© The Financial Times Ltd 2015 FT and 'Financial Times' are trademarks of The Financial Times Ltd.
March 12, 2013 6:18 pm
Liberals, to paraphrase Leo Tolstoy, are all alike; but conservatives are all conservative in their own way. While liberals insist on universal human rights and the pursuit of a globalised world, conservatives value national uniqueness, sovereignty and identity, defending their exceptionalism from a single, encroaching world order.
During his third term as president, Vladimir Putin is starting to distinguish himself as a Russian conservative. Understanding this will have considerable benefit for those seeking clues to the country’s future.
The swing towards conservative ideas is partly a response to what is happening in the world. As Francis Fukuyama has shown, it is the statist right, rather than the radical left, that has won the battle of ideas in the wake of the global financial crisis. But it is also in large part the result of their inherent popularity at home, and the unique relationship of the Russian masses to their leaders.
Russian conservatism can be traced to the time of the monarchy and is known by a simple formula: “Good tsar, bad elites.” It has always depended on giving the leader control in exchange for reining in the petty nobility. This was true of Ivan the Terrible and Joseph Stalin. It was true, too, of radical reformers such as Peter the Great and Vladimir Lenin, equally authoritarian but widely approved of because their target was the elite.
One sees echoes in Mr Putin’s policies. In his first term, he cut the oligarchs down to size. Now he is chastising his own ruling group over petty corruption, symbolised by the firing of defence minister Anatoly Serdyukov after his ministry was embroiled in a corruption scandal.
Modern Russian conservatism is both anti-communist and anti-liberal. It is not the same as the US version, which values a small state. Here, conservatives value undivided political power, with economic power rooted in and subordinate to it. They value the traditions of established religion, sovereign foreign policy and the guarding of great power status.
For his first 12 years in power, Mr Putin’s conservatism was tempered by the need to appeal to an influential liberal elite. But with the desertion of this class to the ranks of anti-government protesters since 2011, he is finally making his true views known. This should not be seen as winding back the clock, however. Russia is in transition from the pure totalitarianism of the Soviet era; this conservative moment represents a rethinking of what comes at the end of the transition.
Russia cannot return to the Soviet model other than on a symbolic level – such as reviving the Soviet anthem or socialist rhetoric. Likewise, we will not see the rebirth of the Tsarist empire with the Orthodox Christian tradition as the official ideology. Today, we are a multi-ethnic society with a growing Islamic population.
It is also worth noting that, while liberals are a numerical minority, they are influential. The government is controlled by moderates, with Dmitry Medvedev as their head. The oligarchs, who by and large espouse liberal ideas, retain much power.
If we put these facts together, Mr Putin’s presidency is pragmatic – conservative mainly in the sense that it does not share globalists’ optimism. It is not trying to guard an exhausted status quo. His ideas, by and large, do not transgress the limits of moderate western-type nation-building.
Mr Putin’s conservatism has been moulded by foreign pressure, symbolised by the passage in the US of the Magnitsky law, which creates a travel blacklist for certain Russian officials. It has been moulded from inside by the desertion of the middle class from the ranks of his supporters and the growth of a liberal protest movement.
In the face of these challenges, Mr Putin will move in the direction of being a conservative moderniser at home and a realist abroad. He will insist on state sovereignty, distrust globalisation, limit liberalisation and keep democracy strictly within a sovereign, national framework.
The term “balance of power” is the key to understanding Mr Putin’s version of conservatism, which will define politics in his third and presumably fourth terms. He will pursue the national interest, regional and global power, protectionism and mercantilism. Having lost the cold war, Russia will try to revise the status quo using all available opportunities.
The writer is chairman of the department of the sociology of international relations at Moscow State University
Please don't cut articles from FT.com and redistribute by email or post to the web.
Sign up for email briefings to stay up to date on topics you are interested in