Right-wing extremists could undermine the current democratization drive in Moscow

Repeating a recurring feature in Russia’s recent history, Moscow’s December 2011 protests have seen a new alliance between Russian democrats and ultra-nationalists. In spite of their dubious reputation, the latter were permitted by the meeting organizers not only to take part in the demonstrations; a number of well-known radically nationalist politicians—most prominent among them the notorious writer Eduard Limonov—were also allowed to give speeches to the protesters. The justification for this was that the protest movement is politically open and democratically oriented. Excluding one camp or another, such goes the argument, would be in contradiction to the inclusive spirit of this all-national movement. As the ultra-nationalists were swelling the ranks of the anti-Putin demonstrations, they were permitted to join in—as were all other groups that are against Russia’s current regime, whether from the left or right. The protest movement so-far has been defined less by what it stands for than by what it is against.

One wonders, however, how far the democratism of the right-wing extremists goes, and how they would behave in case they were to achieve power. To be sure, even such radical nationalists as Vladlen Kralin (a. k. a. Vladimir Tor) and Ilya Lazarenko were, in their speeches during the protests, speaking out in favor of political liberalization as well as free and fair elections. However appropriate these statements may have been as such, the ultra-nationalists’ deeper beliefs and political past suggest that what they may prefer instead of Putin’s authoritarianism is not a liberal democracy. Rather, one suspects, they have in mind an illiberal ethnocratic, if not an eventually autocratic regime to be headed by somebody who would be even more nationalistic and anti-Western than Putin. The political activist and prolific blogger Kralin alias Tor (http://tor85.livejournal.com/), for instance, is one of the leaders of the infamous russocentric so-called Movement Against Illegal Immigration, and has been an initiator of the expressly xenophobic 4th November “Russian Marches” of the last years. Many of the Russian ultra-nationalists, like Kralin, are either open or crypto-racists. They disdain the inclusiveness and permissiveness of modern democratic societies, and see Russia as being a too liberal rather than reactionary.

To be sure, the anti-Putinism of, at least, some of the ultra-nationalists is as radical as, or even more profound than, that of the democrats. Yet, it may have other sources and be of a different kind than the oppositional stance of the various liberal, conservative, Christian, social, national and other democrats that the protests brought together. Whereas the various democrats’ alliance is natural, the radical rightists’ participation in the movement is not. With their aggressive behavior during the December demonstrations, the ultra-nationalists have already, to some degree, discredited the Russian mass action of civic disobedience.

The case of Ilya Lazarenko who addressed the crowds at the December 10 Bolotnaya Square demonstration illustrates the point. Not only is Lazarenko a former head of the fascist micro-party National Front as well as anti-Christian pagan sect Church of Nav labeled, by some observers, as “satanistic.” In 1997, Lazarenko was, in one of the rare anti-racist court trials of that time, found guilty of hate speech and sentenced to a 1.5-year suspended prison term. Two years before, in 1995, Lazarenko had published an article under the title “To Hell with Elections—this Mondialist [i.e. US-American] Circus!”

Like all ultra-nationalists, Lazarenko has an ambivalent stance towards democracy and elections. Radical nationalism, on the one hand, poses as egalitarian in as far as it sees all members of the nation as being of equal worth. Within this tradition, elections and people’s rule can appear as consistent implementations of nationalist ideology. On the other hand, however, ultra-nationalism is exclusive in that it makes a distinction between members and non-members of the nation (however defined). Moreover, ultra-nationalism is organicistic, meaning that the nation is seen not just as an exclusive community, but as a tightly knit organism. The members of the nation are cells of a unified national animal which is in a deadly fight with other similar organisms competing for power, money, territory etc. Elections appear, under this viewpoint, as superfluous luxury, if not as a ridiculous exercise—“a Mondialistic circus” in Lazarenko’s words.

The cells do not need to choose the head of their organism. Who leads the nation and who is led— are questions determined by nature. The Fuehrer knows the needs of, and cannot do any harm to, the nation as he (very rarely: she) is an integral part of the national organism. The nation is thus as such “democratic,” and not in need of competitive elections. The people rule not through procedures, but through their natural leader personifying the spirit and soul of the nation. Needless to say, that the national organism cannot tolerate infected cells or parasites. The whole national organism may be endangered by gangrene, and have to cut off its “sick” parts—however, painful that may be.

Putin is seen by some of the ultra-nationalists as such an inadequate part of the Russian national organism. He thus has to be replaced by a “healthy” and “worthy” representative of the Russian nation. Neither would a President whose “Russianness” or patriotism is questionable be acceptable—whatever electoral support that person may receive. Nor would it be logical for Russia, after an expected assumption of power by an adequate Russian, to remain formally democratic. Once organic democracy is implemented—elections are not needed any longer. Elections may be the means to achieve, but are not at the core of, ultra-nationalism’s organic political regime. This story illustrates how far apart the ultra-nationalist and liberal understandings of “democracy” are. However, there might be another, entirely different game currently going on now, in Moscow.

The ancient regime is desperate to diffuse the protests without having to use force and creating martyrs. The suspicion arises that an infiltration of the democratic movement by neo-fascists may be the best chance, for Putin and Co., to split, discredit, confuse, and thus neutralize the movement. This “political technology” would not be new. It was tried, by the Soviet ancien regime, as long ago as 1989-1991. Back then, Vladimir Zhirinovskii’s so-called Liberal-Democratic Party was created and promoted by the Soviet government to undermine the rising genuinely liberal-democratic movement in the dying USSR. While the immediate effect of Zhirinovskii was negligible, the LDPR eventually made its mark on post-Soviet history. It won Russia’s first multi-party parliamentary elections in December 1993, and played some role in undermining the democratization drive of the 1990s. For instance, the LDPR’s heavy presence and aggressive rhetoric in the Russian parliament and public life in 1994, facilitated the Russian President’s decision to sent federal troops to Chechnya in December of that year. Arguably, Yeltsin’s Chechen adventure had its share in undermining Russia’s young democracy, and preparing the return of the old elites and structures in 1999. Zhirinovskii may have thus—indirectly and belatedly—fulfilled the mission of his godfathers of 1989.

We may be currently encountering not an identical, but somewhat similar strategy. The current neo-Soviet authorities, like their Soviet predecessors, of the late 1980s are under threat to lose their power, and unsure how to confront the growing democratic movement. Knowingly or not, the ultra-nationalists in Russia’s civic movement might play a useful role for the ancien regime. Their presence at the protests could do both, divide the democratic movement, and provide a pretext for a clamp down, by the authorities. Moreover, the reputation of the protests abroad has already, and may further be damaged through the participation ultra-nationalists with a neo-fascist past. The Russian democrats would thus be well advised to limit participation in the organization of, and giving speeches at, future mass meetings to individuals with a more or less clearly democratic orientation.