SOVA Center’s Report at conference 'Russian power projection in the twenty-first century" in Tartu
Natalia Yudina (SOVA Center for Information and Analysis) took part in the conference ‘Russian power projection in the twenty-first century’ in Tartu on November 24 – 27, 2014. Here we publish her presentation at plenary discussions "Russian state and society: how sustainable is the new consolidation?" on November 26.
The political consolidation of Putin’s regime rose to new heights in 2014, and not only due to his 85% popularity rating – the important part is what exactly these people support.
This unparalleled political support rallied by the Kremlin is not entirely the result of the propaganda campaign against the “Kiev Junta” or “Bandera followers.”
Unlike in the previous years, the regime has now worked out its own ideology – a nationalist one. Of course the racial or ethnic nationalism that prevails “in the streets” could not be adopted as the government’s official policy. It was therefore replaced by a milder version – an odd mixture of political nationalism (although without the civil or democratic component) and the so-called “civilizational” nationalism, a concept based on the uniqueness of the Russian civilization as opposed to the West. Yet, ethnic nationalism cannot be entirely excluded from nationalism as the official policy.
This much is obvious from what is happening in Ukraine today. They are fighting for “the Russian world,” or for “Russians,” which suggests that the national unity concept, understood as the Russian civilization-based unity, still involves some ethnic bias.
Some of the moves made by the federal government in the previous years demonstrated the same attitude. The federal program “on strengthening the unity of the Russian nation and ethnic and cultural development of the peoples of Russia in 2014-2020” was drafted in 2011 and approved in August 2013. It lists actions aimed at “a greater unity of the Russian nation” as opposed to ethnic or culture-based rallying (including Russian ethnic nationalism). The proposed unity was to be achieved on the basis of the “civil nation principles” as well as “civilizational nationalism.” The goals of the government’s ethnic policy made sense; however, no efforts that could achieve the desired result even theoretically, were made. On the other hand, this was hardly one of the Kremlin’s priorities at the time, which is why the ruling elites failed to overcome their disagreements and combine efforts to work out any feasible policy line. Instead, the government made a series of clearly populist moves of the ethnic nationalist nature.
The SOVA Center for Information and Analysis focuses on studying the nationalist movement in Russia, and this report will be mainly centered on how it fares amid the most recent political consolidation and the war in Ukraine, and how the government responds to it.
The year 2013 brought a really unexpected turn in the development of nationalism in Russia. While in 2012 the Kremlin launched various propaganda campaigns against the opposition that relied on many Russians’ xenophobic sentiments, its ethnic policy targets remained unchanged. Things changed in the beginning of 2013 – or at least from spring 2013. An unexpected anti-immigrant campaign was launched by the governments of several Russian regions, including Moscow and St. Petersburg, and continued for months. In Moscow, this policy change could be explained by the mayoral elections; but no elections were held in St. Petersburg that year. What’s more, the campaign was eagerly supported by federal TV channels. Police raids and the increasingly frequent prosecution of non-citizens were only one aspect of that campaign; how and how often this was shown to the public was far more important. That campaign led to an unprecedented rise of ethnic xenophobia in Russia. Yet, it could be considered a breakdown because it was short-lived: it began in spring and ended around October or November.
Still, radical nationalists immediately responded to the government’s call by a series of moves of their own, from political rallies to so-called “raids.” Incidentally, even the pro-Kremlin Rodina party then staged similar raids (and continues doing so). In fact, raids as a moderately violent but safe form of activity had long been used by ultra-right groups. They intensified in 2012; in 2013, “Russian cleanings” surged to an unprecedented scale, involving nationalist groups such as the Shield of Moscow, Bright Rus and others. At the same time our observations showed a disruption of the 2009-2012 downward trend in racist violence.
All of this has definitely increased the importance of the violence aspect in the discussion of Russian nationalism. Radical nationalist groups gained popularity due to the media attention they were getting as part of the anti-immigrant campaign; the authorities even had to slow down some of the most ardent volunteers helping them fight illegal immigration. The Russian nationalist movement entered a period of optimistic expectations.
Admittedly, few of those expectations were actually became associated with any official political activity. Although many ultra-right movements tried to register their own political parties, only a few of them actually succeeded: Sergei Baburin’s Russian National Union and Dmitry Rogozin’s Rodina Party. However, even these two oldest parties have not been entrusted with the authority to communicate the government’s ideas to the public; the “Russian world” ideas are being conveyed by pro-government agencies. Other nationalists failed to register their parties.
