By Elisabeth Hellenbroich
At the beginning of this year a book Understanding Russia – The fight about the Ukraine and the arrogance of the West was published in the German C. H. Beck publishing house. The author of the book, the journalist Gabriele Krone- Schmalz (Moscow correspondent for the 1.TV channel ARD and steering committee member of the German –Russian civilian forum “Petersburg Dialogues”) on the basis of a thorough research and background interviews analyses the causes for the one-sided coverage about Russia in the German mainstream media. She comes to the conclusion that most of German media reports about the actual Russia- Ukraine crisis are based on a selective perception and constructed lies. The Ukraine- Russia crisis is seen by her as part of a global geo-strategic confrontation, which began with the collapse of the former Soviet Union 25 years ago.
The author points to the major errors which the “West”, in particular the United States manifested in its attitude towards Russia: this includes a lack of understanding regarding the sensitivities of the Russian population after the collapse of the Soviet Union; the acceptance of a predatory capitalist model and economic dismantling under President Yeltsin in the 90s, as well as the plans by the US, which since 1993 began to systematically call for NATO’s enlargement in Eastern Europe, including the plan to deploy missile defence systems in Eastern Europe. It also relates to the NATO wars in the nineties: this includes the Kosovo war (98/99), the bombing of Serbia without a UN mandate, the military invasion of Iraq in 2003, the casting aside of Russian security concerns concerning military action against Libya and Syria. In this geostrategic context the Russia-Ukraine crisis plays a different role.
The journalist Krone-Schmalz is an exception among the journalists who write about Eastern European affairs. She is one of the few who try to “understand” Russia. In a background discussion which the author of the present article had with a former dpa (German press agency) correspondent in Moscow and Kiev the journalist Friedemann Kohler judged the book as “one-sided”. During his lecture “Reporting from Moscow yesterday and today”, which was followed by a lively discussion about the actual situation in Ukraine (questions ranging from: how to assess the future costs which the EU and Germany will have to pay in order to reconstruct the Ukraine, how to build the nation, given the total absence of a functioning political elite, the question of ethnic minorities in Ukraine etc.) the dpa journalist had to acknowledge that the present German press coverage is based on “stereotype” reports. This has to do with the “massive dismantling of correspondent employments in the German press offices.” For example as consequence of these changes it happens that a journalist who wanted to write an article about the Bolshoi Theatre from Moscow is told by his editorial board in Germany, that he should better write a story about the Russian mafia. Journalists who report about the war developments have no time to make an in depth research.
Krone- Schmalz writes about the “widening gap between public and published opinion”. That she feels dismay “when journalist colleagues without any hesitation put the capacity of judgement of the whole society into question and refuse to take serious the various protests and complaints which are being sent to the editorial boards from newspaper readers, radio listeners and TV viewers. Those who protest are worried about the one-sided reporting and the propaganda war, the “verbal build-up” waged against Russia.
If someone to day wants to “understand” the background of the Russia-Ukraine he is getting „stigmatized”, the journalist states. However if someone wants “to understand” this does not mean that “automatically everything is fine”. It demands an effort to make careful research locate events in their broader context and not be “prejudiced”.
A typical example for such “prejudiced view” is the interpretation which was given by the press and political representatives when Russian President Vladimir Putin commented that „the collapse of the Soviet Union was the greatest disaster since the Second World War.” The German media immediately interpreted this sentence as an expression of Russia’s “backward-looking thinking” and an expression of the “Moscow’s imperialist aims”. However, if one tries to “understand” what that sentence implies, one must take into account the experience which the Russian population lived through in the last 25 years. With the collapse of the Soviet Union, the population lived through three revolutions: the transition from a planned economy to a market economy; the transition from a communist system to constitutional structures, in a country which has eleven time zones; and the transition from the Soviet Union to the nation state.
This was a gigantic historic challenge. Particularly in that period Russia would have needed help and a “friendly assistance” from the “West”. Instead the “West” began pushing Russia around: credits and financial aid were based on conditions which corresponded to the theory of economic western textbooks but had nothing to do with Russian reality. Russia at that time was not treated like a “partner” but a “bankrupt case”. Hence for the people of Russia the nineties under President Jelzin were a nightmare. A permanent test of endurance! Being himself an oligarch, Boris Yeltsin “not only allowed, but even encouraged the privatization of key industries at dubious condition. There was widespread existential misery. For months people didn’t receive any wages, no salaries were paid. If at all they were paid in natural products, this ranging from a sink to a toilet bowl. On the other side there was bombastic luxury enjoyed by the “financial elite” who thought he could buy everything from journalism to the judiciary system. State structures disintegrated, corruption and criminal networks expanded. “Export of products such as the Russian laser technology and satellite-based monitoring systems was boycotted while at the same time Western companies appropriated Russian know-how at ridiculous prices.
Krone- Schmalz speaks of a very “selective perception” with respect to Ukraine, which simply only perceived what it wanted to perceive. In an internal memo which was sent around by the program committee of the German TV channel ARD the “anti-Russian tendencies” were criticized. The memo stated that there was a systematic omission of explanations which could have shed light on the background of certain events and put them in an adequate context.
