Interview with Mr Edward Lucas
Picture: High-level lecture by Mr Edward Lucas, Senior Editor at the Economist, taken at Natolin on January 27 2017.
The 27th of January Edward Lucas, senior editor at The Economist, visited the College of Europe to deliver a lecture on the current state of media and on journalism. After sharing his experience with the students and answering their questions, he agreed to sit with us for a short interview in which we talked about Russia, the West and recent political developments in Central Europe.
Natolin Blog: Let’s start by taking a step back. It’s 1992: the Soviet Union has collapsed, Central European countries are building free-market democracies, Francis Fukuyama predicts “the End of History”. Now, here comes 2017: Trump has won in the U.S. on a platform of xenophobia and protectionism, the European Union is facing a legitimacy crisis, governments in Poland and Hungary challenge democratic institutions. What went wrong in these 25 years?
Edward Lucas: We made, I think, three big mistakes. One was to underestimate the corrosive power of money in politics: we thought that basically the corruption and the politicized use of money was a manageable problem. I think what Russia and others understood is that money the Achille’s heel of the West and if you think that only money matters then you’re defenseless when people attack you using money. This attitude makes us vulnerable to both domestic interests trying to capture power through wealth and to foreign attackers. The Romans have a say: pecunia non olet, “money doesn’t smell”. Actually money does smell and it can smell really bad.
Mistake number two was that we underestimated the role of our propaganda and disinformation. We thought that the Western media was absolutely brilliant, that if you had free media and a free market nothing can go wrong. Well, actually a lot can go wrong! We’ve seen the way in which information can be used as a weapon thanks to social media and the anonymity of the Internet.
I think that the third problem was that we were too complacent about Russia: we assumed that because the Soviet Union had collapsed and Russia wanted to be a democracy, Russia would always be a democracy. Since Russia had agreed to the end of the Warsaw Pact, Russia wouldn’t be an empire anymore. However, many Russians regard the collapse of the Soviet Union as a catastrophe: they don’t want the planned economy back, they don’t want one-party state back, but they do feel the loss of empire. I think we were way too complacent about that and we should’ve been much clearer about it to the Russians. Although we very much want good relations with Russia and we really hope that Russia would become a democracy, a friendly country and part of a loosely defined West, we have zero room for any kind of revanchist or revisionist policy to the 1991 settlement and that the Paris Charter was final.
Natolin blog: Do you think that NATO enlargement had a role in Russia’s transformation into a revisionist power? Some scholars, like John Mearsheimer, argue that the war in Ukraine is the result of Western “liberal delusions”
Edward Lucas: I personally think it’s totally wrong and I am amazed that someone with his distinguished background could be so wrong. The fundamental problem is that he doesn’t give Ukraine any agency: he sees it only in terms of what the Russians think. I’m interested in what the Russians think and they have the right to think what they want, but Ukrainians are real people. It’s a real country with a real language, a real history, a real culture. They have real dreams and real aspirations. They want the liberty, decency, legality and prosperity that we have. I don’t think it’s our job or anyone else’s, certainly not Putin’s, to say you can’t have it. It’s a fundamental principle of the Paris Charter which Russia signed up for. We are not in the era of great power politics and countries have the right to make their own choices.
What Putin has dose is to rewrite history. Russia initially did not complain about NATO expansion because there was a deal: we signed the NATO-Russia Founding Act, we set up the Russia-NATO Council exactly because we realized that there was a downside [in NATO enlargement] to Russia. At the time of both the first and second round of NATO expansion it was absolutely clear to the Russians that we would do what we can to make this okay. They accepted and they signed up for the NATO-Russian Council, even though they didn’t have to. So this idea that NATO expansion is the pretext for the attack on Ukraine is one of the most monstrous historical fictions of all time.
Natolin blog: Is the fact that that narrative has taken hold in much of the media the main threat we are facing from Russia? Should we be fearing its fake news and its ability to shape the way we perceive and criticize the West more than its actual military capability?
Edward Lucas: Actually, Russia is quite a weak country: it has GDP the size of Italy and spends 80 billion a year on its armed forces. Russia is not a Soviet Union and it is not a global threat. It succeeds only because of the West’s weakness. It has assets in terms of nuclear blackmail, information, diplomatic divide-and-rule tactics, energy, targeted assassinations and bribery. It has all these levers but fundamentally it’s a weak country. I think one of Putin’s greatest achievements has been to make us believe that Russia is a global problem. It’s not. It’s fundamentally a regional problem.
