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Russians Less Attached To Ideology Than Many Assume – OpEd

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Analysts of all political persuasions tend to assume that this or that group of the population is deeply attached to a particular ideology and that the future depends on whether groups will maintain or shift their attachment from one to another. But three articles in the Moscow media today suggest that view is at least partially incorrect.

More than that, they suggest that those political leaders who accept the primacy of ideology as an explanation for Russian behavior are failing to see what is really going on and often claim victory for themselves without understanding that they haven’t won one or yield to their opponents who see more clearly that other factors are at work.

The first of these three, by Moscow political scientist Vasily Zharkov, appeared in Novaya gazeta. He argues that Russian liberals have been paralyzed by their acceptance of the view that the people (the “narod”) are deeply attached to “red-brown” ideas and thus must be opposed rather than appealed to (novayagazeta.ru/articles/2017/07/24/73227-ne-boyatsya-sobstvennyh-grazhdan).

That liberal view, he continues, not only has kept them from challenging the regime’s tightening of the screws but from reaching out to the population and winning its support by speaking to what it is really concerned with. “The Russian voter,” Zharkov says, “believes not in political values but in personal well-being and personal guarantees.”

That voter cares only that he be paid and paid on time. “All ideas, liberal or conservative or whatever are meaningless when he hears the clear signal ‘you will be paid.’” As a result, the acceptance of much that the powers that be insist on has little or nothing to do with ideology, and if liberals were willing to offer something similar, they too would attract support.

The issue then is how can the liberals find “a common language” with the narod. “To begin with, they must cease to be afraid of their own citizens” because their fears are rooted in a misconception. And “they must begin to respect them as genuine democrats do.” If that happens, the liberals may find there are far more supporters for democratic change than they imagine.

The second article by commentator Dmitry Sidorov of the Lenta news agency makes a similar point about the significance or in fact insignificance of ideology in Russian political life by focusing on an entirely different subject: the current purge of Russian nationalists by the Kremlin (lenta.ru/articles/2017/07/24/ourboys/).

He argues that this effort to “cleanse” the Russian political scene of these figures and their media outlets has less to do with ideological differences – the usual explanation – than with something else entirely, the willingness even eagerness of such nationalists to form alliances with other political groups in the run-up to elections.

“Nationalists,” Sidorov writes, “are not the most influential group within the non-systemic opposition but they are persistent and ready for coalitions with others. They constantly try, although not always successfully, to conclude situational alliances with other forces,” and the Kremlin isn’t interested in the possibility that they might do so again.

At various points in the past, Russian nationalists more than liberals and reformers have reached out in an attempt to form alliances, often with groups that have very different ideological agendas. That flexibility on their part suggests that they are more interested in gaining power than in realizing all the points of their ideological program.

And the third article, by journalist Yekaterina Trifonova of Nezavisimaya gazeta, suggests that the civic activity of young people, something that many reformers have placed so much hope in, is far less stable than they imagine because participation in protests for many has more to do with fashion than commitment (ng.ru/politics/2017-07-24/1_7035_protests.html).

She cites research by Aleksey Kudrin’s Committee on Civic Initiatives to argue that many young Russians who recently have taken part in protest actions “in fact do not have a defined civic position.” They are far more “apolitical” in ideological terms than their elders. And taking part in demonstrations is simply a matter of “fashion.”

Such attitudes, she suggests, explain why the youthful protesters can be usually divided into three groups: the smallest are those who support a particular leader, a bit larger are those who are attracted by the subject of the protest, but the largest of all are those who come to watch or “to make selfies” and then get “many likes” in social media.


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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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