Putin's Message: The Liberals, “Unfortunately, Still Live” in Russia

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Mr. Umland, formerly visiting fellow at Stanford, Harvard and Oxford, teaches at the National Taras Shevchenko University of Kyiv, edits the book series “Soviet and Post-Soviet Politics and Society” and operates the website “Russian Nationalism.”

Arguably, Russian President Putin’s speech at the “Forum of Supporters of Vladimir Putin” organized by the United Russia Party at Moscow on November 21 could constitute a turning point in post-Soviet affairs. In his address concerning the upcoming parliamentary elections, Putin was, clearly, referring to Russia’s politically weak, yet still visible liberal movement when he mentioned those who are “unfortunately, still within the country, who are skulking around [ktoshakalitu] foreign embassies, foreign diplomatic offices, counting on the support of foreign foundations and governments, and not on the support of their own people.”

That Putin was not referring to maverick oppositionists like Eduard Limonov’s National Bolsheviks is also demonstrated by his specification that whom he means are “those who, in the 1990s, held high posts,” and by his warning that “you can find their names among the candidates and sponsors of some parties.” They were, according to Putin, “[t]hose who, in the most difficult moment, during the terrorist intervention into Russia [from Chechnia], treacherously called for negotiations [and], in fact, for collusion with terrorists, with those who killed our children and women, speculating in the most unscrupulous and cynical way on the victims. In short, these are all those who, towards the end of the past century, led Russia to mass poverty, [and] ubiquitous bribe-taking …,” Putin said.

The idea that a number of liberal politicians who held (by no means all and rarely the most important) government posts in the 1990s are solely responsible for the deep socio-economic crisis of the 1990s has been a common theme in Russian public discourse ever since the start of the reforms. There is little novelty in this accusation. However, Putin’s indication that those opposing his course are working in the interests of foreign countries, his accusation that the liberals betrayed their people in the face of a deadly enemy and, especially, his regret that these politicians are “still within the country” are new.

To be sure, the idea that the democrats are following orders from the West, lack patriotism, are pushing foreign interests, and should thus not live in Russia are, by themselves, unoriginal. Yet, this rhetoric has, so far, been a prerogative of the Russian extreme right as well as the increasingly nationalist communist movement. This is what Vladimir Zhirinovskii, Gennadii Ziuganov, Sergei Baburin, Aleksandr Dugin, Aleksandr Prokhanov and their like have been saying all along: The liberal opposition to Putin does not merely represent an alternative political agenda. The democrats are enemies of Russia, a “fifth column” of the West, who need to be treated as criminals. Although Putin did not mention the United States during his address in Moscow, after his Munich speech of February 2007, most of his listeners inside and outside Russia will readily imagine that Putin sees the “amerikantsy” as the grey eminences standing behind the alleged national treachery of the Russian democrats. In Russian public discourse today, the “Americans” are, in one way or another, responsible for almost all bad things that are happening in- and outside the former Soviet Union.

There were elections, at this time, in Russia, one could argue. In Western democracies too, politicians say bizarre things, especially when campaigning for office. Yet Russia is not a Western democracy. The institution that defines the structure of most of Russian society today is Putin’s “vertical of power” – a combination of formal and informal controls and curbs which is rather different from the checks and balances defining the nature of pluralistic party politics and public discourse in democratized states. Post-Soviet Russia’s “vertical of power,” with Putin at its apex, extends not only to the federal government and United Russia party, but also to other parties, regional and local governments, big business, civil society, mass media, and the public sphere. Therefore, in November, Putin was not campaigning against real competitors on a level playing ground. While the formal rules of the voting on December 2 itself may have been observed scrupulously, neither the electoral process as a whole nor public politics in general are fair games in Russia. Rather, Russia has returned to a Byzantine form of state-society relations where the national leader is beyond criticism, and becomes a semi-divine figure determining where the country goes while uttering words that define what is permissible and what not.

Thus, Putin’s statements cannot be dismissed as mere lapses of electoral hyperbole, which will be soon forgotten. Rather, Putin has opened a Pandora's Box by implicitly suggesting that his opponents in the liberal camp are national traitors, foreign agents and people’s enemies who should leave Russia. It is no surprise that exactly the passages of his speech quoted above have been repeated again and again on prime time Russian TV news shows the days following the November 21 event. With one stroke, Putin has changed the coordinates of political discourse and correctness in post-Soviet Russia and legitimized the thousands of pages of paranoid, conspiratorial and manichean theorizing that have been flooding the Russian Internet, mass media and book market during the last 15 years. Putin has opened a floodgate that may be impossible to close as now the legions of Russia’s fanatically anti-Western political activists and journalists will elaborate on how exactly the apparent will of Russia’s national leader is to be implemented. The “For Putin” Movement has already applied Putin’s use of the word shakalit’ (skulking) derived from the Russian translation of jackal to name a video on the liberal opposition Shakaly (jackals) – a labeling that dangerously dehumanizes Putin’s opponents.

The hundreds of more or less prolific nationalists in Russia’s political parties, editorial boards, government offices, think tanks, and university departments can now feel free to demand, with reference to Putin, their motherland’s cleansing from the West’s “agents of influence,” as the liberals are frequently called in the ultra-right press. One fears that Russian politicians will start out-bidding each other with more and more radical proposals to react to the apparent “treachery” of the Russian democrats. While Putin and his entourage might not yet have been planning to deport Russian opposition leaders en masse, this is what whipped up public opinion may, at one point, ask them to do. With Putin’s recent aberrations, the Kremlin has started a hazardous game that will move Russia further away from both the spirit of its own constitution and the European family of nations.

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Arnold Shcherban - 12/25/2007

First, I would like to point out that in contemporary US a role of so-called check and balances is diminished to the relation where checks "balances" the political (and economic) power.
Second, what the US citizenry would (and did) say and do about the Americans "who are skulking around foreign embassies, foreign diplomatic offices, counting on the support of foreign foundations and governments, and not on the support of their own people?"
And moreover - regardless of their "foreign connections" - would the Americans with their superior democracy trust those who just recently led their country <to mass poverty and ubiquitous bribe-taking>, as Russian pro-Western politicians and economists unquesionably did in 90s? (Any serious abserver cannot put the TOTAL blame for misdeeds of the 90s on those folks, exclusively, but there is an overwhelming consensus among unbiased analysts that Russian pro-Western "democrats" and economists have to bear the good bulk of that blame.)
The answers to these questions are so obvious that they make the former
purely rhetorical.
Coincidentally, those answers demonstrate traditional double standards permeating West-East (especially - US v. the rest of the world) ideological discourse, easily found in Mr. Umland's article.