Natolin blog: You often talk of the Russian symbiosis between government, corporations and media. Looking at US elections, is Trump’s victory the start of Putinisation of American politics?
Edward Lucas: There’s certainly some echoes of Putinism, not just in America but also in Hungary and other countries. I think the difference is that America has extremely strong institutions, whereas in Russia the Duma doesn’t act as a counterweight to Putin. In the U.S., there is a profoundly apolitical criminal justice system: the President cannot order the prosecutors to go investigate someone, which in Russia happens all the time. In the U.S. you have a regular election cycle and Trump could quite easily lose the Senate and conceivably the House in the midterms if he governs badly, whereas Putin sees elections as an opportunity for electoral show. Trump can’t spend any money unless the Congress votes for it. I think that Trump is closer to Berlusconi, with his television stations, questionable business practices and this ability to be a reality tv star. Certainly it’s an interesting comparison to make but the differences between Trump and Putin are far greater than the similarities.
Natolin blog: Populism has won important elections not only in the United States, but also in Central Europe. Orban and PiS have been contested for challenging democratic institutions. Would you say that their experience suggests that 27 years of political pluralism is not enough to talk about deeply-rooted democracy?
Edward Lucas: You have to be careful when talking about post-communist countries. I don’t like the idea that we are the tutors and they’re the pupils, that they have to learn. There are certain respects in which the so-called new democracies are in better shape than the older ones. I do worry about what’s happening in Hungary, but I think in a way Orban has exploited the weaknesses that the Hungarian centre-left have created. If Gyurcsány [Prime minister of Hungary 2004–2009] hadn’t been so bad, Orban would never have done so well. You need a competitive political environment. If someone competes to win and they do, then they win all the prizes. You can ask them to show restraint but some of the guilt has to lie on the other side. We’ve seen this with Trump. I don’t like Trump, but I’m much more cross with Hillary Clinton – if she had campaigned better, Trump wouldn’t have won. I worry about corruption, I worry about independent institutions, but it’s still possible to imagine that Fidesz would lose the elections. I can’t imagine Putin losing an election.
Natolin blog: Do you find any analogies between Central and Western Europe with regard to the failure of the left to answer to socio-economic changes that has been exploited by conservative parties?
Edward Lucas: There’s a lot of discontent among the economic losers of the last 25 years as there has always been discontent among economic losers. Perhaps this discontent was magnified with the evolution of the political system and the media. The dissatisfaction with the perceived corruption of the elites has intensified and in some sense there you could draw some similarities between the Gyurcsány era in Hungary and some of the previous Polish governments – the same sense of urban, metropolitan, well-connected elites who speak foreign languages, often ex-Communists, in some cases Jewish, who are perceived with mistrust by people who are from provinces, tend not to speak foreign languages, weren’t communists, and are more tied to an ethnic and religious tradition. So I think there’s a bit of similarity there, but I wouldn’t overstate it. You can pick any two countries and find some similarities: Poland and Hungary are quite close so you can notice some similarities – Kaczyński and Orban certainly like each other. But I would be hesitant to draw the thread from that to France or Germany, the UK or America.
Natolin blog: Earlier, you said that political forces in Poland and Hungary should show restraint when they rise in power, particularly with regard to fundamental democratic principles and institutions. But what’s the role of the European Union in this? In your mind should the EU play a role in defending its Member States’ institutions against the actions of governments?
Edward Lucas : One of the fields that stoked Brexit was a dislike of the idea that the EU could overrule national governments, and I think you have to be very careful if you don’t want more Brexits. I think that the sovereignty of the electorate through either parliamentary or presidential elections is a pretty sacred principle. I’ve always been very unhappy with the idea that the Commission can start telling the electorates that they’ve made the wrong choice. Once you do that, you risk blowing up the whole thing. The EU really only works on the basis of consent and you have to assume that in a democracy, you sometimes lose and that maybe you get a FPO in power like in Austria. I think that fundamentally it’s the voters who have to decide about what they’re happy with, and not the Commission.