Due West: Russia’s Romance with conspiracy theories

A couple of weeks ago I took part in a Russian TV Channel One program, discussing events in the Middle East. The panel on this particular show is usually divided into two groups. One is, roughly speaking, anti-Western and anti-democracy, the other is … well, usually more reasonable, at least.

A couple of weeks ago I took part in a Russian TV Channel One program, discussing events in the Middle East. The panel on this particular show is usually divided into two groups. One is, roughly speaking, anti-Western and anti-democracy, the other is … well, usually more reasonable, at least.  This time the participants included, among others, Alexander Prokhanov, editor of Zavtra (“Tomorrow”) newspaper, professing a weird brand of Russo-Soviet ideology of a so-called Red Empire; a former functionary of the CPSU Central Committee who claimed that the Arab revolt was organized by an obscure U.S. think tank on a budget of $10 million; Mikhail Leontyev, TV commentator and magazine editor known for his denunciations of Russia’s opposition leaders as “paid agents of the West”; and, as a star participant, a mad French pamphleteer Thierry Meyssan, residing in Damascus. A few years ago, he wrote a book, claiming that a U.S. military industrial complex was behind the September 11th terrorist attacks.

One of the first questions the presenter asked was: “Who benefits from what happened in Libya?”

“Here we go again!” I thought to myself.  Once you hear this question asked anywhere, be absolutely certain – America, Jews, world Freemasonry, “world government” or any combination of those will be mentioned.

I was right. The audience applauded those who said that the United States was behind the Middle East turmoil, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary. There were those on the show who resisted this interpretation, like Professor Georgy Mirsky from Moscow or Ariel Cohen from the Heritage Foundation in Washington. I felt that “our” side has put up quite a robust performance. Moreover, the program editors seemed not to have received clear instructions from their Kremlin curators on what the final conclusions of the discussion should be – apart from a bland statement that “chaos is dangerous and benefits extremists.”  This was probably due to the fact that Russia elected to side with the West on the UN sanctions against Libya.

However, a few days later Russian President Dmitry Medvedev spoke of “they” who prepare a Middle Eastern scenario for Russia but, as he said, will not be allowed to succeed.

I wonder who “they” are? If he meant Islamic fundamentalists (who seem to have not a lot to do with the recent Middle East turmoil), then why not say so straight away? If it is the West, then does the president really think that the United States and its allies wish to make one big flaming Libya out of Russia?

Conspiracy theories became a staple of Russian society thinking twenty years ago as a reaction to a sudden and inexplicable collapse of the USSR. But while in the 1990s it was a matter of opinion (albeit widely spread), in the last decade proponents of such world view firmly occupy leading positions in the state-controlled Russian media and thus has become a semi-official point of view. This created a “fortress Russia” mentality: a convenient distraction from Russia’s real domestic problems and a useful foreign policy tool. For whenever President Medvedev or Prime Minister Putin do something together with Western countries (like signing a START-3 treaty or imposing sanctions on Gaddafi) , they claim they have done it against an overwhelmingly hostile public opinion, despite the fact that it is the official media that are serving as a conduit for this type of thinking.

But by doing so the Russian leaders eventually trap themselves in this kind of rhetoric. The Frankenstein monster of anti-Western conspiracy impacts the quality of political decision-making and reveals something that Russia’s political class would probably prefer to remain hidden. When Deputy Premier Igor Sechin in a Wall Street Journal interview hints that it was Google (read – United States) that organized the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak in Egypt, he seems to be saying what he truly thinks.  But doesn’t this show instead the Russian leadership’s inner anxiety that it is not as universally popular at home as it portrays itself?

The vicious circle of conspiracy-based blame shifting is poisoning the Russian society and its political class. It could lead to a lot of trouble for Russia. This circle has to be broken.

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What is Russia's place in this world? Unashamed and unreconstructed Atlanticist, Konstantin von Eggert believes his country to be part and parcel of the "global West." And while this is a minority view in Russia, the author is prepared to fight from his corner.

Konstantin Eggert is an independent Russian journalist and political analyst. In the 1990s he was Diplomatic Correspondent for “Izvestia” and later the BBC Russian Service Moscow Bureau Editor. Konstantin has also spent some time working as ExxonMobil Vice-President in Russia. He was made Honorary Member of the Order of the British Empire by Queen Elizabeth II.


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