Russia, How to Re-Mythologize Greatpowerness
Marlene Laruelle 9 November 2015

The aim of the two-day workshop held in Berlin at the Deutsche Gesellschaft Für Auswärtige Politik on the 22nd and 23rd June 2015 onThe Evolution of Russian Political Thought After 1991 was to go beyond looking at Russia through the prism of Putin’s personality and motivations, and to comprehend what are the stakes of Russia’s contemporary political culture as well as Russia’s ideological trajectory over the last twenty-five years.

One of the main conclusions of the workshop is that political liberalism as an ideology and as a political thought in Russia has been largely discredited. Western countries and international organizations have probably underestimated the trauma of the collapse of the Soviet Union, which instilled in a significant part of the Russian public a distrust toward liberalism, there understood as an ideological justification to destroy the Soviet Welfare state. This disqualification of political liberalism, associated by the Russian public opinion with neoliberal economic practices responsible for huge socioeconomic inequalities, contributes largely, today, to the call within Russia for a return to a Great Power status.

We need to remember that a large part of the Russian society has been calling for Russia’s international prestige and a comeback to some Soviet practices and conservative values since the early 1990s – with the electoral successes of the Communist Party for instance – long before “greatpowerness” and conservatism became the flagship of Putin’s third mandate. Indeed, for part of the public opinion, Russia’s greatpowerness is synonym for a strong state domestically, capable of reinstating a paternalistic social-economic order. This can explain why one notices a rising support for Putin even now in a time of economic crisis: the great power quest is seen as a prelude for a stronger state that would be able to provide social services, whereas the current economic crisis in fact generates the contrary.

During our discussions, we all noticed the increasing mythologization of the current state discourse and the inflation of metaphorical terms used to describe Russia’s mission in the world, its distinctiveness, and the “normality” of current tensions with a mythified “West.” Political legitimacy is today articulated around patriotic rhetoric and state militarism, a focus on Russia as a territory and a resource, a slew of conspiratorial assumptions, and a growing “securitization” of culture and politics. But there are also many debates on Russia’s nature, specifically whether to become a nation-state in the European model or to instead revive the imperial tradition.

These multifaceted political narratives are closely interrelated with domestic and international situations. If one looks at Russia’s domestic situation, and especially at the state of the Russian public opinion, will notice than even if Russian public opinion massively supports the regime’s position on the Ukrainian crisis and the annexation of Crimea, one continues to see relatively pluralistic opinions regarding the evolution of Russia itself. Frustration towards political authorities is widespread, as well as distrust toward the state structure, the corruption of the administrative apparatus, and a deep anxiety about the future – especially the economic future. These elements of frustration towards the regime have been partly obscured by the visible consensus around the Ukrainian issue, but they will reemerge in the near future, especially if the economic situation continues to deteriorate.

We should thus acknowledge almost full support by the Russian public for the country’s foreign policy but a deep distrust regarding the capacity of the current regime to improve the situation domestically. Even if the Russian political landscape is more and more restricted, Russian society remains very diverse, animated by contradictory trends. The upper and middle classes look toward the West: many of them would like to live in Europe, to go on vacation there, to send their children there, and to retire there. They also share with a large part of European public opinion a fear of the Muslim world, and the mass migrations coming from southern countries. In many aspects, in their way of life and their values, they are an integral part of a pan-European public opinion. But, of course, a majority of them see the “West” – a term that encompasses more the United States than Europe per se — as a geopolitical competitor and potentially even a military enemy.

During this workshop, we vividly debated Russia’s international strategies, both regarding its so-called “NearAbroad” as well as with the other main world powers. The general consensus is that reading Russia’s reassertion to the international scene in terms of a will to resuscitate the Soviet Union from its ashes is mistaken. The goal is not a political reconstruction of the dead empire, but a strategic move based on an interpretation – or misinterpretation – of the West’s long-term goals towards Russia and Eurasia. Seen from the Kremlin’s perspective, Russian national security interests are threatened because some of its neighbors are trying to move away from Moscow’s traditional dominion. Based on this statement – we can consider it correct or false, but that is another debate – the Kremlin is trying to build an alternative strategy that reinforces state sovereignty, in a very “Westphalian” sense, against the international community, that promotes new regional platforms like the BRICS, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization or the Eurasian Economic Union, and that seeks a new financial order not based on the dollar. Of course Russia’s so-called “alternative world order” directly serves regime interests and Russia’s own agenda in its “Near Abroad.” It is also partly based on a misinterpretation, by Russia, of its relationship to China and the way China is positioning itself on the international system.

State sovereignty and state power thus became crucial concepts for the Kremlin. In this context, we also discussed the place of nationalism, often presented in American and European media as a driving factor in determining Russia’s position towards Eurasia. We expressed contradictory viewpoints on that issue, but we all agreed that the Putin’s regime displays a cynical and instrumental use of nationalism, flag-shipping it a posteriori to explain what is in fact geostrategic motivations and pragmatic interests. The Kremlin’s foreign policy is thus much less closely related to “nationalism” than it is to the regime’s self-preservation and need for popular legitimacy. The anti-Putin protests of winter 2011-2012 dramatically changed the givens for Putin and his circle, as it challenged the political status quo. Building a narrative around confrontation with the West, now a typical feature of Putin’s third mandate, has to be understood as a key tool for consolidating legitimacy at home.

To conclude, it is probably important to come back to what Giancarlo Bosetti mentioned in his introductory remarks. We were all surprised by the annexation of Crimea, and we shouldn’t negate the existence of deep, contradictory interests between Russia, on the one hand, Europe and the United States on the other, regarding the fate of Eurasia and the ability of post-Soviet countries to self-determination. On many other international issues, Russia and the “West” share a lot of common interests. How to avoid any new escalation? How to build a narrative able to recognize these deep disagreements but to still offer room for cooperation internationally, and not to cut the links built between peoples?  How to provide help to the portion of the Russian population that still looks at Russia as an integral part of the post-Cold War “West” and that calls for progressive reform? These still remains questions without answers which need the reflections of the other speakers.

* Marlene Laruelle is Research Professor of International Affairs and Associate Director of the Institute for European, Russian and Eurasian Studies (IERES) at the Elliott School of International Affairs, George Washington University. She explores contemporary political, social and cultural changes in Russia and Central Asia through the prism of ideologies and nationalism. She has authored Russian Eurasianism: An Ideology of Empire (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2008), In the Name of the Nation: Nationalism and Politics in Contemporary Russia(Palgrave, 2009), and Russia’s Strategies in the Arctic and the Future of the Far North (M.E. Sharpe, 2013).

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Between June 22nd and 25th 2015, Reset-Dalogues on Civilizations organized an international workshop and a roundtable on The Evolution of Russian Political Thought After 1991. The conference, held in Berlin at the Deutsche Gesellschaft für Auswärtige Politik, included a roundtable focused on The Political Culture of Today’s Russia.