What makes a good liberal president


Emil Pain

Emil Pain is a qualified political scientist at the Higher School of Economics, Moscow. From 1996-1999 he was an advisor to the Russian President on issues of inter-ethnic relations and nationalism. To date, he has published 16 monographs and over 400 articles on the subjects of nationalism, ethnic conflicts and ideological currents and their influence on political developments in Russia.

What role does populism play in the Russian political landscape? Can the autocratic government of Russia under the leadership of Putin be described as populist, or is it more elitist? Emil Pain discusses prevailing forms of demagogy in Russia.

President Putin is compared to US President Donald Trump by the liberal opposition, even though the Russian President does not need to resort to populism. (& copy picture alliance / AP Photo)


This article analyzes the role of populism in Russian politics and its inadequate assessments in ideological discussions. The term "populism" itself has vague and at the same time deeply negative traits. From the perspective of the regime in Russia, populism stands above all for the danger of "colored revolutions" such as those in Georgia, Ukraine and the one currently developing in Armenia. As the most important means of preventing this type of "populism", the Russian government uses preventive repression against popular opposition figures and leaders of social movements such as Alexei Navalnyj. The liberal opposition uses the word "populists" to brand the regime in Russia. President Putin has been compared to US President Donald Trump, although the Russian President doesn't need to resort to populism to stay in power for as long as he wants. The article assumes that populism in Russia is weak and often only an apparent one, while in reality the influence on the political process comes from another form of demagogy, namely elitism, which is by no means based on flirting with the people. but on a contempt for the people and the fear of mass movements.

Hopes and fears of the liberals in Russia

In mid-April 2018, three events were discussed in the Russian press and social networks, which are different in nature, but to the same extent shed light on the main tendencies of the mood in society in Russia. The first was the recent rocket strikes by the US and its allies against Syria, which it seemed to conjure up the threat of a third world war, but which ended with the usual propaganda roar, with a strong warning to the US from the Russian side Government calling this airstrike an "act of aggression". The second was the crash in Russian securities markets following the announcement of another US sanction package previously imposed on Russian oligarchs and bureaucrats on April 6th. The third was the "rubbish demonstrations" that took place in nine cities in the Moscow area: The residents protested against the extreme overloading of rubbish dumps and demanded that the environmental problems that had arisen be resolved. These demonstrations were particularly often commented on in the opposition, especially in the more liberal segments of the Russian Internet. Against the background of the Western sanctions and the military pressure from the West, they were almost interpreted as harbingers of the overthrow of the Putin regime, even if, even according to the most optimistic estimates, no more than five thousand people took part in the actions and there were no political slogans to be recognized were.

For those members of the opposition who were expecting a large wave of violent protests against Putin, the results of a fresh poll by the "Levada Center" came like a cold shower. They showed that currently only eight percent of those questioned are willing to take part in protest actions in order to defend their social rights. Only six percent would take part in political protests. And that when these numbers were double two years ago, even if at that time there was already a decline in the willingness to protest. This decline is by no means accidental and mainly due to the increasing confrontation between Russia and the West after the annexation of Crimea. The widespread psychology of a "besieged fortress" that develops in this situation reinforces the consolidation of the people of Russia against an external enemy. And it leads to people rallying around the state leader, who from now on is perceived as a defender, savior and irreplaceable leader. This ensures that Vladimir Putin has huge support, both in the presidential elections and in the opinion polls. Even the increasing economic problems and crises cast no shadow over the sacred leader figure.

Such a situation, in which with a consolidation against an external enemy and a growing need for "leadership", irrational and mythologized attitudes increase in the general population, has been described in detail in research. So far, however, it has hardly been received by the liberal opposition in Russia. In their ideas, illusionary hopes for mass protests and a simultaneous fear of them are mixed in a strange way. On social media, Russian liberals are constantly discussing the question of whether spontaneous mass protests are more dangerous for Russian intellectuals and ethnic minorities than the current authoritarian system. Another question that is often discussed is whether a new populist leader of the popular masses could become an even more authoritarian leader than Putin. This is exactly how Alexei Navalnyj, today's most popular leader in the ranks of the democratic opposition, is viewed by many Russian liberals.

