Staunton, February 18 – Vladimir Putin’s identification with and push for conservative values is less an expression of his own most deeply held beliefs than a political choice reflecting his current political needs, two Moscow commentators have argued. And consequently, they suggest, as the Kremlin leader’s needs change so too will his commitment to these values.
The Russian president has been celebrated in some quarters and condemned in others for his promotion of what he and others call his “conservatism,” but in most cases, those on both sides of this divide appear to believe that the views he is now backing reflect his core values rather than a political tactic.
But two Moscow analysts, Pavel Svyatenkov and Tatyana Stanovaya challenge that assumption and argue in articles posted online this week that the Russian president’s conservatism is the product of political calculation more than of deeply held personal convictions.
In KM.ru, Svyatenkov says that “’the conservatism’ of the Russian power only covers its liberal essence” and that if the Kremlin continues to push it, Russian society “sooner or later” will descend into “nihilism and universal distrust” (km.ru/v-rossii/2014/02/16/pravitelstvo-rossii/732438-konservatizm-rossiiskoi-vlasti-lish-prikryvaet-ee-lib).
The analyst poses the question: “Is conservatism possible in Russia?” and suggests that despite what one sees on the Internet or reads in the papers, there is a lot less of it than most Russians and others assume. Instead, despite the rhetoric, what he calls “the liberal lobby” continues to dominate in the media and in the government.
But conservatism can be useful, as the experience of other countries has shown, Svyatenkov says. “Any society can successfully modernize while preserving the inviolability of its political system and conducting economic reforms,” as the countries of Southeast Asia and China have shown.
Thus at least “theoretically,” “a conservative legal dictatorship could be a modernizing one.” But Russia has two problems in that regard. On the one hand, its economy is based on raw material exports and thus it can spend money without modernizing, even though “the correct policy would be the creation of new production and the increase of national income.”
And on the other, unlike the Chinese who have a rapidly developing economy and the other Asian countries who had American assistance, Russia can could only on itself. That in turn means, Svyatenkov argues, conservatism in Russia isn’t real. Instead, it is a “propaganda” cover for what is “a liberal political regime which has not significantly changed since the 1990s.”
“All the oligarchs (with the exception of Khodorkovsky) have kept their wealth, [and] all the liberal ministers remain in their places,” Svyatenkov says. “And this means that the rhetoric of conservativism [in Russia at least] will gradually burn itself out in the absence of real reforms.”
That is because Russians can see that the regime is “not developing the economy” but rather continues to export oil and gas, all the while “destroying education and science,” under religious slogans. Even talk about the Great Fatherland War isn’t working: ever more often references to the official version elicit smiles among the young.
Genuine conservatism, Svyatenkov argues, “could serve as the foundation for the modernization of society.” It doesn’t even require authoritarianism. But the problem is that the Russian authorities have failed to make clear whether their present conservatism is “a basis for modernization or simply a means of extending the life of a liberal regime.”
If the second version is true – and Svyatenkov clearly believes it is – then “society, sooner or later, will descend into nihilism and general distrust.” And it will do not not as liberal propagandists suggest with their references to the existence of”legal nihilism” now but rather “in the direct sense when the society which has lsot faith in the authorities takes to the barricades.”
And on Politcom.ru, Tatyana Stanovaya discusses the ways in which the authorities are using the new conservatism to crack down on critics in the media and to attempt to get popular support for their efforts to isolate and then suppress any criticism of the existing regime (politcom.ru/print.php?id=17189).
“The creation of ‘a correct history’ carries a clearly expressed instrumental character it gives the authorities the moral right to condemn bearers of an ‘alternative’ point of view and impose ‘sanctions’ on them in the broadest sense be they opposition figures, media outlets, or other ‘public opinion leaders.’”
Moreover, by moving to create such a history, Stanovaya says, the regime is simultaneously excluding the possibility of the discussion of issues it doesn’t want raised such as social justice and promoting antipathy toward the West as the invariable source of ideas and values “foreign” to Russia.
She notes that this anti-Western campaign hasn’t even slackened during the Sochi Olympics. That shouldn’t surprise anyone given that “even in the late Soviet period, along with reaction, there existed ‘modernist’ elements as well,” suggesting to outsiders that there was more diversity than in fact was the case.
In some respects, Stanovaya adds, the current conservative campaign makes it appear that “the people” as presented now is little distinguished from “the understanding of ‘party’ in Soviet propaganda.” But in an institutional sense, the two are very different. Refusal to support the correct point of view now can create difficulties for people but not block the careers of most.
That in turn means that “Russian society already is sufficiently contemporary for neo-corporative models” because “if their imposition gives rise to opposition which it is impossible to suppression (since there is the ‘Internet space’), then the model will operate with limited force.”
Indeed, “in an atomized society, any attempt to impose an ideology will have limited success: the mechanisms of social mobilization already do not work as they did in traditional authoritarian societies.” And that means the powers that be will either have to create the institutions to do that or find that conservative ideals won’t overcome “the weakness of the Russian economy” or “the limited nature of [its] resources.”