevic

Stanislav Bishok (Photo: Branko Lucic)

This year, elections for European Parliament are to be held, though with complete uncertainty. The European political „mainstream“ is afraid of the further strengthening of those parties that are labeled as „populist.“ In Germany, the coalition of the two largest parties, the Christian Democratic Union and the Social Democratic Party, is the backbone of the government, but with the retaliation of Angela Merkel, before the Democratic Party Convention announced for December, the question is how much the whole structure will be maintained.

Above all, the populism (and one-time ruling Greens) made significant gains in elections for assemblies of federal states in Bavaria and Hessen. Britain and the European Union have somehow managed to agree on the Brexit draft agreement. The result is an almost six hundred pages long document, but it is uncertain whether the British Parliament will pass it.

The situation in eastern Europe, in Donbass, and between Russia and Ukraine is unstable. The recent incident in Kerch reminded us blatantly of this situation. All this indicates that European politics is in a state of confusion. Europe may be at a crossroads, but one shrouded in dense fog.

These are the issues on which knowledgeable Russian political scientist Stanislav Bishok can elaborate. Bishok gave a lecture at Belgrade Institute of European studies and Matica Srpska in Novi Sad this summer. When I made a report about these lectures, I wrote that “he started his political science research with Ukraine” and that he has studied “European Euroscepticism and the perception and instrumentalization of the Russian issue by European Eurosceptics” in the last several years.

Although it is essential for the researcher to distance himself from the everyday data and to try to comprehend political development looking at a bigger picture, we began our conversation on a current topic.

After more than two years, it seems that there will finally be a resolution on Brexit. Soon enough, we will know whether the reached agreement will be verified in the British Parliament or “hard Brexit” will follow. In your judgment, could the process of Brexit encourage or discourage similar attempts in the future? It seemed that “soft” departure from the EU without significant concessions was not possible, but we see, at last, that it could be.

— I believe that, initially, there were two different approaches in Brussels related to the question of how to treat the UK after its citizens voted the way they did. The soft one, associated with Donald Tusk, meant total agreement with London’s demands and absolute publicly stated respect to the will of the British people. By doing so, the proponents of this approach wanted to undermine the position of Eurosceptics, British, and other continentals, who lamented the “Brussels diktat” and similar matters. The second, hard approach, represented by Jean-Claude Juncker, implied the intention to “give the British a lesson” so as to discourage strong Eurosceptic tendencies and referenda like the one in the UK in continental European countries.

In the end, the “Brussels bureaucrats,” as EU officials are known in Eurosceptic parlance, seem to have won, at least for the time being. With the UK in limbo, Eurosceptics still hate Brussels, yet the idea of emulating the 2016 British referendum isn’t that popular even among the most Eurosceptic nations on the continent, namely, the French and the Dutch.

The motto “Brexit means Brexit” used by the British Prime Minister Theresa May doesn’t make the issue of the UK “divorcing” Brussels less complicated. The phrase could, and will, be interpreted as “Brexit means anything the UK gets after the official date of leaving the EU, i.e., March 29, 2019.”

Brexit was set by “populists” in UK politics – the UKIP and the Eurosceptic wing in the Tory party, led by former Foreign Minister Boris Johnson. But the negotiation process itself was led by the Conservative Party, which is a prominent party of the establishment. Do you think that if the Tories succeed in bringing a successful Brexit deal, that can mean strengthening the power of the mainstream in British politics?

— We’re all living in a time of changes; there have been several unpredictable events with presumably global consequences (Nicholas Taleb’s “black swans,” I suppose) for the last few years. The most notable ones, besides Brexit, include Trump’s victory and the seemingly never-ending confrontation between the West and Russia. Hence, it’s getting more difficult to make accurate, reliable, and relevant predictions about almost anything, including the European politics of today and tomorrow.

The Brexit paradox is that this event effectively killed, or at least severely damaged, the hardline Eurosceptic driving force, the UK Independence Party, which lost not only its charismatic leader, Nigel Farage but also a considerable amount of public support. What used to be a relatively peripheral issue of British politics, i.e., leaving the EU, has become a dominant topic since 2016. Nowadays, both major parties in the UK, the Tories and Labor, are Brexiteers. Not that pro-EU supporters are non-existent, but the official rhetoric is pro-Brexit, there are only different approaches to what Brexit, in fact, means since the “Brexit means Brexit” motto seems to lack any meaningful content. In the case where all British politics necessarily turn Eurosceptic, there’s no room for a single-issue party, UKIP, that has advocated Brexit since day one.

Eventually, after the results of the 2016 referendum, the mainstream, i.e., Tories, took over the issue of Euroscepticism in a way, leaving UKIP empty-handed. There are speculations that even Nigel Farage considers the option of re-joining the now Eurosceptic Conservatives whom he left in the early 1990s due to their Euro-optimistic attitude at the time.

As for the possibility of Tories delivering a successful Brexit deal, it’s clear that, whatever the outcome by the end of March 2019, they’ll certainly present it to the general public as a great success of their policies and their negotiation skills. And one doesn’t need a crystal ball to predict that their opponents will claim, as they’re already doing, that the Conservatives succeeded in cutting the worst deal in history. That’s hot air, and that’s politics.

