Enable Javascript in your browser for an improved experience of regjeringen.no

Executive summary 1I...

Executive summary 1I would like to thank the Ministry of Foreign Affairs for funding this study, and specifically Sigrid Romundset and Willy Østreng for showing their interest for and giving useful input to the work. A special word of appreciation goes to Pavel Baev, supervisor for my doctoral work at PRIO and a consultant for this project. As always, his comments have been extremely useful. I would also like to thank professor Pål Kolstø, who has contributed with valuable comments to an earlier draft of the report. Of course, the responsibility for the end result remains with the author alone.

For Western political decision-makers, assuming that political culture in Russia is more or less similar to what it is in their own country is a serious mistake that is easily made. The phrases that are used to describe political differences – Left, Right, conservative, liberal etc – are the same that are used in the West. But the actual meaning of such terms can differ dramatically.

One essential aspect of post-Soviet Russian politics is the manner in which the meaning of political terms has changed. ‘Democracy’ is no longer an indisputably honorable term; accusations of ‘fascism’ are being thrown around by MPs who in the West themselves would be considered as Right-wing extremists; Josef Stalin is lauded by prominent mainstream politicians. In a country where territorial claims on neighboring states and ethnocentrism are espoused across the political spectrum, only small fringe groups are spoken of as ‘nationalist’.

This report aims to clear up this muddled picture; to make sense of Russian political terminology to the benefit of Norwegian political decision makers.

For this purpose, the report is divided into three main sections.. First, it discusses typical meanings of spatial terms – such as ‘Left’, ‘Right’ and ‘centrist’ – in modern Russian politics. As part of this section, moreover, special attention is paid to the convictions and policies of newly elected President Vladimir Putin. Second, it briefly presents a model that distinguishes between different expressions of nationalism in Russia, and the discussion of spatial terms is then integrated with this model. This second section leads us to conclusions on the relationship between nationalist ideology and ‘Left’/’Right’ placement. In the extension of this discussion, particular attention is paid to the so-called ‘red–brown alliance’.

1) Spatial terms in Russian politics

During different phases of Russian and Soviet history, the terms ‘Left’ and ‘Right’ were used regularly to describe political placement. In line with Leninist theory, reformers in the Communist Party in the 1980s were seen (and saw themselves) as being on the ‘Left’, while those opposing reforms were spoken of as ‘conservatives’ or the ‘Right’. As perestroika evolved, the use of such terms gradually moved closer to that in Western countries. In recent years, however, further changes have taken place in this realm.

Strictly speaking, a one-dimensional political ‘spectrum’ or ‘continuum’ can only indicate score on one variable. In reality, however, ‘score’ on several different variables is assumed to be part of the placement of any one actor: positions are assumed to come in ‘clusters’. In other words, if you hold one specific opinion, you probably hold a few other, related ones, too. Thus, political actors are grouped together – and plotted in a spectrum – in categories for their similarity of views. Frequently used categories in Russia include Stalinists, new Left, socialists, social democrats, centrists, liberal democrats, national patriots, and extreme Right.

There are major differences between Russia and the West in terms of the positions attributed to political spatial terms. Western attempts to define the Right, for instance, have pointed to one-factor indicators such as individualism, and the attitude to change. All such indicators have problems; as for attitude to change, this criterion seems to imply a slight confusion of ‘ Right’ with ‘conservative’. Moreover, in Russia conservatism as a relational term looks back not to equivalents of Edmund Burke but to a past of 70 years of Soviet rule. Today, the most basic trait of the Left in Russia is a positive assessment of the Soviet era – not least the organization of the economy, and collectivism in a wide sense. In recent years, yet another term of relativity – centrism – has come to describe a political line to which numerous politicians have expressed adherence. Self-declared centrists have above all defined their platform relative to their competitors; former prime minister Yevgeniy Primakov distanced himself from ‘destructive extremes’ of the command economy and of the market economy transition under Yeltsin.

Not only for the above ‘acute’ differences in terminology is it dangerous to assume direct comparability between Russian and Western politics. This part of the report develops further three sub-sections, discussing: the weaknesses of political parties/blocs and the ethereal character of their programs; the so-called ‘party of power’; and the status of democracy as such in Russia today.

