Russian Election The Kremlin's Dangerous Flirtation with Nationalism

Ahead of Russia's parliamentary elections on Sunday, the pro-Kremlin parties are using nationalist rhetoric in a bid to exploit growing right-wing sentiment in the country. But it's a dangerous game. If the far right gets stronger, it could pose a threat to Vladimir Putin.

Khotkovo is a small town in Russia, 60 kilometers (37 miles) northeast of Moscow. The current mayor, Rita Tikhomirova, as is fitting for a government official, belongs to Vladimir Putin's party, United Russia.

With parliamentary elections coming up on Dec. 4, United Russia has certainly put up its share of campaign posters in Khotkovo. Using slogans pledging to "build" and "preserve," it promises prosperity and stability throughout the country.

Khotkovo itself would hardly deserve a mention, if it hadn't made a name for itself last year as Russia's first "foreigner-free" city. Here, as in all of Russia, workers from Central Asia did the dirty and low-paid jobs, working for the city sweeping courtyards and shoveling snow -- until last fall, when young men from Tajikistan stabbed a drunk Russian to death during a fight. Furious residents blockaded the city's main street and demanded the deportation of all foreigners.

That same night, the mayor expelled several hundred Tajiks, including women and children, from the city. They'd barely left town before a mob set fire to their residences. Half-horrified, half-impressed, Moscow's newspapers spread the news of the newly "white" and "pure" city.

"Russia for Russians" -- this slogan is making its way from Moscow to the Russian Far East. Polls show 60 percent of the population supporting the sentiment, a result that must be unsettling for the Kremlin, since it will certainly influence Sunday's vote.

This is the sixth time since the collapse of the Soviet Union that Russians will elect their representatives to the State Duma, the country's lower house of parliament. The Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) called Russia's last elections, in December 2007, "unfair." This time, the assessment isn't likely to be any more favorable.

Exerting Pressure

The Kremlin has exerted pressure on governors, electoral commissions and the media in the run-up to the election to make sure United Russia will once again receive a majority of votes. The election results are already clear. In Volgograd, the city government enlisted priests to see to it that the city's Orthodox Christians vote for Putin's party. "You know all about psychology, after all," as one official put it.

Russia's strongman Vladimir Putin has also resorted to psychological pressure. In his last speech in front of the current State Duma, he called on the opposition not to stir up unrest around the elections, saying that stability in the country was the most important thing. The opposition, Putin added, is simply there "so that the governing party can lead more decisively and show society the right path."

It sounded like a threat. Putin and Dmitry Medvedev -- who holds the country's presidency for another five months, but is also United Russia's top candidate in the upcoming election -- have suffered considerable losses in popularity. Putin was even booed at a martial-arts event last week. Support for United Russia, which received 64 percent of the vote four years ago, currently stands at just 40 percent. Unpublished polls show dramatic drops in approval ratings in some regions, with a 20 percent approval rating in Moscow and St. Petersburg, and even less in the exclave of Kaliningrad. Still, the Kremlin is determined to surpass the symbolic 50 percent mark.

Non-Russians as Scapegoats

Meanwhile, non-Russians serve as scapegoats for anything and everything going wrong in the country. The Russian government continues to pump massive subsidies into regions on the geographical fringes of its territory, for example, sending the equivalent of several billion euros to the northern Caucasus alone, while funds are lacking for education and healthcare in the center of the country. At the same time, more and more impoverished people from the Caucasus, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan are pouring into Russia's major cities, where they are trying to make a living. Nationalists complain that the Russian people, the "titular nation," are increasingly put at a disadvantage.

If elections in Russia were allowed to unfold freely and fairly, those standing to gain would not be the politicians generally favored by the West or free-market liberals such as former Deputy Prime Minister Boris Nemtsov.  The real gains would belong to the radical nationalists. "A revolution in Russia wouldn't be orange and democratic, as it was in Ukraine in 2004, but brown," says Nemtsov, referring to the symbolic color of the far-right.

