Dick Krickus | The Lithuania Tribune
Article published in russiaprofile.org on 10 February.
In answer to the question: “Why is Putin so preoccupied with the national question” the answer is obvious. He is wary that his liberal opponents will attract allies who love Russia but don’t have university degrees, eat sushi or enjoy foreign vacations. As a consequence Putin may be forced into a second round of elections in March and in its aftermath face a permanent and truly broad-based opposition to his rule.
Up until this point, the vast majority of working people has favored Putin because they associate his stewardship with improved living conditions; relate to his tough-guy rhetoric; and credit him for making them proud of their country. Unlike the educated and professional elite in Russia their focus is parochial and national not cosmopolitan and international.
In mentioning the American experience, Putin can take comfort in the knowledge that progressives there have had difficulty winning the votes of voters who display the same nationalistic sensibilities that are visible among ordinary Russians. In both the U.S. and Russia class and cultural divisions serve as a barrier to alliances with privileged middle class activists. Moreover, the latter ignore the concerns of people who work in factories and perform menial tasks.
I observed this first hand years ago when I wrote speeches for Jerry Wurf, the irascible but progressive president of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees. At that time, reactionary elements of the business community and supporters of Ronald Reagan had embarked upon a union-busting campaign. It would eventually eviscerate the labor movement: when Reagan entered the White House, about 30 percent of the labor force was unionized—today that figure is about 10 percent. A truly ominous setback for democracy, yet most progressives in the Democratic Party greeted that event with a yawn.
While globalization has worked in the favor of the privileged middle class in both America and Russia, it has proven to be a disaster for workers who have lost jobs to low waged rivals in Asia and to automation. Furthermore, their leaders have not exploited public authority to develop a strategic economic program aligned with a changing international economy. Unlike their counterparts in Beijing, the ruling elite in Moscow and Washington has failed to realize that their greatest security challenge in the 21st century is the ability to cope with the turbulence of globalization and not the venom of deranged terrorists.
The privileged Russian middle class has been reluctant to align with the nationalists, citing their bigotry, violent proclivities and presumed reactionary political impulses. Such concerns are often uttered when Alexi Navalny’s name is mentioned but they may be groundless. Yes, the feisty blogger who was a major architect of the recent demonstrations has blistered the Kremlin for pampering the Caucasus. But without claiming to be an authority on the man, I recall that his complaint about massive aide to Chechnya was driven by his observation that the money provided did not help the needy there but the mafia that dominates that forlorn society.
Furthermore, nationalist impulses are not always negative; they can unify people otherwise divided by class, ethnicity, race and religion. Putin is right that the U.S. has a different history than Russia but the Americans have created unity out of diversity by adhering to a set of common civic values and practices. Moscow must do the same thing to achieve harmony in Russia among its disparate ethnic communities.
The lesson for the progressives then is in their quest to create a democratic Russia that promotes economic and social justice they must engage people from all walks of life and thereby enhance Russia’s quest to become a normal European country.
Dick Krickus is distinguished professor emeritus at the University of Mary Washington and has held the H.L. Oppenheimer Chair for Warfighting Strategy at the U.S. Marine Corps University.