Written by Staff Writer in Asia; Correspondent and correspondent for CNN International; Research Assistant of the Modern Russia Research Centre at the SOAS, University of London
In the early 1990s, a wave of armed nationalism swept across eastern Europe. Many regions that had previously been home to large ethnic populations descended into chaos, with little control from the central authorities. As a result, the “Trojan Horse” countries succumbed to economic decline, human rights abuses and massive corruption.
In the cases of Georgia, Ukraine and Moldova, the migrant workers who joined the revolution brought along an assortment of new groups — from communists to neo-Nazis and ultranationalists. Their arrival coincided with economic crisis, civil war and the corresponding exodus of capital.
The current panic around the migration of migrants around the world could have sparked alarm in the West, and press reports have all but heralded a new era of authoritarianism and racism in Europe. These scare stories overlook the monumental strengths of the current leader of Russia.
There’s no denying that Vladimir Putin has done some pretty terrible things to his own people. He’s brutally suppressed the opposition and constantly sends Russian troops to what he dubs the “near abroad,” a reference to old territory that Russia claims as its own.
A Russian soldier guides a Ukrainian woman to a waiting truck at a military checkpoint on the outskirts of Donetsk, eastern Ukraine, in August 2014. Photographer: Sergey Ponomarev/AFP/Getty Images
But Putin has always been very adept at harnessing growing social unrest in times of economic crisis. If you’re a young pro-democracy activist in 2014, you’re probably happy to risk your life to catch a train in Europe. If you’re a middle-aged history buff, you’re probably delighted to get a good night’s sleep on a coach bound for Oslo.
Putin’s positive image
Russia has actively rejected Western sanctions in defiance of its former superpower status. And yet, they have been at least half-hearted. Meanwhile, Putin seems not to have taken kindly to the Western criticism that he deserves. The outrage over a recent video showed him dancing with women in drag in St. Petersburg, which was rebuked only by “cosmopolitan” Sweden, and an argument over language in the Kremlin-backed tabloid, Vedomosti, ended with Russian President Vladimir Putin publicly denigrating the UK prime minister for not understanding his values.
Russian President Vladimir Putin and Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko during a meeting in Moscow in December 2014. Photographer: Alexander Zemlianichenko/AFP/Getty Images
But the ostensible Western critics of Putin often seem to be in denial about the level of tension. More worrying are people closer to the local ground. Senior journalists like Stephen Lawrence, who defended the punk band Pussy Riot and reminded readers about the costs of Putin’s anti-Muslim violence, face unjust crackdowns, and the celebrated playwright Vitaly Naumkin has called on Russian embassies to pay the same sanctions as Western embassies.
These stories of repression and poverty merely play into the Kremlin’s hands. In eastern Europe, media coverage of migrant crime gangs and Uighur separatists tends to raise fears of a wave of Roma to counter the arrival of refugees. Russia steps in by denouncing the migration as a threat to Russian sovereignty.
Dressed as a migrant from Central Asia, Ilgar Nergazi applies for a job in Argun, Bulgaria, in March 2015. Photographer: Sergei Karpukhin/AFP/Getty Images
But if the ultimate goal is to frighten people into supporting autocratic leaders in the West, then the Kremlin has so far been exceptionally effective. In the midst of this economic crisis, Europe’s governments are literally doing nothing about this massive problem.
Putin can brag about how effective he has been at surviving unprecedented economic hardship, and when he steps down in 2024, this propaganda will no doubt play a big part in his legacy. The Western media has rarely criticized him, and such openness is not exactly a fashion in European politics.
That situation could change with Putin’s imminent departure, but if he leaves power a corruption-ridden ogre, then his success will also be celebrated by his successor as the reason Putin is so popular.
Nothing that happens in the Balkans in 2018 will change this.