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

3 Modifying the map

3 Modifying the map

3.1 The weakness of parties and electoral blocs

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. This is, however, an exercise that is not necessarily as meaningful to conduct in Russia as it is in the West. Historically, political institutions have played a peripheral role in Russia: As Gerhard Simon has pointed out, ‘a person has always stood in the center of power.’ 28Gerhard Simon: ’Political Culture in Russia’. Aussenpolitik, III/95, p 249. This is still very much the case. Most ‘parties’ should not even be spoken of as such, being above all election rallying machines for their leaders.

We should keep in mind the distinction between parties and electoral blocs. For instance, before the 1999 Duma elections, three of the top six ‘parties’ in the party list vote were blocs put together by individual leaders for the purpose of the elections alone. The Edinstvo/Medved bloc had no distinguishable policies apart from supporting Prime Minister Vladimir Putin. The OVR was the product of an alliance between Yevgeniy Primakov, Yuriy Luzhkov, St. Petersburg Mayor Vladimir Yakovlev, and presidents Mintimer Shaymiyev of Tatarstan and Murtaza Rakhimov of Bashkortostan that appeared to be breaking up within a week after the elections, as Primakov plunged in the presidential candidate ratings. 29See e.g. Jamestown Foundation Monitor, 23 December 1999. And the Union of Right Forces was a top-heavy ‘who’s-who’ of former Yeltsin favorite market-reform liberals, who joined forces in order to pass the five-percent threshold. Only the remaining three – the KPRF, the Zhirinovskiy Bloc (in reality the LDPR), and Yabloko – had a country-wide organization and regular membership. Indicative of the poor development of a party system in Russia, Unity, OVR, and SPS, none of which existed five months prior to the election, won between them 45.1% of the vote.

A major reason for the lack of stable political structures is the policies of the Yeltsin regime itself. After the ‘democratic euphoria’ of 1991-92, it has become increasingly evident that many of the regime’s initiatives relating to the political structure of the country have been made in order to hold down opposition to the president. This goes, for instance, for the constitution of December 1993, by which half of the Duma representatives are elected in single-mandate districts. Such a system will tend to favor the order of the incumbent president, since it will tend to be beneficial for local dignitaries to join forces with the Moscow leadership for personal benefits. This system allowed for the ‘parties of power’ to win a relatively large number of the single-mandate seats for Russia’s Choice in 1993, Our Home is Russia in 1995, and Unity in 1999. At different times since 1995, the Yeltsin regime intimated that it would like to see the electoral system changed so that all deputies would be elected in single-mandate districts. This would of course further strengthen the incumbent president. Notably, Vladimir Putin shortly after his election said that he supported the idea of holding elections only by majority vote, and not by party ballot. Whether he will pursue this issue further remains to be seen. 30Interfax, 6 May 2000.

Personfication of politics, however, does not fully explain the weakness of parties; indeed, among the three ‘real’ parties that passed the threshold in the 1999 elections, both the LPDR and Yabloko are very much centered on their leaders, and this has not prevented them from being successful. Other factors, too, have contributed to making the weakness of parties a permanent phenomenon in Russia. One such factor is certainly the fact that the ‘last stop’ for any party is the State Duma. In Russia, the government is selected by the president, and does not necessarily reflect power relations in parliament. Thus, there is less incentive to run for a Duma seat, as even great electoral success will most probably not translate into a minister post. And, finally, we may speculate that skepticism against political parties may still be significant in Russia, after 75 years of one-party rule.

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, which are read by very few. 31This point is well made by Nikolai V. Zlobin, in his chapter ‘The Political Spectrum’, in Dallin, Alexander (ed.): Political Parties in Russia. University of California at Berkeley, IAS Research Series, no. 68, 1993. As a consequence, programs are often not seen as binding in the sense they tend to be in most Western countries.

At one level, it is easy to find reason for irony when examining the programs of Russian parties, movements, and blocs. Perhaps the earliest and still most extravagant turn-about policy-wise is still that of Vladimir Zhirinovskiy and his LDPSS, in 1990-91. Initially, this party, in Zhirinovskiy’s own words, ‘relied on the classic liberal democratic formula’. But, as he added: ‘We have now made adjustments’. 32‘Ya za avtoritarnyi rezhim...’, Sovetskaya Rossiya, 21 October 1991.

Still, other leaders, too, have gone through similar changes. Aleksandr Lebed does not have one program; he has several, and they are all thin on details. One analyst who does claim to have identified a common thread in Lebed's program used a series of indicators to describe it, speaking of Lebed's ‘unique blend of populist, democratic, nationalist, and traditionalist themes’, and added that Lebed appeared to be ‘still working out the programmatic particulars’. 33Allensworth, Wayne: ‘Derzhavnost: Aleksandr Lebed’s Vision for Russia’. Problems of Post-Communism, vol. 45, no.2, March-April 1998, p 57. In the spring of 1995, Aleksandr Lebed and former Security Council secretary Skokov joined forces with Dmitriy Rogozin in the latter’s Congress of Russian Communities (KRO). Prior to this, KRO had been one of dozens of obscure nationalist movements. And after the election, in which KRO surprisingly failed to make it to the Duma and only Lebed survived politically, it returned to that status. That is, until the 1999 elections, at which Rogozin appeared in tandem with once co-founder of Yabloko, Yuriy Boldyrev. Given Rogozin’s rather xenophobic political views 34For details on Rogozin’s views, see Rogozin, Dmitriy: Vremya byt russkim. Biblioteka Kongressa russkikh obshchin. Moskva, 1998. This is also the main slogan of KRO: ‘It’s time to be [ethnic] Russian’., this was one of the surprises of the party line-up, as Boldyrev’s image was that of a liberal fighter of corruption.

