Academic journal article Demokratizatsiya

Russian Nationalism Shifting: The Role of Populism since the Annexation of Crimea

Academic journal article Demokratizatsiya

Russian Nationalism Shifting: The Role of Populism since the Annexation of Crimea

Article excerpt

Putin's Russia "is not a democracy, but it is in the name of the people, and for the people. Putin's main constituency is 'the people.' All of his power comes from his rating with the people," explains Andranik Migranyan.1 Popular legitimacy in Russia, however, is not derived from elections. Since the beginning of his presidency, Vladimir Putin has shaped domestic policies that have emphasized elements not only of patriotism,2 xenophobia (especially against migrants)3 and anti-Westernism,4 but also of depoliticization5 and populism.6 The notion of populism points in a different direction than the study of nationalism or democracy and raises the following question: who precisely comprise "the people" that so matters to the Russian political leadership?

Russian official discourse under Putin has carefully disentangled ethnicity from national identity and has introduced into its definition of Russianness a mixture of pre-Soviet and Soviet symbols.7 Putin's way of conducting politics has led scholars to compare him to well-established populist politicians such as Hugo Chavez, Umberto Bossi, and Geert Wilders.8

His late political opponent Boris Nemtsov also accused Putin of "pursuing a policy of warlike populism in order to bolster his approval ratings."9 Warlike situations imply a populist dichotomization of political space. For Putin, a regular pursuer of antagonistic politics, politics is the continuation of war, to use Foucault's famous inversion10 of Clausewitz's statement: at the beginning of his tenure, Putin's key to winning over large segments of the Russian population was the declaration of war against crime, a "dictatorship of law" that bifurcated the political space into order and chaos. He then connected his name with the war in Chechnya, i.e., against one of the Russian Federation's own federal subjects. The Chechen war has divided the political space into terrorists and their opponents and has triggered one of the bloodiest conflicts of post-Soviet Russia.11

Fourteen years later, Russia is again at the center of a war in the post-Soviet space. As with the Chechen conflict, the war in the Donbass is shrouded in a mixture of nationalism and populism that has triggered a "rally 'round the flag" effect12 in Russia. In contrast to the Chechen war, which could draw on a religious narrative that pitted Orthodox Russians against Muslim Chechens, the "people" to which the Russian State appealed during the Crimean crisis and the subsequent war in the Donbass was a much more unstable, slippery, and problematic construct, since Ukrainians were considered a brotherly Slavic nation. These "brothers"-including, to some extent, Crimea's Muslim Tatars-had to be won over. This could not be achieved through the use of exclusive nationalism13 by the Russian government. Hence, official discourse activated the most populist and inclusionary elements of a tamed, official Russian nationalism.14

The special bond between Ukraine and Russia, cultivated over the course of centuries (especially by Russia), grants the Crimean and Donbass conflicts their exceptionality and constitutes the puzzle that the present investigation seeks to fathom. Against this backdrop, the research questions this article seeks to answer are: How can Vladimir Putin justify intervention in Crimea and war in the Donbass against Ukraine if the image of an "antagonistic Other" is blurred and the Other somehow belongs to the Self? What frames does the discourse he represents use to construct the features of the people to whom it wants to appeal? We conduct a thematic analysis of Vladimir Putin's key 2014 speeches to get a clearer picture of "the people" and its allies and friends, its enemies, and the symbols that are used to keep it united. We have selected these speeches because they were delivered at a particular historical juncture, in the context of the annexation of Crimea and the beginning of the war in Donbass. This selection offers rich empirical data to detail the dominant conception of the membership of the Russian nation and can hence be considered particularly revealing about the populism-nationalism nexus in contemporary Russian politics at this specific moment in time. …

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