Tallinn, March 31 – Illiberal Russian nationalism is no longer only an affair of “marginal elements” in Russian society, according to the director of Moscow’s Panorama Center. Instead, it now forms a major element in the thinking of the members of the middle ranks of the power structures on which Vladimir Putin has relied.
In an interview posted yesterday on the Rabkor.ru portal, Prybylovsky, who has tracked nationalist ideas and movements in the Russian Federation for more than 20 years, says that these nationalist views are not so much connected with “party leaders” as “with circles around the Kremlin” (www.rabkor.ru/?area=articleItem&id=2288).
Unlike in the 1990s, he continues, when members of the educated elites divided between communists and anti-communists, today, those who were “vulgar liberals” in the past have become “vulgar nationalists,” rather than turning back to communism or becoming the foundation for a social democratic movement.
A few of these nationalists, Prybylovsky suggests, can be described as “national liberals,” but most are cultural traditionalists. And while there are a few much-publicized Nazi types among the younger age cohorts of this group, the Panorama Center director argues that they are unlikely to play a major role for any length of time.
That is because, he says, even though “they recognize themselves as spies of radical nationalism but in the ruling party, they feel comfortable in the regime, are accustomed to its ways of doing business, and their fascism is becoming as it were a kind of hobby” although they have been introducing into the regime “criminal methods” suggested by that ideology.
One reason why many do not understand the Russian nationalism of the governing structures, he suggests, is that those Russian nationalists who do publish are invariably critical of “the ruling oligarchy,” leading many to assume that Russian nationalism as such is an opposition phenomenon.
But Prybylovsky argues that this is a misunderstanding. On the one hand, the Russian nationalists who do publish are not typical of the illiberal Russian nationalism within the regime. And on the other, even those do and who are most critical of the regime and its policies abstain from directly “criticizing Putin.”
Virtually all of the Russian nationalists inside the bureaucracy vote for United Russia as “the party of power,” although if conditions deteriorate some of them could trend toward the openly xenophobic Movement Against Illegal Immigration (DPNI). And for these nationalists, the chief ideologist of today is the contradictory figure of Vladislav Surkov.
Surkov, in fact, currently plays the role of “the semi-Suslov” of the regime, Prybylovsky argues, but while he has been behind many of the nationalistic projects of the regime, Surkov cannot favor the expansion of Russian nationalism beyond a certain point. Being “half Chechen and half Jewish, Surkov certainly “does not want the victory of the Russian nationalists.”
And that internal inconsistency in Surkov’s approach reflects the tactical rather than strategic approach of the Putin regime toward Russian nationalism. It is prepared to exploit such attitudes to solve “immediate problems,” but it is unwilling to adopt a consistent strategic program that would implement the full program of any Russian nationalist agenda.
That may change given the strength of nationalist sentiments in the population, Prybylovsky continues. If there were “honest elections,” the nationalists would receive “from 30 to 40 percent of the votes,” a share sufficiently large that the regime will certainly try to reach out to these groups at least rhetorically even if it has no plans to conduct honest polls.
But Prybylovsky argues that the most important reason for the strength of such sentiments is the weakness of other attitudes. Support for liberal ideas is small and falling, he suggests, and a social base for the appearance of a true Western-style social democratic party does not now exist.
As a result, illiberal Russian nationalism, albeit in its current amorphous and internally inconsistent forms is likely to play a largely unchallenged role in Russian political life in the next few years, a trend that Prybylovsky suggests could have the most profoundly negative consequences for his country.