Yes, it's been a while and I've gone all 'Slate Pitch' as they say. Anyway, here goes.
I've been following football hooligan twitter for a while now, mainly because of the way that the lads sometimes venture from their comfort zone of beer, fighting and casualwear into politics. It's not that much of a surprise, of course. Football ultras have participated in every uprising since 2011, often contriving to be on the right side.
In this instance, quite a while before Angela Merkel changed her stance from Hammer of the Greeks to Mother of the Refugees, Refugees Welcome banners were cropping up at stadiums all over Germany and elsewhere in Western Europe. Not just the ususal suspects like St Pauli either but all the way down the divisions to small clubs in deepest Lower Saxony. So also across Western Europe; I counted pro-refugee manifestations in France, Holland, Belgium, Spain, Portugal, Cyprus, Greece, Sweden, Denmark, Italy, Ireland, Scotland, and England.
It was an entirely different picture in the EU's Eastern states, where ultra groups from pretty much every country started putting up anti-refugee signage. Not just the usual suspects in places like Hungary, but in every country in the old Eastern bloc, plus the Baltic states and our pro European friends in Ukraine. Just as the Refugees Welcome banners in Germany prefigured Merkel's limited opening to Syrian forced migration, this stark difference in sentiment also shadowed the row that erupted between Western and Eastern EU countries over shared resettlment plans.
Things haven't stopped there. In recent weeks, Eastern European ultras have shifted from apparently ad hoc but general anti-refugee manifestations to hard right Brievikisms about 'stopping the islamisation of Europe'. There have been boycotts of Europa League matches after UEFA announced that 1 Euro of the admission fee would be given to refugee charities . And here we have a bunch of Hungarian hooligans offering themselves as border guards. We're seeing somethiong ugly building at the grassroots underpinning Eastern Europe's general hostility to refugees, and linking it explicitly wqith the so-called 'anti-islamization agenda. Remember when the Slovaks, Hungarians and others came up with a Christian only regugee plan? This is the other shoe dropping.
So what does all this have to do with Putin in Syria?
The connection occurred to me yesterday after the Russian orthodox church declared that Putin's intervention amounted to a Holy War – because while anti-refugee attitudes in the wider context of Christian nationalism and hostility to Muslims is something that divides the Eastern and Western halves of the EU, it's also something that Eastern Europe has in common with Russia.
Take, for instance, this demonstration in Latvia last weekend.
In a country that is deeply divided between the ethnic Latvian ruling majority and an alienated minority of Russian speakers, shared dread at the prospect of resettling a few hundred asylum-seekers is bringing the two communities together.
...Last week, Nils Ušakovs, the charismatic mayor of Riga and leader of Harmony Center, put up a posting on Facebook from a comedy show depicting Germany being taken over by Muslims, complete with announcements of executions and German Chancellor Angela Merkel clad in a burka.
A third of Latvians are of Russian origin; two thirds of Latvians of whatever heritage oppose taking refugees from Syria.
So you can see here why a little bit of Christian jihad might work out well for Putin, at least as a side bet for whatever his major objectives in Syria might be. It tends to work as a wedge issue within the EU. It won't help relations between the US and Eastern Europe either. And while it doesn't change the nature of the actual disputes between Russia and Eastern European countries it resets their context in a way that tends towards a more accomodating attitude towards Russia. I mean, taking Crimea like that was a bad thing, but how much should we isolate and sanction a country that is boldly standing between Christian Europa and the Muslim hordes – a proposition that dovetails in an ugly way with Putin's stated offer that all nations should put aside their differences to make common cause against Islamic State.
Moreover these political tendencies are hardly absent in Western Europe – for one thing, they're pretty much a racing certainty to come second in the next French presidential election. And of course, the whole anti-Islamisation agenda is a live issue in the US, and one that is likely to get more prominenece if any Republican manages to get him or herselfelected in 2016. There's been talk in the past of Russia being a pole of attraction round which a 'reactionary international' might accumulate. Putin's Syrian intervention could provide the momentum for it to actually happen. Or as the lads from Levski Sofia put it the other day: Europe Awake.