Some other interesting constellations and links could also be identified in the 1999 election. The economist Sergey Glazyev had been one of Aleksandr Lebed's key allies in KRO in 1995, and in 1996 he was promoted by Lebed to the position of director of the Security Council’s Department of Economic Security. Glazyev was also the author of Lebed's economic program before the 1996 presidential elections, and has since contributed to several other programs, adding a ‘Left-centrist’ advocacy of gradualism, a strong state sector, and increased protectionism. In the fall of 1998, Glazyev was the main architect of the ‘crisis program’ of Deputy Prime Minister Yuriy Maslyukov, and in 1999, it was Glazyev who authored the economic program of the KPRF. This fact was particularly important as an indicator for those Russian analysts who, prior to the elections, concluded that the weight of the Russian political spectrum was moving to the right, in economic terms. Glazyev’s role here came as some surprise, but he himself insisted that his program had not simply been adopted by a small party elite, but had been ‘discussed at length in Communist Party forums’ and declared the official program of the party and published as such. 35Arun Mohanty: ‘Russian parties turn to the right economically as the political mood moves to the left’. Report from a discussion at the Moscow Carnegie Centre, 29 November 1999. Glazyev, since the 1999 elections representing the KPRF in the Duma, has been named chairman of the State Duma committee for economic policy and entrepeneurism. The realism of the Communist deputy’s economic thinking is not evident to all: According to the Moscow Times, Glazyev understands free enterprise ‘as much as he does Illyrian folklore’. 36‘The analyst: Communists still clueless in economic management’. Moscow Times, 7 March 2000. As for the KPRF leader, he will still insist in the topicality of Lenin. ‘Russia needs a modern-level NEP’, Zyuganov said in April 2000. In his view, Lenin’s New Economic Policy had ‘reconciled collective, private and state forms of property and allowed to raise the country from ruin within months.’ 37Itar-Tass, 22 April 2000. Statement made on 130th anniversary of the birthday of Lenin.

3.2 The ‘party of power’

Several analysts have tried to map the Russian political landscape by employing Left-Right scales, and dichotomies such as ‘authoritarian-democratic’, or ‘populist-realist’. It is indicative that they have found it particularly difficult to find a place for 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. As reforms failed, popular dissatisfaction grew, and political polarization remained high, winning and staying in power became the most important motivation for the Kremlin. 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). In the former case, the ‘party’ would typically be assumed to include a constantly shifting group of shadowy figures surrounding the president, but not necessarily the entire cabinet (or even the Prime Minister). In the latter case, it would be used to describe a party (or bloc) whose main function was to secure support for the Kremlin in the State Duma. 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 purpose:

In 1993, it was the party of former prime minister Gaidar; Russia’s Choice (and to a lesser extent Sergey Shakhray’s party PRES). By the next election, however, Gaidar was extremely unpopular in the population, and he had also fallen out with President Yeltsin; Russia's Choice split up as Gaidar criticized the Kremlin for the war in Chechnya, while Anatoliy Chubais and others supported it. Thus, siding with Gaidar would also no longer signify rewards from the Kremlin for less influential politicians.

By spring 1995, President Yeltsin’s grand plan was to turn the Russian political system into something resembling the American one, with two dominant parties; one ‘center-Left’ and the other ‘center-right’. Yeltsin himself commented in May 1995 that he, Duma speaker and Yeltsin loyalist Ivan Rybkin and Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin had met to discuss the problems of the multitude of parties in Russia. ‘We all came to the decision that those who have the least number of disagreements should be united into a single powerful bloc and others should unite into another powerful bloc. Both of these courageous people agreed to head these electoral blocs’, Yeltsin said. 38Russian Public Television, 24 May 1995. The Duma speaker expressed the view that ‘in the final analysis, two powerful blocs will arise in the center of the political spectrum of Russia which will form, as a matter of fact, a single social and liberal stratum.’ 39Itar-Tass, 28 April 1995. FBIS-SOV-95-083. Given the obvious problem of appearing to be in opposition to another party when they both have the same source, Chernomyrdin, with his Our Home is Russia (NDR – Nash dom – Rossiya), proved considerably more successful than Rybkin. The Ivan Rybkin Bloc died a quiet death at the elections, while the NDR came third in the proportional list election, winning 10.1% of the vote.

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 in the regions, 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. The extent to which NDR had cruised on this effect in the 1995 elections became particularly evident when Viktor Chernomyrdin, after six years as prime minister, tried to stay afloat as a politician through his party – which, after all, was the second-largest in the Duma. After these years, there were still few, if any, who knew, or cared to know, exactly what Chernomyrdin stood for politically.

The same pre-election positioning could be witnessed before the 1999 elections. By late summer of that year, the Otechestvo of Primakov and Luzhkov looked set to become the bandwagon everybody wanted to jump onto. In particular, this bloc was joined by Mintimer Shaymiyev’s V sya Rossiya, of which more than half of country’s regional leaders were members. Indeed, ironic commentators said that the OVR should be considered ‘not as a party but as Primakov’s rating’. However, as the war in Chechnya unfolded and Vladimir Putin rose on the opinion polls, OVR lost much momentum. And only a few days after the December elections, the representatives elected from the OVR list split into three factions, of which one immediately expressed its support for Putin’s presidential candidacy. The bandwagon turned out to be not the OVR, but rather the electoral bloc Unity, nominally led by Emergencies Minister Sergey Shoigu. While winning 23.3% of the vote, Unity was nevertheless a bloc that, as an editorial in the Financial Times expressed it, had ‘no party program, no organization outside Moscow, and no obvious direction other than feudal obedience.’ 40’Russia’s Choice’. Financial Times (editorial), 14 December 1999. As for the Union of Right Forces, the weakness of its organization becomes clear by the very fact that it decided to support Putin before the presidential elections, despite the fact that one of its own leaders (Samara governor Konstantin Titov) was also a candidate.

