My Bucharest adventure

My article on my recent participation in the Europe-Russia forum (held by the Economic Forum of Poland) in Bucharest May 25-27 now appears in The Weekly Standard.  A few key excerpts, illustrations, and additional thoughts:

The conference venue added a touch of eerie symbolism. Bucharest is still haunted by the legacy of Nicolae Ceausescu, whose barbaric rule made Romania a hellhole even by the low standards of the Soviet bloc. The Europe-Russia Forum met in the building that is the most conspicuous legacy of his rule: the Palace of the Parliament, formerly the House of the People. Ceausescu had it built in his final years as both personal residence and seat of government, razing much of the city’s historic district to make room for the gargantuan edifice. After his overthrow and execution, some wanted to dynamite it. Yet it still stands, a monument to megalomania and to the dark age from which this part of the world only recently emerged.

The Palace of the Parliament at dusk

The Palace of the Parliament at dusk

Front view of the building

Front view of the building

Inside the lobby

Inside the lobby


Members of Russia’s political establishment are acutely conscious of their country’s image as the bad guy in last year’s war in the Caucasus and the 2009 “gas wars.” The Russia-Georgia conflict was frequently and defensively brought up. The Russian speakers’ claims amounted to this: Despite biased coverage by the Western media, it is now clear that Georgia’s Mikheil Saakashvili was to blame; Russia did the only thing it could have done; and the unilateral recognition of Abkhazia and South Ossetia’s independence was either the right and proper thing to do or the unfortunate but natural consequence of the Kosovo precedent.

“Today, many people in Eastern Europe see us as an authoritarian system, an analogue of the Soviet Union,” declared Duma member Adalbi Shkhagoshev of the ruling United Russia party, participating in a panel on the prospects for partnership between Russia and the European Union. “This is not true. We want dialogue and are ready for it.” He did acknowledge that Russia needs to be “more careful” abroad and listen respectfully to neighbors.

Alas, many other statements from the Russian speakers did little to dispel their country’s reputation as an authoritarian bully. One telling moment occurred on a coffee break when I joined a conversation between Sergei Semyonov, director of a government-affiliated Russian institute of public administration, and a female Estonian parliament member whom Semyonov introduced as a delegate from “another part of post-Soviet space.”

“Excuse me,” the Estonian MP said firmly, “a full-fledged member of the European Union.” “No, no,” Semyonov replied with a smirk, “whatever you say, it’s post-Soviet space.” Moments later, he asserted with a straight face that Russia’s initial reports of 1,500 South Ossetians slaughtered by Georgian invaders had never been disproved and that the current official estimate of about 150 dead refers only to Russian military casualties.

(Actually, Russian military casualties stand at 64.  I must, however, offer a quick mea culpa: South Ossetia’s latest official claim is of  365 civilians killed.  That’s still a far cry from 1,500, and I had forgotten that the earliest Russian claims were 2,000 dead civilians in Tskhinvali.)

At the forum’s opening session, Valery Fedorov, director of the state-run Russian Public Opinion Research Center, maintained with an equally straight face that Russia had successfully met the challenge of presidential transition. Medvedev’s “election,” he argued, was legitimate since most Russians genuinely embraced him as a successor to Putin, the man who had rebuilt not only the economy but the self-respect of a people traumatized by “the disintegration of our great country.” Besides, Fedorov explained, competitive elections mattered little to Russians since nothing good had come of them in the past.

The next day, Fedorov reappeared at the Russia-EU partnership session to offer some stock phrases about the twilight of the American empire along with a gloomy prognosis: The differences in values between Russia and the EU were far too great to achieve partnership. “Everyone” in Russia, he said, shared a basic “ ’don’t tell us how to run our country’ ” outlook, which inevitably conflicted with the European paradigm of integration and “the primacy of the secular state and the individual”; at best, one could hope for “reasonably amicable coexistence.”

Fedorov’s first presentation, on Monday evening, had its other interesting moments.  The war with Georgia, it seems, was another “challenge” Russia successfully met in 2008, though Fedorov also noted that it taught Russia some useful lesson about the relative weakness of its military: even pitted against “as laughable an opponent as Georgia,” the Russian army needed a few days to win and suffered many casualties.  (Considering there were Georgians present, I half-expected fisticuffs during Wednesday’s session on the Caucausus; I couldn’t attend since I had to fly home very early Monday morning, but apparently everything was relatively peaceful.)

Interestingly, when Fedorov briefly stopped being a propagandist and became a pollster, he sounded a much less optimistic note.  He noted a “crisis of trust” in Russian society (so much for the Russians’ sincere love for the man who restored their battered national dignity!) and pointed out that “only 5% of Russians trust the government to help them during the crisis,” while 56% trust only themselves and 18%, two or three close friends.  (Maybe Russians are closet libertarians after all?)

