Maria Snegovaya
Maria Snegovaya

Politologist, PhD candidate at Columbia University, a columnist at “Vedomosti” business daily


Who is the right-wing populist in Russia: Putin vs. Navalny

When one examines the rise of right-wing populism in Russia and Europe, it is curious that Russia reproduces the rhetoric seen elsewhere in Europe in a somewhat distorted manner. When one venture outside of Russia this becomes evident. No matter where you live, your country will likely consider itself completely unique. In Hungary, you will be told that there is hardly any other country similar to Hungary in the whole world. In the US the theme of “American exceptionalism” in both good ways and bad, is very evident in politics. All countries, despite their own peculiarities, react in one way or another to the same processes of economic, political and cultural globalization currently taking place in our world.

In Russia, it could be argued that Putin, not Navalny, is the main right-wing populist force in Russian politics, even though both draw support from those who feel uneasy about the processes of globalization. Putin, as well as Orban and his Fidesz party in Hungary and Kaczynski and the Law & Justice party in Poland, are, one way or another, the result of public irritation from the economic transit in these countries and dissatisfaction with the results of reforms and the desire to acquire stability, often seen as a return to the past.

Since political and economic transitions happen simultaneously in our respective countries, we similarly tend to blame democracy for our own economic problems. People simply do not separate that these countries simultaneously democratized and conducted market reforms. In people’s minds, these processes overlapped. Accordingly, the situation often results from economic problems within the population, but democracy is still the scapegoat. In Russia, democracy was destroyed, but the tightening of screws was approved by the majority.

Recall the discourse from the beginning of the 2000s, that we need a strong hand, we need to temper the chaos of sovereign democracy, and in Orban’s words – the chaos of illiberal democracy. In this sense, there is a parallel, in my opinion, between the European right-wing populists and Putin. However, Alexei Navalny joins the populism trend as well by addressing the migration issue.

It is important to clarify that the Russian system is undemocratic. It is essential because the traditional understanding of the political field as a zero-sum game, where parties compete for certain groups of target electorate, does not quite fit. Just try to distinguish the “Fair Russia” party from the “United Russia”: one is leftish, another slightly right, but in practice, they have no ideological differences.

Alexei Navalny has a lot of freedom of action. He has fertile soil, because the government parties have no real ideological platform, except for “we will elect Putin for a new term, he does everything right”. This is important to remember.

Russia has the same problem as in the rest of the world. That is, there is a crisis of globalization, there is a population group, the “second Russia” where incomes do not grow or stagnate and adaptation to the market is fraught with problems. The stagnation of the Russian economy is happening because the regime has reached the point where all the incentives for growth are destroyed, and oil prices are not high enough to give an impetus to the economy. In this situation, from the political point of view, Aleksei Navalny now faces the task of expanding his electorate, he seeks to get beyond the 10% marginal opposition. And in order to expand, he needs to talk about the problems that are relevant for a great many of people.

Navalny tries to find, as far as I understand his approach, points that would unite people around his campaign. The topic of corruption is what most Russians care about, they understand this as a problem.

Of course, Alexei and other pro-democratic politicians react to the same challenges as the European political forces. That’s why, in my opinion, he is now combining a cultural right program, in the sense that he combines the rhetoric about immigration, the nation, the construction of the Russian nation, “Russia for Russians” and “stop feeding the Caucasus” with a fairly left economic platform. This approach allows you to go beyond the narrow marginal opposition niche, as the stagnation of income worries many Russians today.

Such a combination of the national agenda with redistribution is characteristic of many Western right populist parties. Navalny and his allies are learning from successful Western politicians. In this sense, there is certainly a similarity between the Russian and European processes.

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