The future relationship between the United Kingdom and the Russian Federation may be dependent on the resolution of domestic political relations in Britain. Can you assume how these relations can develop?

— I’m a UK-sceptic in this respect. In earnest, there were only two occasions in history when Russia and the UK had friendly relations – when they were allies in WWI and WWII. The rest of the time, the relations were “frosty,” to say the least. Today’s troubled relationship between Moscow and the UK should be considered as back-to-normal rather than as a sort of aberration.

What’s behind this animosity? In the XIX century, it was a great game, the contest for domination in Asia Minor and Central Asia. In the XX century, it was the clash of ideologies. Today, it seems more like inertia of some sort, given that there’s no ideological base in modern UK and Russia. It also refers to a broader issue of the Russia-West confrontation. For the first time in centuries, perhaps in the whole history, there are no political, economic, religious, territorial or other issues over which Russia and any particular western country (or the entire West, for that matter) might have any major confrontation, let alone an all-out war. Nevertheless, some commentators don’t hesitate to use this very word – war – without any restraint. This tolerance, if I may say so, to the idea of a war is what frightens me a lot. War? My gosh, for what purpose?

Sure, some commentators claim, by vulgarizing Marxism, that it’s all about the money or resources. Well, why not trade, given that those who need resources have the money, and the willingness of Russia to sell what it has in abundance? So, I suggest not to overlook the factor of irrationality and inertia when considering the issue of international relations, including those between Russia and the West, and the UK, in particular. People are irrational by nature, so why not be irrational in perceiving one’s neighbors and making foreign policy decisions and planning global strategies?

Can you describe how the Russian academic community, that is, those dealing with the study of European politics, reacted to the „populist wave“ in Europe? Was that a surprise for you?

— My reaction was more in line with Francis Fukuyama who wrote that the question to ask is not Why the populist wave occurred now? but Why it occurred so late given the negative global shifts in the West that had begun a couple of decades earlier? I was more surprised when I found out that Russia-related issues played a significant role in the rhetoric of right-wing populists in Europe, and for some of them, especially the Alternative for Germany, the Russian problem is one of the factors that have made the party what it is today and that prompted the first split in 2015, which, by the way, turned out positive for the party, election-wise.

The main difference between Russian academic handling of the populist wave issue and that of the Western mainstream is that Russian academia is not (yet?) disfigured by liberal-left bias against what’s to the right of the center of the political spectrum. Every other paper by western academics regarding the issue is dedicated, in one way or another, to the question of how to “fight” populism, nationalism, and other issues interpreted as “not normal.” Russian academia is, paradoxically, much more tolerant to, and detached from, these topics, given the decades of communist dominance in politics and science. The approach here is more empirical than ethical. Russian academics, as I understand the current approach here, are more interested in what the populist wave is and what the factors behind it are. The basic answers have to do with the failures of policies of multiculturalism and tolerance and open-door approach to immigration from culturally non-European countries, predominantly Muslim. Russian academics don’t tend to consider anti-mass migration sentiments and certain groups’ demands for more respect to the country’s traditions and religion as something intrinsically bad, something that needs to be “cured.” That’s my personal approach, as well.

Do you think that the strengthening of populist parties in West Europe is good for the Russian foreign position? Namely, some of them are separated from mainstream even in foreign policy issues. But, their views are often unstable. One day, they can support rapprochement with Russia and the next day, they can use fear mongering based on “Russian threat” for internal political gains.

— The changing image of Russia in the political rhetoric of right-wing Eurosceptics is the main topic of my scientific research and interests. The global tendency is that these parties either don’t change their attitudes, be they positive, negative or neutral, towards Russia over time, or change them in a positive direction. The only exception so far is Hungary’s Jobbik who used to be radically pro-Russian during the leadership of Gabor Vona, but now is more Russia–neutral. Some parties considered pro-Russian when in government have to “tone down” their affinities and get more in line with the mainstream regarding, say, extending anti-Russian sanctions by the EU. The clear examples here are Italy’s Lega and the Freedom party in Austria. Politics is the art of compromise, and Russia is a topic that, historically, is easy to drop. At the end of the day, for western countries, the unity of the West is much more important than any friendly relations with Russia, no matter how wholehearted they might be.

There was an opinion popular among certain scholars and political commentators in Russia, that the more troubled the EU becomes, the easier it is for Moscow to build bilateral relations to separate European nations. But, as it has turned out, it doesn’t work that way. On the contrary, when Eurosceptic tendencies dramatically increase in the EU, those interested in preserving the European project at all costs need to create an external existential threat which should work as a warning sign, saying “If Europe is not united, European countries will, one by one, fall prey to a great carnivorous state at our borders.” There’s a saying in Russia: “An old friend is better than a couple of new ones.” One can change “friend” to “foe” to understand why those at the core of “Brussels bureaucracy” chose Moscow as today’s biggest existential threat to the EU.

Right-wing Eurosceptics and their political opponents are instrumentalizing the Russian issue. Some, like the British UKIP or the Danish People’s Party, instrumentalize it in both positive and negative ways. They say Russia is a pivotal partner to the West in fighting Islamic terrorism both in the Middle East and Europe. At the same time, they criticize their own government for underfunding the defense in the light of resurgent Russia. Indeed, instrumentalizing Russia is a win-win strategy! (I’m being sarcastic.)

