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Populism Won’t Radically Change The West Or Spread To Russia – OpEd

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Many Russian commentators, observing the ongoing populist wave in various Western countries, have been suggesting that this trend will fundamentally change the West and ultimately spread to Russia as well. But Znak commentator Gleb Kuznetsov argues that there is no basis for either conclusion.

He he points out that “the main problem of populism is that it doesn’t change anything. It only says that it is necessary to change everything,” but no populist movement or leader has “a well-defined image of the future” or plans for implementing it (znak.com/2016-12-19/politiki_populisty_poluchayut_podderzhku_v_evrope_i_ssha_zhdet_li_eto_rossiyu).

And he observes that there are two compelling reasons to think that populism won’t spread to Russia. On the one hand, anyone who tried to promote such ideas independently of the regime would soon be jailed or worse. And on the other, the Kremlin is quite ready to coopt populist slogans precisely because it sees that they can prevent change rather than promote it.

Kuznetsov takes up the problem of populism in the West. According to him, “the anti-elite and anti-bureaucratic voting in Great Britain – Brexit – has led only to the appearance of work for several hundred bureaucrats who have begun with high salaries to develop the procedure for an exit.”

And in the US, “Trump, who achieved his victory under slogans calling for a struggle against family dealings, clans, and lobbyism has brought to the White House his own children, the wife of the leader of the Republican leader of the Senate, as well as numerous relatives, friends and business partners.”

The incoming president “promised to put all lobbyists up against the wall and ‘drain the Washington swamp,’ but already now lobbyists are enjoying a level of power in the US which they never had earlier.” Trump’s nominee for defense secretary was pushed by the lobbying of former Vice President Dick Cheney and former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.

And Trump’s telephone call with the president of Taiwan, something that infuriated Beijing, was pushed by the lobbying efforts of former Republican presidential candidate and influential senator, Bob Dole. In short and with remarkable speed, the “populist” Trump has expanded the very forces he won the election by saying he’d defeat.

Populists in the US and elsewhere can only expect two things in the future: “total disappointment” when they realize that those they voted for aren’t going to do what they promised and the increasing use of populist rhetoric by “’systemic politicians’” who will use it and discard it just as quickly.

As far as Russia is concerned, Kuznetsov says, “both Trump and the Brexit activists and many other Western populists would set in a Russian prison about a week after the start of their election campaign.” The Kremlin has both the laws in place to do just that and has demonstrated its willingness to use them for its own purposes.

And at the same time, the Znak commentator points out, Putin and his regime have shown themselves willing to use populist rhetoric even though they have no plans to implement their promises either. Consequently, the spread of a real populist challenge to Russia is unlikely and “most probably impossible.”


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Paul Goble

Paul Goble

Paul Goble is a longtime specialist on ethnic and religious questions in Eurasia. Most recently, he was director of research and publications at the Azerbaijan Diplomatic Academy. Earlier, he served as vice dean for the social sciences and humanities at Audentes University in Tallinn and a senior research associate at the EuroCollege of the University of Tartu in Estonia. He has served in various capacities in the U.S. State Department, the Central Intelligence Agency and the International Broadcasting Bureau as well as at the Voice of America and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Mr. Goble maintains the Window on Eurasia blog and can be contacted directly at [email protected] .

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