Russia has had a colourful history, in which in the last 100 years, it has cycled through imperialism, communism, and now, state capitalism. At each precipice, it was overtaken by revolution and often, violent regime changes. From the assassination of the Romanovs, to the fall of the Iron Curtain, Russia is again, at the centre of a new movement. Vladimir Putin has been in power for the last two decades and has steered his motherland from the destabilisation, disorientation and economic disaster that was representative of the 1990s to the Russia it is today. However, now as the onset of the Great Lockdown continues, President Putin faces new challenges.
The Threat of Ethno-Nationalism in Russia
During times of economic uncertainty, a resurgence in ethno-nationalism could bring social instability to the Russian population. Recently, Alexei Navalny has risen in popularity through his criticisms of the Russian government. Although mainstream media has claimed that comparisons between Alexei Navalny and Adolf Hitler had been an attempted smear campaign by the Russian government, an examination of his personal blog, videos and correspondence with his former colleagues show that these accusations may not entirely be without merit.
Alexei Navalny has risen to popularity with his anti-corruption crusade, but the darker side of his politics reveal a man whose ethno-nationalism may destabilise social harmony.
Georgian people engaging in a traditional feast. Georgia is known for their rich culture and ancient wine-making traditions. Photo by Georgia Journal. Alexei Navalny has called Georgians "rats" and expressed fervent desire to bomb Georgia with missiles. Mr. Navalny has also compared Muslims to "cockroaches" and has said they needed to be "exterminated from Russia" in his online blog and videos.
Despite that Mr. Navalny serves as an advantageous asset for the US and the UK against the current Russian government in which President Putin has taken an adversarial role in the Syrian Crisis (in which the US and the UK have vested oil and energy interests), propping up an opposition leader who has riled up the Russian public with a distinct ethno-nationalistic rhetoric may prove to be more unfavourable in the long term.
Vladimir Putin (right) with Syrian President Bashar Assad (left). The Biden Administration’s platform agenda for racial equality and plurality seems to be at paradoxical odds with their support of the ethno-nationalistic politics of Alexei Navalny. However, Mr. Navalny appears to play an advantageous role in the Biden Administration’s interests in control of Syrian oil and energy resources and as a gateway to Iran by bringing social instability to Russia during a time in which Vladimir Putin is staunchly aligned with defending the Syrian President Assad from US and UK interests. Photo by Alexey Druzhinyn, European Pressphoto Agency.
Past US govts propped up leaders such as Saddam Hussein, who was also initially shown to have strong ethno-nationalistic tendencies, only to be later engaged in wars that brought on violent regime changes that have damaged US and UK credibility in foreign policy. The US was also responsible for bringing instability to Iran by overthrowing their democratic government and instead, replaced it with an extremist religious govt led by the Shah in the 1950s. The current Biden Administration must be attentive not to make the same mistake in Russia as it did in Iraq and Iran. Mr. Navalny may potentially become another Hussein (if not a possible future charismatic Hitler) in the making for US and UK governments as his strong ethno-nationalistic viewpoints may prove to be a future hinderance for NATO and our Saudi Arabian and UAE allies.
Although Alexei Navalny has made valid and important criticisms of the oligarchial structure of the current Russian government, his rising popularity may align with Adolf Hitler’s rise to power in the 1930s, whose criticism of the corruption within the central banking system utilised similar ethno-nationalistic rhetoric which found popular support that led to the second World War. Alexei Navalny has similarly riled up the Russian population with ethno-nationalistic fervor and has attended and organised protests and marches that included the slogan: "Russia for Russians, Europe for the Whites". Photo by Grigory Dukor, Reuters and wikipedia commons.
In comparison, President Putin has held a more meditated and pragmatic approach in embracing pluralism in his nation, to allow for the migration of different people, in addition to the philosophy of tolerance in regards to various religions and ethnic people, Mr. Navalny appears to hold the direct opposite perspective (“Russia for the Russians, Europe for the Whites”), despite his rising popularity in his anti-corruption agenda against the Kremlin.
President Putin has also shown in the past of his willingness to join NATO and building closer ties with the EU. Under a potential Navalny government, the US and UK could develop more adversarial relationships with Russia under a potential regime that promises to “expel migrants and strengthen and possibly expand” Russia’s borders.
