The latest villain in the 24/7 Hollywood melodrama known as cable news is Vladimir Putin. People across the United States are being told they should be terrified of him — and that, subsequently, they should support economic attacks and military encirclement of the country he leads, the Russian Federation.
The news cycle now reports that in the name of combating Russia, the US has deployed troops and military hardware to its allies in Eastern Europe. The 65,000 US troops stationed in Europe are now to be joined by 250 tanks and 900 military vehicles. These tools of destruction are to be distributed and rotated throughout Bulgaria, Lithuania, Latvia, Poland, and Romania.
These are all countries that were once part of the “Eastern Bloc” of Socialist countries. In modern times, however, these nations are in the US and European Union sphere of influence, and embrace the Wall Street-serving, laissez-faire economic policies commonly called “neoliberalism.”
During his administration, George W. Bush praised the US-aligned regimes of Eastern Europe, calling them the “New Europe” because they supported his invasion of Iraq. Proponents of neoliberalism have used similar rhetoric, criticizing western European countries for their welfare states, and praising the “New Europe” for its full of embrace of the “market-oriented” economic policies championed by Milton Friedman.
Poverty in the “New Europe”
According to the logic of the US media, these US-aligned countries are “free” and “prosperous” because they have joined with western capitalism. Troops are being sent in because their freedom and prosperity must be protected from the “Russian Empire.” In US media discourse, the idea that western-oriented economic policies are beneficial is never questioned. Likewise, the possibility that getting closer to Russia may be a good option for Eastern European countries is also never discussed.
The assumptions underlying western media discourse about Russia need to be challenged. Let’s look at the countries where US military hardware is being deployed: Romania, Latvia, Bulgaria, Poland, and Lithuania. Exactly how prosperous are these countries that have embraced neoliberalism? How much have they really benefited from western economic domination?
During the period of socialism in Eastern Europe, each of these countries had 100% full employment. Every citizen was assigned a job by the state, and as a result, had a guaranteed income. In the current period, these countries have chronically high unemployment rates – from above 10% to sometimes higher than 20%.
The CIA World Factbook notes that since entering the world of neoliberal capitalism, Bulgaria and Romania have developed very high rates of infant mortality, with more than 10 out every 1,000 babies dying within one year of their birth. Bulgaria, as part of the pro-US and Pro-European camp, has the highest infant mortality rate on the European continent, with more than 15 out of every 1,000 babies never reaching their first birthday.
According to more recent data, Lithuania and Latvia, who are about to be “protected” by US and NATO weapons, have now officially tied for the lowest life expectancy in the European Union. Bulgaria is right above them.
All five of the countries receiving US military hardware — in order to provide them “security” as part of the US sphere of influence — are listed by the US State Department as sources and destinations for sexual and human trafficking, i.e. modern-day slavery. While Poland at least upholds minimal enforcement standards, the pro-western regimes of Bulgaria, Lithuania, Latvia, and Romania do not even comply with the minimal requirements established by the US Trafficking Victims Protection Act.
Drug addiction is also a very large problem in these US-aligned states. Bulgaria and Romania are both described as a “major European transshipment point for Southwest Asian heroin” by the CIA World Factbook. Poland is described as “a major illicit producer of synthetic drugs for the international market” in addition to being a “minor transshipment point for Southwest Asian heroin.”
From 1991 to 2015
The collapse of the Soviet Union and its allies in Eastern Europe was an economic disaster. Nearly overnight, poverty skyrocketed and societies descended into economic and political chaos. Organized crime rapidly increased its power, while governments became almost powerless.
Since 1991, many Eastern European countries have seen a rapid decrease in their populations. The overthrow of socialism resulted in a rise of previously unknown things like unemployment, drug addiction, and sex trafficking. The triumph of neoliberalism drove millions to flee from a horrific crisis facing their homes in the “New Europe.”
Since 1991, as the International Monetary Fund and the World Trade Organization designed and imposed various Chicago School-style economic programs, things just kept getting worse. The defenders of neoliberalism assured everyone that the horrific events were just part of a “painful transition” soon to be followed by booming capitalist prosperity. Up until now, the disaster has only continued. The prosperity of Ayn Rand’s “Unknown Ideal” is nowhere to be found.
The countries already wrecked by western capitalism faced even harsher impoverishment following the financial collapse of 2008-2009. Romania was forced to cut the wages of its government employees by 25%. This stringent demand was required by an International Monetary Fund loan that saved their economy from complete collapse.
In order to satisfy the global financial elite, Lithuania cut the wages of its public sector workers by 30% in 2010, and drastically increased its rate of taxation. In 2010, Bulgaria was forced to cuts its public spending by 20%.
In the streets and behind closed doors, people across Eastern Europe are waking up. Massive anti-austerity protests have taken place. Furthermore, the private views of Polish Foreign Minister Wladyslaw Sikorski were revealed to the public in 2014. A leaked phone conversation contained him blurting out, “The Polish-US alliance isn’t worth anything.” The conversation also contained him saying “We are suckers, total suckers. The problem in Poland is that we have shallow pride and low self-esteem.” In his rage about the results of US economic and political control of his country, Sikorski crudely compared Poland’s situation to sexual acts.
The undisputed reality is that in the “New Europe,” the wonders promised by the international bankers and right-wing intellectuals have never materialized. Eastern Europe remains poor, with western bankers getting richer as they dictate government policies.
Russia as an Alternative
Like the rest of the formerly socialist countries, the Russian Federation suffered horrifically after the fall of the Soviet Union. The 1990s will be remembered as one of the most difficult periods in the country’s history.
However, in the last decade, Russia has begun to re-emerge as an economic power. The government led by Vladimir Putin, unlike the US-aligned regimes in the region, has not been an obedient servant of western finance. The state sector of the Russian economy has been revived, and the government often plays a populist role, championing the nation and its people against the rich and powerful. A key part of the re-emerging Russian economy is the government monopoly on oil and natural gas. The Russian state will not sell off its natural resources to western corporations. As oil prices drop and western bankers get more and more desperate, this key sector of the global energy market remains under public control.
Putin’s Russia has begun to serve as a kind of alternative to the global order centered around Wall Street. Countries like Cuba, Iran, and Venezuela, which have faced economic sanctions and blockades from the United States, have gotten closer to the re-emerging Russian state. A natural gas pipeline connecting Russia and China is now being constructed.
The reason that the US media has escalated its denunciations of Russia, and that the US has bankrolled a violent Anti-Russian coup in Ukraine, is because Russia poses a threat to the decaying order of western monopoly capitalism.
Though Russia’s current leaders are nothing like the communists of previous generations, and are definitely not pursuing a confrontation with the United States, they still represent an alternative. The declining centers of western finance with their austerity economies and emerging military/police states are not the only contenders on the global market.
By threatening Russia militarily and escalating economic sanctions, the United States and its “NATO allies” are hoping to preserve the power of an outmoded financial elite. In the escalating crisis, an economic system that is no longer competitive is now seeking to preserve itself with threats, economic attacks, and possibly direct brute force. US tanks and weapons are pouring into Eastern Europe essentially to protect an increasingly unpopular economic setup, which has made the region very poor.
Caleb Maupin is a political analyst and activist based in New York. He studied political science at Baldwin-Wallace College and was inspired and involved in the Occupy Wall Street movement, especially for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.