Russia is not Charlie

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Russia’s official reaction to the French tragedy was little more than diplomatic correctness.

This is one entry in a series on the murders at Charlie Hebdo. Find more articles on the issue in the right column (or on the bottom for mobile or tablet readers).

Russia’s official reaction to the French tragedy was little more than diplomatic correctness. President Vladimir Putin expressed his condolences to François Hollande in a formal statement and then spoke to the French president on the phone. The Russian people, however, have not seen or heard their leader say words of sympathy either for those killed or for the French. State TV showed Putin’s photo, followed by a photo of his press spokesman, who informed the viewers about Putin’s reaction in a voice-over. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov was delegated to join the unity march in Paris on 11 January. Indeed, after a year marked by confrontation with the West, Putin’s appearance alongside his Western counterparts as they solemnly expressed their unity would have been odd, even embarrassing.

After a year marked by confrontation, Putin’s appearance alongside his Western counterparts would have been odd, even embarrassing.

On the day of the march that brought together over one and a half million people in Paris alone, Russian state TV’s report sounded decent and respectful. But the news report on the march was the only occasion on which this unusual restraint was evident. The participants of a state TV talk show that was aired the very same evening emphasised Russia’s moral superiority and criticised Europe for its hubris, its moral decline, and its faulty policies.

Putin’s official statement of condolence and the readiness he expressed to cooperate internationally on anti-terrorist measures were hardly enough to change the anti-Western sentiments that have been radically deepened by a campaign of aggressive anti-Western TV propaganda that has lasted for over two years.

Back in 2001, Putin was the first to express condolences to US President George W. Bush after the tragedy of 9/11, but in those early days he also said: “Russia is, no doubt, a European country, because it is a country of European culture.” Today, his condemnation of the horrific attack in Paris is heavily outweighed by his condemnation of Europe for its immorality and decadence, and, especially, for its policy of tolerance that he has referred to as “neutered and barren”, as well as by his portrayal of the West as Russia’s perennial adversary.

[Putin's] condemnation of the horrific attack in Paris is heavily outweighed by his condemnation of Europe for its immorality and decadence.

Blaming the tragedy on Europe’s excessive tolerance or on its obsession with press freedom is probably common in Russia, although no survey results have been published so far. But there is no shortage of less moderate statements. The popular writer and political activist Eduard Limonov referred to the work of Charlie Hebdo as “moral infamy” and justified the attack as an act of “revenge for the insults inflicted by the arrogant and aggressive publication”. Komsomolskaya Pravda, Russia’s highest-circulation daily, spoke of the “Je suis Charlie” campaign as “general hysteria” and noted approvingly that “there are people in Paris who are ready to oppose [it]. The first to say this was famous politician Jean-Marie Le Pen.”

Of course, there are also those in Russia who share the values of press freedom and sympathise with the victims. (Lev Gudkov, the head of the Russian Levada-Center polling agency, told me he expects no more than 15–18 percent of Russians to show compassion). Some brought flowers to the French embassy; quite a few compassionate and thoughtful posts can be found on Facebook. However, while compassion may be tolerated in social networks, it is not acceptable in the public space: the two men who came to a central square in Moscow wearing Je suis Charlie signs were promptly detained (although soon released) by the police, who have long pursued a policy of zero tolerance toward unsanctioned demonstrations that have a liberal message.

In the general atmosphere of intolerance toward liberals and Westernisers, some truly menacing messages have emerged. Ramzan Kadyrov, the leader of the predominantly Muslim region of Chechnya in Russia’s North Caucasus, openly threatened Mikhail Khodorkovsky, who had called on the world media to reproduce the Mohammed caricatures. Khodorkovsky, a former business tycoon who spent ten years in jail after falling out with Russia’s most powerful men, currently lives in Switzerland. Kadyrov declared Khodorkosvky his “personal enemy”. He also lashed out at Aleksey Venediktov, the editor of the liberal radio station, Echo Moskvy, for asking his listeners’ opinion on whether media outlets should publish the Mohammed caricatures as a response to the Charlie Hebdo killings. 

In the general atmosphere of intolerance toward liberals and Westernisers, some truly menacing messages have emerged.

“Russian Muslims have long seen that Venediktov has turned Echo Moskvy into an anti-Islamic mouthpiece,” Kadyrov wrote. “Russian Muslims who care about the fate of their fatherland,” he warned, “will not forever tolerate the excesses of Venediktov and Co.” Threats from Kadyrov are a very serious reason for concern: prominent journalists and human rights activists have been assassinated in Chechnya, and over the years Kadyrov’s political adversaries have been murdered one after another in various parts of the world. The Kremlin appears to depend on Kadyrov to keep his region – once a centre of terrorist activity – under control. So, Kadyrov can get away with threats, and worse.

In another disturbing episode, a group of aggressive Christian conservatives led by Dmitry Enteo picketed the French embassy in Moscow carrying a sign that blamed the French government for the tragedy because it “failed to defend the feelings of religious believers”. “We do not approve of Islamism,” Enteo wrote in a social network post, “but we state that the true terrorists are the authors of such caricatures.” Enteo and his group were allowed to conduct their demonstration unhindered. Aggressive conservatism – whether Muslim or Orthodox Christian – is in line with the Kremlin’s anti-liberal and anti-Western stance. While showing zero tolerance toward liberal civic activism, the Russian government looks the other way at violent language and even acts by “ideological allies”. Such permissiveness, especially at a time of rapidly growing economic problems, is likely to embolden violent forces even further – to a point at which the Kremlin may find that it is unable to keep them under control.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. This commentary, like all publications of the European Council on Foreign Relations, represents only the views of its authors.

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