Vienna, January 3 – President Vladimir Putin is rapidly losing control over the rising tide of Russian xenophobia and ethno-nationalism that almost a decade ago helped him become president and that in the years since he has helped to legitimize, according to one of Moscow’s leading experts on these phenomena.
In a new book, a chapter of which is available online, Aleksandr Verkhovskiy argues that Putin and his regime no longer can hope to reverse this trend by their own actions and consequently are simply trying to redirect Russian anger away from domestic targets toward foreign ones (http://www.polit.ru/research/12/28/verhovsky.html).
But while the Russian leader can certainly help whip up Russian anger toward the West with his use of what some have called “civilizational nationalism,” the SOVA Analytic center expert says, there seems little chance that this will reduce the threat xenophobic ethno-nationalism represents for the future of the Russian Federation.
On the one hand, the SOVA Analytic Center specialist says, xenophobic attitudes increasingly infects Russian ethno-nationalism because Putin and other senior leaders have appeared to sanction growing hostility among many ethnic Russians toward many minorities, especially in the wake of the Kondopoga riots of a year ago.
And on the other, Russian ethno-nationalism itself now affects groups and parties across virtually the entire political spectrum, again including United Russia and others close to Putin, rather than being confined as they were for most of the 1990 to marginal individuals and groups with little or no chance of coming to power.
Consequently, and to a certain extent in ways that parallel his exploitation of xenophobic attitudes against Chechens, Putin is again serving as the midwife of a phenomenon which may mean future Russian leaders will have to defer to this trend even more than he has.
In the course of his 12,000-word article, Verkhovskiy covers the ideological evolution of Russian ethno-nationalism over the last 16 years. While he notes that his treatment of this topic is in many ways superficial, he touches on more topics than can be mentioned here.
Nonetheless, given the importance of this issue, Verkhovskiy’s specific arguments deserve careful consideration, whether they have been made before and are largely common ground or they are something new and certain -- because they concern Putin and his policies -- to be controversial.
In the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union, he writes, the ethno-nationalisms of minority groups within the Russian Federation played a far greater role in Russian political life than did the nationalism of ethnic Russian majority. But by 1995, the relative importance of the two had changed.
By that time, ethno-nationalism among minority groups had run its course, and members of most of these groups, with the obvious exception of the Chechens and a few others, shifted from efforts at national self-determination toward a concern with the defense of their rights as ethnic minorities.
And precisely because the Yeltsin regime was so hostile to Russian nationalism, many Russians came to feel that they were the truly “insulted and injured,” a sense that helped power ethno-nationalism at the mass level and the articulation of various ethno-national agendas by a series of typically small marginal groups.
Verkhovskiy surveys the programs of six of these groups – the Red Patriots, the Black Hundreds revivalists, the neo-Eurasians, the neo-Nazis, the White Power skinheads, and the Russian separatists – in order to show that each was more concerned about ideological niceties than about winning support from the regime or the population.
But then, he continues, the rise of Putin changed the relationship among Russian nationalists, the Russian population more generally, and the Russian president.
If the Russian nationalists of the 1990s almost invariably viewed President Boris Yeltsin as the enemy, the Russian nationalists of the 2000s often view Putin not only as someone they can support but – and this is even more important to many -- as a leader who intentionally or not has paved the way for them to come to power.
That in turn led some nationalists to soft-pedal their rhetoric in the hopes of gaining influence with both the people and the political parties that might contribute to their further rise. And that in turn has meant that as a group, they began to articulate a new national populism, one drawing on social as well as ethnic themes.
That shift made their programs less offensive to many both in Russia and outside – after all, they now talking about addressing real social problems rather than attacking ethnic minorities there were increasingly interested in stressing Russia’s differences with the West.
But it did not mean that everyone involved in this movement had become less xenophobic or even racist, Verkhovskiy insists, but it did mean that their new stance offered Putin and some of those around him with the hope that they could redirect and thus assume some measure of control over this set of attitudes by playing to this theme.
Three factors helped promote this process, Verkhovskiy says. First, “the increasing legitimization of nationalist ideals and xenophobic emotions characteristic for the political scene and the mass media in the new decade allowed [these groups] to broaden the circle of likeminded people” less concerned about ideology as such.
Second, because ethno-nationalism had infected virtually all political parties and groups, it became more an influence group or set of attitudes within most of them rather than a single party that could be isolated and controlled. Indeed, Kremlin efforts to set up such a party have repeatedly failed.
If there is today no single Russian nationalist party, however, there is a community of nationalists, many of whom passed through the marginal groups in the 1990s and now work to influence the parties, media outlets and government offices where they now sit, a network that the Kremlin has not been willing or perhaps able to destroy.
And third, the regime itself, from Putin down, has been infected by these ideas. After all, as Verkhovskiy notes, the president has appeared to legitimate many of them both in his often inflammatory statements about the Chechens and in his actions or non-actions concerning many other minorities.
But as other statements by the Russian president show, Putin appears to be concerned that for many Russian xenophobic nationalists, he has not been willing to go as far as they would like either to strike out at immigrants or promote the idea of a “Russia for the Russians.”
Indeed, at least some of the more extreme xenophobic elements and ethno-nationalists among the Russians certainly view what Verkhovskiy describes as Putin’s latest effort to refocus their anger away from the domestic minorities to foreign states as evidence of this.
This effort involves the promotion of a still amorphous set of ideas that another Moscow specialist on Russian xenophobia, Emil Pain, has labeled “civilizational nationalism,” the view that Russia is a unique civilization very different from and necessarily at odds with the West.
Among the key elements of this concept are the following: Russia is not an ethnic whole or an empire but rather a civilization defined by its ideas. Its cultural and political traditions mean that it should not follow the West. And its ideological core is provided by Russian Orthodoxy.
Aleksandr Panarin, a neo-Eurasian in the past, is one of the chief articulators of this trend. In his writings, he openly opposes globalization, the West and “especially the United States” and seeks to promote a centralized and extremely authoritarian Russian state as a necessary step toward the formation of a new Orthodox Russian Empire.
As ideal types, Verkhovskiy says, imperial and ethnic nationalism contradict one another, but in practice, at least in the Russian case, they in fact interact and reinforce rather than undermine each other. But as he notes in conclusion, that observation begs another question: Can ethnic and “civilizational” nationalism co-exist?
Putin is clearly betting that they can, at least in his time. But his failure to anticipate the role that the monster of xenophobic Russian nationalism on which he rode to power would ultimately play suggests, Verkhovskiy concludes, that the current Russian president may be mistaken again.