Tag Archives: Italy

Putin takes Italy

I’m frankly a little surprised that nobody has yet accused Vladimir Putin of being behind the rise to power of the newly elected head of the Progressive Conservative Party of Ontario, Doug Ford.  Ford is perhaps the closest thing Canada can produce to Donald Trump – i.e. somebody generally dismissed by the media as a populist, blowhard, know-nothing. The fact that such people somehow manage to win elections baffles much of our commentariat (and with Ontario’s governing Liberal Party well behind in the polls, it seems likely that Ford will soon be our new Premier). After the shambolic, drug-filled performance of Doug’s brother Rob as Mayor of Toronto, it defies the normal liberal observer’s sense of reason that anybody would vote for yet another member of the Ford dynasty, let alone that he could become leader of Canada’s largest province. In the same way, it defied reason that Britons could vote for Brexit, Americans for Trump, Germans for the AfD, and the like. It follows that there must be some external force which is to blame.

In the current climate, that means Russia. And so it is that the successful performance of the Five Stars Movement in this week’s Italian general election is being put down to the malign influence of Russia, and being debated more in terms of what it means for the allegedly relentless rise of Russian power than in terms of Italian domestic politics.

Hot off the mark was former American ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power, who tweeted on Monday that, ‘In the past 2 years, Putin has won elections in the United States, Austria, Czechia & now Italy. He’s also delivered Brexit & performed well in France & Germany.’ And today, the Sunday edition of the New York Times contains an op-ed by regular columnist Frank Bruni entitled ‘Italy has dumped America. For Russia’.  Five Stars’ performance,  writes Bruni,

was characterized as the triumph of populism. But it was a triumph for Putin, too: proof that many Italians have jilted and replaced us — with Russia.

When they cast their votes, Italians were, of course, not thinking of their country’s own internal problems, issues relating to large-scale immigration from North Africa, or anything like that; they were thinking of the United States and Russia, and casting a vote for or against Vladimir Putin. Or so it seems in the strange world of Bruni-land. Mr Bruni quotes the editor of the Italian newspaper La Stampa as telling him, ‘Nobody ever took this poll but I believe that if you were asking all Italians today who is the most popular foreign leader in all of Italy, Putin would win.’ I have often complained in this blog of the lack of evidence being produced for claims about Russia, and here we have it in spades – a poll which nobody has ever taken! Obviously true, then.

Bruni, to be fair, is aware that he’s on weak ground. He admits:

To be clear, neither the Five Star Movement’s nor the League’s appeal to Italian voters hinged on its stance toward Russia. “How many Italians are really positive about Russia?” asked Roberto D’Alimonte, a prominent Italian political scientist. “I haven’t seen any data, and I have my doubts.” What’s more, there’s a strictly practical reason for Italian politicians to take a gentle, friendly tone toward Russia: The sanctions have cut off the Russian market from Italian manufacturers and farmers who could profit mightily from it.

So here we have it – Italians don’t care too much about Russia, and Russia didn’t actually have anything to do with how they voted. How then does this translate into ‘Italians have abandoned America for Russia’? Well, this is the New York Times, so you can probably guess the answer – it’s Trump’s fault. The problem is that, ‘Trump has certainly sent the message that he cares a whole lot less than his predecessors did about what longtime European allies like Italy want.’ As a result, Italians dislike him. Bruni continues:

And when they look toward Trump, what do they see? An American president who praises and sometimes seems intent on emulating the autocrats of the world, starting with Putin. Trump isn’t promoting the values — free markets, open borders, humanitarian aid — that bound the United States and Western Europe. He’s playing Putin’s chest-thumping, nativist game, albeit with less practice, less polish and his shirt on.

Faced with this, Italians are looking for an alternative, Bruni claims. And who is that? Putin, obviously.

This makes no sense. In the first place, Bruni has already admitted that Russia wasn’t on Italian voters’ minds. And in the second place, if what Italians don’t like about Trump is that ‘he’s playing Putin’s chest-thumping, nativist game’, why would they consider Putin to be an ‘alternative’ to Trump? Either Trump is the same as Putin, or he’s different – he can’t be both.

I’m sure that there’s some technical term for intellectual constructs of this sort, in which two unrelated items are placed side by side in order to create a false impression in readers’ minds that the two are connected. If so, I don’t know what the term is, but it’s clearly what’s going on here. Add in a short caveat to make it clear like you’re a reasonable person, and then say ‘Italy, Putin’, ‘Italy, Putin’, ‘Italy, Putin’ enough times, and people will think they’re somehow connected.