On a background of very complex history of Ukraine which for centuries was object of a tug war between neighbouring countries, Krone- Schmalz tries to explain what triggered the Ukraine crisis. Viewed form a superficial point of view thing exploded in Ukraine when 28th of November 2013 President Yanukovych refused to sign an EU association agreement which had been negotiated for years. At that time the almost bankrupt Ukraine received a credit of $15 billion from Russia. This all led to a social explosion within Ukraine, where the population expressed its disgust about the corrupt elite and oligarchs. The Maidan events were portrayed by the German media in a completely one sided way; from the beginning Russia was made the culprit.
In her book Krone-Schmalz lays out in great detail the events which occurred end of February 2014 on the Maidan place leaving many dead and injured. If one looks at the sequence of events beginning February 21th there are a lot of discrepancies: On February 21th 2014 the German Foreign Minister FW Steinmeier and his colleagues from France and Poland arrive in Kiev. They discuss with President Yanukovych and convince him to sign an agreement with the opposition. This agreement includes: Yanukovych withdraws the police. In return, the opposition will leave the buildings which they have occupied; elections are to be held in December, not only parliamentary but also Presidential elections which Yanukovych had until then categorically rejected. In addition there should be a return to the 2004 constitution which will give less power to the president, as well as a reform of the constitution is agreed upon. For the interim period an interim government will be put into place, which should be representative for all forces in the country. The EU is to guarantee the agreement.”
But what happened really after the agreement? Krone- Schmalz chronologically reconstructs the events: “Yanukovych withdraws the police forces; the autonomous administration of the Maidan protesters decides not to leave, on the contrary what follows is that they storm other buildings. The situation becomes confusing. Yanukovych flees and is overthrown by his opponents on February 22. According to the parliamentary minutes only 328 of 450 members agreed on this although only 248 were registered then. In the midst of this confusion a government is formed which is confirmed by the Parliament, whose members have no free access to their workplaces and in whose ranks above all elected representatives from the Party of Regions of Ukraine’s south and east are missing, while the remaining members of this party, after having been intimidated by the enraged masses outside the parliament, then fearfully join the opposition.”
Krone- Schmalz states that according to the constitution the parliament would have had the opportunity to remove Yanukovych and thus initiate a legally correct presidential change. “That did not happen. First, the required procedure was not maintained, which provided for a review by the Constitutional Court, on the other hand the required three-quarters of the vote, was narrowly missed. The procedure would have required 338 votes. Alexander Turchynov who was to proposed as president was during the same session elected as the new President of Parliament and he in that capacity signed Resolution 764-VII, which relieved Yanukovych of his duties. Legally speaking however this was a ‘coup’, for which there may have been all kinds of political arguments.”
Looking at the event on the Crimean peninsula the author said in an interview with a German newspaper that the West had not adequately assessed the strategic significance which the peninsula had for Russia from an emotional, military and geo- strategic standpoint. She also stated that the sanctions which were based on the argument that Russia had violated international on Crimea were not justified and would in any case hit the wrong people. This interview was not printed following the order of the director of the editorial board of that newspaper, the name she did not mention.
The fatal error of NATO’s eastward expansion
Krone- Schmalz points to the fact that in the first half of the nineties the opportunity to create a new security architecture, in which Russia would have found a place as successor of the Soviet Union, was missed. Instead the West above all the USA considering itself as the only remaining “unipolar” power and the winner of the Cold War thought that it could simply ignore Russian interests. The real sticky point in the East-West relations “is and will remain NATO or NATO’s eastward expansion”, the author states.
It was already put on the agenda of the U.S. in 1993. In 1997 negotiations began with Poland, the Czech Republic and Hungary and in March 1999, these states became members of NATO, followed in 2004 by Bulgaria, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania, Slovenia and Slovakia. Finally in 2009 Albania and Croatia joined. “High-ranking German politicians” in various interviews have qualified the eastward enlargement of NATO as “one of the biggest mistakes made since the Second World War”, the author writes. But they refused cowardly to authorize these statements for publication.
On 12th March 1999, Poland, Czech Republic and Hungary joined NATO and on March 24th 1999, during the Kosovo war NATO air strikes were conducted against Serbia. “In the relations between Russia and the West, the importance of the Kosovo war must be adequately assessed. Russia had to experience that the UN Security Council was completely ignored and that nobody in the West seemed to be upset about this.” Even more disastrous from a Russian perspective were the US plans to deploy a missile defence system in Eastern Europe. These were supposed to be installed in Poland and the Czech Republic; and finally there was the unilateral cancellation of the 1972 ABM treaty by the US. In this important disarmament treaty America and Russia had agreed on the disarmament of missile defence systems.
Despite all her research which the author presents in her book she is slandered as a “Russland Versteher”, as someone who understands Russia, similar to what happened to many competent political representatives in Germany. Their judgement will prove to be correct if one looks at it from the standpoint of the future. An argument which Krone- Schmalz resumes at the end of her book: “If Russia had been included in the solution of the conflict at an early stage, there would have been no basis for war in Eastern Ukraine. Serious thinking about a federal solution could also have contributed to the avoidance of the war, since it would have offered people in the eastern and southern part of the Ukraine security and a perspective.”
Russland verstehen –
Der Kampf um die Ukraine und die Arroganz des Westens
C.H.Beck München 2015