This inclination of politicians to play with the ‘party of power’ constitutes a problem for classification of political actors. One response which eases this problem without denying the existence of ideological convictions on part of the actors, is to systematize parties – again in clusters – taking into consideration their relationship to the current powers. This is the response of, among others, Vladimir Pribylovskiy: On the ‘Right’ part of the spectrum, he distinguished between ‘pro-government democrats’, ‘democratic opposition’, and ‘pro-government and pro-president center’. 41Pribylovskiy, Vladimir: 43 linii spektra. Kratkoe opisanie vsekh predvybornykh blokov. Informatsionno-Ekspernaya gruppa ’Panorama’. Moskva, December 1995.

Some problems of definition still remain, however. The most evident one may be the case of Vladimir Zhirinovskiy, known for his outrageous populist-nationalist rhetoric. In recent years, it has become a truism in Russia that Zhirinovskiy in real fact has served as a reliable supporter of the Yeltsin regime, regularly voting in its favor in critical situations. For this remarkable conformism, some analysts have been inclined to count Zhirinovskiy into the pro-government camp. Others have given up on this discrepancy, and defined him out of analyses altogether. 42Michael Urban: ‘Re-mythologizing the Russian State’. Paper presented at Association for the Study of Nationalities annual convention, New York, April 1998. Of course, however one chooses to deal with it, the case of Zhirinovskiy serves to highlight the issue of instrumental use of political rhetoric – and that of the rewards inherent in being a party leader and Duma deputy.

3.3 Democracy discredited

In most Western countries, endorsement of democracy is a fundamental of the general setting for political activity ; parties or actors 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. Conservative forces in the KPSS worked against perestroika; and, indeed, Mikhail Gorbachev himself tried to resist the abolishment of Article 6 in the Soviet constitution, which secured the KPSS’ monopoly of power. When the USSR broke up, the conservatives blamed democratization: ’All that the [1991 August] coup sought to prevent, the democratic reformist group achieved’, said Aleksandr Prokhanov, an editor and a prominent empire-saving ideologist, expressing his opposition to ‘the democratic madness which has established itself in the country.’ 43‘'Den i vsya nasha zhizh’, Sovetskaya molodezh segodna (Latvia), 5 November 1991.

Later, 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. With characteristic Russian wit, demokratiya (democracy) was now spoken of as dermokratiya ( dermo – shit), and privatizatsiya (privatization) as prikhvatizatsiya ( prikhvat – to grab).

To some, the decisive disappointment from Yeltsin was the way he handled his conflict with the Supreme Soviet and his own vice-president, Aleksandr Rutskoy. The end of that conflict – Yeltsin's opponents walking out of the White House by the Moscow River with white flags – is well remembered. Subsequently, Yeltsin abandoned all preparations to introduce a new constitution and had his staff tailor a revised draft for him specifically. This constitution was endorsed with a small margin, with low voter participation, in December 1993, at the same time as the first election to the new State Duma took place. These steps by Yeltsin prompted one analyst, Robert V. Daniels, to speak of a ‘revenge of Russian political culture’: ‘[we] can see that the old Russian habits of authoritarianism, centralism, imperialism and conformism were never pushed very far below the surface during the last few years of reform’, he concluded. 44Daniels, Robert V.: ‘The Revenge of Russian Political Culture’. Dissent, Winter 1994, pp 32-34.

To others, who had maintained a democratic frame of mind, the decisive disappointment came when Yeltsin and his government began stealing the slogans of the nationalist opposition, in particular on foreign policy issues. This was a process that started in the second half of 1993, but which intensified after the victory of Vladimir Zhirinovskiy’s party in the Duma elections. And then, in December 1994, came the invasion in Chechnya, and the beginning of a costly and unpopular war. Yeltsin gradually alienated himself from the liberal intelligentsia. By the end of the year, in the words of Julia Wishnevsky, Russians viewed their ‘once universally adored leader’ as ‘nothing but a highly unpopular autocrat’. 45Wishnevsky, Julia: ‘Democratic Opposition in Russia: An Alternative to Yeltsin?’ The Washington Quarterly, 1995, 18:2, p 25. As stated Yelena Bonner, civil rights activist and the widow of Andrey Sakharov: ‘We have never lived under democracy, but we have managed to discredit the very idea of democracy in the past three years. 46Quoted in Vera Tolz: The Shifting Sands of Stabilisation’. Transition. Vol. 1. 1994 In Review: Part II. February 1995.

Moreover, it became common to distinguish between different categories of democrats: one would hear terms such as ‘liberal democrats’ and ‘radical democrats’. Both were categories not obviously positive to all; at least the second one seemed to imply that there was too much of something (although the two often – and in a linguistic sense illogically – have been used interchangeably). The opposition’s rhetoric would not be so much ‘we are the true democrats’ as ‘they are the democrats and see what they’re doing’. Among the leading parties, paying allegiance to democratic values remained important above all to Yabloko.