What about Central Europe? There was hope that the changes in Austrian politics and the independent Hungarian policy under Viktor Orban would open up an opportunity to improve relations with Russia. What is the situation now?

— There are no anti-Russian sentiments in Austrian society and politics as far as I’m concerned. Austria is a neutral nation, member of the EU but not of NATO. Despite all its claims to be an impartial moderator between Russia and the West, Austria is still part of the West, which was proved by Vienna’s backing up of all-European, anti-Russian sanctions. There are limits to any country’s independence and neutrality, especially in the case of non-great power states, i.e., the vast majority of the existing states.

The same is true when it comes to Orban’s Hungary. This country, a part of the Višegrad Group along with its partners (Poland, Czechia, Slovakia), is the only one allowed to be the EU’s “enfant terrible” so far. In domestic policy, be it migration, judiciary or Central European University, “Brussels bureaucracy” finds it tolerable if Hungary does something that doesn’t comply with the EU recommendations. It’s even acceptable to fiercely criticize Brussels, calling its policies dumb, irrational, self-hurting or even suicidal for introducing and extending the anti-Russian sanctions. But when it comes to another extension, which happens twice a year, not one country, considered Russia-friendly, uses its veto right. Some may call it hypocritical from their side. I’d rather perceive it as clear politics. If a small European nation, a member of the EU and/or NATO, has Russia on one side of the scale, and the EU, the US, Canada, and Australia on the other, the final choice is a bit predictable. Sure, the smart choice would be to opt for full cooperation with both, but in today’s political reality, that might not be an option.

The difference lies in humanitarian issues, notably, religion (Christianity as opposed to Islam or aggressive atheism), civilization, national and cultural identity, ethnicity, the rights of sexual minorities, and the status of growing migrant communities. For the left, any person living in, or entering, legally or illegally, their country should have roughly the same rights as regular citizens, including the right to maintain one’s own traditions, however exotic they may be, and the right to social benefits and healthcare. They promote welfare for everyone, no matter the cost. For the right, immigration is acceptable but, firstly, people of European cultural background and/or Christian religion should be given preference, and, secondly, non-European immigrants must guarantee their adherence to, and compliance with, a list of requirements, basically meaning adopting a new national-cultural identity of the host country. To sum up, the left approach to immigration is based on multiculturalism, i.e., rejecting the dominant culture and making sure the society consists of many different cultural groups who can mutually enrich the nation (even though the term “nation” is rarely used). The right approach implies strengthening the cultural unity/homogeneity of a nation more or less based on the “old times,” and making sure the new migrants don’t disturb that unity.

In the past, migrants in Europe weren’t such a significant factor. Previously, “the Others” for Europeans were their neighboring peoples (Germans to French, Russians to Poles, Finns to Swedes, and vice versa), as well as the Jews. Today, despite the right’s aversion to the idea of a federal Europe, with a new all-European identity proposed by Euro-optimists, there is, in fact, the feeling of something common European, which is distinguished from and endangered by the growing non-European, Islamic communities blossoming in European countries. Ironically, the far-right of past decades were vehemently anti-Semitic, while today, the populist right are predominantly pro-Israel (which they perceive as a European bastion in the Muslim Middle East), and the left are mostly anti-Israel. The left opposes Israel for the very things the right applauds the Jewish state: nationalism, traditionalism, military conscription, anti-Arabic policies.

The boundaries of “us” and “them” are ever-changing. Earlier, Catholics were “the Others” to the Protestants, while now, they’re all “we” in the face of Islam and radical secularism. In the past, the Jews were “the Others,” while now they’re “one of us” in a way, occupying the same boat floating in the stormy ocean of “them.”

Is the fall of Merkel the final defeat of open-border immigration policy once and for all?

— Borders are something that defines any state. Open-door migration policy, if led to a logical conclusion, means the dissolution of the country. The political world of today consists of nation-states. There’s a relatively powerful idea of constructing a new political identity, a world citizen defying any borders or other prejudices of old, unenlightened times. The breeding ground for concepts like that is life in a prosperous Western country surrounded by states with similar culture and economic conditions. As long as one lives under “greenhouse conditions,” in the artificial and protective environment, one can believe in things such as a world without borders and equal worth of any customs existing on the earth. However, when people are confronted with the reality of mass migration, social tensions it entails, and mutually exclusive worldviews, they tend to change their attitude. As Nietzsche said, it’s possible to be the Last Man only as long as you’re surrounded by people like you.

Nevertheless, we shouldn’t underestimate the power of one’s intellect to deceive oneself and the urge to protect one’s precious initial, hardwired ideas. Hence the views that the Europeans, with the bitter legacy of racism, colonialism, etc., are the ones to blame for certain difficulties that new (and even second- and third-generation) migrants may experience when integrated into a host country. (The more a person is educated, the more he or she is able to play tricks with basic logic, effectively deceiving themselves. That’s why it’s more down-to-earth people, blue collars, who predominantly vote for anti-mass migration candidates and parties.) Still, the basic trend is to reestablish the borders, both physical and political. It’s not the issue of technics, but political will.

