The role of the new think tank of the Presidential Administration seems to be to prevent the emergence of real populism by creating fake populism with the help of new “political technologies,” copied from populist movements, to prevent, contain, and control the emergence of populist movements in Russia. The director of the board of the think tank, Andrei Shutov, is very clear. He sees a parallel between today’s opposition and revolutionary movements at the beginning of the twentieth century. “From 1905 on,” he has said, “parties developed which did not behave themselves in the best way in February 1917. Unfortunately, today, too, in a section of the opposition parties there is no idea of a national consensus, of basic values, which are shared by society and the ruling class. In order to realize their goals they are ready to sacrifice the government [and] the national interest. In their time that was what the Bolsheviks did. Look, in a section of today’s opposition there are analogous ideas . . . If you read about the tactics, on political behavior in 1917 and compare that with Navalny’s position today, then you find very many related similarities. However, in 1917 power [of the state] was weak, it was very much up for grabs, today, thank god, the state is powerful, powerful particularly thanks to the leadership of Vladimir Putin.”
Navalny is depicted here as the enemy of the state, waiting in the shadows for a Bolshevik-style coup d’état. It is interesting that here it is not a member of a supposed populist movement, who is accusing the elite of being out of touch with “the people,” but a member of the elite who is accusing the leader of the “non-systemic” opposition of this fact. A complete inversion of the roles. Populism is clearly the new specter, which is haunting the Kremlin. In February 2017 another prominent Russian think tank, Minchenko Hosting, hosted a two-day seminar for analysts and politicians, titled “Elections, Victory and Big data: Win Like Trump and Putin.” One of the topics was “How to Neutralize the Populist Wave: Strategies of Protection for the ‘Ruling Party’.” Will the Kremlin’s strategy work? Will it be able to produce its own fake populism to counter the supposed populism of Navalny’s opposition? The Kremlin has good reason to be concerned about its ability to cope with a restive populace. Already former Finance Minister Alexei Kudrin has predicted an increase in local conflicts for social reasons that could spill over to the federal level.
A flash mob on Red Square as the ultimate nightmare for the Kremlin? It is clear that Putin’s regime has not forgotten the mass protests of 2011–12. After Putin’s return to the presidency in 2012 increased repression successfully quelled protests. But it is clear that a new Internet-savvy generation is proving increasingly restless about the state of Russian politics.
Marcel H. Van Herpen is director of the Cicero Foundation and a Russia expert. His latest books include Putin’s Propaganda Machine—Soft Power and Russian Foreign Policy ; Putin’s Wars—The Rise of Russia’s New Imperialism ; and Putinism—The Slow Rise of a Radical Right Regime in Russia .
Image: Protesters walk past an officer of the Russian National Guard during a rally against pension reforms, which envisage raising the retirement age, in St. Petersburg, Russia September 16, 2018. REUTERS/Anton Vaganov