The well-known publicist Stanislaw Belkowskij, who appeared in the past presidential elections as the most important political advisor in the team of the liberal candidate Ksenija Sobchak, had the slogan "Better Putin than Navalnyj!" issued. Many other liberal critics had repeatedly accused Navalnyj of leadership behavior and populism (unfortunately it is not possible at this point to comment on these assessments in more detail). From a political science point of view, Navalnyj can indeed be assigned to the latter category, since his most important instrument, with which he seeks to get larger sections of the population behind him, is the classic populist juxtaposition of the "good people" and the authoritarian, corrupt and anti-people " bad elite "exists. This is typical social populism - but in view of the current situation in Russia, should it really be viewed as something clearly negative?

Everyone feared populism

Populism is largely perceived negatively in Russia and most political forces fear it. However, this phenomenon and the dangers associated with it are by no means understood by everyone in the same way.

For the Russian regime, populism means above all the danger of "colored revolutions". In the Kremlin, this is the term used to describe mass movements that strive for a non-violent change in the political regime. Such revolutions had taken place in Georgia ("Rose Revolution" 2003), in Kyrgyzstan ("Tulip Revolution" 2005), in Ukraine ("Orange Revolution" 2004 and "Revolution of Dignity" 2013-14) and one is currently happening in Armenia, where Prime Minister Serzh Sargsyan has already resigned. As the main tool to prevent this "populism", the Russian government resorted to preventive repression against popular opposition figures and leaders of social movements. It relies on the judiciary, which is completely dependent on the executive branch. Most of all, the Kremlin fears Alexei Navalnyj, who has twice been sentenced to probation for economic crimes (first in the "Kirovles case", then in the "Yves Rocher case"). Although the European Court of Human Rights found both judgments unfounded, they served as an excuse for the Russian authorities to deny Navalnyj the right to stand for election in the 2018 presidential election.

At the same time, the Kremlin - again with the help of judicial prosecution - robbed a political movement that was once strong, namely that of the Russian nationalists. In 2016 and 2017 the following were convicted on various (and often highly dubious) charges: Alexandr Below, leader of the "Movement Against Illegal Immigration", one of the most popular nationalist organizations; Dmitrij Djomuschkin, who headed the formerly influential "Slavic League"; Maxim Marzinkewitsch (nickname: "Tesak"), founder and ideologist of the radical nationalist movement "Restrukt" as well as dozens of leaders of the nationalists at the regional level. With this approach, the regime finally "finished off" the primitive organizations of Russian nationalism. The latter, however, has not been a relevant political force in its own right, practically since the annexation of Crimea to Russia, which was celebrated with enthusiasm by most Russian nationalists. Even then, many of the nationalists had refrained from criticizing the regime and thereby largely lost their political independence. In this way, the official, state nationalism has displaced the social "grassroots" nationalism and appropriated it for itself.

The Russian liberals understand "populism" differently. In their discourse, this term is valued primarily as a political style that tries to manipulate the broader population with the help of unrealizable promises or by fueling fears of external and internal enemies. This classification of populism is not wrong, but extremely narrow, and it makes it difficult to distinguish populism from a broader phenomenon, demagoguery. Such an understanding obscures the key political function of populism as an instrument in political competition.