What is highly noteworthy here, is the fact that those politicians who have been described in these terms – the most discredited are without doubt Yegor Gaidar and Anatoliy Chubais, but the category also includes people like Boris Nemtsov, Galina Starovoitova, and others – in every model have been placed to the right in the political spectrum. In other words, dedication to democracy became in Russia 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’. During the first years after 1991, these politicians did not make much effort to state their love of Russia and dedication to patriotism. In the Russian political setting, thus, a politician like Yegor Gaidar, who has been a favorite of Western governments, is seen as a radical: Duma Speaker Gennadiy Seleznev (KPRF) has spoken of him as ‘the main political extremist’ in Russia. 47Radiostantsiya Ekho Moskvy, 2 February 1999.

Into this specific discussion feeds also the perspective of the market reformers as zapadniki (Westernizers) ignoring Russian ‘national characteristics’ and pursuing ‘anti-people’ policies. This, in turn, is a perspective that relates to what loosely has been spoken of as the ‘theory of two Russias’. The early expression of this dichotomy is of course that between Slavophiles and zapadniki in the 19th century. While this dichotomy has been a standard reference in media reports since the beginning of perestroika, it remains one that is often confusing. Not least since the term ‘Slavophile’ has been used well outside its original meaning, and made to encompass forces including precisely the KPRF.

Of course, Seleznev’s labeling Gaidar was rhetorical and not meant as a compliment. Nevertheless, if ‘radicalism’ or ‘extremism’ are seen as purely relative terms, and as the opposite of ‘conservatism’, there is a point in this. The ‘shock therapy’ that Gaidar launched in the beginning of 1992, signified a dramatic break with the Soviet tradition. And, of course, his market liberalist line has made him a favorite of (traditional) Western conservatives. Gaidar’s continuing identification with Western models became evident in the summer of 1999, when he launched a party called Pravoe Delo. The word pravoe means both ‘right’ and ‘just; the party name was translated as ‘Just Cause’. Moreover, Gaidar was hinting at the Soviet heritage: Nashe delo – pravoe (Our cause is just) was a prominent slogan during World War II. Also, the electoral bloc that Gaidar later entered, together with Chubais, Nemtsov, Khakamada and Kirienko, explicitly placed these politicians to the right: it was called Soyuz pravykh sil – the Union of Right [ /Just] Forces.

It is worth noting that Boris Yeltsin, while he on many occasions described himself as a democrat, has hardly, if ever, been recorded describing himself as a being on the Right. When he ran for re-election in the spring of 1996, his success strategy was not to pose Left against Right, but rather democracy against the communist threat as represented by Gennadiy Zyuganov.

Illustrative of the widespread dislike of Gaidar, Chubais, and their allies, Aleksandr Buzgalin, a professor and the leader of Russia's Democratic Socialist Movement, predicted that the main function of Pravoe delo would be to provide a measure for centrism. ‘This is doubly advantageous: Firstly, the Russian electorate as a whole has moved to the left, and it is now unprofitable to be on the far Right. Secondly, and even more importantly, the ‘centrists’ can always point their fingers at Right Cause and say ‘I wasn't us, it's Gaidar and Chubais who are responsible for all the problems … we'll put everything right and get rid of Right-wing extremism.’ 48Aleksandr Buzgalin: ‘Right cause: You are not right, gentlemen!’ Jamestown Foundation Prism, volume 5, issue 14, July 16, 1999. An interview with self-proclaimed centrist Yuriy Luzhkov published in Newsweek in December 1998 seemed to prove Buzgalin right. Here, asked what political forces he would be willing to cooperate with, the Moscow mayor answered: ‘No coalitions with the extreme Right like Anatoly Chubais and Yegor Gaidar have ever been planned.’ 49‘After Yeltsin: A Mayor or a General?’ Newsweek, 14 December 1998.

3.4 Authoritarianism: Public mood – Putin's model

From tsarism through Communism, Russia has a tradition of authoritarian (and totalitarian) rule. In this sense, the early 1990s represents a break of rhythm, and recent developments in Russia suggest that it is returning.

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. For instance, a 1998 poll found that one third of Russians believed that the president should have ``supreme power,’ and that dictatorship was the only way out of the current economic crisis. 5045% of respondents disagreed that dictatorship was the only solution. Asked whom they thought was most likely to be the one to introduce dictatorship in Russia, 19% named Aleksandr Lebed. ’Russia Poll: Bring On Dictatorship’. Associated Press, 23 September 1998. Poll by VTsIOM. Similarly, in late 1999 poll, respondents were asked whether they thought that some situations in the country call for a strong and powerful leader, the ‘iron hand’?’ To this question, as many as 45% answered that their people ’always needs’ an iron hand, while another 27% said power ’should be concentrated in one pair of hands now’. However, the people’s striving for an ’iron hand’ had not grown of late, said the scholar who presented the findings. ’In fact, it never diminished. The need for such rule has become a genetic demand since the period of monarchy. And the subsequent 80 years of dictatorship distorted the people's mind … It has smoothly passed over into the modern period and was inherited by the existing political culture.’ 51A modest 17% agreed that ’no one man must hold all power’. Dr. Nikolai Popov: ’The quiet appeal of dictatorship’. Vremya MN, 6 December 1999, reported by RIA Novosti. Poll by ARPI. In January 2000 another poll was published, which had aimed to establish Russians’ attitude towards power. Among the characteristics that respondents considered that the power should first of all think of, 38.3 % said ’think of the people’s interests’. 25.6 % said ’fairness’; 21.4 % said power should be ‘strong’; 9.1 % -that it should be ’competent’; and 4.4 % that it should have ’authority’. These preferences, the researchers considered, also reflected the respondents’ expectations to their preferred choice for president. ’The reasons for such expectations of the population can be found in Russian history, where the tsar traditionally was the essence of power and ‘patron of people’, and in modern reality as well’, the scholars argued. 52Elena Bashkirova and Natalya Laydinen (ROMIR center): ’Russians are still paternal power oriented’. APN 25 January, 2000.

