Populism in modern day Russia

Nikita Lyakhovetskiy is an ALDE Im from Russia.  Political activist from Russia, specialising in International law and International relations. Member of Russian United Democratic Party “Yabloko”, he talks about populism in Russia.

Most often populism is understood as actions of politicians, who for the sake of gaining or preserving power promise to easily solve the problems which are recognized by the citizens as the most serious, as well as create an artificial social conflict between the so-called majority and another social group e.g. the ‘elites’, or  for example “enemies of the state” or “agents of the US” which is a common rhetoric among Russian state owned propaganda programs, referred to the liberal opposition.

Fulfilling the said promises is not so easy, so the populists in power tend to divert the public attention by making other promises, or deepening the artificially created social conflicts, as well as create the so called “besieged fortress effect” so loved by Vladimir Putin. It’s core idea is that people won’t be paying enough attention to political sphere, when they feel scared of  enemies both inside or outside the country. That’s why for Putin’s system it is vital to be in a conflict military or political, in order to “unite” the citizens in the face of this artificially created danger.

Putin’s invention is the anti-negative populism. This is a populism of one who is in power, however it requires very few resources. At first negative expectations are created, and then, of course by the good will of authorities and Mr. Putin, they are not being implemented, or are significantly reduced, which leads to approval rising for them.
Since the economy is in the decline, compared with the 2000s the government has to create positive news related to it, as well as implement the “good king – bad boyars” formula, when the government officials are blamed for all the problems, this includes even demonstrative punishments of corrupt officials, whilst Putin is shown as the good and caring Father of the Nation.

Populism is far from harmless because it leads to degradation of political elites and civic society, encourages prejudices and phobias, promotes ideas of national exclusivity and superiority.
But in the state where populism became a part of national ideology opposition is no exception. Many political forces who oppose or say that they oppose Putin use the similar rhetoric or approach, just on a smaller scale.
First there are parties of the Crimean consensus. These are the only three parties, apart from Putin’s United Russia,  represented in Russian State Duma – they support Putin’s military operations, as well as agree with him on major political issues. United Russia has an overwhelming majority, big enough to pass any bill they desire, so the parliamentary “opposition” which in reality is rather loyal to the regime, and controlled by it, can make any promises they want. As they have little to no chance of gaining a majority, they tend to make unrealistic, but appealing to the general public, promises, as there is no chance of them being in the position, where they would be able to bring any of them to life.
Lack of democratic institutions and transfers of power, is the best environment for populism, which in itself leads to further degradation of political institutes, as well as harms civic society.  What’s more worrying, is that some non-systemic opposition politicians and parties tend to use populist rhetoric and methods as well.

A great example of this is one of the prominent opposition leaders – Alexey Navalny. One of his characteristic features is constant changing of political views as well as allies – liberals, then nationalists, leftists. He tries to appeal and work with everyone, no matter their political views or positions. Navalny is using a common anti-elite populist method, of creating division, anyone who is not with him is labeled as pro-Putin, with no exception. He creates this two polar world, where there are only two main players – him and Putin, and no one else. He is not seeking alliance, only obedient supporters, who have to agree with him. And his political program has no scientific basis, but is filled with slogans and unrealistic promises.

So, What should be the liberal answer to the growth of populism? In the world of post-truth, where facts are way less significant than appeals to emotions and personal beliefs, social liberalism must counter populism with responsible politics.
Firstly we should focus on the grassroots level,  taking part in local elections, referendums and public hearings, as well as helping out people on the local level. This would increase the social capital, as well as help the formation of civic activists – environment that is hostile to populism.
Secondly – organize civic control over the authorities, ensuring their transparency and increasing public discussion of their actions.
And thirdly – create and help building up independent media sources, to break through the wall of state – propaganda.

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