Fri, Jun 03, 2005 - Page 9 News List

Putin's strong statism is still the lesser of two evils

Russian liberals are well advised to stick with the president, because the alternative is a populism of benefit to the Right

By Leonid Radzikhovsky

The term "Weimar Russia" first appeared about 13 years ago, at the height of the confrontation between then Russian president Boris Yeltsin and the Supreme Soviet that ended when Yeltsin's tanks shelled the parliament. The meaning was clear to all: Weimar Russia, like Weimar Germany, signified a weak republic attacked from within by nationalists yearning to restore authoritarian ways.

In the late 1990s and the early years of this decade, the problems that incited fears of a dysfunctional state seemed to fade. But over the past 18 months, the specter of Weimar has once again begun to haunt Russia.

If taken to extremes, Russian society's response to its wrenching modernization could degenerate into a nationalist revolution led by xenophobes. A different and healthy conservative response is possible if the tattered remnants of old threads, torn apart in the course of postcommunist modernization, can reconnect and grow together in a new way.

The problem is that everyone writes history in their own manner, and there are no scales that can fix the precise point at which the remedy of unifying patriotism turns into the lethal poison of rabid nationalism. Weimar Germany blindly poisoned itself.

In the period from 1991 to 1993, nationalism was on the rise because Yeltsin's infant democracy seemed weak, with the country in the throes of a deep economic crisis, as well as an acute confrontation between different branches of government. But what explains today's resurgence of nationalism, when the regime and economy are strong, and all branches of government appear to operate in total unity?

Indeed, there are no practical reasons for Russia's current system of governance to fall into crisis -- although such reasons may emerge in the event of an economic downturn. But there is another reason, no less important, that concerns morals and ideology.

Challenges to established political authority have been chilled fairly effectively by means of state-sponsored patriotism. But the virus of nationalism has survived and multiplied.

Opinion polls, for example, indicate that 50 percent of Russians support the slogan "Russia for Russians." Moreover, nationalism has spread from the streets into the elite. Nationalist statements that would have been confined to the extremist newspaper Den in the early 1990s are now considered normal, "centrist," even commonplace.

Today's hardcore Russian nationalists consider President Vladimir Putin's regime too soft, too pragmatic, too reasonable -- in their language, "weak and indecisive." They loathe it for its "surrender" in Ukraine to the "Orange Revolution," and they condemn the decision to give land along Siberia's Amur River to China.

The "Putin Center" can be displaced. Recall that Russia's pro-Western liberals, ascendant a decade ago, have been relegated to the ideological fringe, with the very word "democrat" -- let alone "pro-West" -- now a term of abuse.

Fortunately, there is no sign yet of a charismatic leader capable of forging the scattered energies of national-socialist grievances into a critical mass of hatred and "national revival." Stalin's ghost is no substitute for a real, live leader; he will never leap out of his portraits, no matter how often they are waved.

Moreover, times have changed. For example, no one even mentions the idea of introducing a dictatorship, abolishing elections and so on. No matter how harshly Russia's "democrats" are abused, the word "democracy" remains a sacred cow.

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