Manel Alías, Journalist: "Putin Is Setting Himself Up As a Model For Countries With Authoritarian Leaders Within The EU"

After seven years covering the political news in Moscow, Manel Alías (Berga, 1977), the first correspondent for TV3 and Catalunya Ràdio in the Russian capital, has returned to Barcelona. He does it with a book under his arm: Rússia, l’escenari més gran del món (Ara Llibres, 2021), in which he tells peculiar stories that were left out of the news reports, but that help to understand the country in all its complexity. Among them is that of a DJ who made us forget with his music the certain death that besieged the Chernobyl liquidators and that of a domestic worker who has become a mayor by surprise in a small town.

The journalist talks to elDiario.es about the difficulties of reporting on an opaque regime in such a vast territory, the growing tensions between Russia and NATO, and the future of Vladimir Putin.

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His return to Barcelona has been bumpy, just before returning he tested positive for COVID and had to delay it. How has the pandemic been experienced there?

Now the situation in Russia is the worst since the pandemic began. For many reasons; there are very few people vaccinated and the rest do not want to be vaccinated. Also, it is not like other places where there was no dose. There is. This says a lot about how Russians believe themselves to be in power, because the instructions are clear: “Get vaccinated, get vaccinated.” And on the other hand, the people do not believe the Russian vaccine or believe its leaders, even if they win the elections by an absolute majority according to their system. In addition, they do not follow the most basic recommendations, such as wearing a mask in the subway, although 1,200 people are now dying a day from COVID-19 in Russia.

It did not cover the Belarusian migrant crisis, which in other circumstances would have touched him.

Yes. I did not cover it because it was on leave and when it exploded, in fact, it should have already returned to Barcelona. When I started being a correspondent in Russia and in the region, one of the first coverage I did was Belarus. The presidential elections in which Lukashenko won, which were by no means free elections. There was a lot of repression after the protests, and since then I have been banned from entering the country. There was an alternative candidacy that gained a lot of force and to mask the results they had to be much more brutal than they usually are. In these areas, Lukashenko wins the elections without letting anyone who poses a real threat or has a very alternative discourse to come forward. This time, as they were women, he thought they would make a fool of themselves and, instead, the people gave them a lot of support. And regarding the border crisis, I think it shows very clearly what kind of dictatorial regime we are talking about. They even use human lives as marketing to create problems in the European Union.

There are also those who say that Russia took advantage of the fact that everything was centered in Belarus to re-increase troop deployment on the border with Ukraine. Conflict looming?

One of the things that my time there has taught me is that you have to be very cautious with the forecasts that are made about Russia, because we are talking about a place where decisions are made very quickly because they depend on a single person. I believe that with Ukraine we will continue with the situation that we have now for a long time, which is a latent conflict that will never become a major conflict. I don’t think we will see a great war, even if they mobilize troops. It is more of a game of having people busy discussing Ukraine without moving towards peace, or open war, or territorial integration as they did with Crimea. The Kremlin already likes this situation and is in no rush to improve it. On the other hand, Ukraine is in a hurry to find a solution, and it does not have the strength to move it, nor is it part of NATO and therefore they cannot help it militarily.

And Putin we still have a while.

As it is now, in Russia we have Putin for as long as he wants. At the moment, there are no viable political alternatives: that people can vote for another party and win, because they are no longer allowed to present if they are real parties, opposition parties and such. And by way of protests and mobilization, right now it is also impossible for there to be a large protest that could destabilize President Putin. In Belarus there have been massive protests by many, many people and even the brutality of the regime has been stronger than this mass of people. In Russia there are not so many people willing to protest, because they know that the answer is either prison or exile. And furthermore, the regime is even more powerful than Lukashenko’s.

And you also say that the other parties that are running are even more conservative than Putin’s.

The political representation that is now officially in the Duma, in the Parliament, is very controlled by the power: they are puppets of the party and of Putin himself. They pretend that a party is liberal, they pretend that a party is communist … They try to draw a varied spectrum, but in reality they obey all the dictates of the Kremlin, therefore there is no difference. Some are even much more conservative than the power that exists right now, so people are left with four options. They can vote for Putin for the good of all because he is the least bad, even if they don’t like him. The other is that they were really convinced of Putin and voted for him; But Putin would never win by those margins that he wins of 75 or 80; I would vote for him 20 or 30 percent. The other options are not to vote or to vote for one of the others to try to harm him, so that he loses a deputy, but there is no more.

As a journalist, how do you deal with covering the country considering the opacity of the Kremlin?

As for accessing official sources, it is very complicated, almost impossible. And even if I managed to access them and have them respond to me, the answer would be a propaganda response. It is necessary to look for other ways to calibrate reality and to contrast the information. It is my job as a journalist: to observe reality well; for this I have had both my eyes and ears, as well as those of my Russian friends and those of my family in Russia. And it is also true that, despite the fact that all the large mass media are controlled by the Kremlin, there are small independent media that do a very good job and that are very useful for foreign correspondents.

On the one hand there is this opacity of the Government and on the other, as it says in the title of the book, how wide the territory is. First, what happens in Moscow is covered. And then?

This adds a lot of difficulty to you as a journalist, but it also makes it a lot more interesting for you. I have tried to move a lot and many times because of stories that have not appeared on TV or radio, but I have made 24-hour trips without leaving the country. I have made eight-hour flights, like from Barcelona to New York, within Russia and then I have continued driving without leaving a region for 20 hours in a row. Despite its immensity, Russia is spectacular and in the title of the book I play with the word scenario because it is the largest country in the world, but also because quite extraordinary stories pass that seem almost fictional.

This summer, when Kabul fell to the Taliban, Russia, China and Pakistan were talked about as the three countries that could benefit the most. Do you think so about Russia?

What happened in Afghanistan, Russia has experienced it almost as a victory. Afghanistan was also a dark place for them. With the invasion they made in 79 and with the war from which they ended up withdrawing ten years later without having achieved their objectives. There is a great trauma; there are many war veterans with injuries and without legs. There is even talk of Russian Vietnam. On the one hand, the propaganda against the United States has done well for them and, on the other, it is true that one of the objectives of the Putin era is to once again be important in the world by playing in as many scenarios the better and that the resolution of conflicts also go through what Moscow says. The United States leaves, Russia enters and is once again an important actor, as it has done in Syria for example. Russia is looking less and less towards the West and more towards within and towards China; what happened in Afghanistan has been perfect for him to position himself there. And on the other hand, the possible volume of trade that opens once the country is restructured is also important. Contracts for gas, oil, whatever – Russia will be ready to seal them. In addition, without the willingness of Western countries to intervene and try to impose democratic values.

The last fight was for the international space stationBut there have been many, such as the closure of Russia’s mission in NATO. Is the tension with the United States at its highest levels since the Cold War?

I believe that everything changes with the war with Ukraine in 2014, whose tension has been rising and rising. It is true that communication channels with the West are practically closed. Putin is increasingly convinced that Russia must make its way past what the West says. Even facing him, if he does well. He is setting himself up as a model for a certain type of country with authoritarian leaders, also within the European Union, such as Poland and Austria. There are movements that are beginning to be reflected with what Putin has done, including Turkey, even though it is outside the European Union. It is true that there are many parallels today with the Cold War, not only at the level of defense ministries, but also of cultural policies. Russia is currently banned from the Olympics, for example. I do not see the solution in the short term and it is a pity. It is a pity that the West and Russia have never found ways to understand each other better because the world would have fared so much better. And the Russians too. It is a pity.

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