When in the West we try to make sense of the Russian political landscape, we tend to automatically begin an exercise of establishing the relative position of political parties. However, most Russian ‘parties’ should not even be spoken of as such, being above all election rallying machines for their leaders. Tellingly, three of the top six ‘parties’ in the party list vote in the 1999 Duma elections – Unity, the Union of Right Forces, and Fatherland–All Russia – were blocs put together by individual leaders for the purpose of the elections alone. There is a direct link between the weakness of the political parties, and the ethereal character of political programs. With politics being highly personalized, trust in the individual leader is much more important in garnering public support than party programs.

Several analysts have tried to map the Russian political landscape by employing a variety of scales and variables. It is indicative that they have found it particularly difficult to plot President Yeltsin and his governments in such models. The most important explanation for this is the fact that it was difficult to attribute to the executive power one specific political program. Self protection, and in many cases self enrichment, played a greater role than ideology or visions for the country. However, the Russian public solved the scholars’ problem in their own way: They began to speak of Yeltsin and his entourage as ‘the party of power’. In loose terminology, the ‘party of power’ can be both a circle of people (or the culture they represent), and an actual party (or election bloc). While Russia has not at any time had an openly ‘presidential party’, each of the post-Soviet Duma elections have had one (or more) parties serving this function.

This leads us to a dimension of Russian politics that is normally overlooked in this context: the opportunism that often goes deeper than ideological convictions. To politicians both n the regions and in Moscow, lending their support to what seems to be the most promising candidate before an election means that they can harvest rewards later, in the form of personal rewards, or as concessions for their region.

In most Western countries, endorsement of democracy is fundamental to the general setting for political activity; organizations or individuals who explicitly distance themselves from democracy per se are rarely more than insignificant actors on the fringes of political life. This is not the case in Russia. From 1992 onwards, popular enthusiasm for President Yeltsin and his policies faded. Since Yeltsin personally was so closely associated with ‘democracy’ and ‘market reforms’, it followed that these, too, were discredited. Categories such as ‘liberal democrats’ and ‘radical democrats’ were not obviously positive to all. Moreover, the politicians who have been described in these terms are, in models and in everyday use, placed to the right in the political spectrum. In other words, dedication to democracy in Russia has become an orientation that is located in a particular section of the political spectrum, and that place is on the Right. The policies attributed to these politicians – market liberalism, privatization, pro-Western foreign policy, and a lacking appreciation for Russia's own character – as well as their perceived manipulation of elections and links with corruption and ‘oligarchs’ – add up to what is identified with ‘democracy’.

In political terms, a significant consequence of democracy’s being discredited is renewed enthusiasm in the public for authoritarian programs. A number of politicians are currently tapping into this sentiment. A great many opinion polls inform us that a majority of Russians are ready to embrace authoritarian rule, hoping that it will bring law and order to society. President Vladimir Putin is a politician who maneuvers particularly easily in this new landscape. The Kremlin has seemed so confident in its interpretation of the public mood, that its PR experts have tried to exaggerate Putin’s significance as a spy and cold warrior. And Putin himself has not in any way exerted himself by trying to appear as a liberal democrat. His actions and statements after his elections win in March 2000 have only reinforced the impression of him as a leader with a strong authoritarian inclination.

Not only by his authoritarianism but also by his emphasis on ‘patriotism’ Vladimir Putin has proved himself to be very much in line with the public at large. By mid-1999, a new degree of consensus over statist issues appeared to characterize political life in Russia. This could probably be explained by the rise to prominence first of Yevgeniy Primakov (and Yuriy Luzhkov) and later of Vladimir Putin, and by the new war in Chechnya. By late 1999, the salience of territorial integrity and state security were key issues in the rhetoric of just about all political parties. The ‘new patriotism’ we are witnessing in Russia today is not dogmatic with regard to market relations or other aspects of policy. Rather, it is pragmatically portraying itself as offering to the people a ‘minimum package’ of policies that will secure the fundamental needs for a country in crisis. This ‘package’, as presented by Vladimir Putin in his election campaign, defines as the primary goals to strengthen the state and the economy, introduce order, secure its territorial integrity, raise Russia's status internationally, and strengthen the military to resist possible attacks by other powers.

An important tool of this ‘minimum package’ of policies, according to Putin, must be a ‘national idea’ that will contribute to keeping the state together. In 1996, President Boris Yeltsin called for the development of a new Russian ‘national idea’. Vladimir Putin at an early stage of his premiership followed up on this issue himself. Putin soon became more specific than Yeltsin ever was: ‘Patriotism, our history and religion can and, of course, should become such basic values,’ he has stated. It remains to be seen whether Putin’s patriotism will contain territorial aspirations outside the borders of the Russian Federation, and whether Putin will follow Yeltsin's lead in emphasizing the multinational character of the state. As for the latter, several signs exist to the effect that Putin is indeed less sensitive to this issue than his predecessor was.

