Jean Christophe Nothias is the founder of ‘Study Without Borders, a non-governmental organisation set up in February 2003 to allow students in danger - initially Chechens - to come and study in the West. He is currently director of the forthcoming review Europ’Bazar.
Café babel: Is there an alternative policy to falling back on the authoritarian tradition in Russia?
Russia is an extremely violent and lively country, where a thousand opportunities flirt with a thousand dangers. It is not a democratic country, and it is difficult to develop even the idea of democracy there. The whole administration, not only Putin, was formed under the Soviet system and has no other standards to refer to. Nothing prevents the Russians from having a true democracy. But someone does not want an alternative. Someone who pits himself by force against the expression of new ideas. But who is also quite relaxed because, at the moment, he is not faced with a generation capable of challenging him and his approach. They all have more or less the same form.
In your opinion, the West has not done its job. What should the attitude of the EU be towards this managed democracy of Putin?
Paradoxically, the foremost alternative to Putin lies abroad: that means the West. For the moment the EU is lying down: instead of moving forward with the Russians, demanding practical improvements in their political mechanisms from them, the EU says nothing and tolerates as much as possible… We see things but refuse to draw conclusions from them, simply because political and economic stakes are high. The alternative to Putin is to take responsibility. If EU Heads of State do not have the courage to say anything to the Russians other than “We are in favour of a political solution” when talking about Chechnya, alternative politics will not emerge in Russia. Our silence feeds the fears of the Russians, who have lived through a century of terror and among whom self-censorship is extremely pronounced.
Is civil society prepared for change? To offer a true alternative?
Russian citizens today are predominantly poor; they are afraid; and if they have aspirations, they have learned over the years to keep quiet about them. I would not say that Russians are not cut out for democracy. That is the view of the Quai d’Orsay (Ministry of Affairs): it’s either Putin or chaos. I disagree. There may be hundreds of alternatives to Putin. But our position in the West means that whoever decided to fight it out on a democratic level would not feel supported. The Soviet dissidents, like Solzhenitsin, were supported. In Russia, the Gulag is not talked about anymore; it’s over and done with. At the moment the fashionable thing is to celebrate Chekist Day (the Cheka being the Soviet secret police). That is Russia today. An alternative form of politics will only exist - for it will exist - with the advent of a new generation, with a new education, and once those who inherited Yeltsin’s regime have turned in their badges. But without the West taking a strong stance there is no point.
What role do young Russians have to play at a time where change is being sought?
The young people of today consist of millions of Russians who are waiting to live, to enjoy themselves, to make the most out of life. Not to rebel. There is also a lot of money circulating about because of oil. I think today’s Russia is a crazy world. The lack of a counter-balance outside this form of madness results in people doing as they please. This is what Russia lives with today. Somewhere out there, a young Russian man does not care. Especially if he has survived military service, or if he has paid so as not to have to do it. He lives in a completely corrupt system. He believes that everything is possible and that everything is allowed. He thinks that money is the way out, and that it’s the same in the West. What proves this is that the West says nothing. It’s normal. So what would you drive Putin away for? He is short; he does sport to keep fit. True, he looks rather darkly at Russia. So what? During his four-year term of office, there has been no inflation, the exchange rate has remained stable and growth has been sustained. He is going to increase pensions for the poor… Why get rid of him? To put the Oligarchs who benefited from the system of corruption under Yeltsin in power?
As far as Chechnya is concerned, do the Russians have a follow-my-leader attitude? Is it too late to find an alternative to Putin’s iron handed rule?
When we were with Chechen students at the Consulate in France, there was a Russian employee there. She asked, “Aren’t you afraid? Aren’t they dangerous?” as if it were a question of wild animals. It is a widespread fixation, and not only due to Putin. There is an ancient racism: the Chechens are Muslim. They have always been deported. Chechnya is like a kind of general point of tension. Everyone thinks problems stem from there. A Chechen is, by definition, a walking bomb, a danger, a problem. The Russian education system is also extremely surprising. The Gulag is never talked about. No figures or numbers of deaths are given. Apart from Novaïa Gazeta, which survives only thanks to international pressure, the Russian media is useless. It shows all the poor programmes from the West. Yet true freedom of expression does not exist. So how can young people be educated to be responsible for their political choices? Russia has not managed to free itself from its totalitarian history and its old demons. The Russian population is still being terrorised, admittedly with softer methods. Being a young Russian is not a state of personal freedom, whether on the economic, educational, relational or informative level. I have had many conversations with people asking me where we get our information (about Chechnya). We bring them photographs, American press… and they do not believe a word of it. “It’s brainwashing; it’s propaganda.” That makes me a little scared. They can only see awful Chechen Muslim terrorists who want to bring down the Kremlin. We could consider that the alternative is there, potentially. But, today, Russia is not budging from its concrete pedestal. Just because the statue of Stalin was toppled doesn’t mean that the Soviet mentality has disappeared. The people may even be longing to restore it.