A well-timed interview

By Nina Bachkatov and Andrew Wilson

On 28 June, the Financial Times published an interview of President Putin that has been much commentated upon. For the newspaper, it was a demonstration of journalistic strategy bearing in mind the time and energy it takes to organise an interview with the Russian president. For Vladimir Putin, it was an opportunity to put things straight a few hours before the G 20 summit where, since 2014’s Ukraine adventures, he has been treated by his Western partners as an isolated man presiding over a pariah nation.

At Osaka, he was much central to the picture, part of different bilateral meetings, notably with president Trump or the OPEC representatives present in Japan. He was enjoying his favorite role – that of a man of quiet natural authority, a responsible leader very different from the unpredictable Trump and from European leaders obliged to use Osaka corridors to agree on top EU jobs which they failed to reach in Brussels.

Most non-Western participants are sharing his vision of “obsolete” liberalism, and all had read the FT interview before landing in Japan. The text was a well-balanced review of the main topics of the moment concerning Russian foreign and internal policies, its vision of the world and the place that Russia should occupy in it. Putin sees Russia, and China, providing the role vacated by presidents Obama and Trump when Washington started to retreat gradually on America. Speaking of Russia’s relations with China, Putin quoted as its partner’s main qualities “loyalty and flexibility” – exactly those things that Putin regularly presents as a key element of the Russian diplomatic successes in the world, compared with EU dithering’s and USA unpredictability.

But in fact, one did not learn much new from the interview, even if it provided good quotes for those paying attention to primary sources. The most interesting part concerns Putin’s charge against liberalism in a more structured and precise way that of his previous criticism of the Western democracy. The fact that he used the adjective “obsolete” to qualify “the liberal idea” was highly provocative – and very intentional. Putin wanted to clarify his position, to the world and to his people, who will read the interview in translation in social medias.

In many aspects, one can say that Putin offers his own version of “The end of history”. In 1992, the fall of communism inspired the American politologist Francis Fukuyama to announce that free-market liberal democracy had won out and would become the world’s “final form of human government.”

Now, in 2019, the Russian president claims that the liberal idea has “outlived its purpose”. For him, this idea that emerged from the from second world war is reaching the end of its cycle because it failed to meet the demands of the majority of the citizens, relaying on a kind of laisser-faire to settling social, economic and cultural tensions but unable to show proper direction.

This will of course be understood as a further demonstration that Putin rejects liberal idea and supports illiberalism in the world, including in the Western world by exploiting social tensions to erode liberal regime from inside.

Indeed, Putin projects the image of a man who wants to change world order, and he is not alone to do so. The liberal idea is in doubt, and not only by the populists and nativists, because the arbitrations were made in such a way that it does not serve the needs of the vast majority of the population, with the gap between rich and poor turning obscene.

This interview might provide ammunition for a large debate about the evolution of the world, the way to find an equilibrium between individual freedoms and collective interests, between common liberal values and differences of scale based on culture and traditions instead of the “one model for all” imposed since the end of communism.

It would be sad if this well-timed interview were to feed, once again, a fight between the good (liberal idea) and the bad (illiberal Putinism) as one reads numerous analyses commenting on the interview.

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