‘Tegen het Kremlin betekent niet per definitie pro-westers'

De jongere generaties in Rusland en Oekraïne hebben één ding gemeen: iedereen onder de 35 jaar zoekt naar waardigheid. 'Voor het eerst is er een post-Sovjetgeneratie in de post-Sovjetruimte. Deze post-Sovjetgeneraties in beide landen zijn nationalistischer dan hun ouders. Het verschil is dat in Rusland de jeugd anti-westers is en in Oekraïne juist pro-westers,' zegt de in Wenen werkende Bulgaarse politicoloog Ivan Krastev in een interview met RaamopRusland.

Hubert Smeets in gesprek met Ivan Krastev

'But they understand their yearning for dignity in a different way. ‘The younger Ukrainian generation is more pro-Western than their parents. The younger generation in Russia is highly westernized, but at the same time anti-Western.'

 Ivan KrastevFoto: Marcin Kalinski/PAP

Krastev, a permanent fellow at the Institute for Human Sciences in Vienna and a frequent participant in the presidential Valdai Club in Russia, was in Amsterdam on the eve of the Dutch referendum on the Association Agreement between the European Union and Ukraine.

On Ukraine as compared with Russia

‘Ukraine is a very different place. Ukraine is one of those places, where you either know everything, either know nothing. I never have the feeling in Ukraine that I’m getting it. It is all so interpersonal. It is like a double-bottom suitcase. If you need somebody to get Ukraine right, better find somebody who is interested and specialized in decolonization. Obviously the experience in Algeria in the sixties is more instructive than Poland in the eighties.’

‘For us in the West the division between Russian and Ukrainian speakers seemed extremely important. But the most ardent nationalists, who'm I have met in Ukraine in the last years, were Russian-speakers. Some of them didn’t even speak Ukrainian. As a result of Maidan in 2013-2014 the Russian language is not a decisive issue anymore. Before Maidan the only way to show your Ukrainian patriotism was to speak Ukrainian, even when you spoke it badly. Now it’s doesn’t matter anymore. Loyalty to the nation got a different dimension. It’s now a political question indeed.’

‘Now in Ukraine a major generation-question is at stake. I think that the main difference between Ukraine and Russia is determined by the profile of the generation younger than 35. The older generation has grown up in Soviet-space. Now, for the first time, we have a post-Soviet-generation in a post-Soviet-space. In both countries these first post-Soviet generations are more nationalistic than their parents. But their nationalism is quite different.’

‘The younger Ukrainian generation is more pro-Western than their parents. The Russian generation on the other hand is more pro-Russian. The younger generation in Russia is highly westernized, but at the same time anti-Western. This generation was socialized in the nineteen nineties. For them the slogan ‘Russia is a great power’ resonates very much. They were both very active in the protests against the electoral fraud in 2012, as in the movement Crimea is Ours. They have different idea about dignity than most of the young Ukrainians. You can see that in de opinion-polls of the Levada Center in Russia. In the big cities, where the support for the protest at Bolotnaya Square was high in 2011-2012, the support for Crimea is Ours was likewise very high.

‘Part of the explanation is that both movements have one central message: dignity. At Bolotnaya in 2011-2012, the dignity of the individual was at stake. The people went into the streets of Moscow because they felt humiliated by the way the changing of position between Medvedev and Putin and the Duma-elections in the fall of 2011 took place. Two years later their dignity got a collective meaning. In the campaign Crimea is Ours president Putin said: it’s about the dignity of the state, which has to be respected. In the end that was the same discourse about dignity. Being against the Kremlin doesn’t mean that you are pro-Western.’

‘In Ukraine, dignity is also an issue, because the Ukrainian state was a spectacular failure during the last quarter of a century. In terms of economy, in 1991 Ukraine was at the same level as Poland. But before the Maidan in 2013 the GDP per capita in Poland was more than three times higher than in Ukraine. This downfall undermined the dignity of the country. Soon after the Maidan started, dignity was even more at stake. In the beginning the students were protesting against the decision of president Yanukovich to abandon the Association Agreement with Europe. But after the first victims in Kiev it was about the dignity of the people. The message of the Maidan to the government of Yanukovich was: you don't have the right to beat us.’