In reality, they’re not. Americans, Canadians, Brits, Italians, and others, who vote for unexpected people or causes, do so for their own reasons which have nothing to do with Russia. Meanwhile, once the dust settles and Italy gets a new government, it will still be a member of NATO, still be a member of the EU, and still sanctioning Russia. It will no more be a Russian client, and no less an American ally, than it was a week ago. Has Italy ‘dumped America for Russia’? No. Of course not.


Easy is the descent

In the late 1990s, I lived just outside Naples, Italy, in a house overlooking Lake Averno. Despite the occasional whiff of sulphurous fumes, it was quite the most beautiful spot I have ever lived in. The poet Virgil had a different view of the place, describing it as the entrance to the Underworld, a place so poisoned by volcanic gases that no birds flew. ‘Easy is the descent to Avernus,’ Virgil wrote, ‘for the door to the Underworld lies open both day and night. But to retrace your steps and return to the breezes above – that’s the task, that’s the toil.’

Lake Averno (with Capri in the background)

The Naples area was in many ways anarchic. But having just spent 3 months living and working in Moscow, I felt surprisingly at home there. When a plane lands, most Canadians remain dutifully seated until the plane has stopped taxiing and the seatbelt sign goes off. Back in the 1990s that certainly wasn’t true of either Muscovites or Neapolitans. As soon as the plane had appeared to halt, they would leap up and start yanking stuff out of the overhead lockers, while fraught airline attendants rushed around trying to stop them. Once I was sitting next to a Neapolitan woman who was so desperate to get her bag she actually climbed over me. I’ve mentioned before the concept of pravosnoznanie (legal consciousness), the lack of which philosopher Ivan Ilyin believed made Russia ill-suited to liberal democracy. In examples like this, you get a sense of what he was talking about.

In his 1993 book Making Democracy Work: Civic Traditions in Modern Italy, Robert Putnam shed light on this phenomenon by comparing identical government institutions in northern and southern Italy. He determined that the former were more effective than the latter because while in Northern Italy there was a highly developed civil society, in southern Italy, the social focus was the family. As a result, northerners were more engaged in the success of their communities, there was a higher degree of trust between groups and between citizens and their government, rules tended to be followed, and government was less corrupt.

Fast forward to 2016, and we see a somewhat similar thesis about Russia published this week by Anna Arutunyan, entitled ‘Only connect: Russia between individualism and collectivism’. Arutunyan begins with a story of a tourist agent in northern Russia whose effort to take people sailing fails because, despite taking the agent’s money, the sailor/tour guide fails to turn up. ‘I changed my mind’, he says later, ‘What? I am a free man. I want to be alone with the sea’. Arutunyan identifies this as an example of a Russian type of extreme individualism which contrasts with the normal cliché of Russian collectivism.

Russia’s problem, Arutunyan maintains, isn’t that it lacks the formal institutions required for a successful country. Rather it is a ‘problem of lack of social bonds.’ Opinion polls show that Russians don’t trust one another, define themselves as ‘their own person’, and volunteer much less than most other Europeans. In short, they are much like the southern Italians described by Putnam. The corruption which marks both places is thus a product of society, rather than of corrupt leaders. Indeed, the latter are merely the inevitable by-product of the former.

Arutunyan dates this problem back centuries. She conjectures that poor soil conditions in central and northern Russia meant that for most of Russian history peasants could barely make ends meet. Subsistence farming had two effects; a strong collective effort was required to survive; and individuals had a strong incentive to leave the community to seek better conditions elsewhere. The second of these phenomena led communities to adopt oppressive measures to prevent their members from fleeing. ‘Such rigid bonds within the community hindered effective ties with other communities, contributing to a culture of distrust,’ writes Arutunyan. As Russia urbanized and industrialized, the distrust then spread from the villages to the towns, and tainted relations between the educated urban elites and others. Soviet policies then perpetuated what Arutunyan describes as Russia’s peculiar combination of collectivism and ‘extreme individualism’. She writes:

The dichotomy of individualism versus collectivism … does not seem to work because extreme cases of both tendencies are present in equal measure. Recent studies on collectivist values suggest that Russians tend to ascribe to those values more than Americans or Europeans, but realities on the ground demonstrate that they do not act on those values. Collectivist values are strong, but in practice, social capital is weak.

Arutunyan notes that new types of community are developing in Russia, and remarks that, ‘The clues where Russia is headed next … lie not so much with the Kremlin’s unpredictable actions, but on a local level with the relationship patterns inside these nascent communities.’ If this analysis is correct, then the development of civic virtue at the lowest level will do more to transform Russia than changing leaders or reforming political institutions at the top.