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What Russians Really Think Of the EU

Brexit and the Russian bear
Paweł Kuczyński's Brexit cartoon

Introduction and Editor's note: Our Russia's Anna Novikova is a journalist and cultural historian formerly based in Naples, Italy. She earned her PhD in World Economics and is author of the book "Oil and Gas Complex in the Context of Globalisation". This most recent analysis of hers brings to the forefront common misperceptions about Russian attitudes, as well as western misinformation across the spectrum of world events. With the recent #Brexit frenzy as perspective, she encapsulates the all encompassing strategy to besmirch Russia's leaders, and her people. Novikova addresses Brexit from a genuine Russian perspective, and one observed immersed from within Italy's society, and in the context of Russia's internal political mechanisms. While Novikova does not delve deeply into her Italian experience with so-called "Russophobia", her experiences since 2008 there reflect the onerous depictions of the mighty Russian bear, so bloodthirsty and aggressive toward Europe. This latest piece is well worth the time of interested onlookers, and researchers alike. The feature image above, first used on The Guardian, depicts the common propaganda theme. Now read Ms. Novikova's story. 

Who Is in Charge of Brexit?

The Brexit vote stirred the whole European continent like a giant earthquake, with aftershocks spreading all around the globe. The EU, pounded by polarized opinions, found itself facing an unforeseen scenario where it could be repeating  the notorious breakup of another political system gone bad, the Soviet Union. As Brexit has clearly demonstrated it, not every country is dreaming the elusive dream of joining the Union. Some, as we have seen, are ready to risk everything to stand alone. To countries like Great Britain, which used to be great empires, abandoning the union that demised them, becomes a matter of principle. The same scenario could be repeating itself in other former empires like Italy and France, if only exiting the European Union was “a la carte”.

However, what caught everyone’s attention wasn’t Brexit in itself. As soon as Britain’s vote was voiced, everyone turned their heads east, to Russia, in search of an “explanation”. Despite Vladimir Putin’s explicit reluctance to give any preference on Brexit and despite his refusal to comment on its results, Western press still managed to invent a narrative “from Russia”. According to the first group of journalists, with the UK out of the EU, Russia would now have a green light in joining the union immediately. John Mackinder’s “Heartland Theory”, written more than a century ago, may offer an insight on why that would be the least likely scenario.

The second group of journalists and politicians spat sarcasm about Russia’s presumed “victory” in Brexit. Michael McFaul was among the first ones to congratulate Putin on his “victory”. Another prominent russosceptic, Anne Applebaum claimed that Russia “spent years pumping money, overtly and covertly, into euroskeptic parties and media all across Europe”, which in its incredibility could easily compete with the story of the 200 Russian football fans at the EuroCup.   

Their reasoning isn’t hard to decipher. Russia, according to these sources, is supposed to rejoice in seeing the European Union weaken, especially because some of the former Soviet republics (Ukraine and Georgia) are looking West. Certain Russian experts tend to agree, arguing that Russia is winning from the EU’s big loss. With the European state disintegrated and weak, Russia would be safe from a threatening possibility of another world war. However, all these are nothing more than suppositions of what Russians may think.

“A Weakening Union”

Let us assume a more pragmatic attitude and see how Russian people really feel about the EU, and what attitudes they express towards it.

New research conducted by the department of political science at Lomonosov Moscow State University reveals how the European Union is being perceived by Russians.

The image of the EU was analyzed by different methods on two levels of perception: conscious and unconscious. On the rational level, most respondents expressed an approval for democratic values, open economic space and the effectiveness of the European legal system. Rationally, more than a half of respondents evaluated the EU as a strong union, due to its influence on world affairs and its economic strength. That image, however, clashes radically with the unconscious perception, where the Union was seen as weakening and losing its independence in the choice of political strategy. For the most part, the EU was described as active in international affairs, probably due to its active position on anti-Russian sanctions and a pro-American position regarding Ukraine and Syria.

