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“The regime which exists in Russia is a danger to itself, and it’s a danger to its neighbors.”—An interview with David Satter

David Satter is a veteran American journalist, author and Russia expert who is one of the world’s leading commentators on Russia and the former Soviet Union. In December of 2013, Satter made headlines when he became the first American correspondent since the Cold War to be expelled from Russia.

Satter has written extensively on topics related to Russia and the Soviet Union, and has published four books on the country, the latest of which is titled The Less You Know, The Better You Sleep: Russia’s Road to Terror and Dictatorship under Yeltsin and Putin, released last year. His expulsion from Russia was closely related to his extensive writing and investigation into the 1999 Russian apartment bombings, which, according to Satter’s research, were actually carried out by the Russian security service, the FSB.

Satter was in Budapest last week to take part in a conference hosted by the Danube Institute, a think tank based in the city. While here, he agreed to sit down with Hungary Today, and discuss his experiences and views gained from over 40 years in journalism.

This interview was edited for concision and clarity.

Is this your first time in Budapest?

No, I came to Budapest for the first time in, I believe, 1969…I was a graduate student at Oxford and I was traveling back to London from the Soviet Union actually, and I believe I came to Budapest from Kiev…I have fond memories of my first visit to Budapest; it was then communist Hungary, but I’ve been back repeatedly since.

It looked a bit different then I’d imagine?

It looked different, but of course there are things that are familiar as well that I recall from that visit. I’ve visited Hungary periodically, and I was friends with some Hungarian journalists when I was a correspondent in Moscow from 76 to 82…I realize this must seem like ancient history to you, but I have to tell you the true facts (laughs).

What do you make of Hungarian PM Viktor Orban’s overtures toward Putin and Russia?

What do we mean by ‘strengthen relationships’? If we mean that he has publicly defended Putin, and expressed sympathy for the positions that Putin has taken, then of course my reaction to that is very negative, because the regime which exists in Russia is a danger to itself, and it’s a danger to its neighbors, and it’s potentially a problem for the rest of the world as well. And any western leader who fails to see that is being very shortsighted. So, I can’t react with a great deal of sympathy to some of the statements that Mr. Orbán has made. The economic ties between Russia and Hungary should be purely economic—in most economic relationships, you pay for the product that you receive with either money or a compensating product. You pay for it economically, but not politically. An economic relationship doesn’t impose on you any political obligation, and certainly not an obligation to assess facts in a manner that’s different from the way in which they really are.

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What do you think of the current deterioration of relations between Alexander Lukashenko’s Belarus and Putin? How do you see that playing out?

It’s somewhat unpredictable. In the case of Ukraine, you had a situation in which the [Russian] regime was directly threatened. The example of a self-organizing popular revolt against a kleptocratic ruler, which is what you had in Ukraine, was a model for a similar revolt in Russia; and for that reason, it was important to distract attention of the Russian people from the true lesson of Maidan, which is that it is possible to organize against this kind of regime. Now in the case of Lukashenko, you don’t have that kind of situation, you don’t have a popular revolt in Belarus that could serve as a model for something similar in Russia; however there is the constant temptation to extend Russian control over Belarus, because that would certainly be very popular with the Russian population right now. So, it’s hard to predict how this is going to go. I suspect that, in the short run anyway, it will confine itself to mutual pressure, which is what it seems to be at the moment, rather than any kind of overt military action against Belarus. But that temptation is there, and a crisis of some kind can’t be ruled out for the future.

How do you view the situation of ethnic minorities (e.g. Hungarians, Poles, Romanians, and Ruthenians in Ukraine) caught between Russia and their country’s majority ethnicity? How do you resolve the paradox situation wherein these minorities seem to be harmed by their country’s inching toward NATO, due to increased nationalism on the part of Ukrainians, while they gain language rights due to Russian influence? 

A lot of the attention has focused on the situation of Russian speakers and ethnic Russians rather than on the minority communities in Western Ukraine, which are smaller of course. There’s no question that the Maidan revolt, and the Russian aggression, have fueled a rise in Ukrainian nationalism which could have consequences for the minority communities as well. But I’m unaware of examples of persecution as far as those communities are concerned. Obviously, it would not be a good thing if that was taking place, but I don’t know about that.

How do you view the future of ethnic minorities in Europe (e.g. Hungarian Szeklers in Transylvania, Hungarians in Western Ukraine, Basques etc.)? What do you make of pushes for political autonomy on the part of these movements?

Well my attention has been pretty much focused on the Ukrainian situation, with the conflict with the Russian speakers, the ‘so-called’ conflict. The language question should not be a very serious question, but it can be used by those on the outside to artificially increase tensions. We had a classic example of this when the Russians organized, in effect, the invasion of Eastern Ukraine, not to mention the seizure of Crimea, because it was based supposedly on the defense of Russian speakers. Well, Russian speakers were not being persecuted. Russian is spoken freely in Kyiv, which is the capital of Ukraine; I go there and I speak Russian all the time. So, it’s the same with language rights everywhere: it shouldn’t be a problem, and if it becomes a problem it can be used as a wedge to drive people apart. And so, it’s really important for the governments involved to use common sense in dealing with this question, because it’s really not difficult to give people the ability to study and work in their own language, especially if they’re loyal citizens of the country.

How have Europe and Russia changed in the years since you were expelled from Russia in 2013? In an earlier talk, last summer, you said that you were kicked out because the Russian government was feeling less secure following Maidan. Would you have been kicked out if you entered this past September?

