Op-Ed: “Putin’s populism absolves him of just about anything”

methodetimesprodwebbin2cd7c276-278e-11e8-bb7d-85110f4c5caaVladimir Putin is facing serious international estrangement and political hostility by other world powers on the eve of Russia’s presidential election. You might think this would throw a wrench in voters opinions, but likely it won’t.

On top of dealing with his normal routine of denying Russian interference in the U.S. 2016 presidential election, Putin has become embroiled in new political dramas. Stating that Jews, Ukrainians and Tartars were behind the election meddling has raised criticisms abroad. The current expulsion of diplomats from Britain and Russia following the poisoning of an ex-Russian spy this week seems like a throwback to the Cold War as tensions rise between Russia and the West.

The Russian presidential election is this weekend. If I was betting, I would say Putin is still going to be ruling Russia on Monday. And here’s why.

Putin is a populist leader, and he has made his brand of populism synonymous with the well-being of Russia. How we define and examine populism can explain this.

Patriotism and populism in Russia

Many Russians support Putin because he has enshrined himself as the strongman who will pursue and advocate Russia’s interests internationally. He is an unabashed patriot. This vigorous patriotism is critical, and Putin plays it up every chance he can get.

Just look at the new Russian missiles that were unveiled earlier this month, aimed to re-establish Russian influence that has been absent for decades. Or the decision to move the election so it takes place during the anniversary of the annexation of Crimea, which remains hugely popular domestically.

In Neil Robinson and Sarah Milne’s article (Populism and Political Development in Hybrid Regimes: Russia and the Development of Official Populism)  we see that populism can be invented around this patriotism after a government has already taken power.

Putin’s government has  consistently fallen short of its socio-economic goals and his ratings are decreasing. Russia’s electoral authoritarianism and unfair elections require populism in order to survive. As Robinson and Milne argue, Putin has merged voting patterns with the welfare of Russian society since the election of 2011-2012. Being a Russian patriot means voting for Putin, and this populist tactic has been hugely successful.

The importance of a powerful leader

Putin would not have been able to create this populism surrounding him if he wasn’t a charming leader. In Federicho Finchelstein’s book, From Fascism to Populism in History, he emphasizes this greatly.

As Finchelstein explains, historically populism has been an evolution of fascism. This post-fascism revitalizes an authoritarian view of democracy and translates itself into a regime. This is dovetailed with a leader who works within the democratic system, but is more “trustworthy ” than any of the institutions in place. The leader knows what is best for the people, and is considered legitimate by working within the existing political system.

Putin’s time as Russian president fits this description surprisingly well. He is perceived as a strongman who defends Russia from the West and NATO. He “saved” Russia from economic stagnation when he first came to power almost 20 years ago. All without overthrowing the political system or causing major political instability.

He can do no wrong?

What needs to be taken away from all of this is that Putin probably isn’t losing sleep over whats going on in the world news and how it may affect the election. And neither are his supporters.

By harnessing Russian patriotism and channeling it into support for his government, combined with his strong leadership, Putin has crafted his own variety of populism. And despite lower ratings, he continues to wield it with great effect.

This is important to recognize as the Western world begins to rally against Russia. Perhaps these insights can be valuable tools for how we understand why Putin manages to get away with just about anything.

Works Cited:

Booth, William and Mathew Bodner. “Britain to Expel 23 Russian Diplomats after Poisoning of Ex-Spy.” The Washington Post, March 14, 2018. https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/europe/britains-theresa-may-prepares-response-to-russian-spy-poisoning/2018/03/14/0a232d2c-26f5-11e8-a227-fd2b009466bc_story.html?utm_term=.dea519a39f54.

Carroll, Oliver. “Russian Election 2018: Voters are Faced with a Difficult Choice – Vladimir Putin or Vladimir Putin.” The Independent, March 12, 2018. http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/europe/russia-election-2018-vladimir-putin-vote-when-polls-president-moscow-a8252246.html.

Carroll, Oliver. “Russia Rolls Back Putin’s Cold War-Era Rhetoric as Kremlin Denies ‘Nuking Florida’ in Video Mock-Up.” The Independent, March 2, 2018. http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/europe/russia-nuking-florida-video-putin-spokesman-denies-nuclear-weapons-us-a8236506.html.

Finchelstein, Federico. From Fascism to Populism in History. Oakland, California: University of California Press, 2017.

“Putin says Jews, Ukrainians, Tatars Could be Behind U.S. Election Meddling.” USA Today, March 10, 2018. https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/world/2018/03/10/putin-says-jews-russian-citizenship-could-behind-u-s-election-meddling/413321002/.

Robinson, Neil and Sarah Milne. “Populism and Political Development in Hybrid Regimes: Russia and the Development of Official Populism.” International Political Science Review 38, no. 4 (2017): 412-425.

“Russian Election 2018: Why Does Vladimir Putin Always Win?” The Times, March 14, 2018. https://www.thetimes.co.uk/edition/world/russian-election-2018-why-does-putin-always-win-s8sd060zt.

Smith, Alexander. “Putin on U.S. Election Interference: ‘I Couldn’t Care Less.'” NBC News, March 1, 2018. https://www.nbcnews.com/news/world/putin-u-s-election-interference-i-couldn-t-care-less-n855151.

Image taken from: https://www.thetimes.co.uk/edition/world/russian-election-2018-why-does-putin-always-win-s8sd060zt.

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