RD Interview: Ivan Krastev, president of the Center for Liberal Strategies in Sofia and permanent fellow of the Institute of Human Sciences in Vienna, describes the multiple crises taking place on the European continent, including the continuing transformation of Russia in the post-Cold War era.

A ripped EU flag hangs in a barbwire installation by the artist collective 'Captain Borderline' in Germany. The international street artists aim at drawing attention to the fences built by some European states to prevent migrants to cross the border into the EU. Photo: EPA

In the aftermath of the Brexit vote and continuing concerns about migration from the Middle East, the conventional wisdom is that the European integration project is experiencing an unparalleled crisis. That type of thinking has forced Europe to turn inward, without recognizing that there may actually be a series of several crises happening at the same time along the periphery of the European continent.

In fact, according to Ivan Krastev, president of the Center for Liberal Strategies in Sofia and permanent fellow of the Institute of Human Sciences in Vienna, there are four processes in crisis right now: European integration, European state building, the transformation of Russia and the transformation of Turkey.

On the sidelines of the recent European Forum Alpbach in Austria, where Krastev was one of those discussing the new European Global Strategy, he elaborated on his view of European crises and the role of identity politics in the current geopolitical situation.

Russia Direct: There were few Russian participants at the European Forum Alpbach this year, and none at the senior level. You have observed this forum for quite a while and know that there is always place for discussion on Russia here. Russia’s chair is either empty, or it’s filled, yet it’s always here. What is your feeling on the way the Russia debate was shaped this year?

Ivan Krastev: In 2014 and even 2015 the debate was very much Russia-centered because it was right after Crimea. I think two things are framing the way people are talking in Alpbach this year.

One, of course, is Brexit. It’s a major story, the European Union is now talking much about itself. So even when it is talking to Russia, it is very much our understanding of what is happening in the EU.

And second is, of course, the migration crisis, which has very strong domestic political dimensions. I am sure that senior Russian officials have been invited – so, they are not here not because they had not been invited. But even Turkey, which I expected even more, is not at the center of the debate in Alpbach, because at the center of the debate is what is happening in the European Union.

Of course, most of the people who are present here are going to keep their criticism of the foreign policy of the Russian government; on the other hand, there is a realistic expectation that the European Union is not in a position to change the Kremlin’s policies. So, the problem is how the relations between the EU and Russia are going to function at the moment, when we have a lot of domestic problems, while Russia is going into very important presidential elections in 2018.

What is going to happen in the South, with the migration? The crisis in Syria is a problem for everybody. So, you have this shift to Realpolitik, in which there is not so many judgements, but much more thinking in terms of risks and opportunities. From this viewpoint, what I did not hear is a divide into pro-Russian and Russia-critical voices. There is a different understanding of what can be achieved and what cannot be achieved. And another thing that is changing is the number of people from the other post-Soviet countries other than Russia coming to discuss this – from Ukraine, Belarus and Moldova.

To sum up, the European Union is much more inward looking and the debate on Russia is characterized by a strong trend to find the modus of Realpolitik.

Ivan Krastev, president of the Center for Liberal Strategies in Sofia and permanent fellow of the Institute of Human Sciences in Vienna. Photo: Ivan Krastev

RD: Is this where the “principled realism” comes forward, the way it was formulated in the EU Global Strategy?

I.K.: This strategy is particularly interesting by coming up with three words, which are giving it a new look. “Resilience” is extremely important because it means that you have the capacity to survive external shocks without being changed - to preserve the identity in a difficult environment. Resilience is clearly part of the way the European Union is trying to shape its policies, it is one of its major objectives.

When it comes to Russia, there is a compromise, because basically there is a divide in the European Union between those countries that perceive Russia as a threat –  first of all, the Baltic States and Poland. And there are others, which are much more threatened by some developments in the South, so they try to see Russia much more as a partner, particularly when it comes to radical Islam. I believe that both positions cannot prevail in this space, because it is all very much geography and history.

And this is why Russia was defined as a “challenge.” It means that the European Union realizes that there is not going to be major change in the European policy when it comes to Crimea or Eastern Ukraine, but we should not try and push for a change of Russian policy. And this is also what “principled pragmatism” is about – keeping the possibility for selective engagement.

RD: You have said in your speech in Alpbach that the crisis of the European Union is not one crisis, but four. Could you please elaborate?

I.K.: There is this dance called the quadrille in which at least four times you are changing partners – and you don’t know how it is going to end up, you don’t know with which of the girls you are dancing with you’ll go home.

