Populism in Russia?

Is Putin susceptible to populism?

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The rise of populism around the world is a well documented phenomenon including Brexit, the rise of extreme political parties across Europe, and the election of Donald Trump.  According to scholars, such as Fareed Zakaria, Western populism can be explained by looking at 4 factors, globalism, information technology, mounting fiscal burdens, and immigration.  And while the West has struggled against the rise of populism, Vladimir Putin has been there to exacerbate these movements in order to hasten the damage and infighting among those in western world.  But is Russia just as susceptible to a populist message as those of us in the West?

Yes.  And of course not!

Alexei Navalny is a rising populist star in Russia.  He is a lawyer, political activist, and an outspoken blogger who researchers and publishes corruption scandals involving high ranking Russian officials.  His research uncovered numerous scandals in Russia.  In 2011 Navalny was also a key leader during the historic protests in Moscow speaking out against the rigged parliamentary elections.  These protests were especially nerve-wracking to those in the Kremlin because 2011 was also the year that other dictators in Egypt, Tunisia and Libya fell to popular uprisings.  And so the state soon came after Navalny for his part in these demonstrations.

For what was seen as reprisal for his outspoken voice, Navalny was convicted in 2013 for defrauding the Kirov region of 16 million rubles, but these charges failed to show any wrong doing or even a single cent that had gone missing.  But hours after his conviction, Navalny’s prison sentence of 5 years was pardoned but not fully withdrawn from his record.  As a result of his early release Navalny can still go to jail at anytime if the government wishes to re-impose his punishment.  Although he was the lucky one, as many of Navalny’s friends and colleagues have faced much worse fates than himself.

Fortunately for Navalny, and unfortunately for Vladimir Putin, Navalny believes that he has reached a martyr type status and therefore does not run the risk of assassination, and he has chosen to remain in Russia despite these grim statistics.

In 2013, Navalny ran for the position of mayor in Moscow and he received 27% of the vote, far surpassing everyone’s expectations.  However, he ended up losing to the candidate being backed by Vladimir Putin. But now knowing that he enjoys a growing tide of support, Navalny has his eyes set on the Kremlin in 2018.  Despite the jailing, intimidation, and constant surveillance of himself and his friends, the outspoken blogger and political activist is running for office.

Now reflect back to the top of the post where I cited Mr. Zakaria’s factors for a populist movement, they included globalism, technology, fiscal debt, and immigration.  Despite the fact that Russia faces of all the same problems as western countries, Navalny has no chance in an election against Vladimir Putin.

It is a given that Vladimir Putin already knows all of these things which I have outlined above, both about Navalny’s toxic rise (for the Kremlin) and Russia’s teetering economic, political, and societal dilemmas.  In light of a new report by Transparency International, Russia is ranked 131st in transparency of their government, and just barely beats out many of the countries in West Africa.

In the face of growing tension brought on by a failing economy and political corruption, Vladimir Putin, the former KGB agent and former leader of the FSB, is putting on an elaborate show of political showmanship.  By running against a person, Navalny, who is unquestionably an outspoken reformer and someone so steadfast in his beliefs that he cannot be scared out of his own country, Putin found the perfect person to help him bring legitimacy back to the presidency of Russia.

Finally, in an interview with David Soros about the rise of populism abroad he said, “How could this happen? The only explanation I can find is that elected leaders failed to meet voters’ legitimate expectations and aspirations and that this failure led electorates to become disenchanted with the prevailing versions of democracy and capitalism. Quite simply, many people felt that the elites had stolen their democracy.” (Emphasis added)

Democracy was never something most Russians legitimately experienced.  The 1990s brought about some of the worst corruption and organized crime in Russian history – in short, the light of democracy and capitalism had failed them. To most Russians, it was Putin (and the rise of oil prices) that saved Russia.  And so today, Russians are not seeking a populist movement to bring back democracy (although that’s not to say domestic restructuring of their institutions are not needed) but right now, Russians want transparency and legitimacy from their government.  And Putin is about to give Russia a slice of these things, in the name of Alexei Navalny.

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