Looking to halt United Russia's slipping popularity and to take the wind out of the extreme right's sails, Putin has fashioned a nationalist rhetoric for his party this election season as well as for other parties controlled by the Kremlin.

Alexander Torshin, deputy chairman of the Federation Council of Russia, the upper house of parliament, and a major player within United Russia, has threatened to send immigrants who don't behave agreeably to the "monkey house," a vernacular term for the police station cell used to hold detainees immediately after arrest.

Dangerous Game

Vladimir Zhirinovsky, head of the so-called Liberal Democratic Party of Russia, which is actually nationalist in its stance, is using the "Russia for Russians" slogan to drum up support for an end to the billions in subsidies to the Caucasus. Zhirinovsky, who also serves as vice chairman of the State Duma, distributed 12 million copies of a brochure in which he castigates the supposedly anti-Russian stance of the current government, which "takes money from the pocket of the working Ivan and gives it to the bandit Mohammed, who cuts Ivan up in pieces and buys himself a third Mercedes."

The country's public prosecutors, usually eager to prosecute Kremlin detractors on charges of "extremism," have left Zhirinovsky alone since he and his party, founded by the KGB in the 1990s, are actually working for the benefit of the Kremlin. The idea is that the experienced populist will collect the right-wing protest vote, then, once back in office, he will continue to vote obediently in favor of the Kremlin's bills, as he has for the past two decades.

It's a dangerous game. If the seed sowed by the extreme right-wing bears fruit, Russia -- as a multi-ethnic state with over 15 million Muslims and more than 100 different ethnic groups -- is in danger of eroding. At the same time, the country's economy has come to depend on cheap labor provided by migrant workers as its own population shrinks.

Gennady Zyuganov, leader of Russia's Communist Party, is similarly making a name for himself as the "national liberation struggle flares up." His plan to reinstate ethnic affiliations in Russian passports has the support of 48 percent of the population. The Soviets, too, used this "nationality" category to facilitate their discrimination against Jews, Chechens and ethnic Germans in Russia.

'I Only Rent to Russians'

This across-the-board lurch to the right even surprises Dmitry Rogozin. In 2005, Rogozin, then Russia's ambassador to NATO, was barred from elections because of his agitation against immigrants. Now, he's very much officially part of the process, bringing in right-wing votes for United Russia. "Back then, I was seen as a terrible nationalist. Now, my views are more liberal than most," he says.

Rogozin has tapped into something many Russians are feeling. Apartment-building doors in Moscow bear signs that read, "I only rent to Russians." One celebrity hairdresser wants to move her daughter to a different preschool because there is a Chechen child in the daughter's playgroup. And when Brazilian soccer player Roberto Carlos takes the field with Anzhi Makhachkala, a Russian Premier League team, fans from the opposing team throw bananas onto the field.

Russia is going through the often-painful process of developing into a nation-state that its Western European neighbors went through centuries ago. The country is torn between newly awakened nationalism and a centuries-old claim to an identity as a multi-ethnic empire.

'Pack of Rogues'

A new generation of activists is carrying these radical ideas into mainstream society. No one has achieved greater popularity than lawyer and blogger Alexey Navalny, a self-proclaimed "national democrat," who uses his website to denounce corruption and nepotism among high-level government officials. The charismatic Navalny, 35, has quickly become the Kremlin detractors' new hope. One online poll asking who should serve as Moscow's next mayor showed him in first place.

Navalny didn't shy away from linking himself with right-wing extremist organizations at the nationalist "Russian March" in Moscow in early November. "Down with United Russia!" was his greeting to the crowd at the mass demonstration. "We must annihilate this pack of rogues who have been drinking our blood," he continued. In response, the right-wing crowd chanted, "Putin on trial!"

That was a warning to Russia's future president. Putin may still control the country's elections, and he may well be able to reclaim his spot in the Kremlin in May. But the nationalist wave he's so happily riding may one day wash him away.

Translated from the German by Ella Ornstein.
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