What is Putinism?

Introduction

Putin and his ideology has been the subject of much debate around the world. Steven Fish (2017) outlined what he saw as the four main components of Putinism: conservatism, populism, “ethno-nationalist tolerance” and personalist autocracy. Throughout this essay, I will discuss and expand upon these points and attempt to explore them in more detail to provide a more comprehensive definition of the ideology. At its core, Putinism is a statist ideology which is focused, primarily, on building and maintaining a strong, stable, conservative state.

Conservatism

Putinism is, if nothing else conservative, and this has only become clearer over time (Eltchaninoff, 2018: 65). All the other components are derivatives of, and relate well with, conservatism. The criminalisation of teaching about LGBT rights and the decriminalisation of domestic violence are just two examples of this conservatism in action. Alongside this, there is the emergence of a new intelligentsia. Mass student protests at the university of Moscow in the summer of 2007 where effectively suppressed by the autumn and staff are often required to preach conservative views such as the “immorality” of homosexuality. Many of the lecturers are chosen more for their conservative values than their actual academic credentials which is why many disgraced western academics have found their way to speak or even teach at Russian universities (Gessen, 2017: 270-2).

The re-emergence of the Russian orthodox church to political prominence after its suppression during the soviet period, and supposed rejection by many in the soviet administration who have found themselves in high office in modern Russia (Ostrovsky, 2016: 17), is startling to say the least. Along with the Orthodox church, other “traditional” religions such as Islam and Buddhism have seen a resurgence and there is a general scepticism about more progressive and less traditional western preachers, who are often seen as assaulting Russian culture (Danks, 2009: 91-5). Whilst most Russians identify as Orthodox Christians, the Russian government is very careful to avoid offending the “traditional” religious minorities and has made a conscious attempt to integrate and include these groups in Russian society (Bacon, 2014: 160-1). These traditional groups also tend to be very conservative as well. This conservatism is also imbued with a belief in the traditional centralisation of power that is seen throughout Russian history. The consolidation of ministerial power into a smaller number of more powerful offices is just one example of this. Eight ministries fulfil the same major functions as 13 did in 1996 and in particular, three major security services have been merged into the FSB (Taylor, 2011: 38).

Putinism’s conservatism aims to preserve stability above all else. To this end he has undertaken a major state-building project with the intention of eliminating major sources of instability and consolidating power domestically (Sakwa, 2014: 20). Contrary to the suggestions of many western commentators, Russia’s annexation of Crimea was not motivated (at least solely) by Putin’s megalomania or rampant imperialism but instead an attempt to curtail NATO expansion, as NATO was seen as the biggest threat to Russia’s stability, independence and sovereignty, and a Ukraine in NATO was-at least in the minds of the Russian foreign policy establishment-an existential threat (Sakwa, 2016: 32). Whilst the crisis has destabilised Ukraine and plunged it into civil war, it has ensured that Ukraine will not be joining NATO for the foreseeable future. Putin has largely sought to eliminate destabilising conflicts with other nations such as the Russo-Chinese border dispute or the dispute with Norway over their Barents Sea boarder. In both cases, the agreements that where reached were fairly amenable to both sides which would strongly suggest Putin’s aims are not to expand Russia, but to consolidate their position both domestically and internationally (Sakwa, 2016: 116). There is perhaps no better example of this desire for stability than Putin’s concept of “managed democracy.” This system has all of the institutional components of a democracy, yet these institutions have little to no autonomy and are primarily methods for Putin, and United Russia more broadly, to reinforce their popularity and legitimacy (Lipman and Mcfaul, 2001: 116-7).

Populism

Populism is deeply entwined with Putin’s conservatism. There is broad popular support for many of Putin’s conservative policies, with 74% of Russians supporting the law to eliminate “gay propaganda” (Fish, 2017: 65). There has also been significant support for or at least tolerance of Putin’s takeover of the media and his use of these instruments to build popular support for his agenda and espouse further populist rhetoric-and his authoritarian tendencies (Liñán, 2010: 168). Putin often talks disparagingly of the west, and the liberal tradition more generally; and this reactionary discourse is aimed at gaining popular support among the Russian population by stressing how the west is “encroaching” on the Russian way of life and how Europe refuses work with Russia. This follows the economically and politically disastrous 1990’s which left many Russians unhappy with further European integration (Monaghan, 2016: 61-3) and led to a revival of the distrust of the west from the soviet era.

Putin’s talk of “traditional values” is aimed at doing much the same. The support for these “values” among Putin and his party increased sharply following the Rose, Tulip and Orange revolutions in Russia’s periphery (Eltchaninoff, 2018: 60). These democratic movements have in many cases been seen as a threat to Russia as democratic states are largely considered to be opposed to Russia. However, some states with democratic governments, such as Kyrgyzstan are relatively friendly with Russia and have strong ties. This is largely a result of the populations support for Russia, as a result of their shared history (Ortmann, 2018: 417) and as a result, Russia has been more accepting of democracy in Kyrgyzstan.

