This site is our response to everyone who has ever asked us what Russia is like, and for anyone who might have never wondered, but should have. It’s an attempt to put into words Russia as we see it; our go at explaining that big old riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma, that in fact, never went away. It’s about understanding the views, opinions and psyche of a nation that hits our headlines daily, without many of us ever really knowing why. And ultimately, it’s about providing a picture of Russia, as seen first-hand by two people, who think that although the journey they’re on to try and understand this country might never end, the process itself is worth sharing.

Tuesday, 2 March 2010

Pipeline Prejudices

Photo: Fitar Gubayev

As a British student studying European Integration at what the FT recently dubbed “the Eurocrat College,” I feel I spend a large part of my live defending “the baddie”: Britain.* As a non-Russophobe studying the EU as a Global Actor (would I go so far as to say Russophile? Probably not, since we’re talking politics), I spend the rest of my life defending the even badder baddie: Russia.

This semester I have been taking a course in EU energy policy. Right from the start, the professor warned us that this class would not be about geopolitics: we were not going to be taught that Europe was currently being held hostage by Russia. Or that this was likely to happen in the future. Sure, security of supply is essential, and Russia does have the world’s largest reserves of natural gas. However, we should forget everything we have ever read about Russia in our European media. Russia, you see, needs to export its gas just as much (if not more) than the Europeans need to buy it; and the only feasible place it can do this is in Europe. Instantly, the professor had lost most of the class: energy diversification and unbundling just isn’t as sexy as bond-style Russian villains presiding over pipelines. And nobody believed him anyway.

Last week, a colleague and I gave a presentation on ‘The 2009 Ukrainian-Russian Gas Dispute: A Russian Perspective.’ An opposing presentation went first, giving the Ukrainian point of view. The brief was to persuade the audience, why ‘our’ country was in the right. Since the class is more than half made up of Poles, Belarusians, Ukrainians and other assorted Central and Eastern Europeans (not generally known for their love of Russia or Gazprom) the professor realised that we, the Russians, had a tough crowd. Accordingly, it was agreed that to give us a chance in hell we would have a vote to decide who was responsible both before and after the debate. The challenge would be to persuade some of our classmates to change their opinion.

After the initital vote, despite the professor’s repeated statements throughout the course that Russia was a relatively reliable supplier of gas, the results were 13 believing Russia was responsible; 5 abstaining or uncertain; and 3 holding Ukraine responsible. I won’t go into details about what each debating team actually said during the debate (the two sides’ positions have been articulated thousands of times before); but suffice it to say that we’d both done our research and given pretty comprehensive arguments. However we might as well not have bothered to present: the final opinions were exactly the same. Russia was overwhelmingly in the wrong. And Ukraine was absolved of all transit risk.

Now, before I am attacked for having an over-rosy, idealist view on Russia, I want to point out that I really don't! Russia certainly uses gas as an energy tool in its affairs with Ukraine, Belarus and Armenia, however it is not in a position to do so with Europe. This was the issue at stake and to confuse the two is to prevent open-eyed discussion about the Russian-EU relationship. Furthermore, to imagine that Ukraine was an innocent victim all this as it sat on stocks of gas as Europe froze, is utterly absurd.

Another class I have been following has been in Russia-EU relations. Following the class, you might think Gorbachev had never been elected and the Berlin wall had never fallen. It is ridden with alarmist rhetoric and Russia clearly emerges as the big bad wolf. Any talk about how the EU might engage with the EU has so far been non existent. All we have learnt is how awful the interior Russian situation is - so much so, that a Czech student who has never visited Russia asked me how I could possibly have lived there and wasn’t it the most depressive, repressive state in the world?

Domestically, Russia does face enormous problems: demographically, socially, politically and economically. Reading reports about Russia by Freedom House or Amnesty International are enough to make you cry; however, to write off Russia as a bullying, disaster-zone of a country, as many of my colleagues here seem to do, is not only incorrect but also hugely dangerous.

My college presents itself as an ‘incubator for Europe’s future elite’ (yes, a professor actually used those cringe-worthy words), however if this is what we are being taught (or what we are choosing to understand, in the case of the energy course) then this spells very bad news for the future of Europe. Simply being told (or simply choosing to believe) that Russia, or any other country is bad (what a ridiculously normative word, but it sums up so many attitudes here) will lead us nowhere. If Europe is ever to develop a meaningful relationship with Europe, we need a certain open mindedness.
We must abandon our Eurocentric view of the world and realise that it has been a long time since we were at the world's centre. We need the ability to understand and enter into dialogue with tomorrow’s great powers.

And now my rant about College attitudes to Russia is over, please see below for a justification of my opinion on Britain!

* For the record, I detest most British attitudes to Europe. The UK is far too full of ignoramus Europhobes – yes, I mean you, Nigel Farage, but you’re not the only one, even if you are the rudest – and I would love it if we could express a little more love for the Euro family; however, accusations that Lady Ashton is a British ‘submarine’ sent to sabotage the EU are frankly ludicrous. And De Gaulle was not the saviour of Europe – he was almost as rabid as Thatcher…

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