Academic journal article Demokratizatsiya

Ideological Change under Vladimir Putin in the Perspective of Social Identity Theory

Academic journal article Demokratizatsiya

Ideological Change under Vladimir Putin in the Perspective of Social Identity Theory

Article excerpt

Has Vladimir Putin become the author of a new political ideology? That question may be raised in the light of some statements about the president of Russia that have appeared in print. According to Owen Matthews, "Putin was basically pragmatic" in earlier years, but after Russia's annexation of Crimea, "Putin has become a different kind of leader, motivated by ideology, regardless of the cost to Russia's economic well-being."1 In March 2014 Masha Gessen went so far as to say that "a new ideology has taken shape in the Kremlin," and "it has taken hold as Russia's national idea."2 A number of observers would agree with Fedor Lukianov's assessment that before his third term as president, which began in 2012, Putin was "non-ideological" and a pragmatist, but after his return to the presidency "he promoted an ideology of conservatism."3

Interest in the possibility that Putin had made a commitment to a conservative ideology was stimulated particularly by his address to Russia's Federal Assembly in December 2013.4 Certainly the situation has changed in some way. During an interview in September 2013, when a journalist asked whether he was a conservative, Marxist, liberal, or pragmatist, Putin replied that he was "a pragmatist with a conservative inclination."5 But a few months later, in March 2014, during a lecture on conservatism for officers of the ruling United Russia Party, when the speaker, Ol'ga Vasil'eva, who is a history professor and the deputy head of the Administration for Social Projects of the presidential administration, was asked, "Is Vladimir Putin a conservative?" she answered directly, "Classical."6 So we might ask whether Putin has really moved away from pragmatism and adopted an ideology with a conservative content.

This article will address that question, and will place recent developments in ideology in Russia in a perspective that is drawn from social identity theory (SIT). Social identity theory offers the capacity for insights that help us to assess the significance of the change in the ideational framework of the Putin leadership described by the commentators cited above. There is not likely to be much dispute about the statement that in recent decades, "the attention given to the concept of identity-both in the social sciences and in the world at large-has continued to rise."7 In the constructivist approach to the study of international politics, the central concept is identity,8 but in that approach identity is not assumed to have an unchanging nature, but is viewed as variable and changing, and as the product of interaction among states and among forces inside national political systems.9 Social identity theory in international relations reflects a particular school of thought within constructivism that developed out of social identity theory in social psychology, which originally was applied to individuals and groups. That theory posits that each person desires a positive self-image, which can be gained by identification with a group, and by favorable comparison of that in-group in relation to certain out-groups.10 Thus people want the group to which they belong to have a positive identity.11 On the level of international relations, national political leaders can be expected to seek to establish a positive identity for their country.

SIT delineates a variety of identity management strategies in reaction to a negative or unfavorable identity for a social group,12 and similarly, national political leaders may employ identity management strategies to "enhance national self-esteem."13 The three types of strategies that social identity theory has distinguished are social mobility, social competition, and social creativity. For a nation that sees itself in a category with lower status, the strategy of social mobility entails acceptance of the norms of nations with higher status, with the aspiration of joining that group of nations.14 In other words, that strategy seeks assimilation to the more highly regarded category, which requires emulation of the values and institutions of nations with higher prestige. …

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