Will Putin trump Medvedev and return Russia – and US ties – to Soviet era?

The ideological divide in Russia between Soviet-tending Putin and pro-Western Medvedev makes it tough for the US to set policies with Moscow. But a more difficult scenario is likely to come: anti-Western Putin in power in 2012. Obama must send a strong message to Moscow now, not later.

Last week, just before the 66th anniversary of VE Day, Russia’s Prime Minister Vladimir Putin announced that he has had enough with multi-party democracy in Russia. Instead, Mr. Putin proposed to launch a Popular Front, a Soviet-style contraption that would consist of United Russia, his ruling party, women’s and environmental organizations, trade unions, plus communists and nationalists.

This retreat from democracy signals a deep ideological divide between Putin and his political protégé, President Dmitry Medvedev. Mr. Medvedev, the “junior partner” of Russia’s ruling tandem, has repeatedly called for a Russia compatible with the West, including the rule of law, greater democracy, freer media, unregulated Internet, and a serious fight against corruption.

Beyond the two men’s competition for power lies a deep ideological chasm, which reflects a 150-year confrontation between the “Westernizers” and “Slavophiles” (today better called Eurasianists to reflect their preferred geopolitical destiny). Conflicting policies flow from these contradictory orientations.

Without recognizing this schism, it is practically impossible for Western decision-makers to understand the two Russian leaders – their worldviews, ambitions, and aspirations – and develop adequate policies to deal with Russia. The current political season there will decide whether the US and the West will live with a Russia that is a prickly partner, or one that is seeking a partnership with China in opposing liberal values. Everything – from military budgets to oil supply – will be affected by these decisions.

A tricky game for Washington

The Obama administration has made Medvedev its principal diplomatic interlocutor. But herein lies the rub: Putin remains Russia’s “national leader” and the real power behind – and on – the throne.

RELATED: Could Putin and Medvedev face off in an open Russian election?

This April, Vice President Biden invited Putin to visit Washington while he and Medvedev are maneuvering for the 2012 presidential elections. That same month, Putin’s Annual Report to the Duma clashed with Medvedev’s promotion of comprehensive reform he calls “modernization.” Medvedev’s modernization philosophy is expressed in a recent report from his own think tank, the Institute of Contemporary Development’s (known by its Russian abbreviation INSOR) – “21st Century Russia: Image of the Desirable Future.”

Medvedev's ideologues

Medvedev’s ideologues include Vyacheslav Surkov and Igor Yurgens. Mr. Surkov, Medvedev’s Deputy Chief of Presidential Administration, spends most of his time managing the political system, including parties, elections, and mass media. He was Putin’s – and is now Medvedev’s – Karl Rove, or Dick Morris.

Mr. Yurgens, who reinvented himself from a Soviet-era trade union apparatchik into a senior Russian Chamber of Commerce executive, is a big-picture guy. Yurgens heads INSOR, Medvedev’s think tank. He is also Medvedev’s pit bull.

In a recent INSOR report presentation, Yurgens said that “the country will not move forward as long as it is ruled by fear… thievery, bribery, fraud, racketeering and cynicism.” He compares Putin to the late Leonid Brezhnev, the Soviet ruler who presided over an 18-year era known as “stagnation.”

Medvedev’s INSOR recommendations, however, are incompatible with the outlook of today’s Russian elites who surround Putin.

Putin's circle of elites

These elites, which include the top officers of security services, the armed forces, the military-industrial complex, state company executives, and a part of the business class, are statist. They are a mix of imperialists and nationalists. They support a future for Russia that is apart from the West and is rooted in the empire and Christian Orthodoxy.

Monarchist and Russian Orthodox intellectuals and philosophers influence Putin a lot. One of his favorites is the late Ivan Ilyin, a staunch monarchist and anti-communist who in the 1930s wrote approvingly of fascism.

Mr. Ilyin’s champion in Russia is Putin’s friend and Oscar-winning filmmaker Nikita Mikhalkov. He formulated the ideology of “enlightened conservatism” and is also the author of “The Law and the Truth,” a 10,000-word nationalist manifesto.

In the emerging cacophony of what Russia’s Center for National Strategy calls “battle of reports,” Mr. Mikhalkov’s opus sounds the clarion call of the return to Christian Orthodoxy, heroism, personal sacrifice, and state power. His newly released World War II epic “Burned by the Sun Two: The Citadel,” is an example of this talented cinematic proselytizing.

In his films and manifestos, Mikhalkov attempts to adjust the 19th century slogan of the Romanov empire: “Orthodoxy, authoritarianism, and populism” (narodnost) to the realities of the 21st century. He calls for “solidarity” between the people and the rulers – hence, Putin’s “Popular Front.” Mikhalkov hails the state, but downplays the importance of human rights.

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Putin echoes Stalin: 'weak are beaten'

Putin’s warning in the recent Duma report echoes Mikhalkov – and Stalin, who famously said that “the weak are beaten.”

In his address, Putin said “...if you are weak, there for sure will be someone who would ... give advice, in which direction to move, what policy to pursue, which path to chose for one’s development. And these ostensibly light-touch advices may look not bad, but behind them is coarse Diktat and intervention in internal affairs of sovereign states...”

Putin – in pointed opposition to Medvedev and Yurgens – rejects “zigzagging, ill-conceived experiments based on unjustified liberalism, or, on the other side, social demagoguery.” This, too, is vintage Mikhalkov: anti-liberal and anti-communist, but statist and imperialist.

The rise of the New Right

Mikhalkov is attempting to capture the anti-immigration rhetoric of the quickly emerging Russian neo-Nazi fringe, dilute it, and make it a part of the political nationalist mainstream. His “Right and Truth” are attempts to utilize Russian culture as an instrument of social integration, and seize the skyrocketing anti-immigrant agenda.

The Moscow elites know that the anti-immigrant New Right is rising Europe-wide, as witnessed by the growing popularity of Marine Le Pen in France, the electoral victory of the True Finns in Finland, and the popularity of the Danish People’s Party and the Dutch Freedom Party. In Russia, as elsewhere, cultural and ethnic defensiveness is capable of violence and social destabilization.

Western European leaders, including Britain’s Prime Minister David Cameron, French president Nicolas Sarkozy, and German chancellor Angela Merkel increasingly proclaim that multiculturalism is failing – or dead. In the 2011 to 2012 electoral cycle, Putin – and his friend Mikhalkov – want to remain in power, while neutralizing the rise of the Russian fascism, and preventing the political victory of the reformists led by Medvedev and Yurgens.

US needs strong message for Russia

They are likely to get what they want, and the Obama administration better wake up and recognize this impending reality. Four more years of authoritarianism is likely to reverse the even modest achievements of the US-Russia “reset” policy; put a clamp on Internet freedom; and speed up emigration of the best and the brightest from Russia.

The administration should warn the Russian political class that business as usual, including anti-American propaganda, corruption, and the clamp-down on political opposition and on Russian neighbors may come at a price.

ANOTHER VIEW: How to warm US-Russia relations

Russian officials who are involved in blatant rule-of-law violations or money laundering, should face visa bans, and their foreign properties should be investigated, as members of the US Congress are suggesting. The US should certainly pursue its interests in relations with Moscow – but also uphold its values.

Ariel Cohen is senior research fellow for Russian and Eurasian Studies at The Heritage Foundation.

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