Obama Is Wrong to Pretend That Putin’s Anti-Western Rhetoric Does Not Have a Wide Echo

Opinions about events beyond our borders.
March 28 2014 8:00 PM

Russia’s Anti-Western Rhetoric Is Spreading

And President Obama is wrong to ignore it.

Tanks leaving South Ossetia
Russian armoured vehicles moves toward the border with Russia as they leave South Ossetia on Aug. 23, 2008.

Photo by Dmitri Kostyukov/AFP/Getty Images

TBILISI, Georgia—Halfway through an otherwise coherent conversation with a Georgian lawyer last week—the topics included judges, the court system, the police—I was startled by a comment he made about his country’s former government, led by ex-president Mikheil Saakashvili. “They were LGBT,” he said, conspiratorially.   

What did that mean, I asked, surprised. Were they in favor of rights for sexual minorities? For gay marriage? Were they actually gay? He couldn’t really define it, though the conversation meandered in that direction for a few more minutes, also touching on the subject of the former president’s alleged marital infidelity, his promotion of female politicians, his lack of respect for the church.

Afterward, I worked it out. The lawyer meant to say that Saakashvili—who drove his country hard in the direction of Europe, who pulled Georgia as close to NATO as possible, who used rough tactics to fight the post-Soviet mafia that dominated his country—was “too Western.” Not conservative enough. Not traditional enough. Too much of a modernizer, a reformer, a European. In the past, such a critic might have called Saakashvili a “rootless cosmopolitan.” But nowadays the insulting code word for that sort of person in the former Soviet space—regardless of what he or she actually thinks about gay people—is “LGBT.”     

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It was an eye-opening moment. Like Ukraine, Georgia is a post-Soviet republic that has tried to pull itself out of the sphere of Russian influence. Unlike Ukraine, Georgia does not have a sizable Russian-speaking population, and Georgians even have cause to fear Russia. Since their 2008 invasion, Russian troops have occupied the Georgian regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, about one-fifth of the country. Russian tanks are parked a few hours drive from Georgia’s capital.

Yet despite the absence of Russian speakers, a form of Russia’s anti-Western ideology can be felt in Georgia, too. It’s a minority view that drifts in through religious leaders—part of the Georgian Orthodox Church retains old ties to Moscow—through some pro-Kremlin political parties and Russian-backed media. But it finds indigenous support, taking the form of xenophobic, anti-European—and nowadays—anti-gay rhetoric. Sometimes it becomes an argument in favor of local oligarchs or economic clans and against foreign investment or rules that would create an even playing field. It always focuses on Western decadence, economic or sexual, and welcomes any sign of Western hesitancy. When President Barack Obama told the world this week that Georgia, which has for a decade been striving with active U.S. encouragement to meet NATO partnership standards, is “not on a path to NATO,” he immediately strengthened that set of arguments in Tbilisi.  

Whether we like it or not, foreign policy choices increasingly have domestic consequences in the post-Soviet world. An alignment with Russia can bring Russian-style corruption and can inspire the rise of Russian-style xenophobia and homophobia, too. An alignment with Europe and NATO has different consequences. With Russian financial and political support, for example, Ukraine’s ousted president, Viktor Yanukovych, was able to rob his country’s coffers and destroy its army and its bureaucracy. If the new Ukrainian government stays on its current path and makes a different set of alliances—with the European Union, the International Monetary Fund, even NATO—it will end up with different domestic economic policies, too.  

There are implications further afield as well. During his Brussels speech, Obama also declared that Russia leads “no bloc of nations, no global ideology.” This is true up to a point: Russia’s “ideology” isn’t well-defined or clear. But the American president was wrong to imply that the Russian president’s rhetoric, and his annexation of Crimea, has no wider echo. Of course there were the predictable supporters of Russia in the United Nations: Cuba, Venezuela, Nicaragua, North Korea. More interesting are his new European friends. Nigel Farage, the leader of the United Kingdom Independence Party—an anti-European and anti-immigrant party gaining momentum in Britain—declared this week that the EU “has blood on its hands” for negotiating a free-trade agreement in Ukraine. Marine Le Pen, leader of the French far-right National Front, has also said she prefers France to “lean towards Russia” rather than “submit to the United States.” Jobbik, Hungary’s far-right party, sent a representative to the Crimean referendum, and declared it “exemplary.” These are all minority parties, but they are all poised to make gains in European elections later this spring.  

Russia’s ideology may be mishmash: the old Soviet critique of hypocritical “bourgeois democracy,” plus some anti-Europeanism, some anti-globalism and a homophobic twist for contemporary appeal. But let’s not assume that competition between ideas is absurd and old-fashioned. And let’s not pretend that ideologies don’t matter, because, like it or not, they do.     

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