How Brexit Serves as a New Opportunity for Russia
With Brexit underway, the European Union is now facing a new kind of crisis, with many rumours circulating of its dissolution. Chancellor Angela Merkel is faced with a dual problem: of securing the EU for future generations, whilst dealing with the US-Russia adversarial relationship in regards to control of energy resources in which Germany has become a reluctant mediator. The exit of the UK from the EU has left a gaping hole in fiscal policy, with only Germany left to prop up the rest of the EU whilst euroscepticism is on the rise in nations such as France and Italy, where rising politicians such as Marine Le Pen and Matteo Salvini are advocating for exit from the EU. Chancellor Merkel is stepping down at a particularly precarious time in the EU, and although it is not yet known who will become her successor, Russia could potentially fill in the void in leadership to secure the future of the EU.
Chancellor Angela Merkel and Vladimir Putin. Mrs. Merkel is stepping down from leadership at a precarious time for the EU when euroscepticism is on the rise in nations such as Italy and France. Russia's entry in the EU may solve many of EU's pressing problems and secure its future.
Brexit may potentially become a renewed opportunity for Russia to join the EU and take a joint leadership role in shaping Europe’s future policies.
Russia's entry in the European Union would serve the following advantages:
The European Union was initially launched as a way to hinder the nationalistic tendencies that led to the first two World Wars, the kind of ethno-nationalism that became standard features of fascist regimes such as Mussolini’s Italy, Stalin’s Russia and Hitler’s Germany; however, the EU is facing a new crisis of its possible dissolution, and a forging of new relations with Russia may prove to be a strengthening move.
Under the leadership of Vladimir Putin, the Russian Federation has evolved into a new kind of global power after the fall of the Iron Curtain, however it is currently under extended duress from both US sanctions and the economic slowdown from the COVID-19 pandemic.
Russia spans across 11 time zones and is a gateway between Europe and China. Image by Alexander Kislov and Natalya Nosova.
Russia’s entry in the European Union could potentially serve as a new gateway for European and Asian relations, in addition to opening up a geography that spans across 11 time zones, to develop multinational solutions in energy, research and infrastructure projects.
How Vladimir Putin Can Win Over His Detractors
Despite his strong ethno-nationalistic rhetoric, Alexei Navalny’s popular criticism of the Kremlin comes at an opportune time, in regards to its oligarchical structure in which privatisation of national companies in the 1990s have created a distinct class hierarchy in which the Russian people have found no remedy.
After the fall of the Iron Curtain, in the chaotic aftermath when Russia was transformed under neoliberalism, it opened its economy to a predatory form of international capitalism, a system that has created the large gaps in wealth inequality amongst the Russian population. This type of predatory capitalism was under examination during the recent World Economic Forum virtual meeting in which the alternative, “stakeholder capitalism” became a topic for world leaders.
Stakeholder capitalism is a system in which corporations are oriented to serve the interests of all their stakeholders. Among the key stakeholders are customers, suppliers, employees, shareholders and local communities. Under this system, a company's purpose is to create long-term value and not to maximize profits and enhance shareholder value at the cost of other stakeholder groups, namely employees, the quality of life in the population and the environment.
Point 1: Russia’s Integration of Stakeholder Capitalism
A transition from the predatory type of international capitalism, which often has been synonymous with the negative aspects of “globalisation” towards the conscientious values of stakeholder capitalism seems necessary in the next stage of evolution in Russia as a formidable global power under President Putin.
Although globalisation has opened the world economy, its negative effects depend upon a predatory type of capitalism in which vast wealth inequalities have led to sweat shops, slave labour, child labour, low wages and the pillaging and wreckage of local communities and the environment, all for the motive of maximising profit and shareholder value. The alternative, "stakeholder capitalism" which was the primary topic at the World Economic Forum 2021 discusses a reshaping of capitalism to hold companies accountable to community values, the well-being of its employees, the population and the environment. See also B-corporations.
During his special address to the World Economic Forum Davos Agenda 2021, President Putin made the following points that challenge the global economy 1) income gap within the population 2) rising costs of education and other services 3) rising social tensions due to unemployment as well as 4) his criticisms of stimulus and quantitative easing which only causes inflation 5) social unrest and systemic socio-economic problems which causes public discontent causing division 6) how tech monopolies control people and competes with the state 7) use of military force, sanctions and other methods to limit an economy.