And now a moment from the panel I was on, “Democracy and the Media.”  (Unfortunately, scheduled at the same time as a panel with Lech Walesa as the keynote speaker, which means that I missed Walesa — though I did catch the tail end of his panel, since ours ended sooner — and all but 10 or 15 attendees missed our discussion.)

Moderator Igor Pavlovsky, deputy editor of Russia’s leading wire service, Regnum, delivered this gem: “I’m always annoyed by all these international ratings and indexes of freedom of the press. For some reason we’re supposed to accept them as a universal standard. Why not an index of spirituality in the press?”

Spirituality, dukhovnost, is a word that packs a lot of meanings in Russia, not all of them religious: the Russian intelligentsia often uses it to mean an appreciation of high culture and of the finer intellectual and artistic things.  However, these days it is commonly used to refer to religious piety, moreover of a very specific sort (Russian orthodoxy), as well as patriotism and the much-vaunted “Russian soul.”  I should add that on an index of “spirituality” (whatever it means), the Russian media wouldn’t do all that well, either: Russian TV, the press and the Internet are filled with celebrity gossip and scandal, reality shows, sexploitation, sensational tales of violence and the like.

Also on display from Pavlovsky was the touchiness characteristic of “establishment” Russians about any criticism of Russia by foreigners.  After my presentation — in which I pointed out numerous problems with the independence of the press in Russia (and the lack thereof) but also noted that the impulse to censor inconvenient news and opinions is hardly unique to Russia and exists among Americans as well — Pavlovsky thanked me for giving a “balanced talk” rather than “just bashing us.”

Another co-panelist was Mary Dejevsky, an editorial writer and columnist for The Independent.  Mary and I had snuck out of the Palace of the Parliament earlier that day for a brief tour of the city (which still has some beauties to offer, in spite of Ceasescu’s best efforts) and spent some very pleasant time together.  I thought she was a lovely person, and she has a very genuine love of Russia and its culture; but I was frustrated by the degree to which her sensitivity toward Russia-bashing makes her bend over backwards to defend the not-quite-defendable.  Thus, in response to my comment that most provincial Russian newspapers are controlled or at least heavily pressured by local governments, she noted that this doesn’t mean they push the Kremlin party line — often, it means they are subordinate to venal and corrupt local interests.  Very true … and that’s supposed to make it better?  Her other main point was that there is infinitely more freedom in Russia today than there was under the Soviet regime.  Once again, very true, but it doesn’t change the fact that there has been a fairly steady rollback of freedom since 2000.  The question is not just, how does today compare to 1980;  it’s also, in what direction have things been moving recently?

Mary Dejevsky at the Bucharest Atheneum

Mary Dejevsky at the Bucharest Atheneum

Getting back to my Weekly Standard piece:

A few semi-dissenting Russian voices came from delegates from the “Right Cause,” a liberal party launched recently with the Kremlin’s blessing. One of its leaders, Vladimir Nikitin, deplored the Russian tendency to see liberal democratic values as “a cynical cover for naked self-interest” and even suggested that Russia’s foreign policy was often driven by neurotic overcompensation. Yet the loyal opposition had little in the way of a positive program to offer beyond generalities about cooperation on global problems and the hypothetical prospects for Russia’s eventual integration into Europe.

Unfortunately, space did not permit me to say anything about the most colorful speaker associated with The Right Cause: Andrei Bogdanov, the 2008 “presidential candidate” who “ran” against Dmitry Medvedev.  (Perhaps “Dmitry Medvedev” should be in quotation marks as well?)  Bogdanov is widely believed to be a Kremlin tool; whatever else he may be, he is certainly an odd duck.  At the forum, he seemed rather out of it.  At the start of the panel on which he spoke, he was sitting in the audience and had to be reminded to go up on the stage.  Then, he had to be reminded again that it was his turn to speak.  (My newfound friend Carina Stachetti, a lovely French woman with perfect Russian who works at the Russian desk at the French Ministry of Defense, remarked sotto voce that Bogdanov seemed obkurenniy — like he’d been smoking weed.)   During the breaks, he was constantly surrounded by a gaggle of Right Causers who looked more like his minders than comrades-in-arms.  Bogdanov asserted that all Russians consider themselves Europeans and questioned the panel title, “Russia-EU: Toward a Partnership,” saying that Russia was not Europe’s partner but a part of Europe.  Or at least, it would be.  In 30 or 50 years.  He also opined that Russia has a lot to teach Europe, especially in the area of multiculturalism, since it has had “centuries of peaceful coexistence between Christians, Muslims, Jews, and Buddhists.”  (And that, of course, is why the word pogrom comes from the Russian language.)  Former Polish premier Alexander Kwasniewski, who moderated the panel, politely remarked that the vision of future integration was “interesting,” but it didn’t answer the question of “what is Russian policy now.”  Later, one of the non-official Russians, Grigory Amnuel of a non-governmental organization called International Dialogue, complained that putting Bogdanov on the same panel as Kwasniewski was an insult.

