Sunday, August 28, 2016

The Power Vertical

Russia's Silent Majority

Russian March, November 4, in Moscow
Russian March, November 4, in Moscow
For all the crude xenophobic placards and slogans at this week's Russian March, one stood out for its -- dare I say -- cleverness.

"The good half of the population already hates the regime. Soon you will get to know the bad half," read a sign carried by a marcher.

Not only was it clever, but it also rang true. In a recent editorial, wrote that "for the first time, nationalist marches are taking on an oppositionist character."

After years of successfully manipulating nationalists for their own purposes and cultivating xenophobia among the population, the Kremlin is now standing face-to-face with the monster it helped create.

"Those nationalists who did not join up with the authorities in time attached themselves to the protest movement -- you have to avoid your own marginalization somehow," political analyst Andrei Kolesnikov wrote in a recent commentary.

In addition to the predictable chants of "Russia for Russians," "Stop Feeding the Caucasus," and various anti-migrant diatribes at this year's Russian March, there were plenty of calls for the end of Vladimir Putin's "Chekist regime."

But to get a grip on what is really happening in Russia now, we need to look beyond the dramatic and violent manifestations of nationalism -- the race riots in Moscow's Biryulevo district, the attack on a Moscow-Dushanbe train, or marchers calling for "death to Caucasians" -- and look at the more latent, and widespread, variant.

And widespread it is according to a recent poll by the independent Levada Center.

According to the poll, nearly 73 percent of Russians -- and more than 80 percent of Muscovites -- favor the deportation of migrant workers. Some 66 percent of Russians agreed to some degree with the idea that "Russia is for Russians," while only 19 percent said such a sentiment was "fascist."

Commenting on the poll for RFE/RL's Russian Service, Levada Center director Lev Gudkov said it showed that "between 70 and 80 percent" of Russians harbor xenophobic sentiments.

Most of these people will never attend the Russian March. They won't ransack a vegetable warehouse searching for migrants. And they are unlikely to attack a train from Tajikistan.

But they are deeply disturbed by what they perceive as an influx of migrants and with the criminality they associate with it.  Many believe -- despite evidence to the contrary -- that non-Russian citizens of the Russian Federation are privileged and ethnic Russians are discriminated against. 

"To understand Russian nationalism, even racism, you need to realize that despite their political, cultural, and numerical dominance, many Russians see themselves a nation without a state," Sean Guillory of the University of Pittsburgh's Center for Russian and Eastern European Studies wrote in "The Nation." 

It is this latent nationalism of the silent majority that is driving much of the political dynamic right now. These aren't black-clad skinheads. Many are respectable urban professionals, students, and entrepreneurs. In a 2012 report, the Public Chamber warned of a "sharp rise" in xenophobia among city dwellers and the highly educated.

And they're in play politically. "Nationalism has become a universal method of fighting for voters -- both for the authorities and for the opposition," Kolesnikov wrote in 

Gudkov says the rise in nationalist sentiments has been driven by a combination of anxiety about the economy that followed the 2008 financial crisis, anger about official corruption, and the Kremlin's general "crisis of legitimacy" since the 2011 protests.

Opposition leader Aleksei Navalny's recent hedge regarding the Russian March, demonstrably not attending but encouraging his supporters to do so, makes some sense -- tactically at least -- given this environment. Numerous Russia-watchers have noted that he is trying to find that sweet spot that allows him to hold on to both his liberal and nationalist supporters.

But Navalny's nationalist-liberal dance may actually be less of a balancing act than it appears at first glance. Many of his liberal supporters are also latent nationalists.

"More and more, Russians from across the political spectrum are identifying with (and organizing around) a national identity tinged with racism," Ilan Berman, vice president of the Washington-based American Foreign Policy Council wrote recently in "The Atlantic."

In a recent Power Vertical Podcast, Sean Guillory noted that Navalny's conception of "democracy is really a Russian democracy and not one that seeks to incorporate all people of the Russian Federation. He's a democrat but he's a Russian democrat first and foremost." 

And he is playing to the silent majority. Much of this majority also hails from the post-Soviet generation that is now coming of age, a generation that, in addition to being more democratically oriented than their parents, is also somewhat more nationalistic.

Navalny has long argued that Russian nationalism needs to be brought into the mainstream and liberalized to keep it from being monopolized by retrograde elements. But what exactly is liberal nationalism in a multiethnic state? Ideally, it wouldn't be nationalistic at all, but rather an inclusive form of civic patriotism.

Perhaps it will evolve to this at some point. But neither Navalny, nor Russia's silent majority, appear to be anywhere near there yet.