In the first half of 2014, active Russian citizens’ attention was riveted on Ukraine. The fight against “fascists” and “Bandera followers” then partly ousted nationalist ideas and even made them taboo. For the first time in months, opinion polls showed lowering levels of xenophobia, while the general “anti-Bandera” sentiment entered into conflict with the essential content of the ultra-right groups’ main activities. The anti-immigrant sentiment that the nationalists of the 2000s entirely relied on, and which was high in 2013, faded.
One important and unexpected outcome of the Ukrainian events was the reconfiguration of the nationalist movement.
The Ukrainian crisis, which began with clashes in Grushevskogo Street, revived nationalists’ hopes for the “white revolution” success in Russia: the Maidan riots were seen as a positive example, especially if one overstated the Right Sector’s role. The transition from the “government vs. opposition” conflict to a different phase that can be described as “ethnic Ukrainians vs. ethnic Russians” made Russian nationalists face a difficult choice. While the opposition-minded part of nationalists initially supported the Maidan protesters, serious disagreements emerged among them later.
The leaders of publicly active organizations have been the most outspoken. As expected, most nationalist organizations approve of the annexation of Crimea and the so-called "Russian Spring." They all view the conflict in Ukraine as a battle that pits ethnic Russians against ethnic Ukrainians and the West. Thus, even groups that view the Moscow regime as anti-Russian support "our own people" in the Donbass in eastern Ukraine.
Few of these groups oppose the "Russian Spring." They include the majority of leaders among the “Russians” association as well as their allies. Ironically, their statements closely resemble those made by their sworn enemies in the liberal opposition. These nationalists contend that both the Russians and Ukrainians in Ukraine would do better to live under the hated authorities in Kiev, or better still, independently, than under what they see as President Vladimir Putin's "anti-Russian regime."
The majority of Russian nationalists are autonomous militants that do not belong to any formal political organizations, and who are also in disagreement over Ukraine.
With the conflict growing into a full-fledged war, it is important to note that there are supporters of different viewpoints on both sides of the frontline in eastern Ukraine.
According to rough estimates, at least 200 nationalists are fighting for “Novorossiya,” including non-registered Cossacks; maybe more. Less known organizations are more active in sending fighters to the conflict area, such as Alexander Barkashov’s Russian National Unity, or the National Liberation Movement led by United Russia deputy Yevgeny Fyodorov. One thing is still clear through – those Russians who are fighting in Novorossiya are people of different backgrounds and viewpoints, and few of them are associated with specific nationalist organizations. Still fewer facts are known about those fighting on the other side. Most of them, if not all, are neo-Nazis, but there are different types among them.
New splits between nationalists alone could not have weakened the movement that is used to disagreement. But this new schism is of a different nature. The “Russian Spring” supporters are actually parroting the federal channels’ statements because they have no policy of their own. The opponents feel vulnerable, not only due to the concentrated pressure from the police, but also because, while being used to considering themselves at “the forefront of the majority of the nation,” they have now found themselves in the minority.
Furthermore, the war in Ukraine has overshadowed many other problems. While the opposing leaders are still capable of reaching some agreement, common nationalists – especially militant nationalists – are reluctant to compromise on this sensitive issue and prefer avoiding any contact with political leaders. This much has become obvious from the record low number of participants in this November’s Russian March event.
It is important to note that, although existing Russian nationalist organizations are growing weaker, new and stronger ones have not been established or inspired from the top.
The Kremlin has not established any special organizations to air its new policy, apart from the aforementioned National Liberation Movement, which is rather insignificant. The policy is being implemented by the Kremlin itself, its United Russia party and affiliated groups. Even the “official nationalist” Rodina party is playing quite a small role. This means that supporting the presidential policy requires no subtleties.
On the other hand, we can see that the number of racist attacks is not going down. According to our preliminary estimates, at least 114 people have suffered from violence motivated by xenophobia or neo-Nazism this year; 19 of them died. These figures are bound to increase even more.
Many of those now fighting in Donbass will soon return to Russia, with their dream of a “Russian riot” or “white revolution” that no longer seems so fantastic. Moreover, the “enhance fighting capacity” rhetoric used by the Russian government during the Ukrainian crisis clearly legitimizes violence. Therefore, radical rightwing forces may sharply intensify their activity here in Russia in yet another aftermath of this war.
Although we cannot predict the nature or mechanisms of that activity at this stage, it remains a very realistic possibility.
In conclusion I would like to note that the political consolidation of Russian society around the Kremlin, on a scale that is surprising event for Putin’s regime, is a fact now. This consolidation is fraught with social quakes that are impossible to avoid or even predict.