Some will go on arguing that the aging and declining Western population won’t make it without a massive influx of migrants. It’s not an easy issue to resolve but the basic arguments the opponents of mass migration would use include these: it’s impossible to save European nations by effectively replacing them with non-Europeans; migrants from different cultures vary dramatically in their attitudes towards work (Muslims apparently don’t have Protestant work ethics, with all possible consequences); given the digitalization and robotization of many professions, it’s not a bad idea to use robots instead of new workers; and  — last, but not least  — it’s hardly ethical to be a “vacuum cleaner” effectively depriving the developing countries of their brightest youth attracted to the West (given that proponents of migration often refer to “highly-skilled cadres”).

Ivan Krastev notices an interesting fact defining what’s happening now. During the revolutionary periods, periods of swift democratization and, in the case of Central and Eastern Europe, de-Communization, the most active citizens did their best to change the life in their countries, whereas today, they tend simply to change the country of residence.

The „Populist Wave“ both in the United States and Europe was at first connected with social differences and was explained by the dissatisfaction of those left behind by globalization. However, in his recent extensive essay in Foreign Affairs magazine, Frances Fukuyama has stated that identity is the central issue. He opposes “identity politics“ and calls for the formulation of comprehensive identities that would become normative in Western countries (he had the United States in mind, above all). However, he didn’t give a clear answer to the question – What should be the elements of this whole identity? Will formulation of this comprehensive and newly formulated identity become center stage in the political struggle in the West?

— Regardless of one’s attitude towards (post)modernity, we are living in it. Hand in hand with globalization come such matters as digitalization/Internetization and trans humanization. Identity issues are as important as never before. The fall of the Roman Empire took several centuries, as did the process of Christianization and, then, de-Christianization of Europe. But now, the historic time seems to have sped up dramatically, our self-perception lags behind the technical changes and innovations. Identity is not about nation or culture per se; it’s basically about the question – What does it mean to be a human? What’s life? Body? Love? Feelings? Family? Truth?

Since politics is not philosophy or psychology, politicians reduce the aforementioned global, existential problems to something simpler, like the issues of preservation of one’s national identity and heritage and opposing mass migration. There’s nothing wrong with such kind of reductionism, but we just had better keep in mind the big picture.

As for the possibility of formulating a catch-all identity acceptable for big and diverse countries like the US, I believe it’s important to be modest to fulfill global projects like that. The list of characteristics required for a citizen to be accepted as one who shares the identity in question should not be that long. I believe that the central theme should be loyalty to the state, i.e., patriotism. Since the predictions of the death of the state have proven to be premature, a state is still — and will likely remain for the time being — the fundamental component of world order and, not less importantly, the only political body that gives, or ought to offer, a man necessary protection and care. If in need of any sort, a person addresses authorities of his or her own state and not those of other states of supra-state structures like the United Nations. Basic social protection is about state, not post-state globalized world island.

By the way, coincidentally, at the time of giving this interview, I’m reading Fukuyama’s recent book “Identity” from which the article you refer to was extracted.

The issue of identity is also relevant to East European politics. Great political efforts, from Washington and Kiev, above all, have been invested in the formation of a new „Ukrainian Orthodox Church,“ which would, in fact, be a mechanism for suppressing the Moscow Patriarchate. This emergence of new, mostly anti-Russian and even Russophobia Ukrainian identity is a rather important part of socio-political development in contemporary Europe. Can you describe the process of „Ukrainianization?“

— I would elaborate volumes on this issue if we had enough time, but I’ll try to be concise. Basically, there are clear similarities between the problem of Serbian-Croatian separation and that between the Russians and Ukrainians. According to the Serbian national (and nationalist – these are, in fact, synonyms) narrative, Croats are basically Catholicized Serbs who forgot their true national identity. The vision of the Croats somewhat mirrors the Serbian view, but not fully: Serbs are believed to be Byzantinized Croats with some inferior, distinctly non-European, Oriental “additions,” both worldview-wise and concerning the race.

From the traditional Russian point of view, Ukrainians are either Russians whose perennial national identity was deliberately corrupted by Austrians so as to use them against (proper) Russians, or they’re — along with Belarussians — “fraternal people” (братские народы) to the Russians. Just like the Trinity representing one God but with three partly-distinct images, there’s also a parallel with the idea of Serbian-Croatian-Slovenian “trinity” in Yugoslavia.

According to Ukrainian nationalist narrative, the Russians of today firstly don’t have the right to the very name “Russian” (“Rus”) since this ethnonym was stolen by the Muscovite Tsar Peter the Great from the then-Russians, forcing the latter to change their ethnonym to “Ukrainians.” The Russians of today stole not only the ethnonym but also the whole history of ancient and medieval Rus’ which is, from the Ukrainian nationalist point of view, in fact, ancient and medieval Ukrainian history. In today’s Ukrainian schoolbooks, ancient Rus’ is officially called Ukraine-Rus so as to demonstrate who’s the real heir to its legacy from their point of view.

The idea of the three “fraternal peoples” so dear to Russian nationalists has its flaws, effectively leading to separation rather than strengthening the (imagined) unity. The idea is fine unless your “younger brothers” have states of their own and represent national minorities, often discriminated against in other people’s states like Austria-Hungary or interwar Poland. Basically, the pan-Slavic idea of the XIX century was fruitful for Russia, which was the only independent Slavic-majority country at the time. Hence, they thought that all Slavic people, including the “fraternal” ones, would join the Russian Empire once they gained independence from the “others”. But as it turned out, Slavs wanted full independence, which led to the creation of “grown-up” nation states. Actually, it appears to be a trivial logic of politics: once you’ve got your own country, however small and insignificant it may be, you’ll do whatever it takes to preserve its independence and your position inside its government/power structure. It’s better to be the first in a province than the second in Rome, as the saying goes.