2) A model of Russian nationalism – integrating the discussions

Expressions of Russian nationalist sentiment may be placed in one of four different categories. These categories form two broad continua: one covering territorial orientation (core vs. empire) and one covering focus (ethnic vs. statist). Both ranges have their roots in the specifics of Russian history: The Kremlin was earlier the center of a much larger state than it is today, and today’s Russian state is more ethnically homogenous than any previous statehood. If we combine these continua, we find four possible category combinations: core/ethnic, core/statist, empire/ethnic and empire/statist. This report argues that the most extreme category of the four – defined by its potential to cause conflict – is the one that combines territorial expansionism with ethnic supremacism.

If we now integrate this model with the earlier discussion of spatial terms in Russian politics, we can shed light on the relationship between nationalist ideology and Left/Right placement in Russian politics. For this purpose, this section is divided in two; ‘territorial orientation’, and ‘ethnocentrism’. Expanding on the discussion under those two headings, the report examines further the phenomenon of the so-called ‘red-browns’.

After the breakup of the USSR, only the ‘radical reformers’ would maintain that the old empire was not an inherent value for Russia; that the country would be better off on its own, gaining in strength and recognition by achieving economic growth. To a majority of Russians and certainly of Russian politicians, the liberals’ preparedness to abandon territorial claims was quite alien. Even among ‘liberals’, and in President Yeltsin's entourage, there were many politicians who would favor a significantly more assertive policy towards other former Soviet republics. In recent years, too, territorial demands have been put forward by seemingly moderate politicians. One prominent actor in this respect, in particular with regard to the thorny issue of Crimea and the Black Sea Fleet, is Moscow mayor – and self-declared centrist – Yuriy Luzhkov.

In the Russian political discourse, ‘nationalism’ tends to be associated with such terms as ‘extremism’ , ‘fascism’ and also ‘separatism’. In terms of actors, the term is usually linked only with the most radical and ethnocentric. However, ethnocentrism in real fact strikes much wider than the common Russian terminology would suggest. Again and again, the identification of Russia above all with ethnic Russians becomes visible. Notably, Communist Party leader Gennadiy Zyuganov frequently runs into trouble making up his mind about whether to speak of russkie or rossiyane (ethnic Russians or citizens of Russia). On balance, still, it is reasonable to say that the less ethnocentric brand is the most prevalent category of nationalism in Russian political discourse. That does not mean, however, that ‘all is well’ in inter-ethnic relations in Russia. Intolerance – expressed primarily in anti-Semitic and anti-Caucasian attitudes – is widespread both in politics and in the general public.

The so-called ‘red-browns’ ( krasno-korichnevye), or ‘communist-nationalist alliance’ is not a specifically Russian phenomenon. This seemingly illogical proximity of forces that appear to be as far away from each other politically as they can get, can be identified also in Western countries. What is special for today’s Russia, is that the ‘red-browns’ constitute a highly influential force, and the fact that these actors are seen as overall more legitimate than they are in most other countries. In Russia, these actors are spoken of as the national-patriots. Into this category fall, above all, the most ethnocentric and supremacist actors. Two things make these stand out in relation to our model of nationalism. First, they are particularly oriented towards ethnic supremacism and territorial expansion. Second, they are forces that put heavy emphasis on these issues.

Conceptually, one way to illustrate the proximity between extreme Left and extreme Right is a circular model, created simply by bending the linear spectrum into an almost-complete circle. In the case of Russia, it makes very good sense to opt for a circular model of the political spectrum. While the post-Soviet Russian red-browns differ between themselves on many policy issues, it is possible to point to a number of positions which they share. These include imperial nostalgia, populism, authoritarianism, (ethnic) prejudice, militarism, collectivism and anti-liberalism. Of course, most of these are traits that hardly match with the ‘classic’ traits of the Left. In fact, they match much better with what we could describe as a classic Left-wing perspective of the radical Right. Still, for historical reasons, it would be difficult to sustain a description of Soviet nostalgics as fascists. Anti-communism remains an important trait of the Russian (radical) Right, distinguishing it from the Left. Branding radical Left-wingers as fascists might make some feel good, but important precision would get lost on the way.

–––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––

Go to the top