Awareness of these trends has long spread among Russian politicians. Even Yabloko under Grigoriy Yavlinskiy appeared to be tapping into the renewed enthusiasm for authoritarian rule when, in August 1999, he joined forces with former interior minister and premier and Sergey Stepashin. The two had been seriously at odds over the 1994-96 Chechen war, which Yavlinskiy opposed while Stepashin was seen as a Kremlin hawk. Now, however, the mix of liberalism with a general’s firmness seemed timely. ’We are unified by a general approach to corruption in Russia [and] our approach to the pulling apart of the government by various oligarchs and clans’, Yavlinskiy said when the alliance was announced. 53Reuters, 25 August 1999.

Acting President Vladimir Putin is a politician who maneuvers particularly easily in this new landscape. Some 8-10 years ago, a future as a KGB officer might have been a problem for a would-be president. In recent months, the Kremlin has seemed so confident in its interpretation of the public mood, that they, if anything, have tried to exaggerate Putin’s significance as a spy and cold warrior. Prior to the Duma elections, the Kremlin made certain to present Putin as a strong leader also in physical terms. Both on television and in the newspapers, he was shown sporting in his judo suit and black belt – quite unlike the images of the ailing Yevgeniy Primakov. And Putin himself, in a programmatic article posted on the website of the Russian government on 29 December 1999 54V.V. Putin: Rossiya na rubezhe tysyachetletiy’. Russian government website: http://www.government.gov.ru/government/minister/article-vvp1.html, did not in any way exert himself trying to appear as a liberal democrat. Rather, his focus was on gosudarstvennichestvo.(‘state-ness’; governmentalism. Gosudarstvo = state). This is a concept with clear connotations towards authoritarian rule; James H. Billington has defined the term to mean, in current use, ‘the belief in an authoritarian central government led by one person’. 55James H. Billington: ‘Let Russia Be Russian’. The New York Times, June 16, 1996. This is traditionally not a frequently used term, and its rise to prominence in Russian political discourse – which has happened only since the mid-1990s – is a notable development, and should be seen as a reaction to trends in Russian society under Boris Yeltsin. As such, the term may be attributed additional, related meanings. Gosudarstvennichestvo thus may in everyday use indicate a preference for a more active social policy; stronger enforcement of law and order; and the strengthening of the federal center at the expense of the regions.

In the article mentioned, Putin wrote: ‘It will not happen soon, if it ever happens at all, that Russia will become the second edition of, say, the US or Britain in which liberal values have deep historic traditions.’ And, later: ‘For Russians a strong state is not an anomaly which should be got rid of. … Modern Russian society does not identify a strong and effective state with a totalitarian state.’ In effect, Putin defined his own platform by excluding two ‘extremes’ – a complete adoption of US or British values, or totalitarianism. Left in-between is Putin, with a platform that in essence is undoubtedly authoritarian.

Further suggestive of an authoritarian leaning is a statement made by Putin in late January, at which he spoke of the need for a ’dictatorship of law’ in Russia. ’The dictatorship of law is the only kind of dictatorship which we must obey’, he said, adding that freedom without law and order ‘inevitably tumbles down to chaos and lawlessness.’ 56Interfax, 31 January 2000. As a matter of fact, this peculiar phrasing – which he has repeated later – is not only Putin’s. A few years earlier, at the peak of his popularity, Aleksandr Lebed expressed himself in exactly the same way – leaving questions open about his dedication to democracy. ‘Russia is crying out for an absolute ruler, who rules it benevolently. Today the country needs a dictatorship of law’, he said in a 1995 interview, leaving the impression that he wished to blend some sort of (presumably democratic) legality with absolutism. 57‘The difference? I do not drink!’, Die Woche (Hamburg), 1 December 1995. FBIS-SOV-95-232.

The case of Vladimir Putin is particularly useful in illustrating the insufficiency of analyzing Russian politics merely by attributing to actors positions along a Left-Right spectrum. In his election campaign, Putin seemed to place himself in-between the Communists and the ‘liberal democrats’. In his millennium article, he wrote that Russia had ‘used up its limit for political and socio-economic upheavals, cataclysms and radical reforms’. And in his campaign book of interviews, Ot pervogo litsa (literally, ‘From the first person’), he spoke of the KPRF as ‘the only strong, really large party with a social base, but with ideological ‘cockroaches’’. The latter were described as such by, ‘for instance, their call for confiscation and nationalization.’ 58Ot pervogo litsa. Razgavory s Vladimirom Putinym. Izdatelstvo Vagrius, Moscow, 2000, p. 162. The book was first posted on the Internet, and was on sale only after the election, due to campaign regulations. When Putin prior to the election stated that he would present a political program because it would only be torn to pieces by his opponents, a more plausible explanation was that he did not really know what his program would be. Just like Yevgeniy Primakov had done in the fall of 1998, he put together a team of scholars to develop an economic program for him. And, like Primakov did, Putin has benefited from the public’s appreciation of stability, even in a situation where the stability does not seem to reflect a recovery that is sustainable and based on thorough reform.

