From imperial to defensive nationalism
Nationalism is like software that can run on different platforms – from Windows to Android. As nationalism normally has little to say about economic or social policies, it can easily merge easier with other left- or right-wing ‘isms’ increasing exponentially the number of mutations it can be subject to.
In post-Soviet Russiavirtually all political forces – from Putin to the Communists – flirted with nationalism. Despite various ideological platforms, the unifying feature of Russian nationalists for most of the 20th century, in its right-wing imperial and left-wing communist forms, was a drive for expansion and a ‘bigger Russia’. AsRussia grew bigger, other ethnic groups were welcome, but they were also expected to acquiesce to the ‘elder brother’ in the short term, and assimilate in the long-term.
Vladimir Putin’s most recent pre-election article dedicated to the ‘national question’ largely subscribes to this view, even though he laments the ‘inadequate, aggressive, defiant and disrespectful’ behaviour of some migrants. But such imperial nationalism was based on a strong confidence in Russia’s state capacity, power of territorial expansion and cultural attraction. However, with the growing realisation of Russia’s structural problems – from demographic crisis to bad-governance under Putin, topped by the economic crisis, leads to some structural shifts in Russian nationalism.
An increasingly obvious trend in the last few years is for the ‘old’ expansionist nationalism to rapidly loose ground to a new breed of isolationist, introvert and defensive nationalism that is primarily anti-immigrant and often anti-imperial. Such nationalism is more concerned with maintaining Russia’s ‘Russianness’ than territorial expansion. The key source of this defensive nationalism is the toxic mix of high immigration into Russiacoupled with a demographic crisis. With over 12 million migrants, Russiais the second biggest recipient of migration flows in the world after the US, though as a share of migrants per total population Russia still ranks on the 55th place in the world.
From the nationalist’s perspectiveRussia’s demographic crisis is double. One is related to a serious population drop. But from the nationalists’ perspective, graver still is the fact that the fall in numbers of ethnic Russians due to emigration, high mortality and low birth rates is faster than the overall demographic decline which is partly slowed down by immigration (primarily from Central Asia and South Caucasus) and higher population growth among some Russian minorities, particularly in the North Caucasus. So the fear is not only aboutRussia’s decreasing population, but even more so about the fact thatRussiais less ethnically Russian.
The instinctive response to fears of relative demographic decline of ethnic Russians is a growing ‘fortress Russia’ syndrome. At its core, Russia’s defensive nationalism rests on a much diminished belief in Russia’s power to expand and assimilate its periphery, particularly the culturally distant Muslim populations of Central Asia and the Caucasus. The nationalist schism is clearly visible at nationalist marches parts of the crowd shout ‘there is no Russia without Caucasus’ whereas other parts shout ‘Stop feeding the Caucasus’ and ‘Migrants today, Occupiers tomorrow’.
imagine de Anne Wölk
The Democratic-Nationalist Mix
Now Russian nationalism seems to give birth to a new permutation – a merger of some forms of defensive nationalism with democratic and part-liberal views. Some in Russia hope that such a mix would appeal to many young, urban, middle class Russians who often see themselves as liberals, hold democratic views, despise Putinism, and are Western-leaning (though not uncritically so), but are also increasingly anti-immigrant.
The new liberal-nationalist fusion gradually trickles down into the political process, as some democrats start to move towards the adoption of some nationalist views, while some nationalists seem to have moved towards the centre. Vladimir Milov, a prominent Russian liberal, decided to take the bull by the horns by initiating some kind of a conceptualisation of a liberal-nationalist fusion that would supposedly reclaim nationalism from various neo-nazi groupings.
The democratic-nationalist mix has not yet crystallized in a series of coherent views, leaders, let alone organisations. But it starts to take some shape. A good example is Alexei Navalny – the emerging star of the Russian opposition. He is a hugely popular anti-corruption campaigner, the most popular blogger inRussiaand widely seen as the anti-Putinists’ best hope. His success is built on three pillars: anti-corruption and pro-democracy campaigning mixed with a pitch of moderate nationalism. These are all channelled through creative, systematic and well informed anti-corruption and anti-Putin campaign that fuses smartly internet activism (blogging, crowd-sourcing etc), with offline actions (minority shareholders activism, court actions, monitoring of public tenders, writing formal complaints to public institutions forcing them to respond etc). NowMoscowis buzzing with talk of Navalny asRussia’s future president.
Navalny himself is a democrat. He also has a strong record of taking part in democratic groups and movements in the last decade. He is also for the separation of powers, transparency and other worthy causes. His declared belief (or here) is that ‘the purpose of the state is to ensure comfortable and dignified conditions for its citizens, and defend their individual and collective rights. A nation-state means that Russia should follow the European path, ie build our own nice, cosy, but strong and solid, little European house.’ Yet he also attends the so-called Russian March – an annual gathering of nationalists. Asked whether he supports the nationalist slogan ‘Russia for Russians’ he responded that he supports the slogan ‘Russia for Russian citizens’ – a slightly more inclusive, yet still nationalist slogan.
It is still unclear whether Navalny is a strong believer in a nationalist agenda, or is a calculated strategic nationalist. Either way, combining democratic rhetoric with anti-corruption and nationalist undertones offers him a really strong launching pad to tap into support of several societal groups that no one inRussiabridged so far.
Refreshing or toxic?
It is too early to tell whether the nationalist-democratic cocktail will prove a toxic liquid or the ticket to the future for the so far marginalised Russian democrats. Either way the nationalist-liberal rapprochement sparks tensions within both camps. Some expansionist nationalists are fuming that the liberals are trying to turn the nationalists into ‘cannon fodder for a liberal revanche’. Whereas the liberals, as Andreas Umland points, fear that nationalists could subvert pro-democracy movements.
Putin apologists seize on this. Some of them attack the popular Navalny by drawing parallels between him and Kerensky, the Russian burgeois revolutionary leader who came to power after overthrowing the Tsar in February 1917, only to be forced out by a ruthless communist coup led by Vladimir Lenin eight months later. The parallel is supposed to suggest that nastier forces will steal whatever democratic advancesRussia might make once Putin is out.
But it is also possible that Russian democrats could use the nationalist bandwagon to expand their influence and ultimately help channel and co-opt the potentially strong force of Russian nationalism into a more democratic and pluralist vein, as some democrats hope. Either way, Russian liberals are now engaged not only in a contest with Putin’s system, but also in a tense, but irresistible tango with Russian nationalism.