In the heart of London on the 17th of February 2017 the Open Russia Club held a debate on the origins of populist politics and their presence and significance today across the globe. Over the course of nearly two hours, our panel of distinguished speakers explored the threat that rightwing populism poses to the international order, the evolution of political identity in the wake of a global “anti-establishment” movement, and the distinctions between American and Russian nationalism.
Discussing these pressing topics at the Open Russia Club are political commentators Kiril Rogov and Aleksander Morozov, journalist and writer Arkady Ostrovsky and the founder of Open Russia Mikhail Khodorkovsky. The debate was chaired by the journalist and Radio France Internationale news anchor Elena Servettaz.
What is the right?
All speakers agreed on the ambiguity of the term ‘populist’ and outlined the trouble of defining the word that is very much on the edge of everybody’s tongue across the western world. ‘A crisis’, said Mikhail Khodorkovsky, ‘always gives way to extreme politics.’ He went on to explain that the right is in general a ‘relatively normal phenomenon which is necessary to maintaining balance in a society. However, it seems to me that extremes are never useful to anyone.’
Arkady Ostrovsky explained that ‘Russian nationalist populism has been a manifestation of a particular type of confrontation with the West.’ He went on to draw a comparison between the populism of Putin and Trump, which he sees as fundamentally pitted against the globalist establishment and which has, after the fall of the Soviet Union, enjoyed uncontested economic and geopolitical development. Ostrovsky claims, in critique of Francis Fukuyama’s thesis in The End of History, that the values of globalist worldview are to many people simply ‘boring’ and that this boredom ‘may lead to a repeat in history.’
Trump and the rule of the majority
The discussion quickly turned to Trump’s America. Mikhail Khodorkovsky noted that ‘when Trump came to power, he sought to become the president of those people who voted for him, only a segment of American society.’ Khodorkovsky then touched on the similarities between Trump’s presidency and the latter terms of Vladimir Putin. ‘Much like Putin after his recent reincarnation, Trump decided to be the president of the majority, to whom the minority must submit. A result he achieved by appealing to conservatives that felt left behind by open market economics.’
Aleksander Morozov stressed that if we look at rightwing populism across Europe it is in fact a diverse phenomenon in which people’s interests rarely correlate, highlighting above all the need for understanding. ‘We have come to a point where discussion is simply not getting through to people in the populist camp. We are not able to convince anyone on their side, and vice versa our side has also closed itself off.’
Morozov continued to explain the complexity of the situation in European society. ‘A person may look around and not like like what he sees. Immigrants, the way that the banking system works from his own personal perspective, he doesn’t like the system of taxation and how it effects his household and his family, he isn’t fond of multiculturalism, nor the sexual behaviour of those around him. For him this is not an ideology, he is simply a regular citizen. We see at the moment that the German authorities have encountered a problem when they look at the electorate of the AfD. These are not radicals, they are just regular citizens.’
Vladimir Putin – nationalist or imperialist?
On the Russian political landscape, however, Vladimir Putin and his regime have taken the approach of simply ignoring questions of national importance. ‘This presents a huge problem to Russian society,’ says Mikhail Khodorkovsky, ‘what happened to the questions of national identity? What about institutional and individual corruption? What about the decline in education? The more these problems are ignored, the more they will be exacerbated with time and the regime will go on being able to appeal to these conservative elements.’
So is Vladimir Putin a nationalist, or is he an imperialist? Kiril Rogov answered that Vladimir Putin is an authoritarian leader in the oligarchic form. ‘It’s the kind of right-wing illiberal regime that we saw a lot throughout the 20th century.’ However, Rogov believes that the genesis of this new strand of nationalism lies in the weakness of the liberal order. ‘We know that in America it wasn’t Trump that won, but rather Clinton that lost. Why does Putin support this? Well, like the electorate of Europe and America he is attacking that very same liberal order.’
The decline of the liberal order
But what caused this weakness in the liberal order to manifest itself? Mikhail Khodorkovsky reminds us of Russia’s shock transition to economic liberalism during the 1990s. ‘What went wrong? Liberals orientated themselves around those who were most active, well-connected and ready for change. This doesn’t apply to most of society. The largest part of society is more inclined towards stability.’
Khodorkovsky alluded to the speed at which the globalised world has developed, and how this has been detrimental to certain parts of society. ‘The average citizen will take a look around and realise that nobody needs them anymore, and that the young man who has recently graduated can do their job more efficiently. The citizen will realise that the experience they have gained over 40 years is in fact no longer needed in society. Right now the world is taking a few steps backwards.’
In response to a question from the audience on the dominant opinion in Russia that Putin has been good for the country, Kiril Rogov had the following to say: ‘There’s a certain mysticism in Russia that leads people to say that Putin has been a successful leader, that he gets everything done. Sanctions, economic crisis – what kind of success is this? Many leaders in the western world admit to their shortcomings, Putin, however, refuses to recognise any mistake as his own, claiming all along that they were part of his plan.’
The final word went to Arkady Ostrovsky, who suggested that ‘we must overcome these prejudices in ourselves, although I recognise that they can sometimes be very tempting. If you talk with the people that populists claim to represent, you will quickly find common ground. Politics does not play a significant role in the lives of most people. Instead they have children, relatives, school, their close friends. We have to talk to these people, and we have to listen.’
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