Putin may in these respects resemble the ‘centrist’ Primakov, but the two have still often been described as contrasts by their representing different generations. However, Putin probably should not be identified as much by generation, nor by Left-Right orientation, but by institution. What he brought with him to the Kremlin for the renovation of Russia is a framework – authoritarianism, as learnt in the KGB – and a goal – a wealthy and strong country – but no clear idea of what more it would take to get there. Again, the pre-election book of interviews is illustrative: When asked which political leaders he was interested in, he replied: ‘Napoleon Bonaparte’ [Laughter. ‘And if you were serious?] ‘de Gaulle, certainly. And I also like [Ludwig] Erhard. A very pragmatic man.’ 59Ot pervogo litsa… op. cit, p. 175.

Not only for his talk of the ‘dictatorship of the law’, mentioned earlier, but also for these ideals, Aleksandr Lebed may still be the politician whose political focus most resembles that of the president. Putin has avoided statements of admiration for Augusto Pinochet, which made Aleksandr Lebed famous. But it is clear that not only the Fifth Republic, but also authoritarian ‘reforming’ regimes in countries such as Chile, China, and South Korea are inspirations in the political program work that started as Putin was elected president in late March.

3.5 ‘The new patriotism’

Also by his emphasis on ‘patriotism’ Vladimir Putin has proved himself to be very much in line with the public at large. That being said, the growing ‘patriotic’ sentiment in the public and its increased emphasis is not a completely new phenomenon in post-Soviet Russia. The December 1993 election result had sparked a process which has been going on since, where political parties of different shades, as well as the Yeltsin regime itself, have been trying ever-harder to exploit the currents that fueled Aleksandr Rutskoy, and later brought Zhirinovskiy success. By the time of the 1995 election campaign, ‘democracy’ was no longer the obvious catch-phrase to play on to win votes; this time, ‘patriotism’ had made a comeback. One way in which this became evident through the names of the new parties that were set up in this period. In 1993, the ‘party of power’ was called Russia’s Choice; in 1995, the party playing this role was named Our Home is Russia. For some of the parties, of course, the real congruence with ‘patriotic’ sentiments in the population was greater than for others. For Boris Yeltsin and politicians close to him, passing as genuine patriots was not easy in all circles; opposition leaders like Gennadiy Zyuganov had seen to that by habitually speaking of the regime as ‘anti-people’ and criminal. Nevertheless, ignoring what seemed to be an obvious trend in the population was too dangerous at this time.

Some democrats also changed their rhetoric at an early stage in order to win back ‘patriotism’ from the communists and nationalists. One of these was former Minister of Finance Boris Fedorov, leader of Forward, Russia! and an early exponent of the ‘liberal gosudarstvenniki’: ‘I am personally not willing to abandon a single of the notions ‘great Russia’, ‘great power’, ‘introducing order’, and ‘patriotism ‘, he stated. 60Interview with Fedorov on Russian Television: ‘Podrobnosti’. 14 February 1995. In the Russian population, a concurrent retreat of the ‘democratic euphoria’ and pro-Western sentiments was indicated by a 1994 poll, in which only 2% of the population considered that the country should orient itself only towards Western values. Those who favored only traditional (ethnic) Russian values made up 47%. 61Those who wanted an orientation towards both made up 4%, while 7% found it difficult to answer. I.M. Klyamkin: ‘Sovetskoe u zapadnoe: vozmozhen sintez’. Polis, no.5, 1994

By 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. Notably, the Union of Right Forces (SPS) also remained united in its support of the warfare; Yegor Gaidar, who broke with Yeltsin over the war in 1994, was now on the side with Anatoliy Chubais and the rest of the SPS, who wholeheartedly supported Putin, and benefited from his blessing only a few days prior to the election. Even Yavlinskiy’s Yabloko held back its criticism; when Yavlinskiy briefly called for a halt to the bombing (given a long list of conditions), he was described as a ‘traitor’ by Chubais.

The liberal-patriotic agenda could be seen for instance in the SPS electoral campaign. One SPS campaign poster put forward three issue positions: the protection of private property and civil liberties; an abolition of Duma deputies’ immunity; and (the only one in bold letters) the formation of ‘a strong, professional army’. In other words, the quality of the armed forces appeared as the prime cause of this party; the ‘liberal touch’ was added by the call for a professionalization of the forces. This, of course, was the main campaign promise of Boris Yeltsin before the 1996 presidential elections, and it was as unrealistic then as it is at present. As for Yavlinskiy, he has recently become more vocal in his criticism of the war. Indeed, in one interview with a Western newspaper, he stated that for the SPS leaders’ support the war in Chechnya, ‘regarding it as a means of restoring the Army’s lost pride’, it was ‘difficult to call them liberals and democrats.’ 62‘Mr Putin will strengthen criminal nomenclatura system’. Le Monde, 1 April 2000. English translation via Johnson’s Russia List.

Dedication to the empire has been an imperative across ideologies through Russian history. Russian nationalism in all its guises is characterized by the fact that, in contrast to most Eastern nationalisms (in the terminology of Hans Kohn), it did not grow as a reaction to the existing state pattern, in demands of a redrawing of borders to fit cultural lines. Thus, for instance, the Slavophiles, confronting the imminent tension between Romantic nationalism and imperial politics, did not solve the problem; ‘...they described the debilitating, denationalizing effects of empire without ascribing the problem to the empire itself or suggesting that Russians should relinquish it. They did conclude, however, that Russians should become somehow more 'Russian'‘. 63Geoffrey Hosking: ‘The Russian National Revival’. Report on the USSR, Nov. 1 1991, p. 5.