Like the Russian regime, the liberal opposition fears national populism on the part of Russian nationalism. She is cautious about Navalnyj's social populism, but nevertheless accuses President Putin most of all of populism. The latter is often compared to politicians from abroad who are firmly regarded as populists (e.g. Silvio Berlusconi and Donald Trump). However, the fundamental differences between Russian and Western politicians are not recognized. Western politicians operate in a field of political competition and use populism as a battering ram to gain power. But Putin - like his colleagues in Kazakhstan, Belarus, Azerbaijan and a number of other states with an authoritarian regime - does not need populism to maintain his power for decades. After all, any candidate for the highest office who could pose a threat to him simply cannot be admitted to the elections - as in the Navalnyj case. Both Trump in the last presidential election in the USA and Berlusconi in the last parliamentary elections in Italy appeared as opposition politicians with regard to the respective government and followed a classic approach for populism in this situation: criticism of the establishment on behalf of the protester People. As the country's immortal leader, Putin will of course not criticize the system or the establishment. On the contrary: He embodies them and defends them against all forms of protest, including against populist protest.

Apparent populism and real elitism

Putin is not a monarch, he has established a regime of "fake democracy" in which - formally - elections take place, a parliament exists and the courts are independent. All of these institutions serve only as a decoration of the authoritarian regime, while at the same time they are dependent on the one ruler and his immediate surroundings. An imitative democracy needs an imitative populism for internal legitimacy. That is why Putin himself shows many signs of populism: he "talks to the people" on annual television "direct lines" with the president, he makes promises to "the people" directly, over the heads of the regional and local administrations. The state led by Putin manipulates social moods, works with clichés of imperial thinking and enhances the reality in Russia. This pretended populism lacks the most important characteristic of real populism, namely that it is based on protest moods in the country. In Russia, such sentiments are either nipped in the bud or they are channeled into hatred of an external enemy, America or the West as a whole.

To a greater extent, the parties of the so-called system opposition and their long-time leaders show outward signs of populism. For example, in two of the oldest parties in post-Soviet Russia, the LDPR and the KPRF, which have been represented in the State Duma since 1993 and have had the same chairman for a quarter of a century (Vladimir Zhirinovsky and Gennady Zyuganov), characteristics of a demonstrative, demonstrative can easily be found Make up populism. Both parties call themselves parties of the people: Shirinovsky and his LDPR emphasize their social and national ties to the people (for example with slogans such as "We stand for the poor, we stand for the [ethnic] Russians"), and the communists define themselves as the "party of Workers and Peasants "and as the" Party of the Working People. "Both parties publicly oppose the elite, but not the real elite of the" siloviki "(officers of the police, the army and the secret services), the backbone of today's Russia of the political class, not even against the well-known group of the new "oligarchs" (the friends of President Putin). They turn against a fictional elite of liberals, who are actually a discriminated minority in Russian politics today ( in the language of state propaganda: "foreign agents" and "fifth column") and are not represented in parliament at all.

Populism is not the only variety of modern demagogy. There is another closely related form, elitism. While populism is based on flirting with the people, elitism in various forms demonstrates contempt for the people. In today's Russia, elitism is the prevalent form of demagoguery that can be found among much of the Russian elite, both within the regime and within the opposition. Elitarianism is a form of cultural racism, an ideology based on an idea prevalent among the elites that the people (the "biomass") are incapable of governing themselves or adequately assessing the situation due to natural or historical circumstances.

In Russia and some other post-Soviet countries, a paternalistic elitism can be observed in the regimes in which the people are merely an object to be administered, in short: subjects, "unreasonable children" who perish without paternal supervision. The authoritarian leader starts from the conviction that he knows better than the people what the latter needs. In practice, this paternalism is vividly reflected in the formal and informal titles of post-Soviet leaders who are often referred to as "father of the people" ("Turkmenbaschi" / "Turkmenbaşy" - "leader of the Turkmen" in Turkmenistan; "Elbasy" - "leader of the Nation "in Kazakhstan," Batka "/" Bazka "-" Father "in Belarus ...). Propaganda in Russia calls Putin the "leader of the nation".

