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Russian Nationalists March On, Under Kremlin's Wary Gaze

Ultranationalists take part in the infamous Russian March in Moscow on Unity Day last year.
Ultranationalists take part in the infamous Russian March in Moscow on Unity Day last year.

Russia's nationalists will be on the march this week. And the Kremlin will be looking on -- somewhat warily.

Russia's motley nationalist community will hold its annual Russian March on November 4, an event traditionally held to coincide with the official Unity Day holiday. The main event is in Moscow, but spin-off marches will be held in various Russian cities and -- for the first time this year -- in the Ukrainian region of Crimea that was annexed by Russia in March.

Although President Vladimir Putin and his government have moved sharply in the direction of nationalism and patriotism over the last year, the authorities have turned a surprisingly cold shoulder to the Russian March this year. Instead of being held in the center of Moscow as organizers originally hoped, it has been pushed to the edge of the city.

This attitude seems to be driven by the Kremlin's long-term ambiguous relationship with the country's nationalists, many of whom are too radical and too disenchanted with Putin's leadership for the Kremlin to tolerate.

On October 24, Putin touched on the topic in his speech to Russia experts of the Valdai Club in Sochi.

"I am the biggest nationalist in Russia," he said. "However, the greatest and most appropriate kind of nationalism is when you act and conduct policies that will benefit the people. However, if nationalism means intolerance of other people, chauvinism -- this would destroy this country, which was created as a multiethnic and multiconfessional state."

With this statement, Putin was "trying to define the acceptable parameters of nationalism," says Mark Galeotti, a professor at New York University and author of the blog "In Moscow's Shadows."

"He's trying to redefine or define the acceptable level of nationalism as being not about racism, not about intercommunal violence or intercommunal tensions, not about essentially a radical social agenda," he says. "But instead being about patriotism. I think that's the key thing. When he says 'nationalism,' he really means patriotism -- in other words, loyalty to the status quo."

And the Kremlin seems to have plenty of reason for concern. Although various nationalist movements have been providing much of the material support and many of the volunteer fighters for the conflict in eastern Ukraine, some have grown disenchanted with Moscow's on-again, off-again backing of pro-Russian separatists there. Many are pushing for far more radical agendas, both in Ukraine and at home.

The Russian March has been held annually since 2005, when National Unity Day, which commemorates Russia's defeat of Polish invaders in 1612, was introduced. The holiday replaced the anniversary of the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution.

And the Kremlin is attempting to paint the day in patriotic, rather than nationalist, colors.

Putin is scheduled to lay flowers at the monument to Kuzma Minin and Dmitry Pozharsky, who led the forces that expelled the Poles from Moscow in 1612, according to the Kremlin press service. He will also visit an exhibition commemorating the Rurik dynasty, which ruled from 862-1598.

This year's Russian March takes place with one of the country's most high profile nationalists, anticorruption blogger and opposition figure Aleksei Navalny, under house arrest. But if the threat from the charismatic Navalny has been reduced, a new one could be emerging.

"Putin is no nationalist -- he's just a spectator," Yegor Prosvirnin, the editor of the popular nationalist website Sputnik & Pogrom, said in a recent interview. "He was put there by the ruling corporation to manage the political process, while the noble members of the secret police buy villas and mansions in Cote d'Azur."

Ethnic Nationalists Vs. Imperialists

The Kremlin has strictly reduced the appearances of staunch nationalists like Aleksandr Dugin and Aleksandr Prokhanov on national state television. Possibly as a result, public support for the Russian March is lukewarm, with just 31 percent saying they have a favorable opinion of the event according to a Levada Center poll last month.

Alina Polyakova, a senior research fellow at the University of Bern and a specialist on the far right in Europe, says the conflict in Ukraine is emphasizing the split within Russia's nationalist community between patriotic, pro-state, imperialist nationalists and those focused on Russians as an ethnic group.

"What has been really interesting to observe are the factions between what we are calling the 'ethnic nationalists' and the 'state nationalists' really coming to the fore right now following the Ukrainian crisis and also the annexation of Crimea," she says. "I think this is something that has stayed in the shadows for a very long time."

In addition, she says, the Kremlin has been actively reaching out to -- and even assisting -- far-right, nationalist political parties and organizations across Europe, even inviting them to send monitors to elections in Crimea and in Russia. Such policies also could be "fuelling resentment among the Russian ethnic-nationalists."

Galeotti argues there are four key pillars of the Russian nationalist movement -- imperialism, social conservatism (support for the Russian Orthodox Church and antipathy toward homosexuality), ethnic chauvinism, and an economic radicalism of redistribution based on ethnic criteria.

On the first two points, Galeotti argues, Putin has done just about as much as he can to meet nationalist expectations. And the last two are too dangerous and anti-Kremlin to even be touched.

"[The Kremlin's] opportunities for traction on the nationalist movement are diminished and the risks within nationalism are increasing," he says. "So I think that's why they are probably trying to nip it in bud prophylactically now."

Kevin Rothrock, editor of RuNet Echo at Global Voices, notes that Prosvirnin and other nationalist leaders have been predicting that the worsening economic climate in Russia will bring ethnic tensions inside the country to the fore.

This is potentially dangerous for Putin, although Rothrock does not expect the issue to take center stage at this year's Russian March.

"If they get at all a little bit antigovernment, it might have to do more with immigration services -- don't give visas to people from Central Asia and so on," he says. "They are even officially marching under some of those slogans. Granted, those are not overtly anti-Putin causes, but I think immigration and the kind of slippery slope into ethnic issues or racism -- that can very quickly become anti-Kremlin and then anti-Putin."

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