Nick Ottens is an historian from the Netherlands who researched Muslim revivalist movements and terrorism in nineteenth century Arabia, British India and the Sudan. He writes for and edits the transatlantic news and commentary website Atlantic Sentinel and is a contributing analyst with the geostrategic consultancy firm Wikistrat.
While most Western media were obsessing over the charismatic and young pro-democracy protesters who took to the streets of Moscow last year, what most tended to ignore in their eagerness to witness a “Russian Spring” was that the communists and nationalists performed very well in December’s election, each at the expense of the ruling United Russia party.
With incumbent president and prime minister designate Dmitry Medvedev at the helm, United Russia secured less than 50 percent of the vote in December, a nearly fifteen point drop in support compared to 2007. In terms of parliamentary seats, the party is now back to its 2003 level when it first participated in an election.
The communists almost doubled their share of the vote. Where they polled in the low teens for much of the first decade of this century, nearly one out of five Russians voted for the Soviet era nostalgics this time around. The far right Liberal Democratic Party (“neither liberal nor democratic”) came in fourth with nearly 12 percent support.
Coupled with United Russia’s majority, the political reality in the country is rather different from the perception that so often creeps into Western media narratives. To interpret an 80 percent vote for parties that are, to varying degrees, authoritarian as a yearning for liberal democracy requires quite the stretch of the imagination.
To characterize United Russia’s disappointing performance at the polls as the result of a protest vote against corruption and fraud would be similarly disingenuous. The voters who abandoned the “party of swindlers and thieves” were never the cosmopolitan, forward-looking youth of Moscow and Saint Petersburg. Rather they are working class and retirees who struggle to keep up with the rapid pace of modernization and change that’s occurring in Russia under the dual leadership of Medvedev and Vladimir Putin.
Russia’s economy recovered quickly from the global downturn and is on its way to 5 percent growth rates again. There is cronyism and corruption in all layers of Russian government, including the top, but the Kremlin’s finances are in a fairly healthy state. The public debt is nonexistent compared to European levels. Efforts to diversify the economy and decrease the country’s reliance on oil and gas exports have stalled somewhat in the wake of the financial crisis but there is more openness to native industrial development and foreign investment than there ever was in Russia.
Taxes are low and the Russian government is smaller relative to gross domestic product than is the case in Western Europe and the United States. Income disparities have increased as a result of economic expansion in recent years and welfare provisions are underfunded. Public housing and health care have been privatized in part since the demise of the Soviet Union. People at the bottom of the social ladder have seen markedly little progress during the Putin years. They are voters who yearn for a revival of the paternalistic state which Putin once appeared to embody even if his policies do not.
This more than anything accounted for the communists’ strong showing in December’s poll. Yet Russia’s once and future president seems more concerned about an insurgent nationalism than a red menace from the left.
Late in January, Putin penned an op-ed for the Nezavisimaya Gazeta daily in which he warned Russians that without him, ethnic tensions could tear the country apart. He lambasted the “provocateurs and enemies” who “talk about the Russian right to self-determination, ‘racial purity’ and the need to ‘complete what was started in 1991 — the elimination of the empire that is feeding off the Russian people.’ What they really want,” according to the prime minister, “is to make people destroy their homeland with their own hands.”
Running for president again in March, Putin likes to portray himself as the strongman who will crush the Islamist separatist threat in the North Caucuses, a conflict that’s affected ordinary Russians as well in a number of terrorist attacks in 2010 and 2011. At the same time, he fears that a Russian nationalism will tear the fabric of his multiethnic state that may be 80 percent ethnic Russian, and mostly Orthodox Christian, but is home to more than a hundred different cultures and several religions. Especially in the borderlands of the Caucuses, Central Asia and Siberia, there are peoples who have been part of “Russia” for centuries but may not be considered Russian if an ethnic nationalism were to sweep the country.
The collapse of the Soviet Union was accompanied with considerable ethnic strife. Putin pointed out, “We were on the edge — and in some regions over the edge — of civil war.” The secession of socialist republics in the Caucuses and Central Asia was particularly violent. “With great effort, with great sacrifice we were able to douse these fires,” wrote Putin. “But that doesn’t mean that the problem is gone.”
In the Caucasus, Muslims continue to fight for autonomy. In Central Asia, different ethnic groups are still scattered across a number of states, the borders of which were drawn in 1930s Moscow by Joseph Stalin with the explicit purpose of keeping the people of the Eurasian Steppe divided and preoccupied.
Putin hopes to draw these former satellite states into an Eurasian Union, a twenty-first century version of the Soviet empire that also includes Belarus, Kazakhstan and possibly the Ukraine. “Russia first,” he fears, is not the way to reclaim the glory of the past rather a recipe for future disaster.
I am convinced that the attempts to preach the idea of a “national” or monoethnic Russian state contradict our thousand-year history. Moreover, this is a shortcut to destroying the Russian people and Russian statehood, and for that matter any viable, sovereign statehood on the planet.
That may be an exaggeration but there’s a core of truth in Putin’s argument. The ethnic Russian population of roughly 120 billion is shrinking. It’s because Muslim Russians reproduce at a higher rate and because people from other parts of the former empire come to Russia to find work that the population has stabilized and showing signs of growth. Both movements are regarded warily by nationalists who typically identify them as threats to Russian culture and identity.
If Russia is to reclaim its position as the preeminent power of the Eurasian heartland, it cannot afford to entertain notions of “pure blood” and racial exclusion. Putin knows that he has to draw nonethnic Russians into his sphere of interest but he has neglected to devise an ideology around which to rally them as well as his own people.
For all its flaws and inevitable demise, communism was a powerful theme to transcend sectarian and lingual divides and foster a sense of belonging in the Soviet Union. It did not enable the empire to survive because it incurred an economic catastrophe but only after decades of hardship did nationalism resurge with a vengeance and start the “fires” Putin wrote about.
In Russia today, it’s also the downtrodden that are attracted the ideologies — communism and nationalism — that promise a return to the good old days that really weren’t. Putin tells them that economic integration across the former Soviet empire is the solution. He champions freer trade and economic modernization. This, he says, will curb migration from neighboring states and improve the lot of ordinary Russians at the same time.
He’s probably right but it sounds an awful lot like the europhile promises of politicians who see the duel specter of populism and protectionism rise in Europe at a time of crisis. They’re not succeeding and probably won’t until the continent experiences growth and prosperity again.
Putin is in a more enviable position because his reelection in March is all but ensured. His personal approving rating hovers safely north of 60 percent and there is no viable alternative. His third term could prove to be his tough one yet if he doesn’t manage to sell his message of “Eurasian Union” in more populist, veiled terms. Expect to hear him lament the disintegration of the Soviet Union and call for a new dawn of Russian Empire in the weeks to come. Know that it’s not a message of expansionism as much as a chord the supreme oligarch has to strike if he is to maintain the authority necessary to lead a nation as vast as Russia’s.