To Putin’s Dismay, Russian Nationalism on the Rise

The Russian leaders worries more about his nationalist than liberal opposition.

Russian president Vladimir Putin and Sergei Ivanov, his chief of staff, watch a military parade in Moscow, June 22
Russian president Vladimir Putin and Sergei Ivanov, his chief of staff, watch a military parade in Moscow, June 22 (The Presidential Press and Information Office)

The Moscow Times reports an increasingly apparent nationalist streak in Russia’s street protests against the government of President Vladimir Putin. Ultranationalists are joining ranks with otherwise left leaning demonstrators.

Many observers of the June 12 opposition rally noted a large presence of nationalist groups — from ones carrying the yellow and black imperial flag, the banner of the nationalist movement, to more marginal groups like Great Russia, which sported black Nazi style uniforms with armbands and garrison caps.

Rather than the typically young and liberal protesters who have drawn Western media attention, Putin recognizes that this rising nationalism — which he may have fueled, at least in part — is the greater threat to his regime’s stability and that of Russia in general.

Before his return to the presidency earlier this year, the Russian leader wrote in the Nezavisimaya Gazeta newspaper that after the disintegration of the Soviet Union, “we were on the edge — and in some regions over the edge — of civil war.” In Central Asia and the Caucasus, socialist republics seceded from the union in the early 1990s sometimes after years of violence.

“With great effort, with great sacrifice we were able to douse these fires,” wrote Putin. But that doesn’t mean that the problem is gone.” In the Caucasus in particular, nonethnic Russians continue to fight for autonomy while in Russia proper, immigrants from the outer provinces and Central Asia are typically discriminated against and increasingly perceived as intruders.

While the Kremlin has come up with plans to invest more than $1 billion in the region to create a “Caucasian Silicon Valley,” nationalist opposition figures urge the government to “stop feeding the Caucasus” and seize transfers to the Northern Caucasus republics where the Slavic population is shrinking and the Muslim population expanding.

Putin likes to portray himself as the strongman who will crush the sectarian menace but Russian nationalism could prove an impediment to his vision of uniting Eurasia which he hopes will revive his country’s status as a continental superpower. He has already drawn Belarus and Kazakhstan into a customs union and free-trade zone and seeks the participation of other former Soviet satellite states.

Steering a fine line between national pride and geopolitics, Putin praised Russian culture in January which “is the glue holding together the unique fabric of this civilization” but warned, “If a multiethnic society is infected by nationalism, it loses its strength and durability.”

The best way to stem immigration, he believes, is to improve economic conditions in Russia’s outer regions and neighboring states. To that end, Putin touts his Eurasian trade union but he is hard pressed to persuade senior and working-class voters that open borders are what will improve their economic prospects.