Soviet nationalities policy was based on certain premises. First of all, all pre-revolutionary history of the Russian Empire was regarded as a reign of tyranny of Great Russians against non-Russian peoples of the country. The tyranny the Bolsheviks ascribed to Russia was expressed particularly in forced Russification of non-Russian people and efforts to baptize the Jews. Hence, Bolshevik leaders thought the new revolutionary government needed to fix the wrongdoings by Russian chauvinists by giving the supposedly suppressed non-Russian people maximum freedom when it comes to cultural issues and even something like a statehood of their own. In the Russian Empire, the state was divided into regions whose titles had no ethnic components to them; basically, the titles were given based on the biggest city of the region or the geographical location (like the North-Western region or the Kazan’ province). Bolsheviks divided the newly-established USSR into “ethnic” regions, even if the ethnic group after which the area was named wasn’t in the majority there.

At the beginning of the XX century, the vast majority of the population of the empire lived in rural areas and were illiterate. After the Civil War, the Bolsheviks launched a massive process of “liquidation of illiteracy.” Yet, according to their worldview, it was wrong to teach all Soviet citizens in Russian because it would imply copying the “tsarist” model of Russification in a way. So, they decided to “liquidate illiteracy” in “national” languages, even if it implied de facto creating these languages, alphabets, and coming up with new words fit for the modern age of technology. Even if those who were considered Ukrainian and Belorussian (the Bolsheviks denied the concept of the “three fraternal peoples” as Russian chauvinist propaganda, and claimed the Ukrainians and Belarussians aren’t and never ever were Russians) wanted to get education in Russian, arguing that it’s Russian that’s their mother tongue, and they don’t understand and, basically, don’t need Ukrainian/Belorussian, they were forced to learn “their” languages nonetheless. Moreover, not only did the Bolsheviks made Russian and non-Russian people literate, but they also wrote and taught their own histories whose main narrative was a long national liberation struggle against the Tsarist, i.e., Great Russian, oppression.

In the mid-1930s, the Bolshevik nationalities policy became more moderate, and the Russian language and Russian culture were rehabilitated, yet not entirely. In schools of ethnically non-Russian regions, there was a clear distinction between the Russian language and “the mother tongue.” During the Communist period, the idea of creating a new national identity — the Soviet man — was based on the premise that, before becoming the Soviet nation, non-Russian people of the USSR should become “mature nations” (with their own distinct languages, intelligentsia, high culture, and semi-statehood). According to the Marxist chain of reasoning, when mature enough, these nations would undoubtedly understand that it’s a historical necessity to drop all ethnic/national differences and unite with all the other Soviet — and, later, all working nations of the world — in one big socialist family, the Soviet people.

Yet, when the Soviet Union collapsed, it dissolved not along economic lines but strictly along the ethnic-territorial units created by the early Bolshevik nationalities policy, which was later left intact, after the “rehabilitation of Russians” by Stalin. As one author rightly noticed, empires don’t fall, they fall apart. Once the former Soviet republics gained their full independence (the majority for the first time in the entire history), they’d already had national mythology of some sort, made in the USSR, so as to substantiate their historic rights for national independence. Ukraine was no exception. Those responsible for humanitarian issues in a newly proclaimed independent state took the Soviet concept of a centuries-long national liberation struggle of the Ukrainian nation against the Moscow’s yoke, cleansed it from Marxist features, and reinterpreted the Soviet period of Ukrainian history, not as a time of the nation’s de facto birth but as a continuation of the struggle against Moscow. According to Ukrainian nationalist mythology (I consider this term neutral), the USSR was effectively a new version of Tsarist Russia in disguise; there were even elements of forced Russification and genocide therein.

As for the issue of religion, today in Ukraine, as in Europe in general, it’s not a separate matter but one of the attributes of national identity. As a distinct nation, we have or should have our own language, state, flag, hymn, customs, culture — and religion, our own church, if possible. It’s not right, the idea implies, for an independent nation to have a “foreign” church. If I’m correct, now even Montenegro’s authorities strive for a separate Montenegrin Orthodox church — right after inventing the separate Montenegrin language. One can hardly blame them for inconsistency, if I may add.

Moreover, all jokes aside, unlike Catholicism, Orthodox Christianity is historically prone to territorial and national divisions, whether one likes it or not.

Recently, elections have been held in Donbas. Washington and Brussels do not recognize them, allegedly because they were in opposition to the Minsk agreements. Kiev described them as a farce. What is the political situation in this area?

— The conditions are, as medics would say, severe but stable. For a couple of years now, new pieces of information suggesting that the Ukrainian army is preparing for a full-scale offense have been emerging regularly, every other month or so, but nothing has happened. Still, as the local media reports, every now and then, people die due to random shots from the Ukrainian side of the demarcation line. There’s no “hot” war, but you can’t really call peaceful a situation where people die of enemy army’s fire, if random.

