Sergei Mironov, speaker of the Russian upper house, was talking recently about the “real threat of a fascist putsch in Russia”—“a new fuhrer with fascist-type, nationalist ideology” emerging in the 2008 presidential campaign.
Capitalizing on the nationalist threat appears to be especially destabilizing. Nationalism and xenophobia are not invented dangers but very real ones. Ethnic violence and even the murder of non-Russians—ranging from Tajik children to African diplomats—have become almost routine on the streets of Moscow and other cities. Nationalist literature is abundant in respectable Moscow bookstores. In the polls, an increasing number of Russians support ideas such as “Russia is for Russians.” Young people are more likely than older ones to share the view that “ethnic minorities have too much power in our country.” Overall, more people accept this idea than reject it.
Putin’s policies have played a large role in the rise of ethnic bias and hatred. The ongoing, atrocious war in Chechnya has had a brutalizing effect on those who have served in it (about 1 million altogether in the past decade) and on the nation as a whole. Putin and his aides have stirred the besieged-fortress mentality by resorting to militant, Soviet-style rhetoric and implying that the West is seeking to harm Russia. A raving nationalist journalist is granted prime time on television and radio professing extreme anti-Western views to the broad public. Almost invariably the police respond to ethnic violence by denying the ethnic element in it and qualifying such crimes as “mere hooliganism.”
Rather than taking drastic measures to curb the nationalist threat, the Kremlin opts for a policy of using it to its own advantage: Such a threat is a sure justification for tough policies. Even the squeamish West is unlikely to insist that democratic procedures be observed if there’s real risk of a fascist lunatic emerging as the leader of a nuclear state. Putin or one of his trusted men may come to be regarded as acceptably benign compared with a “fuhrer.”
Before the parliamentary election of 2003 the Kremlin masterminded creation of a nationalist party, Rodina, headed by Dmitry Rogozin. Rodina drew the nationalist vote, but it did even better than the Kremlin had expected, and today it is on the rise. To what extent Rogozin himself is controlled by the Kremlin—or whether he’ll be able to keep control of the sentiments and impulses of his constituency—is an open question. In seeking to ensure the survival of the current political elite, the Kremlin is engaged in a highly dangerous game.