Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Window on Eurasia: Russian Nationalism is ‘Antithesis’ of Civil Society, Expert Says

Paul Goble

Vienna, April 18 – Despite its superficial resemblance to other social organizations, Russian nationalism at least at present is “the antithesis of civil society” rather than its embodiment, according to Moscow’s leading specialist on ethnic extremism and xenophobia.
In an article in yesterday’s “Nezavisimaya gazeta,” Emil Pain, a senior scholar at the Moscow Institute of Sociology, dismissed as dangerously wrong-headed those who view contemporary Russian nationalism as a reflection of the difficult birth of civil society in his country (
He acknowledged that Russian nationalists conform to the external characteristics of civil society organizations – unselfishness, public activity, creativity, and mass membership – but he argued that such a “formalist” approach makes it impossible to distinguish between “even fascist groupings and genuine institutions of civil society.”
Indeed, Pain continued, “the majority of groupings of contemporary Russian nationalism, not to speak even about those who are openly Nazis, are hardly a part of civil society or even its shadowy manifestation.” Rather, he argued, they are “the antithesis of civil society.”
That is because, the Moscow expert insisted, “the members of such organizations profess not a civic ideology but one totally loyal to the powers-that-be, and their chief goal is the construction of a state based on ethnic and social segregation, … the strengthening of authoritarianism, and the creation of a regime that will exclude the very possibility of the free self-organization of its citizens.”
But to say this, Pain argued, begs the question of “whether it is possible in the not too distant future to convert the Russian nationalist movement into civil society, … to transform ethnic nationalism into civic nationalism, and to transfer the ‘we-they’ opposition from ethnic to the social-political?”
Such transformations have occurred in many European countries, Pain continued, but there are several reasons why it is less likely now in Russia. First of all, most Russian nationalists are less committed to a particular program that might be modified than to manifesting their personal ethnophobia..
One example of this is the tendency of Russian nationalists to “invent” non-Russian backgrounds for those ethnic Russians they do not approve of – thus, “the legendary ethnic biographies” that Russian nationalists have thought up for Boris Yeltsin or even Vladimir Putin.
Yet another reason that Russian nationalists are unlikely to become part of civil society rather than its “antithesis.” That is the lack of willing allies. In many countries nationalists have formed alliances with liberals and democrats, but in Russia, Pain noted, these groups view each other with extreme distaste.
And a third cause involves the close ties between Russian nationalists and neo-imperialists. “In theory,” Pain wrote, “nationalism and an imperial order are mutually contradictory”: One calls for “a Russia for the Russians;” the other seeks a state where all peoples are subordinate to the ruler.
But as the Russian government has “drifted toward imperial nationalism,” Russian nationalists have formed an alliance with aggressive imperialists. One reflection of that is the enormous popularity of Mikhail Yur’yev’s new book in which he advocates a reconstituted Russia extending from Lisbon to Vladivostok and even to North America!
Such aggressive ideas are not acceptable to most Russians, Pain said, and consequently “the imperial-fascist forces in the conditions of contemporary Russia cannot come to power as a result of democratic procedures.” But that does not bother them because “they are not interested in democracy.”
And while some Russian nationalists have talked about a coup, there is only “a small possibility” that they could come to power that way. “On the other hand,” Pain said, “a ‘quiet’ and step by step renewal of the composition of government authorities with the inclusion of a significant portion of national-imperial forces is entirely possible.”
At the same time, Pain insisted that “the fascisization of Russia is [not] fatally inevitable,” even though “the current tendencies in the political development of the country undoubtedly are leading to a radicalization” of opinion among Russian nationalists.
Indeed, he continued, recent events are “pushing Russian nationalism more toward some form of fascism and the support for the setting up of a totalitarian regime rather than toward a civil society,” the Moscow expert argued in conclusion. But having said that, Pain addressed himself to Russian liberals and democrats.
Such people who are interested in the development of civil society in Russia must not view Russian nationalism only as an enemy, Pain said. Most Russian nationalists are not like these extremists: they are simply using it as “a form of protest in connection with the real problems of our society’s life.”
Because of that, Pain said, liberals and democrats must be reach out to such Russian nationalists by including “the ideas of patriotism and in part the values of cultural traditionalism” in their programs -- if they hope to win more support from the Russian people than they have up to now.

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