Could Putin's Nationalist Crisis Lead Russia to Redraw its Borders?

The Russian leader is struggling to balance some of his country's most powerful social and historic forces.

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A masked activist carries Russia's nationalist flag in Moscow / Reuters

Don't look now, but Vladimir Putin, the man who wants to reclaim the Russian presidency in March, seems to be losing touch with one of his key constituencies - nationalists.

This development has several important implications for Russia, as well as for Russia's neighbors in Eurasia. It may improve the chances that Russia can find a balancing point between republican political ideals and nationalism, thus encouraging the development of a genuinely democratic nation-state. It just as easily may stimulate attempts to change Russia's current state borders, something that could have unpredictable repercussions.

In the aftermath of the November 2011 parliamentary election, which caused unprecedented public protests, Putin's authoritarian political model has lost a lot of its luster. Rampant official corruption and a significant spike in ethnic tension, generated by the presence of labor migrants in Russian cities, have helped fueled a sense of alienation among a broad swath of the population.

Hoping to reinvigorate his base, Putin published a lengthy article January 23 in the Russian daily Nezavisimaya Gazeta, headlined Russia: The National Question. The piece is, at its core, campaign propaganda designed to persuade voters, especially Russian nationalists, that Putin's brand of nationalism offers the best way forward for Russia. Boiled down, it offers an eclectic mix of dated tenets of what can be called imperial, or civilizational nationalism, as well as a promise to strictly regulate labor migration.

For Putin, Russia is a "unique civilization" to which traditional notions of the nation-state do not apply. While he repeatedly has described Russia as a "multiethnic country," he also has argued that Russians are a "state-forming people" whose "great mission" is to "unite and bind" a unique civilization. While a multitude of ethnic groups may reside in Russia, "we are one people," united by "common culture and common values," according to Putin's vision. He doesn't specify the nature of these binding values.

Putin goes on to make the case that his authoritarian political model is the glue that keeps this unique civilization, in the form of the Russian Federation, together. As such, the prime minister/president-to-be makes it clear that no major policy changes are desirable, and that preserving the status quo provides the best guarantee for the country's long-term stability.

But if Putin believed the Nezavisimaya Gazeta piece would solidify his nationalist credentials, and mobilize nationalists behind him, he was sorely mistaken. Instead of placing Putin in the forefront of the nationalist movement in Russia, the article has shown the Kremlin to be behind the curve when it comes to current trends in nationalist ideology.

Nationalism in Russia has undergone a dramatic shift lately, one that Putin, apparently, has been slow to catch on to. Two competing strains of nationalism have always existed in the country - one that can be described as imperial, or statist nationalism, the other ethno-cultural. The first worshipped the state, its power and international prestige; the second glorified the nation, its culture and faith. Throughout Russian history, statists have tended to hold a pragmatic view of nationalism, seeing it mostly as an instrument to strengthen state institutions and bolster the authority of the ruling class. As such, statists have traditionally favored territorial expansion, followed by efforts to assimilate minority groups.

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EurasiaNet.org provides information and analysis about political, economic, environmental, and social developments in the countries of Central Asia and the Caucasus as well as in Russia, Turkey, and Southwest Asia. It is operated by the Central Eurasia Project of the Open Society Institute.

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