-- Brian Whitmore

NOTE TO READERS: Be sure to tune in to The Power Vertical Podcast on November 8 when I'll discuss these issues with co-hosts Mark Galeotti of New York University and Sean Guillory of the University of Pittsburgh's Center for Russian and Eastern European Studies.
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Comment Sorting
by: John Aandersen from: Minneapolis
November 07, 2013 21:10
Snowden , is America's greatest enemy and should be hunted and brought to trail for treason against America. Aleksei Navalny is Russia's greatest enemy and should be put on trial for treason and , if , Navalny is lucky , he will only to be sent to "The Gulag " in Siberia. Putin should release the girls in Pussy Riot , but turn against the Fascist elements of so-called Liberals ( Navalny's supporters ) in Russia. Putin has to save Russia from itself !!!
In Response

by: Stop hogging it Americans from: Dizzy Land
November 08, 2013 23:17
Interesting article, it is also interesting to see how the Russian people handle these issues they face. But Americans on here THIS IS NOT ABOUT YOU.

I had to respond every time there is an article about another country Americans have to come in and start talking about their country. Can you please lay off that? Thanks Fred Eidlin from Estonia on your comment I found what you had to say interesting but the rest of the comments are Americans going on about America when this is not about America.

Stick to the subject Americans, stop coming in and talking about Hilary and what ever else. Also to the person who said Americans are too stupid well how about you stop acting stupid and stay on topic? There are plenty of places that report about our country where you can post. What are you trying to hog all of the attention?

by: Fred Eidlin from: Tallinn, Estonia
November 07, 2013 21:21
There is nothing surprising about the emergence of this kind of nationalism. To say that the Kremlin helped create this monster is nonsense. While it is true that the Kremlin has, to some extent, attempted to win support from nationalist elements in the population, it is quite a stretch to claim that it has created them. If anything is surprising it is that such nationalism has has take so long to emerge as a as a political force. If at least some of Russia's leadership and mainstream political parties fail to touch these people in their spiritual desperation, and to integrate significant proportions of them into the political mainstream, they will likely pose a growing threat to political stability.

by: Bill Webb from: Phoenix Arizona USA
November 07, 2013 22:37
It's difficult not to sympathize with the nationalistic tendencies of Russia while they are being flooded with the overpopulation that is fleeing poverty and overpopulation all around them. Europe and the US are suffering the same fate. The world must get population under control before we are all overwhelmed.

by: La Russophobe from: USA
November 07, 2013 22:41
"'The good half of the population already hates the regime. Soon you will get to know the bad half,' read a sign carried by a marcher. Not only was it clever, but it also rang true."

Umm, no. It's just plain ludicrous to suggest that half of Russia hates Putin on democratic grounds or is somehow otherwise "good." Were that true Putin would not be in power now. Maybe 10% does so. Maybe. But probably less. The nationalists VASTLY outnumber the democrats, and it is wishful thinking to claim otherwise. Then there is the big chunk of the population that sits on the sidelines and ratifies with their silence.

by: La Russophobe from: USA
November 07, 2013 22:46
It's rather sad that you can't find it within yourself to condemn Navalny's shameless -- indeed, proud -- racism, as many Russian commentators have done. Instead you seem to be rationalizing and enabling it.

by: dzasha from: usa
November 08, 2013 05:36
To bad americans are too stupid to know this is what we need here.
In Response

by: marko from: USA
November 08, 2013 12:43
Given the flood of immigrants amid overall slower economic growth rates, into Russian cities, this isn't terribly surprising. In fact, it is part of an overall global phenomenon. My guess is that Putin & company can manage it (albeit with a few rough spots). They have got unemployment and inflation increasingly under control, and that will buy them time to reorient Russia's economy toward Asia, which is what they need to do. That is where the growth is... Navalny's "nationalist' credentials have always been a pose. He was trained and is funded and promoted (including some heavy promotion through this website) by the United States. He has zero following outside of Moscow and couldn't even beat Putin's guy Sobyanin there. Most Russians realize that if Navalny would ever occupy any political office, at whatever level, his policies would merely be an extension of American policy and interests. There is neither Russian "nationalism" or interest in that (see the 1990s for an example)... Hence, despite this site's relentless promotion of him-- I don't think that he will ever hold elective office in Russia.

by: Jack from: US
November 08, 2013 17:25
Hillary Clinton is rejoicing over victories by her Al Qaeda and Taliban friends - they killed so many Americans that she is tired of congratulating herself. Hillary and John McCain are paid by Saudis for every American serviceman killed by peaceful Sunni Muslims - which is why Hillary and McCain voted to send thousands Americans to die in Iraq and Afghanistan
In Response

by: Hugh Chatfield from: New York, NY, USA
November 09, 2013 22:30
"-killed by peaceful Sunnis?" such writing speaks for itself.

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The Power Vertical is a blog written especially for Russia wonks and obsessive Kremlin watchers by Brian Whitmore. It offers Brian's personal take on emerging and developing trends in Russian politics, shining a spotlight on the high-stakes power struggles, machinations, and clashing interests that shape Kremlin policy today. Check out The Power Vertical Facebook page or