Neil Buckley of the Financial Times, the newspaper’s former Moscow bureau chief and a friend of mine, has written a timely blog post about the resurrection of a forgotten Cold War term.
Whataboutism, once familiar to diplomats, politicians and Kremlinologists, dates back to the 1960s. It was used to ironically describe the Soviet Union's efforts at countering Western criticism. To those who lambasted their human rights record the Soviets would reply with something along the lines of “What about America, where they lynch blacks?!” or “What about your unemployment rate? Ordinary people in the U.S. (or the UK or Germany) are denied the basic right to work and pay!”
In the twilight years of the USSR, the Soviets clumsily if honestly called this exercise in public affairs “counter-propaganda.” These days, whataboutism is enjoying a comeback in Russia's official discourse.
Usually it is “deployed” against Western countries that criticize the Russian government for clamping down on NGOs or media freedom or opposition activists.
For example, when the U.S. and the EU expressed their concern about excessive use of force by Moscow police when dispersing an opposition rally in May, Russian officials retorted with references to the American police forcibly evicting protesters from the “Occupy Oakland!” camp in California.
In June the ruling United Russia party rammed draconian amendments to the legislation on public gatherings through the State Duma. When NGOs like Freedom House and Human Rights Watch called it an assault on the constitutional right to peaceful assembly, the Kremlin's spokesman and selected United Russia MPs were all over TV and radio countering this criticism with a well-rehearsed key message: “What about the United Kingdom? Breaking the law during public gatherings there could lead to fine of 5,800 pounds sterling or even prison.”
For its latest exercise in whataboutism, Russia's Foreign Ministry chose one of the most conservative and undemocratic regimes in the Middle East. A statement from the ministry’s plenipotentiary for human rights, Ambassador Konstantin Dolgov, expressed concern over the persecution of the Shia community in Saudi Arabia and the arrest of one of its spiritual leaders. Dolgov chided the Saudis for putting Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr behind bars and lamented the negative impact it will have on Saudi Arabia's “civic society.” Official Riyadh, which (with some limited justification) views Shia activism as an extension of Iran's policy of destabilizing the Arab Gulf states, expressed dismay at Moscow's “interference in the kingdom's internal affairs.” In an unusually sharp retort, it suggested that Russia should rather be paying attention to the massacre of civilians in Syria – a clear reference to the Kremlin's continuing support for Bashar Al-Assad's regime.
It is quite clear why Moscow chose Riyadh as target. In its continuing spat with the West over Syria, it continues to claim that Saudi Arabia and Qatar are arming the Free Syrian Army, thus contributing to “destabilization.” But as far as the Kremlin is concerned, a jab at the Saudis, Washington's key allies in the Middle East, is in fact aimed at Western, and especially American, double standards. It is also helpful in maintaining relations with Iran, which has Shia community “cards” to play in its geopolitical games.
This, actually, is the essence of whataboutism. Few would deny that Saudi Arabia has a lot to account for in terms of human rights. However, in reality, official Russia probably couldn't care less about the persecution of Shia there. Russia's critical pronouncements have little to do with genuine concern over civil liberties or the rule of law. Just as in the Soviet days, they do not serve as expressions of genuine values that the Russian leaders hold dear, but rather as attempts at defeating the “enemy” on its own “territory,” the enemy being the West, and the “territory” - humanitarian principles.
Whataboutism plays quite well with certain segments of the Russian people. Relatively few Russians have visited the West, and a disproportionate number of those who have are residents of Moscow and Saint Petersburg. Russians in the provinces have only a hazy idea of what life is like in the West and abroad generally. They easily succumb to the government's argument that all talk of “values” is only cover for naked interests and political skullduggery.
Moreover, whataboutism is mildly successful with parts of the Western audience, including the corporate one. Take the Kremlin's argument regarding fines and prison terms for those who break the law during public gatherings. It is true that some Western countries have similar laws. The difference between them and Russia is that in the EU or the U.S. the police and the courts are independent of the executive authority. They apprehend and try those who they think are guilty rather than those who are designated as culprits by the government. However, this reasoning frequently gets lost on those in Europe and America who have only a superficial knowledge of Russian realities or are prepared to look the other way – as foreign investors frequently are.
The legacy of the Cold War, Neil Buckley from the FT rightly notes, lives on. Whataboutism will take quite some time to disappear.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s and may not necessarily represent those of RIA Novosti.
What is Russia's place in this world? Unashamed and unreconstructed Atlanticist, Konstantin von Eggert believes his country to be part and parcel of the "global West." And while this is a minority view in Russia, the author is prepared to fight from his corner.
Konstantin Eggert is a commentator and host for radio Kommersant FM, Russia's first 24-hour news station. In the 1990s he was Diplomatic Correspondent for “Izvestia” and later the BBC Russian Service Moscow Bureau Editor. Konstantin has also spent some time working as ExxonMobil Vice-President in Russia. He was made Honorary Member of the Order of the British Empire by Queen Elizabeth II.