As for the perception of the EU’s internal processes, most respondents expressed a doubt about European integrity and its ability to collaborate in resolving pressing internal problems. Most Russians would like to believe, rather than actually believe, in an equal relationship between all European partners. Germany is clearly perceived as a leading bully.

Certain metaphors used by respondents help reveal an unconscious partiality to the EU. The first group compared the union with a “gang”, others described it as a “utopia”. A particular interest arises in the description of the EU-USA relations, which are often perceived as “slave-master” and “unsatisfactory”.

“Disloyal Partner”

When asked to visually represent the European Union, the majority of respondents (68,7%) sketched very simple imagery, involving the symbolic stars or even a geographic map. However, the remaining 31,3% of sketches had a more complex nature, which proved better knowledge of and greater interest in it. RePresenting the relationship between USA, EU and Russia, EU is depicted as weak and dominated by the US, and aggressive towards Russia.

As for its inner structure, EU was depicted as a group of weak countries held together by the strong centre, represented by Germany or in some cases personalized by Angela Merkel.  Other leaders are either unknown or presented as impersonal and faceless. Some drawings included the representation of the EU’s imminent problems, such as immigration, financial crisis, and growing immorality. In sketching European values, most people presented them in a favorable light by drawing happy families or absence of borders.

Regarding its relationship with Russia, the EU is seen as a partner (by 61% of respondents); however, they also expressed a great deal of disillusionment in its faithfulness as a partner and in the integrity of its political course.

Gender and age components were also calculated in the evaluation of the conducted research. It appears that men are more inclined to talk about political aspects of the EU, and are also better informed about who the European leaders are, their relationship with other leaders and countries.

Younger people expressed a more positive, friendly view on the EU than elderly people who regarded it with suspicion due to the perception of influence from Washington. Although they didn’t have a high opinion of the EU on the whole, their answers were softened by positive remarks on the willingness to reach an agreement in the decision-making process and stay united despite cultural differences.

There was a difference of perception in people with no university degree and those who were well-educated. The well-educated group had a tendency to be more critical and negative about the EU, especially if they had a chance to travel and/or live there. More positive remarks were made by people with no higher education and those who never had a chance to experience it personally.

The image of the EU could be defined as characteristically unstable and ambivalent.  The majority of Russians who participated in the research see the EU as a strong, though steadily weakening union in the process of transformation. Some even defined it as a purely “decorative union”, mostly due to its inability to make independent decisions.

Most Russian people still consider the EU as Russia’s closest partner, though an increasingly disloyal and unstable one. Expressing their vision of the future EU-Russian relationship, Russians were hopeful about establishing a harmonious friendship based on collaboration and common political goals, such as defeating international terrorism.  Moreover, most Russians admitted they felt profoundly European. 

The current perception of the EU in Russia is primarily defined by the internal political situation, and the psychological atmosphere that has dominated in the country since the re-election of president Vladimir Putin. Putin’s presidency was marked by a historic reunification with Crimea, which came as the culmination point in the process of estrangement of two former allies, EU and Russia. In their poll MSU researchers highlighted the deep-seated respect most Russians had for the European cultural heritage and traditions, and its alliance with Russia during WWII. That image is unconsciously driven aside by the pressing notion of the anti-Russian sanctions imposed by the EU. In broad terms, it could explain why most people preferred the word “Europe” to “European Union”.

Despite the challenges to be addressed, Russians still have a great regard for the EU and express an interest in its well-being, wishing it was stronger. The weakening power of Brussels over Eastern Europe in the event of Europe’s disintegration could potentially lead to Eastern European countries becoming allied with Washington against Russia. Despite what the Western media is trying to make us believe, Russians do not rejoice in seeing the EU collapse. Most of them have a deep desire in the EU becoming a strong and independent union. As Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov recently remarked on his British counterpart Philip Hammond’s “Only Russia wants Britain to leave the EU”  - it is “a clinical case”.