However, many of President Putin’s challenges could be rectified by the conversion to stakeholder capitalism in the Russian economy, in conjunction with other European nations, such as France and Germany to enact the same policies. This will make the Russian Federation more amenable to European trade policies, along with directly addressing many of the protests that are currently taking place in Russia.
People protesting in Belarus. President Lukashenko has made it his policy to jail dissidents and opposition voices, whilst ignoring the demands of the public. He may soon be deposed as his continued policy in jailing dissidents have led to widespread nationwide protests. President Putin must be careful not to make the same mistake, and show leniency towards dissidents and protestors as a trust in democracy and free speech is what gives the public confidence in their government. Photo by Jan Graczynsku/Shutterstock
In the past, perceived authoritarian regimes have made the mistake of suppressing opposition voices through censorship and by jailing them. This is currently playing out in Belarus with President Lukashenko potentially nearing the end of his term with a possible regime change. This is something President Putin must be cautious of, as any action against opposition voices will only serve to further fuel the opposition.
Alexei Navalny’s video on President Dimitri Medvedev launched protests in 2017, just as his new video on Putin’s Palace launched similar protests in 2020. President Putin denied private ownership of the Black Sea Palace, and it was reported in 2013 by wikileaks to have been owned by a Russian oligarch, Alexander Ponomarenko who had said he bought it from Nikolai Shamalov and two of his partners for $350 million. Another Russian billionaire, Arkady Rotenberg came out recently and has said he bought the palace two years ago.
Instead of the oppression and jailing of Mr. Navalny under any pretext which gives more ammunition to popular media, President Putin can redirect public energy and attention on the launch of new initiatives, in addition to the integration of stakeholder capitalism in the Russian economy. The public dissent over the current Russian government is focused on the imbalance of wealth in which oligarchs and government officials have been perceived to have benefited, leaving the population bereft of a middle class standard of living.
Point 2: The Modernisation of Russia as an Epicentre of Research
Russia has a population of 144 million people, however, 35 million people are without indoor toilets and a sewage system and 57 million Russians do not have running water. Although some other Eastern European nations also do not have nationalised sewage system and running water, this is simply unfathomable for a nation such as Russia, who is seen as a rising global power.
57 million Russians do not have running water in their homes, and 35 million Russians do not have indoor toilets. Photo by Nikolay Titov, Global Look Press. Investment into modernising Russian infrastructure must become part of its philosophy of stakeholder capitalism and not profit driven in order to reap the long-term return on securing Russia's position as a global power.
The journalist Dmitry Travin notes that with the stifling of the opposition, “ordinary Russians have no one to tell them how miserable their lives are becoming”. Imagine coming home from a long day at work, only to have to defecate outside in the cold, then not being able to take a hot shower. It is no wonder that many Russian people have taken to the streets to protest the wealth inequality present in Russia. If it was not instigated by Mr. Navalny, another person like him would soon rise to take the helm. A solution or initiative in which a national plan to modernise water and sewage systems all throughout Russia would not only serve to invest in Russia’s growing infrastructure as an epicenter of technological and scientific research, it would also cement President Putin’s popularity among his dissenters.
Russian companies and oligarchs could unite to form a foundation in order to solve Russia’s water and sewage problem that affects 57 million people. In addition, development of its national sewage and water system might possibly help to lift sanctions on Russia's top oligarchs, as well as attracting top talent from around the world.
Point 3: The Advancement of Women in Russian Society
Another criticism highlighted by Mr. Navalny’s video satirically portrays President Putin giving financial advantages to his friends and family, namely women with no seeming qualifications suddenly attaining positions of influence (eg, an alleged girlfriend of President Putin’s, a housecleaner suddenly attaining majority shares in a company or another attaining board positions etc). However, the exploitation of women in Russia and the lack of opportunities for women to advance in positions of power is one that needs to be brought into sharp focus. Although, President Putin has been rather elusive and entirely private about his personal life, this attack on him, whether true or not, could present an opportunity to launch a nationwide initiative to advance women’s career routes by retraining them to work in different sectors along with opportunities for mentorship.
Women often face an increasingly harsh climb in the corporate world, along with lack of opportunities present in career advancement in male dominated industries. As more of Russia’s youth population turns towards inclusion into criminal gangs, young girls and women are at high risk for exploitation. