Russia’s liberal-nationalist cocktail: elixir of life or toxic poison?

Young, liberal figures such as Alexei Navalny and Vladimir Milov are building bridges between democratic and nationalist wings of the protest movement. Will this marriage prove a mix that mobilises a nation against the Putin regime, or will it taint the legitimacy of both sides in years to come?   

The existence of divisions among Russia’s democratic forces is proverbial. But the same can be said of Russian nationalism. Nationalism is a movement that is not only increasingly split between an imperial, expansionist and cosmopolitan version, on the one hand, and an introvert, defensive and anti-immigrant one the other, but also in the throes of mutation as it attracts moderates and democrats who would previously have given it a wide berth. 

This presents different challenges for everyone. The Russian government fears that a nationalist-democratic consolidation on an anti-Putinist platform would make a much more formidable adversary than the 'official' opposition allowed in parliament. Russian democrats also have their own dilemmas as their flirtation with nationalism is on the verge of evolving into a marriage of convenience, a combination that could produce either their elixir of life or a toxic poison.

From imperialist 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 ideologies, increasing exponentially the number of mutations to which it can be subject.

In post-Soviet Russia virtually all political forces – from Putin to the Communists – have 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’. As Russia 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.

One of Vladimir Putin’s recent pre-election articles 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 imperialist nationalism was based on a strong confidence in Russia’s state capacity, power of territorial expansion and cultural attraction. However, the growing realisation of Russia’s structural problems – from demographic crisis to bad governance under Putin, topped by the economic crisis – has led to some structural shifts in Russian nationalism.   

An increasingly obvious trend in the last few years is for the ‘old’ expansionist nationalism to rapidly lose 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 with territorial expansion. The key source of this defensive nationalism is the toxic mix of high immigration into Russia coupled with a demographic crisis. With over 12 million migrants, Russia is the second biggest recipient of inward migration in the world after the US, though as a share of migrants per total population Russia only ranks 55th in the world.

Recently ‘old’ expansionist nationalism has rapidly lost ground to a new breed of isolationist, defensive nationalism that is primarily anti-immigrant and often anti-imperial, more concerned with maintaining Russia’s ‘Russianness’ than with territorial expansion.

From the nationalists' perspective Russia’s demographic crisis is two-fold. One aspect is the decline of Russia's population, with the treat of further decline due to the higher numbers of old than young. 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, the pace of which has indeed slowed, partly due to immigration (primarily from  Central Asia and the south Caucasus) and higher population growth among some Russian minorities, particularly in the north Caucasus. So the fear is not only about Russia’s decreasing population, but even more so about the fact that Russia is becoming 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’.

The Democratic-Nationalist Mix

Now Russian nationalism seems to give birth to a new permutation – a merger of the defensive type of nationalism with elements of democratic and liberal thought.

Some in Russia hope that this kind of mix will appeal to many young, urban, middle-class Russians who often see themselves as liberals, hold democratic views, despise Putin's regime, and are western-leaning (though not uncritically so) while on the other hand being increasingly anti-immigration.

The new liberal-nationalist fusion gradually trickles down into the political process, as some democrats start to move towards the adoption of nationalist views, while at the same time some nationalists seem to have moved towards the centre ground. Vladimir Milov, a prominent Russian liberal, decided to take the bull by the horns by initiating a liberal-nationalist fusion that aims to reclaim nationalism from Russia's extremist groups.

The liberal-nationalist mix has not yet crystallised in a series of coherent views and leaders, let alone organisations. But it is starting 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 in Russia and widely seen as the anti-Putinists’ best hope. His success is built on three pillars: anti-corruption campaigning, pro-democracy activism, and a pinch of moderate nationalism. He goes about these activities by a very savvy mix of internet activism (blogging, crowd-sourcing, etc.) and offline actions (minority shareholders activism, court actions, monitoring of public tenders, writing formal complaints to public institutions forcing them to respond, etc.). Now Moscow is buzzing with talk of Navalny as Russia’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 in favour of the separation of powers, transparency and other worthy causes. His declared belief 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 'Russian March', a notorious 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 slogan, demonstrating a tolerance of Russia's ethnic minorities who are citizens, yet one which is still distinctly nationalist.

It is still unclear whether Navalny is a strong believer in a nationalist agenda or whether his professed nationalism is primarily a calculated strategy. Either way, the combination of democratic rhetoric with an anti-corruption agenda and nationalist undertones gives him a strong base from which to bridge a range of societal groups in Russia beyond most other potential leaders in Russia today.  

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 out, fear that nationalists could subvert pro-democracy movements.

The combination of democratic rhetoric with an anti-corruption agenda and nationalist undertones offers Alexei Navalny a stronger base to bridge different societal groups in Russia than most other potential leaders.

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 advances Russia might make once Putin is out.

But it is also possible that Russian democrats could expand their influence and ultimately help co-opt the potentially strong force of Russian nationalism, channeling it into a more democratic and pluralist direction. 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.

The article first appeared in opendemocracy.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


Distinguished policy fellow

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