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Could Russia’s Ultranationalists Subvert Pro-Democracy Protests?

Repeating a recurring feature in Russia’s modern history, Moscow’s December 2011 protests have seen a new alliance between Russian democrats and ultranationalists. In spite of their dubious reputation, the latter were permitted, by the meeting organizers, not only to take part in the demonstrations. A number of well-known, radically nationalist politicians—most prominent among them the notorious writer Eduard Limonov—were also allowed to give speeches to the protesters. The justification for this was that the protest movement is politically open and democratically oriented. Excluding one camp or another, such goes the argument, would be in contradiction to the inclusive spirit of this all-national movement.

One wonders, however, how far the democratism of the right-wing extremists goes, and how they would behave in case they were to achieve power. To be sure, even such radical nationalists as Vladlen Kralin (a.k.a. Vladimir Tor) and Ilya Lazarenko were, in their speeches during the protests, speaking out in favor of political liberalization as well as free and fair elections. Yet as appropriate as these statements may have been at the time, the ultranationalists’ ideology and political past hardly suggest they would replace Putin’s authoritarianism with liberal democracy. Rather, one suspects, they have in mind an illiberal ethnocratic—if not an eventually autocratic—regime, to be headed by somebody who would be even more nationalistic and anti-Western than Putin.

To be sure, the anti-Putinism of at least some of the ultranationalists is as radical as, or even more profound than, the democrats’. Yet it may have other sources and be of a different kind than the oppositional stance of the various liberals, conservatives, Christians, socialists, moderate nationalists, and other democrats who have come together recently. Whereas the alliance of these other factions is natural, the far right’s participation in the movement is not. With their aggressive behavior during the December demonstrations, the ultranationalists have already, to some degree, discredited the Russian mass action of civic disobedience.

The case of Ilya Lazarenko, who addressed the crowds at the December 10th Bolotnaya Square demonstration, illustrates the point. Lazarenko is the former head of the fascist micro-party National Front, as well as the founder of an anti-Christian pagan sect, Church of Nav, labeled by some observers as “satanistic.” In 1997, Lazarenko was, in one of the rare anti-racist court trials of that time, found guilty of hate speech and sentenced to an eighteen-month suspended prison term. Two years before, in 1995, Lazarenko had published an article under the title “To Hell with Elections—this Mondialist [i.e., American] Circus!”

Like all ultranationalists, Lazarenko has an ambivalent stance toward democracy and elections. Radical nationalism, on the one hand, poses as egalitarian in as far as it sees all members of the nation as being of equal worth. Within this tradition, elections and people’s rule can appear as consistent implementations of nationalist ideology. On the other hand, however, ultranationalism is exclusive in that it makes a distinction between members and non-members of the nation (however defined). Moreover, ultranationalism is organicistic, meaning that the nation is seen not just as an exclusive community, but as a tightly knit organism. The members of the nation are cells of a unified national animal, which is in a deadly fight with other similar organisms competing for power, money, territory, and so forth. Elections appear, under this viewpoint, as superfluous luxury, if not as a ridiculous exercise—the “Mondialistic circus”—because the cells do not need to choose the head of their organism. Who leads the nation and who is led are questions determined by nature. A leader in such a state knows the needs of, and cannot do any harm to, the nation as he (very rarely: she) is an integral part of the national organism. The nation is thus as such “democratic,” and not in need of competitive elections. Needless to say, that the national organism cannot tolerate infected cells or parasites.

Putin is seen by some of the ultranationalists as such an inadequate part of the Russian national organism. He thus has to be replaced by a “healthy” and “worthy” representative of the Russian nation. Neither would a president whose “Russianness” or patriotism is questionable be acceptable—whatever electoral support that person may receive. Nor would it be logical for Russia, after an expected assumption of power by an adequate Russian, to remain formally democratic. Elections may be a means for ultranationalists to achieve an organic political regime, but they will hardly make up its core once the movement takes power. This distinction illustrates how far apart the ultranationalist and liberal understandings of “democracy” are.

This is one critique of recent developments. But there might be a completely different story going on, too—or instead. The ancien régime is desperate to diffuse the protests without having to use force and or create martyrs. One suspects that an infiltration of the democratic movement by neo-fascists may be the best chance for Putin & Co. to split, discredit, confuse, and thus neutralize the movement. Such maneuvering would not be new. It was tried by the aging Soviet regime as long ago as 1989–91. Back then, Vladimir Zhirinovskii’s so-called Liberal-Democratic Party was created and promoted by the Soviet government to undermine the rising and genuinely liberal-democratic movement in the dying USSR. While the immediate effect of Zhirinovskii was negligible, the LDP eventually made its mark on post-Soviet history. It won Russia’s first multiparty parliamentary elections in December 1993, and played some role in undermining the democratization drive of the 1990s. In 1994, for instance, the LDP’s heavy presence and aggressive rhetoric, especially in the Russian Parliament, facilitated President Yeltsin’s decision to send federal troops to Chechnya in December of that year. Arguably, the president’s Chechen adventure did its share to undermine Russia’s young democracy and prepare the return of the old elites in 1999. Zhirinovskii may have thus, indirectly and belatedly, fulfilled the mission his masters set out for him a decade earlier.

The Kremlin’s current strategy may not be identical to that of its Soviet predecessors, but it does seem somewhat similar. The current neo-Soviet authorities, like their Soviet predecessors of the late 1980s, are under threat to lose their power and unsure how to confront the growing democratic movement. Knowingly or not, the ultranationalists in Russia’s civic movement might play a useful role for the ancien régime. Their presence at the protests could both divide the democratic movement and provide a pretext for a clampdown by the authorities. Moreover, the participation of former neo-fascists at demonstrations has proven damaging to the protests’ reputation of the protests abroad. The Russian democrats would thus be well advised to limit the leadership of future mass meetings, as well as the ranks of those who speak, to individuals of clear democratic orientation.

Andreas Umland is DAAD Associate Professor of Political Science at the National University of “Kyiv-Mohyla Academy,” a member of the Valdai International Discussion Club, and the general editor of the book series “Soviet and Post-Soviet Politics and Society.”

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