Back in 2014, when Igor Strelkov and his men came to Donbass from Crimea, which at that time was just recently returned to (or annexed by, as Western & Kiev officials call it  — as if there were any difference between these synonyms) Russia, people of Donbass believed in a rapid “Crimea scenario,” i.e., a fast deployment of Russian troops a.k.a. “the gentle men,” a referendum on joining the Russian Federation, recognition of the referendum’s results by the Russian authorities, and, finally, happily joining Russia. As we’ve seen, something quite different happened.

There are many speculations about why this didn’t happen. The most reasonable analysis, from my point of view, is that pro-Russian Donbass was considered a driving force to Ukraine’s federalization by Kremlin strategists; hence the Russia-leaning region should have been returned under full sovereignty of Kiev, but only provided that Kiev implemented the constitutional changes needed for federalization. If that happened, Kiev’s radical policies, including the struggle to join NATO and the EU, would be effectively restrained by the veto-holding Russian-speaking regions of southern and eastern Ukraine — a crescent from Odessa to Kharkov. In other words, Moscow considered Donbass a safety catch.

However incompetent the post-Maidan Ukrainian authorities might be considered, they solved the Kremlin plan and stopped trying to get Donbass back by brutal force. It should be taken into account that one, if hidden, objective of the Donbass war was achieved by Kiev; Poroshenko and his associates effectively got rid of the most radical elements, nationalist daredevils, and true believers in a revolution that overthrew president Yanukovych and who were growing more and more dissatisfied with a new “revolutionary” government made up of corrupted politicians and led by an oligarch president. Poroshenko succeeded in cleansing the revolutionary guards — not unlike Stalin in 1937. (This parallel is never drawn, to the best of my knowledge, but why not?)

Now, Donbass is caught in limbo between Ukraine that claims it wants to “liberate” it from Russian occupants, as Kiev officials call them, but in fact doing everything needed (including constant rapid shelling of residential areas at the outskirts of Donetsk) to prevent Donbass from returning, and Russia, which helps Donbass survive by any means necessary but doesn’t officially recognize its independence. Still, there’s some movement towards Moscow. The self-proclaimed republics of Donetsk and Lugansk adopted Russian Ruble as their official currency, its higher education systems are harmonized with Russian standards, and Russia recognizes the passports of these republics. Hence, the direction is clear, and I can’t imagine going back.

It seems like a frozen conflict has been established, whose end is not in sight. What are the possible scenarios for resolving the „Ukrainian crisis?“

—Basically, this crisis consists of three crises related to Crimea, Donbass, and Ukraine proper, i.e., Kiev-controlled Ukraine.

The Crimea issue is virtually unresolvable, similarly to the other major territorial disputes we know, like Israel-Palestine, Northern Cyprus, Nagorno-Karabakh, Kosovo. Russia won’t give up its territories and, most importantly, around 2 million citizens won’t do it either, yet Ukraine won’t officially recognize the loss of Crimea. The world community, apparently, couldn’t care less about the Crimea problem but, given the position of the US, it will likely act in line with Washington. We should remember that the three Baltic republics, Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia, were never recognized by the world community as legitimate territories of the Soviet Union. I don’t know why things should be different with the Crimean Peninsula.

The Donbass issue is more complicated. Unlike Crimea, Donbass can potentially return under Kiev’s jurisdiction, but only provided Ukraine changed dramatically, erasing almost everything that’s been done during and after the Euromaidan revolution (or a coup d’etat, once again, I’m against playing with words which mean the same thing). And that’s unlikely to happen. Not unlike in Ukraine proper, there’s been an intensive process of nation-building in the self-proclaimed Republic of Donbass. Prior to the events of 2014, the vast majority of the region’s inhabitants considered themselves Ukrainian despite speaking Russian and being more interested in Russian cultural sphere/TV. Yet after the post-revolutionary Kiev had launched a military operation against this rebel region and began effectively shelling Donetsk, Lugansk, and other areas, the Donbass residents suffered, among other obvious things, what we may call a crisis of identity. “How could we belong to the same nation with those shelling us based on the assumption that we’re not real Ukrainians?” Being a real Ukrainian (just like any other “real representative of a nation” in any nationalist ideology) implied loyalty and adherence to a number of ideas, including the belief in Moscow’s congenial animosity towards the Ukrainian nationhood and a centuries-long national liberation struggle by Ukrainians which began as early as the mid-XII century. Donbass inhabitants simply didn’t fit into these requirements. Speaking further about the competing Russian and Ukrainian narratives, one should understand that the Russian narrative implies that the people of Donbass are and were properly Russian despite any attempts to “Ukrainize” them during the Soviet regime and in post-independent Ukraine. According to the Ukrainian narrative, the people of Donbass are, at the most, ethnically Ukrainian but contaminated by Russian cultural and racial influence.

Basically, after all that’s happened since 2014, it’s impossible to imagine Donbass people proudly hailing the Ukrainian flag, singing the hymn, electing MPs who, when in Parliament, sit side by side with those military commanders and Ukrainian nationalist militiamen who volunteered to suppress the Donbass pro-Russian rebellion several years ago. Nobody among the Ukrainian officials speaks about it openly, but Ukraine proper simply couldn’t “digest” several million new-old citizens who have many reasons to viscerally hate this very country, with all its institutions and symbols of faith.

