Populists in power: Russia and the USA

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Populists in power: Russia and the USA
Published 14-09-2016, 05:14

Gilbert Doctorow, Ph.D.

Gilbert Doctorow is the European Coordinator of The American Committee for East West Accord and a Senior Research Fellow of the American University in Moscow.

Populism is the up and coming thing in US electoral politics and….in Russian electoral politics. What does this mean for bilateral relations?

In her recent statement to journalists accompanying her on her campaign airplane, Hillary Clinton alleged that the Russians are trying to disrupt the US elections of November 8th, to discredit the process and sow discord among Americans. This goes one step further than her previous charges of Russian influence through the "Kremlin’s candidate,” Donald Trump, or still earlier, the claim that the DNC server had been hacked by intelligence services reporting to Vladimir Putin. Of course, all these charges were made without back-up proofs.

Meanwhile in the Russian Federation, where folks are facing their own national elections this Sunday, September 18th, a kind of mirror-image denunciation of foreign (meaning American) interference in their domestic politics is also heard from many in the Russian Establishment.   Here, too, the charges are being used to settle scores.

In the past week, the widely respected Levada Center, best known for its public opinion polls, found itself accused by federal authorities of being a "foreign agent” due to revenues it earns from multinational companies for whom  it does marketing studies. Its director says that if the label sticks, the Center may be forced to close its doors.

In the past week as well, an NGO associated with US Senator McCain operating in Moscow was declared to be a threat to national security and was ordered to halt its activities in Russia.

However, the way elections in both countries are taking shape has considerably more in common than these complaints of outside interference.  I see a much bigger common factor in the growing, possibly decisive role of populism in both Russia and the USA this year.

In the United States, the rise of populism and its possible victory at the polls in November over the opposition of the political establishment of the Democratic and Republican  parties has been obvious from the start and throughout the progression of the candidacy of Donald Trump.

In a full page analytical article two days ago on what the headline announces as "The Trump Phenomenon,” the Rossiiskaya Gazeta, one of the country’s most serious and well-written daily newspapers, identifies economics as the driving force behind the populist wave Trump is riding. Specifically, he made himself the voice of the millions of working class Americans who have suffered over the last 30 years from deindustrialization and outsourcing which have been part and parcel of the globalization that successive US administrations from both mainstream parties have actively promoted through free trade policies.

That covers Trump’s domestic agenda.  Meanwhile, the foreign policy component of Trump’s agenda gives voice to the views of the large majority of Americans who consistently over the past 30 years have said they wanted their country to stop being the world’s policeman, to pursue more peaceful policies by acting in consensus as an equal partner of the world’s other major powers. This has been a constant feature of Pew polls as reported in leading journals of international relations.  However, it has been dismissed by the foreign relations establishment as revealing nothing more than the public’s ignorance of the dangers and complexities of  the international arena, its preoccupation with consumerism and unwillingness to accept hardships for the common security by exercising global leadership.

Consequently, one can summarize and conclude that Donald Trump’s planned foreign policy has deep populist roots.  His proposals to find dialogue with Russia on common security interests are neither a sign of his being Putin’s candidate or of arbitrarily and capriciously adopting a position solely to run against what the Establishment boys are saying for the sake of drawing attention to himself.

The curious and important thing to note about Russian populism is that it is driven far less by economics, although the Russian citizenry is hurting badly from the third year of recession that came out of the fall in energy prices and Western sanctions over Crimea and Ukraine. The driving factor of Russian populism is instead national pride over the reunification with Crimea and the country’s successful resistance to US and European intended punishment through belt tightening, import substitution and other measures.

Russians have traditionally been a complaining people but my own reading of the popular mood not so much from media as from talking to ordinary people, and especially to ordinary people over the fence of my plot of land and in the grocery store of the hamlet where I have a summer home, 80 km south of Petersburg, is that they are getting by and making the best of it without fuss.

Patriotism is in the air, as the massively successful May 9th celebrations of Russia’s WWII victory channeled a wellspring of emotion into the Immortal Regiment marches in cities and towns across the country.  This patriotic pride explains the 82% approval rating that Vladimir Putin currently enjoys.

Translated into electoral politics, the patriotic state of mind means that Russian populism will likely bring a turn to the Right at the voting booths this Sunday.  Although the governing party United Russia advertises itself as "the party of the President [Putin],” it also the party of Dmitry Medvedev, who is its  chairman, after all. As prime minister, Medvedev is still seen as a liberal who promotes free-market economics rather than state-guided reindustrialization. He is seen as soft on the US, soft on Europe. 

The street says that the governing party, United Russia, will not retain its majority of seats in the Duma, and its showing may dip as low as 30% of the vote.  The consequence would likely be a coalition cabinet, bringing in ministers from the runners-up. And who might those runners-up be?

In US media, there is the very mistaken view that Russia has no opposition parties.  That view is predominant only because our State Department and all of the specialist institutes and think tanks disdain any politicians and movements in Russia that are not on the US payroll. Unless you are Yabloko or Parnas, you are not an Opposition party, so our experts tell us.