During the civil war that followed the Bolsheviks’ takeover, the priority of the state’s territorial integrity found a particularly clear expression. As ‘Reds’ and ‘Whites’ were fighting each other, the empire was under attack from outside on several flanks. In this situation, a significant number of officers who had served under the tsar joined Lenin’s forces. To them, holding the empire together was the most important task, and as things developed, they believed that the Bolsheviks were the only ones who could do that. These officers who joined the Red Army were later spoken of as National Bolsheviks. 64For an excellent study of National Bolshevism, see Mikhail Agursky: The Third Rome. National Bolshevism in the USSR. Westview Press, Boulder, 1987. Indeed, some National Bolsheviks even considered the Soviet state to be an excellent heir to tsardom in its own right, and would approve of Stalin as a Russian fascist. 65See Jens Petter Nielsen: ‘Tilbake til Russland!’, in Ergo 2-82.

We have seen related lines of reasoning in Russian nationalist circles ever since the Soviet Union came under separatist pressure. When the 1991 coup plotters explained their actions to the people, their ‘manifesto’ mentioned neither Lenin nor Socialism. Instead, it played on patriotism: ‘Compatriots, Citizens of the Soviet Union. We are addressing you at a grave, critical hour for the future of our motherland and our peoples. A mortal danger has come to loom over our great motherland.’ 66‘Address to the Soviet People’, by the State Committee for the State of Emergency in the USSR, August 18, 1991. Printed in Current Politics in the Soviet Union, vol. 2, no. 1 1991. The above-mentioned Aleksandr Prokhanov has taken this reasoning to its conclusion: ‘Let there even be fascism, because if that is all we have to pay in order to build a great Russian [ russkoe] state, I will go for that.’ 67Strana i mir, no. 3-4, 1992, quoted in ‘Nam novye pesni pridumala zhizn', in Megapolis-Express, 19. Aug. 1992.

The ‘new patriotism’ we are witnessing in Russia today, in many ways also is reminiscent of national bolshevism. Not necessarily for the ideological content – the fact that national Bolsheviks tended to be found on the extreme Right – but precisely for the fact that national bolshevism is in its essence non-ideological. It 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. As a matter of fact, Russian commentators will occasionally speak not only of reds and browns but also of ‘whites’ in the political landscape. In one recent commentary, philosopher and prominent nationalist ideologist Aleksandr Tsipko spoke of the KPRF today as a ‘forced union of red and white patriots’, the latter defined as ‘statehood pragmatics’. 68Alexander Tsipko: ‘Another Russian revolution has ended’. The Daily Yomiuri (Tokyo), 6 April 2000.

The ‘minimum package’, as it was presented by Vladimir Putin before the 2000 presidential elections, 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’ is a perceived need for a ‘national idea’ that will contribute to keeping the state together. This represents, at least schematically, a continuation of projects starting with Count Uvarov’s 1843 trinity of principles for the tsarist regime – orthodoxy, autocracy and nationality ( narodnost)– as well as the Slavophile tradition that also emerged in that period. By the turn of the century, Berdyaev wrote his essay Russkaya ideya, and intellectual as well as less sophisticated political reflections over this issue of national character have been part of the political discourse again since the late Soviet period. > 69This term, which originated with the Slavophiles, has been attributed different meanings. According to Dimitry Pospielovsky, those who speak of ‘the Russian idea’ normally have in mind a society whose core is the Orthodox Church, not as a political force but as the moral and spiritual compass for the nation. D. Pospielovsky: ‘Russian nationalism: An Update’. RFE/RL Report on the USSR Feb. 9, 1990. Alexander Yanov, on the other hand, has used the term as synonym with ‘Russian nationalism’, and spoken e.g. of the rise in Russian nationalism in the 1960s as an ‘episode in the history of the Russian Idea’. A. Yanov: The Russian Challenge and the Year 2000. Basil Blackwell, 1987, p. xv. Alexander Solzhenitsyn would disagree very much on that; having summed up the elements of what he sees as the Russian idea, he commented: ‘A more precise name for this would be 'National Bolshevism'.’ Aleksander Solzhenitsyn: ‘Repentance and Self-Limitation’. In A. Solzhenitsyn (ed.): From Under the Rubble. Regnery Gateway, Washington DC, 1985, p. 120. In the Kremlin, the old ‘Russian idea’ made a re-appearance with Aleksandr Rutskoy in 1992. As he gradually moved closer to the hardline opposition, he would refer to the russkaya ideya, but make sure to twist it into rossiskaya ideya. Thereby, a rather obscure concept which indicated some ethnic aspect, but essentially signifies imperialism, was turned into a quite tolerable thesis of the maintenance of a state for all.

It was in July 1996 that Boris Yeltsin himself established that Russia was in need of an ‘idea’. At that time, he urged his aides to design a ‘national idea’ that would unify all Russians. ‘There were various periods in the Russian history of the 20th century – monarchy, totalitarianism, perestroika and, finally, the democratic path of development. Each stage had its own ideology. We do not have it’, Yeltsin said, giving his people one year to fill the void. 70Yeltsin Calls For `Unifying National Idea' ITAR-TASS 12 July 1996 FBIS-SOV-96-135. This admission may seem somewhat peculiar: Did he consider his own rule to be something else than democratic? What sort of ideology did he envisage his aides coming up with for Russia? In many ways, this may be seen as a naïve initiative, presuming that a country’s identity can be adopted like e.g. a military doctrine is. 71For details on this process, see Simonsen, Sven Gunnar: ‘Inheriting the Soviet Policy Toolbox. Russia’s Dilemma Over AscriptiveNationality’ Europe-Asia Studies, vol. 51, no. 6, 1999. One aspect of this initiative which is worth noting, however, is that Yeltsin called for a national ( natsionalnaya) idea, rather than a state ( gosudarstvennaya) idea, despite the fact that nation ( natsiya) is a word that is not very often used in Russia, and normally has a more narrow, ethnic use in Russia than in the West.

