Is Russian president Vladimir Putin a populist? According to the Russian analyst Alexander Rubtsov, director of the Center for the Study of Ideological Processes, this is not the case. In an article in the Moskovskij Komsomolets he wrote:
“Rigorous theories have developed ‘necessary and sufficient’ characteristics of populism: its stance ‘for the people against the elite’, its manipulation of popular values and expectations, the emphasis on a charismatic leader, the bypassing of institutions, the difference between real choices and the propaganda media diffusing populist visions . . . In view of the absence of a whole series of such characteristics, they remove Putin from the category of populists and even see in him ‘a bastion of anti-populism’ in his internal policy (notwithstanding his scandalous relations with populism and anti-establishment movements abroad). He does not threaten his elites, does not communicate live with his followers, does not incite them to mobilize, he famously avoids debates and has no chance of losing elections. All this is not considered to be in the spirit of true populism, in fact it is rather the opposite.”
Rubtsov is right: Putin is not a populist and the reasons he gives are certainly valid. However, the most important reason is that the only movements and parties that can be labeled “populist” are those which are pursuing illiberal policies in liberal democracies, which means: within systems where there still exists the possibility of democratic alternation of power through the ballot box. This possibility does not exist in Putin’s Russia.
However, this does not mean that the Kremlin is not riding the waves of European and American populism brilliantly, using populist movements and parties to its own advantage. The anti-EU and anti-NATO stance of the majority of these parties fits perfectly with the geopolitical objectives of the Russian leadership. Its strategy is to bind these movements closer to the Kremlin by signing “cooperation agreements.” Two populist parties with which such agreements were signed, the Austrian Freedom Party and the Italian Lega Nord, recently entered the governments of their respective countries. However, populism could also be a double-edged sword. The populist wave is an international phenomenon, causing not only turmoil in Europe, but also in the United States, Latin America, Australia and Asia.
Is it reasonable to expect that only Russia will be safe from this worldwide phenomenon? Russia is no longer an isolated territory, cut off from the rest of the world, as it was in Soviet times. It is part of the world economy, its youth is educated, its middle class is travelling abroad, and—most importantly—its population is connected with the rest of the world through the Internet and social media. In Europe the anti-elite mood of the populist parties turned against mainstream governments and political parties. However, these derided governments and despised politicians came to power in mostly fair and democratic elections. In the last eighteen years in Russia the presidential and parliamentary elections have not been fair and democratic: they were rigged and manipulated, while candidates of the so-called “non-systemic” opposition were prevented from participating. If one can speak of an “elite” which is estranged from the population and which has become a separate “caste,” then this is the case in contemporary Russia. This means that probably in Russia the objective conditions for the development of a populist movement are even more ripe than elsewhere.
It would appear that the Kremlin has reached this conclusion. In April 2017 a new think tank was founded by the Presidential Administration: the “Expert Institute for Social Research.” This institute has the task of organizing forums in the different regions of the Russian Federation. One of the first activities of this new think tank was the publication of a report on populism, written by Gleb Kuznetsov and Yekaterina Sokolova. In this report the authors begin by analyzing the general causes of this phenomenon. They consider populism a product of a post–industrial society in which the old classes have disappeared to make place for “quasi-classes,” for which the left-right divide has lost its meaning. The economic crisis of 2008/2009 has played a major role in the emergence of populist parties, write the authors. They must be considered a “post-shock” phenomenon which, while emerging later, were triggered by the crisis which led to the impoverishment of the middle classes. In particular, the theme of “social justice” has become a major concern for the youngest generation, those between twenty to twenty-nine years, because in the coming ten to fifteen years the income of this group will show a tendency to decrease and they will have no certainty of reaching a satisfying standard of living after the age of thirty-five. This problematic situation is compounded by the existence of social media which enables horizontal contact among like-minded people to be made. The analysis of the two authors’ report is based on the situation in Europe and the United States.