As for the future of Ukraine proper, I’m skeptical about those views that the country’s going to fail and disintegrate and become prey for neighboring countries, namely Russia, Poland, Hungary, and Romania. Historically, countries disintegrate for three reasons, which can combine: ethnoterritorial (the USSR of Yugoslavia), political (Korea, Vietnam), and religious (India-Pakistan, Sudan). These factors don’t apply to Ukraine proper. Most citizens in every region consider themselves ethnically Ukrainian (without any separatist tendencies); there are no strong political parties/forces which dominate certain regions and hint at separation. Furthermore, the vast majority of Ukrainians are Orthodox Christians, and even though there’s been a recent split, any religious war is unlikely, given the secular character of the overall population of the country.

Moreover, the territories which historically belonged or were considered Polish, namely, West Ukraine, have been effectively ethnically cleansed during and after WWII and are now predominantly Ukrainian by their ethnic-cultural outlook. No Polish nationalist would be interested in returning Lvov and other cities inhabited by Ukrainians. The same applies to the other potentially contested areas.

I predict that Ukraine will remain a problematic state but a state nonetheless. Its relations with, and, to a lesser extent, rhetoric towards, Russia will improve but only for now. Some in Russia still believe that the veil of nationalist/Russophobic/pro-Western lies will eventually fall from Ukrainians’ eyes and Ukraine, together with Belarus, will rejoin Russia, and we’ll live happily as a family of the “three fraternal peoples,” and similar fantasies. These assertions are based on wishful thinking and magical interpretation of the concept of ethnicity and national identity. National identity in modern times is purposely formed and nurtured in state’s citizens by the government through the system of education, national symbols, flag, hymn, heroic interpretation of history, etc. Wishful thinkers (I use it as a merely descriptive term), however, believe in magical characteristics of blood or a Russian spirit which is present deeply in all people/nations whom the wishful thinkers consider originally/initially Russian. They believe that the fact that many of these people don’t consider themselves Russian, and are taught so from day one, doesn’t matter since the “spirit” is still there ready to be awakened by some great event. Pity for them, but the process of nation-building cannot be reversed once there’s a state which is capable of making its citizens believe that they belong to this but not to that nationality, that their national heroes are these not those, etc. The times when it was a grandmother who told the youth stories about the heroic past of their people are gone. Now the state is that grandmother. And the Ukrainian state is, pardon the expression, not the Russian state.

However, what are your long-term predictions? Is it possible for some Belarusian identity to emerge, like now in Ukraine, based on opposition to Russian identity?

— It’s already emerged. It’s not that fiercely anti-Moscow as Ukrainian so far, but nevertheless, it’s based on a clear distinction between Russian and Belorussian histories and, what’s most important, future directions. One shouldn’t forget that, among the three national narratives, the idea of “the three fraternal peoples” lies only at the core of the Russian one. While Ukrainian nationalist myth claims that the Muscovites under Peter the Great stole the ancient history of Ukraine, i.e., that of Kievan Rus’, and illegally appropriated it, Belorussian myth implies that Belorussian nation has its roots, not in Kievan Rus’ or Muscovy, but in the medieval Grand Duchy of Lithuania, hence, today’s Belarussians are, unlike the Russians, exemplary Europeans and heirs to a distinctly European state.

Today, there are two basic misconceptions in Russia regarding Belorussia. The first is that the Belorussian President Alexander Lukashenko was, is, and will remain absolutely loyal to Moscow. The second is that Lukashenko will remain President indefinitely. Based on the two misconceptions, many think that, unlike Ukraine, Belorussia will never break the fraternal ties with Mother Russia. Those who believe that are simply forgetting that just five years ago, and less, it was believed in Russia that Ukraine would never go away, that it would forever remain in Russia’s orbit, etc. Some just don’t learn from their own mistakes.

The poet Alexander Pushkin once wrote pityingly in a private letter: “We Russians are lazy and incurious.” Prior to the 2014 Euromaidan revolution in Ukraine, Russians had been repeating the mantra about “the fraternal peoples” for decades, without showing any real interest in what, in fact, happened in this fraternal country regarding the issues of identity, interpretation of history, political trends, public’s and political class’ attitudes towards Russia. And when the radical anti-Russia erupted in Ukraine, the majority of Russians were taken by surprise, including those Russians whose professional duty was to monitor the situation in Ukraine.

The humanitarian atmosphere in Belorussia is better, but only for now. The times when President Lukashenko “flirted” with the idea of Belarussians being “merely Russians but with a high-quality mark” are long gone. Nowadays, pro-Russian affections are much higher among the elderly Belarussians who’re more nostalgic about the USSR and whose affections are mostly related to the Soviet period of our common history associated, among other things, with the victory in WWII, or the Great Patriotic, as the period between June 22, 1941 and May 9, 1945 is known here.

However, there was a positive effect from a shock many in Russia experienced after the revolutionary events in Ukraine. There was an assumption that Moscow can lose Belorussia just as Moscow lost Ukraine if Russia doesn’t intensify its cooperation and integration with Belorussia in economic, energy, educational, cultural, and other spheres. I believe many in Serbia, and even in Russia, don’t know that in the early 2000s, the idea of uniting Russia and Belorussia into one Union State was discussed. The idea was discussed by presidents, MPs, and experts. Referendums on constitutional amendments, which would let the two states to merge into one, were planned to be held in 2001-2004.