I don’t think I would’ve gotten in this past September. The thing is, I think the era in which Russia was making strenuous efforts to give the impression that it is a democracy has passed, and I think that’s a result of Euromaidan. I think that they became afraid that all this liberalism that they were tolerating would lead to a serious challenge to the regime, along the lines of what happened in Ukraine, and they weren’t prepared to risk that.

I think that the reason why I was expelled was that the events in Ukraine convinced Russia that there is a real possibility that the population could organize against kleptocratic rule, and they felt that tolerating people like me was a luxury they could no longer afford.

What do you make of reports of Russian intelligence’s sponsorship of European far-right outlets and parties?

There have been a lot of reports to that effect. They count on those parties being sympathetic to Russia, perhaps unwisely, perhaps inaccurately. They also understand that some of those parties, certainly, are sowing disunity and destabilizing their own societies, and that’s what Russia’s interested in. They don’t want a united West, they don’t want to confront a world which propagates values that are really incompatible with the kind of dictatorship that they have there.

What do you make of the current populist (generally, but not-exclusively right-wing) wave in Europe, Le Pen, Geert Wilders, Jobbik in Hungary, UKIP, the five-star movement, and other similar parties?

It’s a reaction to the absence of overarching issues. Beginning in the late 19th century, up until the late 20th century, the Western world had to deal with the phenomenon of totalitarianism, whether it was Nazism or socialism. With all the terrible things that resulted, it also forced people to think about broader issues; and once that challenge disappeared, local questions, questions of national identity, economic relations, and so on, came to the fore. They’re obviously not as important intellectually, but they generate a lot more animosity, and I think that, against that background, the irritations and limitations imposed by globalization, by multinational and supranational structures, have generated discontent. Some of it is justified, some of it is exaggerated. Sometimes it’s a question of people not really being ready to see the positive advantages that come from this kind of multiculturalism or globalism, but it’s also a reaction to the fact that we don’t have the broader ideological issues anymore to absorb our attention. When it was a question of Socialism vs. Nazism, or Communism vs. the Western world, these discontents might have existed below the surface, or they may have even been expressed, but they couldn’t have achieved the kind of importance that they have.

So it’s a lack of a broader foe?

Yeah. So people concentrate on their day-to-day concerns, on their economic concerns, on their bureaucratic frustrations. And, ironically, they become more aggressive sometimes in connection with these issues than they were when they were thinking about more global questions, that are more profound, really.

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How do you view the future of the EU?

It’s hard to say. Let’s see what happens with Brexit, how well Britain does. I think that the example of Britain will definitely inspire people to reevaluate their ties to the European Community, whether they really want a supranational bureaucracy imposed on their own bureaucracies, which they probably don’t love that much anyway. On the other hand the EU has been a generator of progress and of prosperity, so time will tell how that plays out.

How do you view the current refugee/migration crisis?

It’s quite serious really. The Middle East is in turmoil, and we really can’t be sure who’s coming here; there are millions of people who need refuge, and the ability of our societies to absorb those numbers is limited. We can’t ignore their plight, but on the other hand we ourselves are threatened by the fact that insinuated in this refugee flow can be people who are ready to do things like drive a truck into a Christmas Market, as happened in Berlin for example.

I think that it shows the importance of somehow doing something to solve the turmoil in the Middle East so that people can go home, or so that they don’t have to leave their countries for fear of their lives.

What, In your view, is the ideal role of the press/media in society?

The role of the media is to establish the truth, to report the truth, and to be objective.

Is that position under threat?

It’s under threat not only because of technology, but also because, for some of the reasons we’ve talked about, people are losing a sense of perspective, and losing a sense of history. They’ve become so venomous on the subjects that touch on their economic interests, which are often, in the true sense, parochial interests, that they fail to see the broader picture, that what society really depends on is objectivity and honesty.

We see this in the United States and we see it elsewhere. Especially in the US, with the rise of Donald Trump. Both his lack of respect for objective information and the lack of ethics on the part of those attacking him, it’s working in both directions to undermine honest reporting and journalistic standards.

What do you make of Trump’s attempts to cozy up to Russia, as well as the continuous stream of reports and rumors surrounding his campaign’s connections to Russia?

I think that it does need to be investigated. I personally don’t think the accusations against him are true, but I think it needs to be investigated just to clear the air.

A lot of people in the US who have absolutely no background are now considering themselves Russia experts, writing about the goings-on of Russian intelligence, which of course they don’t understand. It’s obviously something that can cast a cloud over his presidency, so it’s important for all sides to understand what the true state of affairs is.

How do you view the future of US/Russian relations?

The future of US-Russian relations depends on the behavior of the Russians. The US is always willing to have good relations with Russia, but this regime needs enemies, it doesn’t need friends. It needs to distract the attention of the population from the misrule of those who are in charge, so I expect those relations to be rather tense and unsatisfactory for as long as this regime is in power in Russia.

You were recently disinvited from speaking at a major French university, SciencesPo. Can you speak about that?

That is really an example of the extent to which Russia is able to subvert academic ideals, even without making any overt threats. I don’t think the officials at SciencesPo were even threatened directly, I think that they were just afraid, and that kind of fear is what the Putin regime would like to generate, not just in France but throughout Europe, and even in the US if it can. it’s harder to do in the case of the US, but of course they can try. Obviously, it’s a disgraceful episode.

Reporting by Tom Szigeti

Images by Tamás Székely