Snobbish elitism is widespread in circles that are in opposition to the regime. He repeats the thought of José Ortega y Gasset: "Since the masses by their very nature cannot or are not allowed to direct their own existence and are even less able to govern the community [...]" (uprising of the masses 1929/1931). In Russia, the elitism of oppositional, liberal circles is expressed in a number of nicknames: "sovki" [disparaging for "Soviet people" and "nostalgic Soviet bourgeois"], "slaves", "wadding jackets" and others. The well-known Russian psychologist Lyudmila Petranovskaya has found a tendency among members of the most educated and opposition-minded class in Russia to reproduce the phrase about the "wretched nation of slaves".

Populism and Democracy - Is Everything Bad About Populism?

The example of Russia clearly shows that real populism is only possible under democratic conditions. In the era of totalitarianism, the potential populists were in prisons, in the gulag, along with all sorts of other political actors who had thought of protesting against the Soviet nomenclature. Russia is not a totalitarian state today.There is a regime of imitation democracy there, and populism is only fake, an imitation. Real populism, on the other hand, can only develop if there is political competition and democracy. Furthermore, in countries with only a weak democratic tradition, in which the ruling elite are not used to acting according to democratic rules, it can, under certain conditions, promote the first steps towards democracy. The turning away from the communist system and the establishment of democracy in Poland at the end of the 1980s is inextricably linked with Lech Wałęsa and his colleagues in the Solidarność trade union, who clearly used populist elements. The first steps towards democracy in Russia in the early 1990s were taken under the populist Boris Yeltsin, and the successes in the reforms to de-bureaucratisation and in the fight against corruption in Georgia in the 2000s are in large part due to the populist President Mikheil Saakashvili.

Part of the few hopes for a way out of Russia's current political stagnation could be linked to the figure of the populist Alexei Navalnyj. He is the only liberal opposition activist who addresses broad sections of the population and appears on behalf of the whole people, and not just a narrow ideological group with a pronounced pro-Western orientation. Navalnyj is not only popular as a politician. His "Youtube" channel has over two million subscribers and continues to grow. The video clip "Tschajka" published in December 2015, in which the research results were shown on the children of the prosecutor general of the same name who were hoisted into lucrative posts in the state corporation, has six million Views reached. And the portrait "That's not a Dimon" [p. also http://www.laender-analysen.de/russland/pdf/RusslandAnalysen332.pdf; P. 15] about a system of corruption in which the Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev was allegedly involved was viewed 23 million times.

Most importantly, Navalnyi's agenda of fighting corruption and government authoritarianism is not just popular with many people, but can potentially lead to disillusionment among the population. The people would be released from the clutches of the mythology of the "besieged fortress" and the confrontation with the West. The people could then turn their attention to a solution to the country's internal problems.

There may be other popular leaders in Russia who are not as well known as Navalnyj. Be that as it may - in a future in which there is a democratic change in the country, the key role will most likely not fall to marginal oppositional figures and capital city snobs, but to populists in the true sense of the word. Those who declare themselves and their movement to be the embodiment of the common people ("I am one of you - I take the tram, I stand in line, I live in a poor area ..."), who on behalf of the people of the existing political elite Express mistrust and present the picture of an attractive future.

Translation from Russian: Hartmut Schröder

Reading tips

  • Laruelle, Marlene: Alexei Navalny and challenges in reconciling "nationalism" and "liberalism", in: Post-Soviet Affairs, 30.2014, No. 4, pp. 276-297.
  • Rovira Kaltwasser, C .; P. Taggart, P. Ostiguy, P. Ochoa Espejo (eds.): Handbook of populism, Oxford: Oxford University Press 2017.

The Russia analyzes are jointly published by the Research Center for Eastern Europe at the University of Bremen, the German Society for Eastern European Studies, the German Poland Institute, the Leibniz Institute for Agricultural Development in Transition Economies, the Leibniz Institute for East and Southeast European Research and the Center for Eastern European and International Studies (ZOiS) gGmbH. The bpb publishes them as a licensed edition.