Basically, I believe there’s still a chance to unfreeze the process but the time works absolutely against the Union State idea. According to the polls, the younger the Belorussian respondents, the more skeptical they are about the idea of a merger. Some interpret this idea as a complete surrender of state sovereignty to Moscow rather than the extension of borders to Vladivostok, given that Moscow’s territory, population, military, and economic resources. It’s not a merger between comparable states.

In a prestigious German weekly, Spiegel Christian Neef, a longtime correspondent from Moscow for the German media, has recently published an essay dedicated to Russian politics in Ukraine. As expected, he blames Russian politics for everything and anything – including the execution of the leaders in Donbas. However, some of his views are extremely provocative. He believes that Russia is the one that opposes the peaceful resolution because the frozen conflict is allegedly optimal for Russia because it opens a possibility to blackmail Ukraine. On the other hand, Kiev often performs sporadic combat actions and threatens with violent reintegration, even by performing a comprehensive military operation, such as Operation Storm in 1995. What is your assessment of what will happen to Donbass – frozen conflict, peaceful or violent reintegration in Ukraine, or some form of semi-independence?

— It’s quite demonstrative in the understanding of the atmosphere prevalent in this country that many in Orthodox Ukraine’s political speakers invoke the operation of Catholics against Orthodox Christians as a positive example of how a state should operate in case of territorial conflicts.

The Donbass case is not only blood, pain, suffering, and bravery, but also an object of a ridiculous blame game. You’ve cited the basic arguments of Russia Baiters in the West and Ukraine. According to the Russian, so to speak, loyalists, the situation, is, in fact, reverse. They claim that the frozen conflict is advantageous for both the Kiev regime and its Western, notably American, patrons. Kiev can implement whatever repressive policies it finds fit under the pretext of fighting separatists and their sympathizers and preserving the country’s integrity, whereas the West can freely maintain its sanctions pressure on Moscow, blaming it for supporting the rebels in eastern Ukraine.

I don’t see any final resolution for the Donbass conflict that all the sides, including the outside powers, would be content with. For the foreseeable future, the region will likely remain in a state of frozen conflict, yet, at the same time, drifting towards Russia. There’s no military resolution to the situation, not just because Russia won’t make it happen, but also because the post-revolutionary Kiev authorities simply don’t want all these people, with their troubles and political attitudes, back.

Finally, I want to ask you two questions about the critical Serbian political issue – Kosovo. First of all, can you, as a political scientist, tell us whether Russian academic political science even deals with the Kosovo issue? In our country, the works by Russian authors about this problem are almost completely unknown (except for the research by Jelena Ponomareva).

— In academia, this issue is studied by both the Balkanists and those interested in territorial conflicts from a more general European perspective. The problem in the academic approach, in this case, is that their fellow academics, as well as a broader society, want to receive clear and, if possible, affirmative answers to the question of how to resolve the issue(s) in question. However, the academics, looking at the decades-long problems of Israel-Palestine and the Cyprus conflict which aren’t even close to resolution, simply cannot offer anything encouraging.

In the political circles of Russia, the Kosovo case has been argued countless times since the Crimea referendum and subsequent refusal of the world community to accept its results. The question is – Why don’t you recognize the new status of Crimea when you’ve already recognized self-proclaimed Kosovo’s independence from Serbia? It has to do with double standards, Russian officials and commentators say.

Even before the Ukraine troubles, the Kosovo issue gained prominence among patriotic political movements and right-wing football hooligans. The letter, for example, often carry banners saying “Kosovo is Serbia” to football games and are chanting these slogans.

Finally, the Kosovo problem is recognized by certain cultural icons. Thus, Valery Kipelov, the leading Russian heavy-metal singer who’s known for his work with the group Aria in the 1980s and 1990s and who now has a successful solo career, released a brilliant song “Kosovo pole” (Kosovo field) several years ago, which was well-received by the audience. The song is dedicated to an unknown Serbian warrior who had a vision that they would lose the battle, and he would be killed in the fight just before the battle but opted to fight and die anyway.

And secondly – now I would like you to speak as a political scientist as much as a political commentator – how to interpret the recent, short and informal meeting of the Russian President Vladimir Putin and the President of Kosovo Hashim Thaci? You can assume that this encounter has provoked extremely opposed views in the Serbian public.

— I assume the reaction among the patriotic-minded people in Serbia, and in Russia, for that matter, was mildly speaking negative and that they were discouraged. With all due respect and understanding, I should remind those discouraged that the Russian President is not obliged to be, so to speak, more Serbian than the Serbian President who did, indeed, communicate with Mr. Thaci. Moscow is one of the external moderators in the dialogue between Belgrade and Priština. One cannot play this vital role without speaking to both sides. It goes without saying, though, that, no matter what, any Russian moderator will be perceived by the opposite side to be too much inclined towards the Serbs and their interests which are, presumably, other than that of the Albanians.

The complicated issue of Kosovo would be resolved automatically if the Serbian minority left their homes or the Albanians in Kosovo decided to relocate to Albania. But, realistically speaking, since neither outcome is likely to occur, the long negotiations will continue. And in these negotiations, Moscow will remain Belgrade’s natural ally who’ll never betray Serbia.

Interview by: Milos Milojevic


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