Nothing could be further from the truth. I am persuaded that the position of second largest party in the Duma will be hotly contested between the Communists, who throughout the 90s actually were the country’s majority party, and the Liberal Democratic (LDPR) party of Vladimir Zhirinovsky, which was the first non-Communist party founded back in what was still Soviet Russia. 

On questions of economic policy, those two parties stand at opposite poles. But on the question of foreign policy they are both more royalist than the king.

Judging by the level of paid outdoor advertising on highways around the metropolises of Petersburg and Moscow, I would put my money on an LDPR high turnout and vote on September 18th.

In what little exposure US media has given Vladimir Zhirinovsky in the past, Western readers will assume that he is just a buffoon who has served the Kremlin’s interests by drawing  nationalists away from the Communists and so reducing its threat. However, my reading of Zhirinovsky, including from seeing and sparring with him up close, as I will describe below, is that his buffoonery has been as calculated as Donald Trump’s.  Playing the clown and wearing outlandish bright red sports jackets on air spared Zhirinovsky from being taken too seriously by the Establishment even as he delivered below the belt punches against the powers that be.

In a feature television program celebrating his 70th birthday in July, Zhirinovsky made it clear that in his 27 years in parliament he has seen it all, understands very well how the Kremlin has maintained power by one dirty trick after another. In particular, he explained to the Pervy Kanal presenter journalist Vladimir Soloviev how the single-mandate scheme which is being used in 2016 to complement the party list system of electing Duma deputies gives an unfair advantage to United Russia.  The scheme, which was taken from practices in some West European democracies, has been popularized as a means of bringing into parliament at least some deputies who are well known and dedicated to the district that elects them. But since United Russia has more candidates with more experience in power across the country, it can profit best from this scheme.

In the full page advertisement-campaign manifesto of LDPR in the same aforementioned weekend issue ofRossiiskaya Gazeta, Zhirinovsky and his associates denounce another feature of this year’s national elections: the appearance on the ballot of a half-dozen ersatz parties, parties that long ago combined forces and disappeared as separate entities. Zhirinovsky is calling them "subsidiaries” of United Russia, launched solely for the purpose of sopping up protest votes that otherwise might go to the  Duma parties like his own.

It is to be expected that there will be no vote-rigging or other illegal abuses in Sunday’s national elections such as set off the dramatic protests during the last Duma elections in December 2011. The  tricks that Zhirinovsky is denouncing are legal even if they are unethical. They are no different from what goes on in mature democracies like the USA (gerrymandering, for example) for the purpose of ‘managed democracy,’ which is by no means a made-in-Russia concept.

The astute critique of the Russian elites in power which Zhirinovsky puts forth underlines the justified fear of United Russia that it will lose control of parliament. Meanwhile, Zhirinovsky has changed his wardrobe to a classy business suit and changed his demeanor to almost calm, measured speech as I saw two days ago when we both took part in the Pervy Kanal’s leading political talk show "Sunday Evening with Vladimir Soloviev.” This was my second chance to observe him up close in the past 4 months and the difference was palpable. You could sense that he feels power within reach and is hoping for a ministerial portfolio in the new post-election government.

A good showing for Zhirinovsky’s party on September 18th and demotion to minority party for United Russia may well mean the renunciation of lingering hopes of getting along with, being buddies with the USA. It could result in new marching orders for Sergey Lavrov, the Minister of Foreign Affairs, and first talking partner of John Kerry.

In closing, I would like to share one other take-away from my Sunday adventure on Russian prime time television. The two minutes I was given to set out my views on what 9/11 meant for American domestic policies were nothing compared to the 5 minutes tête-â-tête with presenter Vladimir Soloviev before the show. We talked Trump. 

Given his position as darling of Russian state television, the man who gets to do the big interviews with Vladimir Putin, I think it is safe to say that Soloviev represents a significant part of the Kremlin establishment. And he does not want to see Trump elected.

This runs directly counter to everything our Neocons, our Democratic standard bearer and our mainstream media are saying about the Putin-Trump ‘relationship.’ But it is perfectly logical, even if it may be dead wrong.

Soloviev sees Trump as volatile, as unpredictable.  I must add parenthetically, this is precisely what so bothers US intelligence officers and the US President when they think of Putin, who remains one of the few world leaders for whom they have no bug under his pillow.

In this resistance to a potentially unpredictable Trump, we see characteristic Russian stress on the virtues of stability. Better the devil you know…etc.  But there is also something else going on.  Soloviev, like a large swathe of Russians both in and out of power, enjoys seeing the USA as malicious and as the enemy.  In a direct mirror image of the US budgetary procedures, having such an enemy is good for those seeking resources for the armed forces and the military industrial complex.

The bottom line is that the rise of populists in Russia may bring in hard-liners on foreign policy just when the rise of populists in the USA may bring in doves.


© Gilbert Doctorow, 2016



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