The nationalism of one nation almost inevitably comes into conflict with the nationalisms of others, precisely because its celebration of its uniqueness and even superiority inevitably offends those who have the same feelings about their own but different nations. Yet, Russian President Vladimir Putin is trying to position himself as a defender of traditional values at home, by promoting a nationalism of a very particular kind, as well as abroad, by allying himself with nativist, traditionalist, and nationalist groups who may have influence but do not yet have the power that would make them a threat to Moscow.
But however skillfully such a policy may be conducted, it risks blowing up in his face domestically and abroad. Domestically, it requires the imposition of a definition of Russian nationalism that many Russians find demeaning, even as they can see that the Kremlin is reaching out to nationalists in Europe and elsewhere who offer versions of nationalism for their peoples that many in the Russian Federation would find preferable. And internationally, it puts Moscow in bed with figures many in the mainstream consider extremists or worse, thus reducing the value of such links for the Russian government at least over the long term.
Like most leaders in Moscow, Putin has long recognized that the promotion of ethnic-Russian nationalism at home, however valuable it may be in the short term, represents a long-term threat to his power for two important reasons. First, it exacerbates relations between the ethnic Russians and the one quarter of the Russian Federation’s population that consists of other nations. Second, it challenges the nature of the legitimacy of his power. Nevertheless, he currently sees an opening that he believes will offer him advantages both at home and abroad.
That opening involves the promotion of what he and his regime call not nationalism but the defense of “traditional values”—a loosely defined congeries of ideas, including opposition to secularism, homosexuality and gender equality; support for hierarchical power relations; deference to authority; as well as social discipline. Putin is promoting these ideas in his speeches and through a program designed to fund efforts across the country, even though polls show that while a majority of Russians back some of these ideas, many—especially the more educated, urban and well off—do not want to live in a society defined by such values and even fear that the promotion of these values will leave them isolated from the modern West (nazaccent.ru/content/10336-v-minregione-sozdali-komissiyu-dlya-otbora.html).
But it is Putin’s effort to use these “traditional” values abroad that is both the more interesting and problematic. Angry at the West’s defense of homosexual rights, the Russian president is seeking to reach out to more traditionalist elements abroad who, he is convinced, share his distaste for the extension of rights to formerly excluded groups like gays and who, properly encouraged, will look to Moscow as a defender of their values and thus help the Russian government bring pressure on their countries. That effort, described last week in a major article in “Vedomosti” (vedomosti.ru/politics/news/21197421/eksport-duhovnyh-skrep), has already brought Moscow some strange bedfellows abroad and seems set to create more problems for Putin’s regime at home.
The program has helped Putin to impose a new and tighter ideological control on Russian media directed abroad, a control not seen since the early years of Mikhail Gorbachev’s rule. But more interestingly, it has led Russian officials to establish close contacts with and elicit expressions of support from some of the more notorious far-right politicians in Europe, including Marie le Pen of France, anti-immigrant activist Geert Wilders of the Netherlands, British National Party leader (and Holocaust denier) Nick Griffin, and Mateusz Piskorski, an openly anti-Semitic leader of Poland’s populist agrarian and nationalist Samoobrona (Self-Defense) party.
These nationalist politicians have been given royal treatment by Russian leaders like Dmitry Rogozin, who himself has promoted right-wing views for some time, and in response have offered Moscow the backing the Kremlin craves. These and others of their number, for example, have praised Russia’s deeply flawed electoral system as “more democratic” than that of the United States and insisted that it is no business of any country to delve into the human rights situation in another. They further expressed concern that their countries, like Russia, are being “colonized by the former colonies” and lauded Putin’s anti-gay agenda as a necessary defense of the traditional family (imrussia.org/en/russia-and-the-world/645#.UtlProbY4T1.twitter).
It is obvious that Putin sees tactical advantages in such alliances, but there are three reasons why these contacts are likely to backfire. First, such alliances will ultimately further undermine Putin’s reputation as a modernizer, thus limiting his ability to cut deals with governments actually in power. Second, these groups may agree with him on “traditional values,” but their nationalisms remain opposed to Russian nationalism. And third, many Russian nationalists inside Russia will view Putin’s cooperation with such radicals in the West as a signal that they are free to push similar ideas, a step that could trigger more violence there.