The problem is that the European Union is dancing with four different crises and all four are dividing Europe significantly.

One is the Eurozone crisis. It is not over. And from this point of view, the critical thing to observe is the situation in Italy. We are going for a referendum in Italy. I do believe that [Prime Minister Matteo] Renzi was intelligent enough to change his position and say that, even if he is going to lose the referendum, he is not going to resign. But otherwise, if we are going to have a political crisis in Italy combined with the difficult situation of Italian banks, which are some of the most fragile in Europe, we cannot exclude the Euro crisis from coming back. And, you remember very well, this crisis has divided Europe along North-South lines.

We see now a very serious attempt on behalf of Chancellor Merkel, President Hollande and others to find a compromise. Part of this compromise can be seen in the position of the European Commission, which decided not to sanction Portugal and Spain for breaking the rules of the budget deficit, because it became very clear that they are making an effort and changing some economic policies, but the political challenge that they are facing is leftist populist parties winning the elections, and it makes it nearly suicidal to keep the rules. This crisis is very much about Berlin and where Berlin stands. Berlin is ready to be more flexible than it used to.

The second crisis is very much Ukraine, and it divides Europe in a different way. We cannot say that it divides Europe into East and West. There are countries like Hungary, Slovakia and the Czech Republic that are much more Russia-friendly than countries in the West, such as Sweden and the others, which have a much tougher position on all this. This crisis is very important for Germany. Politics in relation to Russia have become very important for German domestic politics and, of course, the relations with Russia will depend very much on how the situation is going to develop around Ukraine.

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But the situation that really bothers quite a lot of Europeans is the militarization of Russian foreign policy. This goes beyond any divide because Europe always tried to demilitarize security policy. It is also going to be critical in terms of relations between Germany and Poland, because it was the Berlin-Warsaw axis that defined very much how this crisis was handled in the first place.

When people are asking what is going to happen with the sanctions – are they going to be lifted or are they going to stay - my answer is that they are going to stay and be lifted at the same time. They are going to be reformulated. From the Russian side, it is clear that even if the European sanctions are lifted but the American sanctions stay, the economic effect of this lifting is not going to be great.

The third crisis, of course, is the Brexit crisis. It is becoming an institutional crisis because it is very difficult to enter the European Union, but it is much more difficult to leave it. This is going to take so much time for Britain and the European Union that it is becoming a major distraction.

The major crisis among the four is the migration crisis, because it is a pan-European crisis that concerns even the countries that have no immigrants at all. It is very much the crisis of the domestic political system of many, if not most, of the European member states. If you see what is behind the rise of all the populist parties, it is migration. And this is much more complex because here the divide goes within the states. This is also the crisis, in which it is very difficult to have alliances.

For example, if Austria is going to have limits on refugees, it means that they can expect to return refugees to Hungary. But if Hungary does not want the refugees, it means that it doesn’t want to take them back. From this point of view, if you have the nationalization of policy on refugees, the more the countries have similar policies, the more difficult the relationship between them is going to be.

RD: Does it mean that we have an across the board “renationalization” of policies?

I.K.: This is very interesting. The problem of immigration is now very much mixed together with the problem of Turkey. And if in 2014-2015 it was largely Russia that was the major domestic political issue in most of the member states, now very much Turkey is replacing Russia and [Turkish President Recep Tayyip] Erdogan is replacing Putin. It is a major domestic problem for countries that have sizable Turkish minorities.

RD: I heard you say at an OSCE event at the end of June that while Europe used to think that in the past 25 years there was one major process under way – the integration of Europe, in fact there were four: yes, the integration of Europe, but also state-building and nation-building for many new European countries, the transformation of Russia, and the transformation of Turkey. And all four are now in crisis at the same time.

I.K.: If we want to understand what is going on, we should go back one hundred years, to 1916-1917. There were three continental empires, which in their nature were very different from the French or British empires, which had a metropolis and overseas territories. The Habsburg Empire was dissolved, nation-states appeared, and most of them did not manage to keep their sovereignty in the interwar period. So, after World War II, the idea that small nations could build a stable European order was abandoned and replaced with the post-national idea of the European Union.

