Writing in the Kiev Post Alexander J. Motyl, a professor of political science at Rutgers University in Newark, New Jersey, outlines the contours of Russian fascism and calls for a renewed commitment to containment:
Back in 1993-1994, Vladimir Zhirinovsky’s sudden rise to prominence and the resonance that his openly chauvinistic and revanchist views found among elements of the Russian public gave rise to talk of a “Weimar Russia.” Zhirinovsky quickly self-destructed, and the Weimar Russia image soon faded. Unfortunately, it may be time to speak of a far more worrisome phenomenon — a post-Weimar, or even fascist Russia.
Contemporary Russia is remarkably similar to post-World War I Germany. Both countries emerged from imperial collapse and regime change and experienced massive economic hardship and political chaos. Their populations felt humiliated and their imperial identities were battered, and they responded by blaming their enemies, former colonies, disloyal minorities — and democracy. Both countries turned to nationalist, chauvinist, revanchist and neo-imperialist rhetoric, and embraced charismatic leaders promising to reestablish national glory, rebuild state power, and command international respect. Both rulers promptly abandoned democracy — to the applause of the majority of their populations.
These similarities suggest that it may be time to abandon such terms as managed or sovereign or hybrid democracy for today’s Russia. Even the term “authoritarian” may not be fully adequate. There are good reasons to think that Vladimir Putin’s Russia is acquiring all the characteristics of a fascist state.
Fascist states are non-democratic and hyper-nationalist and they glory in their greatness, but the most striking thing about them is their leader and his relationship with the population. The “supreme leaders” of fascist states always exude vigor and, by playing on popular fears, manage to implicate the population in its own repression. Fascist leaders claim to be youthful, manly, and active, and they form mass movements based on the young. And fascist leaders are wildly popular, successfully presenting themselves as embodiments of a nation’s best qualities.
Putin’s Russia shares most of these features. As the recent parliamentary elections showed, its democratic institutions have become pliant tools of the Kremlin. The siloviki dominate all ruling elites, Putin is the undisputed “national leader,” the Nashi youth movement has taken off, the Russian state is the object of official glorification. Hyper-nationalism, mistrust of foreigners and glorification of Russia’s Stalinist past have become official.
Like Mussolini, Putin favors stylish black clothing that connotes toughness and likes being photographed with weapons.
Although Putin’s Russia possesses many of the defining characteristics of fascism, they have not yet congealed into a consolidated political system. Russia today resembles Germany in 1933 or Italy in the mid-1920s. Russia could follow in their footsteps, or it could falter and find its way back to some form of democracy. Everything depends on whether Putin stays or really goes in the spring of 2008. If he stays, Russia will have taken another step toward full-fledged fascism. If he goes, Russian democracy will have gotten a slight reprieve.
Although fascism makes Russia look strong, it is also the source of several weaknesses. All fascist states scare their neighbors by their proclivity to engage in chest-beating. The tougher Russia gets, the tougher it sounds, and the more it gets involved in playing the great power that it no longer is—the greater the gap between its aspirations and capabilities and the greater the likelihood of overreach and foreign-policy disaster. The resulting militarism, fear of encirclement and tensions will, in the medium- to long-term, deplete and distort the economy, waste scarce resources and ultimately undermine the state.
Leadership cults only work as long as the founding leaders are still vigorous. When supreme leaders falter — as they inevitably do — or leave the scene, successor elites engage in cutthroat competition to assume the mantle of authority. As they weaken the regime’s foundations and expose the system as brittle, the state’s image as a Leviathan worthy of official and popular veneration crumbles. The next two years will be especially difficult for Russia, as it copes with a genuinely post-Putin political system or with a seemingly post-Putin system still run by Putin.
Humiliation is a weak foundation on which to build state and leader legitimacy. Although Russians currently want the reassuring guidance of a “vozhd” (chief), sooner or later they will cease feeling humiliated. When that happens, as it surely will (once their prosperity and exposure to the world and its blandishment increases), they will eventually abandon humiliation for more satisfactory forms of self-identification.
There’s little for the European Union or the United States to do about Russia’s alarming drift toward fascism. Regime change from outside doesn’t work, and even if it did, neither the EU nor the US has the resources or will to attempt it. And embargoes, boycotts, and other punitive measures are likely only to strengthen Russia’s fascist tendencies.
The West should learn from its response to Hitler. The democracies of interwar Europe may not have been able to prevent his rise, but they could have prevented Germany’s expansion into the Rhineland, Austria, and Czechoslovakia. Today’s democracies — and above all Germany and France — must finally realize that Russia is not democratic.
The West must also appreciate that a fully fascist Russia is an immediate threat to its neighbors — the non-Russian states of the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. Russia’s neighbors — and Ukraine and Belarus in particular — must therefore become at least as important to the foreign-affairs and business establishments of Europe and the US as Russia. is.
If Ukraine, Belarus, and Russia’s other non-Russian neighbors remain prosperous, stable, and sovereign, Russia’s fascist tendencies will play themselves out within Russia — possibly leading to the country’s implosion. Russians, who deserve better, will be the losers, but at least they’ll be the only losers.