Notably, Vladimir Putin at an early stage of his premiership followed up on this issue himself. Putin, however, already had his own idea of what it would take to integrate the people of Russia. The country, he said, needs a new national ideology based on patriotism: ‘Large-scale changes have taken place in an ideological vacuum. One ideology was lost and nothing new was suggested to replace it’. ‘Patriotism in the most positive sense of this word’ must be the backbone of a new ideology, he said. 72Interfax, 3 November 1999. FBIS-SOV-1999-1103. Immediately after the Duma elections, Putin expanded on this issue, specifying what the components of the ideology should be: ‘It is very difficult to strive for conceptual breakthroughs in the main areas of life if there are no basic values around which the nation could rally. Patriotism, our history and religion can and, of course, should become such basic values,’ Vladimir Putin said. 73ITAR-TASS 22 December 1999 FBIS-SOV-1999-1222

In his December 1999 article posted on the government’s website, Vladimir Putin went to great lengths in stating his political preferences. In the article, Putin identified what he described as the ‘traditional values’ of Russians: Patriotism, statism, and social solidarity. Patriotism he defined as ‘a feeling of pride in one's country, its history and accomplishments [and] the striving to make one's country better, richer, stronger and happier.’ ‘When these sentiments are free from the tints of nationalist conceit and imperial ambitions, there is nothing reprehensible or bigotedly about them’, he added. 74V.V. Putin: Rossiya na rubezhe tysyachetletiy’. Russian government website: http://www.government.gov.ru/government/minister/article-vvp1.html

For aspiring Russian ‘nation-builders’, a major concern is to identify factors that may serve as the ‘glue’ that can keep together the diverse population of this immense state. The obvious options tend be elements that appear as timeless and transcendental. Prominent candidates here would be the territory of the state; its history; ‘national character’; and the faith of the population. It is significant that Vladimir Putin has singled out the latter as one key value for the nation to gather around. (Moreover, it may be noted that Putin has spoken of religion, and not Orthodoxy; again, the ethnic diversity of Russia's population calls for caution, as ignoring other confessions would cause new problems.)

Religion – or Orthodoxy – has been paid growing attention in Russian politics in recent years, although it has proved difficult to push this issue very hard for clearly atheist politicians. Boris Yeltsin has not described himself as a believer, but seemed willing to play on the issue when in late 1999, he announced that he would celebrate the Orthodox New Year in Jerusalem. Aleksandr Lebed has on several occasions pointed to the army, the territory, and the Orthodox Church as the three pillars that Russia has rested on and has to rest on in the future, and that the army and the Church should serve to integrate the people of Russia. 75See e.g. Wenn Verteidigungsminister lügen...’ Die Zeit, no.3, 13 January 1995. Not pretending to be a believer himself, 76Cf the telling title ‘Ne veruiushchii, no veruiu...’, Soldat Otechestva, 13 March 1994. Lebed has demonstrated an openly instrumental view of religion: ‘… facing the choice between Christian belief and nationalism I would rather defend the Patriarch than Zhirinovskiy’. 77‘Wenn Verteidigungsminister lügen...’, Die Zeit, no. 3, 13 January 1995. Gennadiy Zyuganov has gone to great lengths to show that communism and Orthodoxy are compatible categories: ‘I am, perhaps, one of a few [communists] who have read both the Bible and the Koran… I have made a great discovery: The basic moral commandments listed in the Code of Morals, in their entirety match those of the Orthodox and Biblical ethics.’ 78‘Ya iz partii Koroleva i Zhukova’, Sovetskaya Rossiya, 17 July, 1993. Vladimir Zhirinovskiy, ever the opportunist, has fiercely identified himself as an Orthodox believer, although not convincingly to all: a classic film clip shows the LDPR leader at a PR mission to Church, having to be taught how to cross himself correctly.

As for Vladimir Putin, it already seems clear that he is less sensitive to issues of ethnicity that his predecessor. Most blatantly, this has become clear by the way he has related to the Chechen people (which I will come back to later). But there are other indications, too. At one of his speeches on Victory Day (9 May 2000), commemorating the victory over Nazi Germany, Putin focused on the achievements of the Slavic peoples, and in particular on the ethnic Russians: ‘The people’s pride and Russian [ russkiy] patriotism are immortal. And therefore no force can win over Russian [ russkoe] arms, defeat the army.’ 79Vladimir Putin: ‘Vystuplenie na torzhestvennom prieme v oznamenovanie 55-y godovshchiny Pobedy v Velikoy Otechestvennoy voyne 1941-1945 godov. http://president.kremlin.ru/events/32.html A lone voice to criticize Putin for this phrasing was that of Jewish journalist Yevgenia Albats: ’In a way, Putin simply repeated the 1945 speech of Josef Stalin, who proclaimed the victory in the war as a victory of ethnic Russians, pronouncing them ‘the most outstanding nation of all the nations comprising the Soviet Union’’, she wrote. 80Yevgenia Albats: ’Putin Forgets Who Was Patriotic in War’. St. Petersburg Times, 9 May 2000. It is still early to draw a conclusion on this issue: Whether Putin is indeed a crude Russian nationalist as was (the Georgian) Stalin, or whether he should rather be compared to Mikhail Gorbachev, who was first and foremost ignorant of issues of ethnicity.

Go to the top