On the occasion of the 25th anniversary of the Velvet Revolution, the Central European Forum (CEF) in Bratislava featured a panel organised by the Central European Strategy Council as part of our effort to bring the topics and community of the GLOBSEC Bratislava Security Forum to a larger audience. Taking place on 16 November on the inspiring premises of the L+S Theatre, the discussion featured Josef Braml, editor of the Yearbook Internationale Politik of the German Council on Foreign Relations, Vasyl Cherepanyn,director of the Kiev-based Visual Culture Research Center and editor of the Political Critique magazine, and Andrei Soldatov, investigative journalist and editor of Agentura.ru in Moscow. Discussions were led by Mário Nicolini, who coordinates the agenda of GLOBSEC at the Slovak Atlantic Commission.

Our attention was focused on the situation in Ukraine, the motivations behind Moscow’s policy and the stunning spread of Russian propaganda on the world stage. The panellists agreed that Russia’s policies on Ukraine were driven by nationalism, but Moscow’s ability to present the group of nations around its borders with attractive alternatives to European and Euro-Atlantic integration was limited. Mr Soldatov pointed out that Russia’s long-term effort of building regional alliances has repeatedly failed. Mr Braml questioned the inner strength of Russia and thus its power to make other nations follow the model it represented. Indeed, the more pressure President Putin put on his neighbours, the easier it was for the West to reach out to these nations. Mr Cherepanyn said that Russia’s vision of uniting its “co-Fatherlanders” was limited to Russian nationals, in contrast to the Western concept of human rights, which has universal appeal.

Discussions then focused on the issue of propaganda. Mr Soldatov warned that the real threat, including to Russia domestically, was ideology, arguing that Russia was determined to challenge the West precisely on this level. Its propaganda seeks to exploit “the same mentality across the post-Sovietspace”, centred on the feeling of betrayal by the West, which Mr Soldatov said was wide-spread. Discussants agreed that Russian propaganda was nothing new. Referring to World War II, Russia’s “great patriotic war”, Mr Cherepanyn argued that “Russia is still fighting fascism”. For him, this has been a defining feature of Russian policy for decades. The panel showed that Mr Putin’s Russia, at least in rhetoric, was essentially a reactionary power, claiming to be preventing revolutions at home and abroad. In neighbouring countries, Russian propaganda aims to contain the phenomenon of “colour revolutions” by arguing they only bring chaos and destabilisation. Being a country harbouring many potential separatists, Mr Cherepanyn observed, Russia was projecting its own fears on other nations, including on Ukraine, especially by overplaying the split between the East and West and by claiming that “Maidan leads to war”. However, even the Kremlin propagandists themselves were now nervous about the potential effects of propaganda, as it was never attempted at this scale, said Mr Soldatov.

Consensus quickly emerged on the domestic importance of propaganda for President Putin. Domestic support for Mr Putin has soared and Russia’s own middle class is now united behind him as the protector of their earnings. Mr Braml pointed out that Russia’s leader needed an external enemy to hide the lack of “output” on domestic policy. Mr Soldatov similarly said that popular support for Mr Putin should be distinguished from trust, which is lacking. Reacting to a question whether the West has “lost” the next generation of Russians, Mr Cherepanyn said that the idea of Russia’s “Easternness” really only demonstrates a lack of vision; the Kremlin “replaced utopia with atopia”. Mr Soldatov observed that Russia wants to be “loved by Europe” and feels a part of Europe. The problem is that there is an absolute lack of objective information. “When people talk about Europe, they talk about 19th centuryEurope”, Mr Soldatov said, and the Kremlin was doing everything to ring-fence the country from the influence of Western media.

Turning to the effect of Russian propaganda in Western societies, one possible lesson from the panel is that Europe’s fate does indeed lie in Europe’s hands. Mr Soldatov pointed out that the Kremlin was only exploiting the existing divisions in European societies, starting with anti-Americanism. This would continue until Europe found its own solutions to these problems. The panellists also highlighted Moscow’s active outreach to European parties, especially on the far right. To Mr Cherepanyn, this paradox between rhetoric and practice only demonstrates the true, fascizoid nature of Mr Putin’s regime. Mr Braml warned that the West itself was not immune to “group think”, citing the 2003 war on Iraq as an example which weakened the US and the transatlantic relationship. However, he concluded on an optimistic note, saying that democracies, in allowing for the free exchange of ideas, were “wiser” and therefore ultimately stronger than autocracies.

The Central European Strategy Council was proud to join the Project Forum and other partners in making the Central European Forum 2014 a success. The Forum has been organised annually since 2009 with the aim for intellectuals from the West and the East to articulate the fundamental questions and challenges facing our societies – and, in the process, to cultivate a truly pan-European discourse. The Forum’s guests, over the years, have included Václav Havel, Zygmunt Bauman, Claus Offe, Ivan Krastev, Timothy Snyder, Slavenka Drakulić, Pascal Bruckner, Viktor Jerofejev, Ingo Schulze, Robert Menasse, Marcia Pally, Adam Michnik, Péter Esterházy, Gyorgy Konrád, Agnes Heller, Gilles Lipovetsky, Robert Cooper and many others.