On the EU side, the frustration was palpable. Even the more accommodating representatives of “Old Europe” lamented Russia’s tendency to see any EU attempt to build ties with former Soviet republics as “anti-Russian.” Speakers from “post-Soviet space” and Eastern Europe–who included some notable figures, among them Poland’s former president Alexander Kwasniewski and legendary anti-Communist resistance leader Lech Walesa–were more openly wary. They wondered aloud what visions of future European integration had to do with Russian policy today and on what principles pragmatic collaboration with Russia could be built. Romanian president Traian Basescu, who hosted the forum, complained about Russia’s attitude toward “the common neighborhood” and its insistence on a right to a “sphere of influence”; what was needed instead, he said, was to build “spheres of trust.”

This remark led to one of the forum’s moments of unintentional humor near the end of its second day. A Russian discussant attempted to quote, approvingly, Basescu’s comment; unfortunately, “sfery doveriya“–spheres of trust–came out as “sfery davleniya,” “spheres of coercion.”

“That,” said the discussant, quickly correcting himself, “is quite a slip.” Somewhere, the ghost of Freud was smiling.

From my notes, some comments by Dariusz Szymczycha, a political consultant from Poland:

We are willing to have pragmatic relations with Russia.  From the point of view of many Europeans, Russia is just Russia — they can have sovereign democracy and a prepared succession.  But we need to know the guiding principles of pragmatic collaboration.  Poland is receptive to Russian overtures.  But we need accounting for the crimes of Stalinism toward the Polish people — remembering that Russia is not the same as the USSR, and that Russians were also victims of Stalinism.

Good luck with that.

(A few moments later, another discussant, Irnerio Seminatore of the European Institute of Foreign Relations in Belgium, rather caustically remarked that judging by the tenor of the talk at the forum, Russians were “victims of two Georgians, Stalin and Saakashvili.”)

One of the best “Old Europe” speakers was Marcel H. Van Herpen, director of the Netherlands-based Cicero Foundation.  Van Herpen noted that “internal policies in Russia must be discussed” when discussing Russian-European relations.  He also put Russian hand-wringing about “the disintegration of our great country” into proper perspective, noting that the fall of the Soviet Union was “the disintegration of the world’s last colonial empire” and that “losing an empire is always frustrating and painful” — for Great Britain or the Netherlands no less than for Russia (with the obvious implication that eventually, one just has to get over it).  Van Herpen also noted that the Putin formula of the “social contract” in which citizens give up their freedoms in exchange for economic well-being was false: “First of all, it’s not a choice — it was imposed from above.  But also, it doesn’t work.”  To function properly, he said, the market economy requires an impartial judiciary.  The Russian version of capitalism without political freedom and an independent judiciary has led to “the concentration of wealth in a small group of hands.”

A much weirder note was struck on the opening-night panel by Armand Clesse, director of the Luxembourg Institute for European and International Studies, who started out by warning against “false optimism” on Russia and noting that there had been “a certain regression” compared to the Gorbachev/Yeltsin era, only to argue that “the same thing is happening worldwide” and lamenting “illusions/delusions about what’s going to happen in the United States under Obama, whom I already call ‘black Bush’ for continuing Bush’s policies, even though Cheney calls him a leftist.”  (In his rather meandering talk, Clesse also complained repeatedly about the difficulty of pronouncing and remembering Russian, Polish, and Ukrainian names, which is a rather odd odd complaint to make when one agrees to speak at a forum on Russia full of Russian, Poles, and Ukrainians.  And when those names are listed on the program.)

Another moment of stereotypical “Old Europe” accomodationism came on the closing panel on Tuesday, when Le Monde columnist Bernard Guetta inquired, “What would the reaction of the United States be if Canada and Mexico decided to join a military alliance founded by Russia?” and advised forgetting NATO expansion: “A much better solution is for the US, Canada, Russia, Ukraine, Georgia and others to join forces to create a neutral zone” (in “post-Soviet space”, that is).  When a Ukrainian member of the audience objected (“You speak of my country, Ukraine, as an object of action by other countries — the US and Russia; how would you feel if other countries made such decisions for France?”), Guetta replied that “no one denies” Ukraine’s right to seek any alliances it wants.  “However,” he pointed out, “Ukraine is deeply divided on joining NATO — though a large majority of Ukrainians does support joining the European Union.”  But there’s the rub: military alliance or not, Russia also strenuously objects to Ukraine joining the EU.  (See the Kremlin’s hysterical reaction to Europe’s “Eastern Partnership” program, mentioned several times at the forum — with puzzlement by speakers from “Old Europe”, with barely concealed annoyance by Poles and Ukrainians.)  Guetta also asserted that Russia actually wants and needs cooperation with the West: “Do you think Russia wants Iran to have a nuclear weapon?”  A very, very good question.  Maybe not, but it often seems like Russia wants to stick a finger in America’s eye more than it wants to deal with the problem of a nuclear Iran.