‘As Bertolt Brecht said: “I pity people that need heroes”. The older generations perceive heroes as a danger, because East and West still remember the appeal to heroes in the thirties and the communist period. But for the younger generations dignity became an issue. The same apllies to radical Islam. Younger people are looking for a collective identity. In different nations it takes totally different forms, but the drive is the same. The key word is pride.’

On fear and hope in the Kremlin

‘Why president Putin was disturbed by the protests of 2011-2012? He was not threatened by the movement at the streets of Moscow. The majority of Russian society was on his side. What did struck him was the disappearance of the loyalty of his own elites, with their kids on high schools and universities in the West and their own bank-accounts in the West. Bolotnaya showd that their loyalty seemed problematic. By suppressing the protest, basically president Putin said to the Russian elites: we have to build barricades against the West, you have to take sides, your money should be brought back and your kids should come home. The conflict between the Kremlin and Russian business is not about a nationalization of the assets, but about the nationalization of the elites.’

‘Putin may be nostalgic to the times of the Congress of Vienna in1815, after the Patriotic War against Napoleon's army. But the model of the Vienna Congress cannot work in a society where public opinion functions. Even in authoritarian regimes public opinion matters. Look to the Donbas: the Kremlin supported a kind of revolution. But now you see that militarizing the Russian nationalists was a failure. The Kremlin fears any kind of spontaneous politics, be it nationalist or liberal. So volunteers like Igor – Strelkov – Girkin, who were fighting in the Donbas, are not only an asset but also a problem: they are not manageable. In the West we are always focused on the question of how the liberals in Russia have been cornered, but we pay less attention to the way this type of nationalists are being marginalized in a rather similar fashion. Tomorrow they could be useful again, but they will never be allowed to become an autonomous power.’

‘By paradox, the popularity of the president of Russia became one of the vulnerabilities of Russia. The system is very much related to the performance of the president. In this respect Russia differs very much from the Soviet-Union. There is no mechanism of succession, as existed in the Soviet-Union. The communist system was an institutional system: there was a collective leadership, a system to arrange the succession of the leaders, an ideology. Our problem in the West is that we have to develop a policy based on a very wide range of uncertainties about how Russia will develop.’

On the relations between Russia and Europa

‘For the ruling generations in Russia the collapse of the Russian Soviet-state is their personal experience. Therefore, the relations between Russia and the European Union are very much determined on the Russian side. Because of that experience of collapse, the leaders in Moscow are exaggerating the actual problems of the European Union. Psychologically they interpret the problems of the European Union as if they are similar to what happened 25 years ago to them in the Soviet-Union. They are ready to think that Europe is going to disintegrate. In this respect they are totally opposite to the Americans, who are on the contrary underestimating the crises in Europe, for example the refugee-crisis. Americans have no such devastating shaping experiences as Russians.’

‘Thus, Europe is not only surrounded by countries with different values and interests, but also by countries with different experiences. The Russians believe that this world is totally fragile and vulnerable, that catastrophe is around the corner. At the other side are the Americans, who believe that at the end of the day everything will be all right.’

‘What the Russians are doing, is rooted in what they believe we are doing. The Russian policy is imitating the West. For them their politics is reverse engineering, just like the Soviets back then produced their first television-set by dismantling a Western television-set accurately. In the West people are complaining that Russians are financing our political parties and media. But don’t forget that for them Marine Le Pen is analogue to the Sakharov Center. Like the West paid that NGO, Moscow is paying the Front National. Russia is a pedagogical power: always busy to teach the West a lesson.’

On strength and weakness of the Russian foreign policy

‘The Russian obsession with China and Euro-Asia is most of all an obsession of people, who are as a matter of fact not dealing with China at all. Two decades ago, they were real Europeanists. Nowadays for them China is a compensation for the failure of their own European dream. The China-watchers in nowadays Russia are the disappointed Europeans of yesterday.’