Ethno-Nationalist Tolerance, Eurasianism and statism

Whilst it is uncontroversial to state that Putin, and by extension Putinism, is both a conservative and populist, there is far less consensus when discussing Putin’s attitudes regarding nationalism, and especially eurasianism. Some scholars argue that Eurasianism has no role in Russian foreign policy making (Laruelle, 2012: 9) whilst others have claimed that it plays a dominant role in Russian policy discourse and can be used to explain all major decisions of the Putin government (Clover, 2017). There has certainly been a push by Russia to greater integrate the surrounding states in the “near abroad.” This can be seen by the creation of international organisations like the Eurasian Economic Union, the Eurasian Development Bank and the Collective Security Treaty Organization or through the promotion of reactionary movements. This may, at least initially, suggest the latter bears more influence, however, I would argue that, whilst Putin may pay lip service to some of the concepts of Eurasianism, his foreign policy is largely pragmatic, statist and has little grounding in Eurasian ideology. Instead, Eurasian integration is one component of Putin’s desire to assert Russia’s great-power credentials on the world stage (Tsygankov, 2016: 190). There are three main schools of thought in Russian foreign policy (Westerners, Statists and civilisationists/ Eurasianists) and Putin seems to mostly align with the statists who stress “The state’s ability to govern and preserve the social and political order” (Malbandov, 2016: 25). This also links in with the conservative desire for stability discussed above as well as bringing some of his ideas into conflict with civilisationists and obviously westernisers.

It is essential to understand that Putin, and the Russian foreign policy establishment more generally, does not intend to rebuild the Soviet Union or Russian empire, as such an idea is well outside of the Russian state’s current capabilities and would only create further instability. Whilst some in the higher echelons of policy making may adhere to some elements of the more moderate Eurasian idea’s espoused by thinkers like Dugin; most Eurasianist ideas are cast by the wayside and only promoted by some members of the Russian intelligentsia and nationalistic students (Laruelle, 2012: 11). Russian policy in the “near abroad” is largely focused on tying smaller nearby states to Russia economically and culturally, but exerting very little direct control over these states and instead gaining influence through the use of so-called “seductive power” to build support for pro-Russia policies (Ortmann, 2018: 413-8).

Domestically, Putin’s government has aimed to be relatively tolerant of many of the religious and ethnic minorities inside Russia, whilst simultaneously being hostile to many immigrants of any faith from outside Russia and the “near abroad” (Sakwa, 2014: 194). This support for conservative religious groups is likely a logical step to secure stability as Russia has a large religious minority which could cause serious security problems and destabilise the state, if not properly included in society. Instead of vilifying the domestic minorities, as is common for many nationalist ideologies, Putin instead rallies the Russian people against the ambiguous notion of “the west.” This more reactionary nationalism has been particularly effective with the country’s youth, who have become passionately anti-western and nationalistic. Additionally, this rhetoric has led groups that could fairly be described as fascist to emerge from outside the political mainstream and onto the national stage (Clover, 2016: 187-8). Yet whilst these movements have their uses, any group that is powerful or radical enough to affect the stability of the state and the government will often be the subject of sporadic arrests and harassment.

Personalist Autocracy

In October 2018, public faith in Vladimir Putin hit its lowest point in 5 years, with only 58% approval (Luhn, 2018). This is still far ahead of most politicians in the west and Putin’s influence on Russian politics is such that the post-Soviet era is largely associated with him. Putin centred all power and institutions under his office and created institutions to help him further consolidate control over much of Russian civil society (Taylor, 2011: 238). His push for a strong state and to consolidate many of the institutions formed since the collapse of the Soviet Union is further indicative of his moves to strengthen state power, both in magnitude and its concentration under the president (Sakwa, 2014: 18). To give just one example, only days after coming to power, he created seven new superfederal regions which would oversee the individual federal regions. The heads for each of these regions were appointed by, and answered to, the president which therefore enabled Putin to have a greater say in regional affairs (Dawisha, 2014: 269).

This concentration of power under a single, strong, authoritarian leader is nothing new in Russian politics, and the absence of checks and balances goes back to the early Russian emperors. This has led some to title Putin as the new Tsar (Myers, 2016). This comparison is not perfect but certainly has its uses. It can be seen how both authoritarian rule and reactionary policies have been part of Russia politics for at least 200 years (Cannady and Kubicek, 2014: 3). It also serves to demonstrate that many of the debates in contemporary Russia, such as Russia’s relationship with Europe, are not new (Cannady and Kubicek, 2014: 5). In both examples, security forces can be used when the media and intelligentsia fail to curtail public anger or major groups in society protest too much.

Although consolidation of the kleptocratic government was already underway before Putin took power, it began in earnest during his first 100 days in office. As well as the consolidation of regional and state power-through various measures including superfederal regions-Putin aimed to use the FSB to control the political process and media organisations. Within days of his accession to office, he began clamping down on media groups that where critical of him. Putin’s main aim was to render the oligarchs subservient to him as until this point, they had practically unchecked power and had mostly been fighting between themselves. Putin instead rendered these oligarchs subservient to him (Dawisha, 2014: 270-4).

Conclusion

Putinism is an ideology that focuses, principally, on maintaining stability and upholding the existing order. To this end Putin has engaged in a major state-building project to strengthen the existing order and consolidate Russia’s great power credentials. What separates Putinism from many other Statist and nationalist ideologies throughout history, such as Nasserism and Kemalism, is that it is deeply conservative and reactionary in its policies and is very much opposed to any kind of republicanism or democracy that some other movements preach. Additionally, there is a clear rejection of socially liberal policies like LGBT rights and, whilst much respect is shown to some of the minority faiths within Russia, many others are subject to a barrage of discrimination.

References

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Ortmann, S. (2018). Beyond Spheres of Influence: The Myth of the State and Russia’s Seductive Power in Kyrgyzstan. Geopolitics, [online] 23(2), pp.404-435. Available at: https://doi.org/10.1080/14650045.2018.1451843 [Accessed 3 Dec. 2018].

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Taylor, B. (2011). State building in Putin’s Russia. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Tsygankov, A. (2016). Russia’s foreign policy. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield.

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