When Vladimir Putin returned for his third term as Russian president in 2012, many people were expecting more of the same – a determined and ever-confident Putin, perhaps just a little older and more experienced. Western pundits and domestic critics had no idea what would happen (they never do). Putin is not a passing political figure; he is public figure who has already left a mark on history – for Russia and the world.
In his time in high politics, what we’ve seen is that Putin has fashioned his own particular political outlook and worldview. This had made him into a person Russians adore and admire and the west hates and demonizes.
Putin is a traditional Russian conservative in just about every way, reflecting the attitudes and aspirations of the vast majority of Russians.
When one thinks about the world’s movers and shakers, Vladimir Putin always makes the list. Western mainstream media consistently describe him in the worst possible colors and compare him to some of the least flattering historical figures. Putin as a politician is often grossly misunderstood, as are his politics.
Among Russians, Putin’s name is almost equated with an era of incredible economic and political upheaval, including what can easily be regarded as policy successes. Putin is not blamed (though his government is) for the recent recession. Though it is the dramatic drop in oil prices that have slowed the economy the most. Though this does not make him popular with every one. Far from it. Russia’s version of ‘inside the beltway’ – parts of central Moscow – have tired of Putin and protested against him personally in sometimes significant street demonstrations before and since his return to office. Though in all fairness there are huge counter-demonstrations in support of the man in the Kremlin.
Spoilt middle class
A growing middle class has come into being during Putin’s time in high politics. More affluent than in any time in Russian history, they are linked-in with the world, mobile, ubiquitous globetrotters. Yet the layers of the population that have benefitted most since the ‘Time of Troubles’ or the Boris Yeltsin years, in many ways were the most dissatisfied with Putin’s time in power. On the surface, it looks as though Russia’s ‘inside the beltway’ protestors are ungrateful and spoilt. The west sees them as their natural allies; at home though they are seen as a ‘fifth column.’
Leader and trusted protector
During his first two terms, Putin is credited with saving the state from political and economic collapse. He declared war on the oligarchs – i.e. the ‘Yukos Affair’ – and won a resounding victory. The economy was put on track – social services resumed, pensions were paid, foreign debts paid off, and year after year of solid economic expansion ensued. Counter-terrorism was single-mindedly quelled in the Caucasus. Russia’s fractionalized and at times burlesque political parties were subject to reforms to make them more credible and competitive in the minds of voters. And Russia rose from the Soviet ashes as a great power once again. Not a shabby resume for a politician in this day and age.
Hard to ignore
Putin is not always liked on the world stage, but as a world leader he is hard to ignore – the folks back home like this. The above are significant achievements, and most Russians through the years have appreciated them.
There is a solid consensus among Russians that what is first and foremost in their minds is the economy and standard of living. For a variety of reasons – both domestic and beyond Russia – the bountiful days of rapid economic growth and quick expansion of disposable income are in the past, at least for now.
Russia’s integration in the global marketplace has come at a high price – the more the integration, the greater the risk. The application of western sanctions on the back of the western-induced Ukraine crisis has witnessed calls for less integration with the west. Import-substitution, as a result, continues at a brisk pace.
This is where Putin’s conservatism comes in
Putin believes in a strong state, the family – i.e. improving demographics – religious values, particularly the Orthodox Church variety, and international respect for Russia as a great power. These are his priorities and are traditionally seen as conservative tenets that bring together and bind society. These values appeal to huge swathes of Russians, but not to those dwelling ‘inside the (Moscow) beltway’. Importantly, Putin’s conservatism is not only about convictions, but also calculated political strategy. It is not overly concerned with democracy. For Putin and millions of ordinary Russians, democracy is deemed a procedure and not necessarily a value in and of itself.
The democratic process should reinforce some form of collective will, not just highlight differences among voters. Russia’s democracy is a slowly evolving process, and the fact of the matter is that most Russians don’t see this part of public life as hugely important. That may or not change depending on the condition of the country’s economy in the years to come.
Refusal to align with political parties, liberals out of step
Few Russians (excluding some aging communists and self-hating Russian liberals) identify themselves with political parties. Putin himself refuses to official head a political party. And the largest party in parliament – United Russia – is hardly loved, or even liked for that matter. It’s not that surprising: Politics is still seen as too divisive and liberal political parties are perceived as deeply unattractive.
Russian liberals inflict enormous damage on the country’s public reputation. Small in number, they jockey among themselves over who should lead. Generally speaking liberals – for the most part, members of Russia’s intelligentsia – are suspicious or downright hostile to the role of state in society and economy, as well as antagonistic to the governing elite.
But at the same time, they are seen as out of step with the moral values of the majority of society. Russian liberals are often strident racists. They have the habit of regularly identity themselves with their western peers.
Free speech or morals – cultural war brewing
Witness the Pussy Riot case. Liberals and their allies in western mainstream media intentionally spun this case as an issue of free speech. Most Russians, in contrast, were disgusted to see a place of worship – an Orthodox Church shrine – desecrated for alleged political posturing. So, there is clearly a ‘cultural war’ brewing in Russian society and Putin has chosen to side with Russia’s ‘moral majority.’ As a conservative, he is vigilante and cautious.
Clear foreign policy
In the area of foreign policy Putin’s conservatism is obvious to discern. Russia is a status quo power focused overwhelmingly on its borders and immediate neighborhood. The very thought of re-building the Russian Empire or Soviet Union don’t even pass the laugh test. Of course Russia has dealings with states many in the west deem as ‘rogues’. Putin’s foreign policy is patently unapologetic about reaching out to all states willing to engage in mutually advantageous relations. The fact that Putin’s foreign policy irks some western states serves him well among his fellow conservatives in the body politic.
Those who claim Putin’s support of the Syrian regime is cynical should consider how Moscow views the west’s role in the Arab Spring – sinister and at times illegal regime changes that more often than not make things even worse later – i.e. Iraq, Afghanistan, and Libya.
Is Putin’s conservatism good for Russia?
At this point the vast majority of Russians think so. Global instability does not leave Russia unaffected. The globalization of western liberal values leaves many in Russia anxious, at a time when Russian culture, religion, and identity are re-surfacing after the onslaught of the Soviet experience. One thing is clear though: Putin’s brand of politics does resonate with his large constituency. And he is doing what is expected of him: act as a responsible leader of the people he represents.
Peter Lavelle is host of RT political debate program CrossTalk. His views may or may not reflect those of his employer.