‘Russia understands quite well that the West uses culture as a source of power. If the expansion of the European Union is caused by the use of soft power, Russia responds with the only thing it has: hard power. It did that in Crimea. Russia has, by the way, an argument. The European Union never defined its borders. Russia thinks that we are the revisionists, because we change our borders.’

‘Russia is not trying to present its own more attractive alternative. We in the West are overstressing the Russian policy to spread authoritarian regimes. From time to time Moscow is even afraid of authoritarian regimes abroad, because they are too against foreign influence. Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan are classical examples. Moreover, for these authoritarian regimes even the Russian economy is not attractive enough.’

‘Russia is therefore trying to delegitimize the international liberal order. Russia is above all delegitimizing our model to show us: ‘we do what you did to us and it’s not going to work’. It is a totally negative program. This can by illustrated by the movie 12 of Nikita Mikhalkov. The message of Mikhalkov is: we need to make an island out of Russia. The Russian political thinker Vadim Tsymbursky [Lviv, 1957-Moscow, 2009] already in 1993 called Russia an island. His major argument was this: The Europeanisation of Russia basically made Russia into an empire, but now Russia cannot survive anymore with this imperialist overstretch. Tsymburski was pushing for Russian isolation, because he thought that a dominating Russian imperialism in Europe would be self-destructive.’

‘But Russia cannot be as isolationist as the Soviet-Union was. The Soviet-Union was a parallel world. The Russian economy on the contrary is totally dependent on trade-relations. So the question ‘how to stay economically open, while politically being closed at the same time’ is very important for the Russian leadership. Russia is more a spoiler than a dividing power in a classical sense.’

On the Western and European response

‘One of the main concepts in the West so far was the policy-theory of Zbigniew Brzezinski. His concept was: the policy towards Russia has to be basically a policy towards its neighbors. If the neighbors of Russia will change for the better, that will change Russia. But this concept didn’t work out. On the contrary. The concept was a major incentive for Russia not to allow its neighbors to change. The western policy to destabilize the former regime in Ukraine was perceived in Moscow as a means to destabilize Russia. You could joke that to destabilize Ukraine is not so easy, because it’s impossible to destabilize an already destabilized state. But in a certain way I think these tools are not effective anymore.’

‘But Europe has a very limited imagination. For example. A lot of people say: we need Russia as an ally against China. That is not going to work for the simple reason, that Russia will not allow us to use Russia against China. Paradoxically, in post-Soviet-space the European Union has on the contrary an interest in working together with China against Russia. China and Europe have one thing in common. Both see economics as the main driving force. Russia is a problematic great power, because they are only a great power because of their military might. And that is exactly the area where the European Union is not competitive, on the contrary: it scares them off.’

‘The Western policy towards Russia is not based on what we understand about Russia, but on our own feelings at a particular moment. When we feel basically strong and good, we tell Russia what they have to do. When we feel bad and weak, we do the opposite. What defines our position is not a reflections of our rational analysis of Russia but of our feelings about ourselves.’


This interview was held in the Netherlands on the eve of the Dutch referendum on the Association Agreement of the European Union with Ukraine. Krastev attended a meeting of the Forum on European Culture in De Balie in Amsterdam and participated in a public debate of the Nexus Institute in Amsterdam.


Ivan Krastev (1965, Lukovit/Bulgaria) is chairman of the Centre for Liberal Strategies in Sofia (Bulgaria) and Permanent Fellow at the Institute for Human Sciences / Institut für die Wissenschaften vom Menschen in Vienna (Austria). Krastev is a founding board member of the European Council on Foreign Relations. He is also associate editor of Europe’s World and a member of the editorial board of the Journal of Democracy and Transit – Europäische Revue. He is head of the project Russia in Global Dialogue, part of the research-group Democracy in Question.

Ivan Krastev is a regular participant and contributor at the Valdai Club, a platform founded by several Russian think-tanks and institutions like the Russian International Affairs Council and the Moscow State Institute of International Relations (MGIMO). The goal of the Valdai Cub is to ‘promote dialogue between Russian and international intellectual elite, and to make an independent, unbiased scientific analysis of political, economic and social events in Russia and the rest of the world’.

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