Staunton, May 25 – The absence of an official ideology in Russia today has helped Vladimir Putin by making it far more difficult for his other countries to organize against him as they did against the Soviet leaders and for his domestic opponents to define themselves against him, Aleksandra Glukhova says.
But now, this lack of an ideological framework is beginning to work against him, the Voronezh State University political scientist says, causing him to take actions that often contradict and undercut one another even as it deprives the Russian people of a vision of a common and better future (ng.ru/stsenarii/2020-05-25/9_7869_authoritarianism.html).
She argues that “the post-ideological nature of the regime and its positioning of itself as a variety of rather than an alternative to Western democracy for a long time permitted [Putin] to adapt for his purposes certain key democratic institutions (for example, elections)” while giving them entirely different content.
And at the same time, Glukhova continues, “the absence of ideology ensured new authoritarian regimes [like Putins’s] from confrontations with the external world if the latter do not seek to export their political models or impose them on other countries.” By not presenting itself as their negation, such a regime has the chance to become ever more precisely that.
But this lack of an ideology is increasingly problematic. After the West’s strong reaction to Moscow’s Anschluss of Crimea, “the appearance of authoritarian characteristics in the Russian public space accelerated,” with the open rejection of liberal values, an increasing reliance on propaganda and repression, and the subordination of everything to the ruler.
This developed was made possible by “a psychological factor, the dream of historical revenge” against those who had destroyed the USSR, the political scientist continues. But that factor led to the rise of ideological memes like the besieged fortress and the eternal antagonism of the West to Russia.
“In place of the ‘old’ (de-ideologized) authoritarianism arrived active propaganda campaigns which exploited the themes of conservative values, the priority of the state over the individual, Orthodoxy as a source of consensus, and the uniting of various strata and groups around the leader” with the active use of World War II for this imagery.
Moreover, she writes, “there have been episodic attempts at unleashing the card of ethnic nationalism, through the concept of ‘the Russian world’ and the defense of ethnic Russians and Orthodox in places where they live in compact groups, and through talk about ‘the state-forming people.’”
With regard to foreign affairs, a parallel trend has been taking place with talk about the need for Russia to develop and have “’genuine sovereignty’” and be willing to “self-isolate” in order to achieve it. The result of these twin drives, domestic and foreign, has been the promotion of a kind of neo-patrimonialism.
But that system, in the absence of a clearly defined ideological framework, creates problems. It does not prevent but in fact opens the way for greater competition among political clans in the elite and does not provide an image of “’a better future’” for the Russian population at large.
The privatization of the state by this or that group undermines the state as such, Gluhova says; and appeals to the population to support stability and the status quo become ever more hollow when stability is far from guaranteed and when crises and impoverishment mean that people would like a future different than the present.
“Representatives of the democratic world have difficulty understanding the principles of its functioning given its formal similarity with others; but the future depends on how quickly the capitals of the developed world recognize that the world is divided not between East and West, between democracy and dictatorship but simply between the present and the past.”
That will determine how the international order develops, she says; but at the same time, the Russian regime will face a choice between having to move from its patrimonialism to a harsher form of authoritarianism in order to maintain itself or coming to terms with groups in the elites and the population and opening the system up.
The absence of a formal ideology in one way makes such evolutions – in both directions – easier as there are fewer constraints; but at the same time, Glukhova argues, it increases the demands elite groups and some in the population may make for change because there is no clear road forward.