During the Q & A, Guetta’s analogy to the United States and its relationship with Canada and Mexico also earned Guetta a tongue-lashing from a dissenting Russian: Grigory Amnuel of International Dialogue, who told Guetta point-blank that the comparison was “inappropriate” since Canada and Mexico had a genuinely friendly relationship with the U.S. while countries like Ukraine and Georgia were “sick of being bullied by Russia.”

Before I wrap up this very long political travelogue, I want to mention other Russians at the forum who were refreshingly different from the loyalist authoritarian-nationalist mode:

* Olga Zdravomyslova, executive director of the Gorbachev Foundation (whose panel talk was, unfortunately, on the day I wasn’t there).  Zdravomyslova and I got to chat quite a bit, and she was genuinely appalled when I told her about Igor Pavlovsky’s proposed index of “spirituality in the press” as a viable alternative for ratings of press freedom; that’s a good litmus test.

* Marina Krasilnikova, deputy director of the Levada Center, Russia’s largest independent polling agency, who spoke of the relatively low estimation in which most Russians hold the rights of the indiviual as a problem, not evidence of some special “Russian way.”

*  Solomon Ginzburg, a member of the regional Duma of Kaliningrad (representing the democratic opposition).   Ginzburg spoke of Kaliningrad (formerly Konigsberg) as a place where Russia and Europe truly intersect (“it is the only place in Russia surrounded by the EU”).  He also noted that the Russian federal government’s paranoia about Western influence and “some monstrous crocodiles who want to snatch Kaliningrad from Russia” was actually driving up discontent and separatism in the area: according to him, 28% of Kaliningrad residents (mostly young people) now believe that Kaliningrad will exist outside the Russian federation in the Future, up from only 3-4% in 2002-2003.  That is fascinating information.

Yours truly with Grigory Amnuel of International Dialogue and Tengiz Pkhaladze, Chairman of the International Center for Geopolitical Studies, Georgia

Yours truly with Grigory Amnuel of International Dialogue (left) and Tengiz Pkhaladze, Chairman of the International Center for Geopolitical Studies, Georgia

With Kinga Redlowska, the EU-Russia forums capable organizer, and Amnuel

With Kinga Redlowska, the EU-Russia forum's capable organizer, and Amnuel

And finally, a minor note of personal bragging.  When I was talking to Amnuel at the end of Tuesday’s program, a French woman who spoke excellent but accented Russian suddenly asked me if I was the author of a book called Lenine, Brejnev et moi (“Lenin, Brezhnev and I”).  That was, in fact, the title of the French translation of my 1989 book, Growing Up in M oscow: Memories of a Soviet Girlhood.  When I said I was, the woman — Cécile Vaissié, Director of the Russian Studies Department of the University of Rennes in France — told me she loved that book as a young woman, and in fact reading it influenced her decision to go into Russian studies.  I don’t think I’ve ever been quite so flattered in my life.  Thank you, Cécile.

I will wrap this up with a few photos from Bucharest.  There are more here.

The National Military School

The National Military School

One of the classical buildings on Bucharests main boulevard, Victory Street

One of the classical buildings on Bucharest's main boulevard, Victory Street

The central Bank

The central Bank

Another view of the Central Bank

Another view of the Central Bank

The Atheneum

The Atheneum

Buildings near the Atheneum

Buildings near the Atheneum

The Sofitel Hotel and its front, which replicates the old National Theater building

The Sofitel Hotel and its front, which replicates the old National Theater building

The Stavropoleos Church and Monastery

The Stavropoleos Church and Monastery


Filed under Europe, Russia, Travel

2 responses to “My Bucharest adventure

  1. The story of Yelena Maglevannaya, a Russian journalist forced into exile for writing about torture in Russian prisons and being sued by the Kremlin, deserves your attention:

  2. MoyCullen

    “post-Soviet space” Next time someone asks me where I’m from I think I’ll answer post-British space. Great slip of the tongue with “spheres of coercion”. What a wonderful compliment from Cécile Vaissié on you and your book’s influence on her.

    Very interesting reading, lots to digest but you didn’t reveal the most important information…how was the Romanian food?

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