The Russian Empire was dissolved as a result of the Bolshevik revolution, but the Soviet Union step-by-step managed to recreate the territorial integrity of the Russian Empire. It was based on a totally different ideology, but territorially, all these people belonged to the same state. But when 1991 came, the crisis that Russia faced was the classical crisis of decolonization. You had new states appearing, and some of them had only three things to start with: their names, their borders and the fact that they were not Russia. With the number of post-Soviet and post-Yugoslav states appearing on the map in the last 25 years we very much resemble Africa in the 1960s.

For Russia, it presented a special challenge, because Russians, just like the Austrians and the Ottomans before, had never been a nation-state. Somebody said, “Russia never had an empire, Russia was an empire.” From that point of view, building a post-imperial identity of Russia is very difficult. If you build a nation-state, what kind of a nation-state? If it is not exactly a nation-state, what is it going to be? Russians have a crisis of identity.

Russia re-appropriated the Soviet legacy, especially the Stalinist legacy, as a way to keep its identity against the West. Photo: RIA Novosti

RD: And what about the Ottomans?

I.K.: They also collapsed as a result of World War I and Turkey decided to become a classical nation-state, very much rejecting the Ottoman Empire. But if we look at the post-Ottoman space now, we see not the decolonization crisis, but a crisis of the failure of decolonization, because these post-colonial states that cannot sustain themselves – Iraq, Syria and Turkey itself!

So, we have three different trajectories, with three different histories. All of them are in crisis. The problem is how these crises will talk to each other in order not to make the situation much more difficult. And I do believe that thinking in terms of the identity building and not simply about one dominant project will help us understand better some of the rationale, some of the sensibilities.

All people remember are two books published immediately after the end of the Cold War: Francis Fukuyama’s “The End of History,” which was a bestseller only in the West, and Samuel Huntington’s “Clash of Civilizations,” which was a bestseller particularly outside of the West.

But there was another extremely important book by a Berkeley political scientist Ken Jowitt, “The New World Disorder.” He talks about the extinction of Leninism. He said Leninism was a global phenomenon. And what we know from biology, if a certain species that had a global population becomes extinct, this changes the whole world. He said that many people work from the assumption that the end of Communism was going to change only the countries that were under Communism. But at the end of the day, it is changing everyone.

The Cold War officially ended under the idea that we all won. And, for a long period of time, President Boris Yeltsin tried to keep Russia as a part of the winning coalition. And it made a very good argument, because there were no foreign armies marching in Moscow. But people did not recognize this as a victory because of economic losses, because of the loss of territory and so on.

What was new in President Vladimir Putin’s policies is that he started from the position that Russia had lost. And the new Russian political identity is built on the idea of the loser. What makes it difficult for the West is that we do not want to recognize Russia as a loser of the Cold War, because then the meaning of 1991 is going to be very different – is it a victory over Communism or a victory over Russia? This type of re-thinking is going to take place, but it is very much about what is the meaning of a victory, in which everybody was declared the victor, but the parade was taking place only in some capitals and not in the others.

Russia was a rejection of the Soviet legacy, and it makes a strong argument, because most people repressed by the Soviet Union were Russians. Putin’s idea was that he would take the whole history of Russia. And this creates a story that, in order to show to the West that Russia is not a defeated country, Russia should try to build a monument to everything that the West disrespects. Russia re-appropriated the Soviet legacy, especially the Stalinist legacy, as a way to keep its identity against the West. And this carries big risks – I am talking from the Russian perspective here. Because there were millions of Russians destroyed - the Church, the aristocracy, the identity. You cannot simply try to close your eyes and talk about Stalin as the good manager.

RD: Do these complicated identity issues and divergent crises in the three former continental empires make the situation more or less conducive for the Russia-EU dialogue?

I.K.: It very much depends on the decisions of the political leaders. I think that recognizing your own vulnerabilities, but also the vulnerabilities of others, can help countries in difficult positions to talk to each other. We have reached such levels of instability that I don’t think that destabilizing others would benefit you.

People assume easily that Trump’s America is going to be a better partner for Russia. I am not sure. A highly unpredictable United States may be much more problematic for Russia. The same is true of the European Union. Yes, Russia has many things that it doesn’t like about the EU. But the EU is a big entity, so when it comes to the economy - just imagine that Russia needs to be dealing with 28 different countries.

The politics of resentment that we currently have was probably unavoidable. The question is whether we can have post-resentment policies and what they are going to look like. If we start from the assumption that all these projects – EU, Russia and Turkey – are in crisis, then we can talk to each other as crisis to crisis… In order to solve our crisis, we should not develop the crisis of others; instead this could be a modus vivendi.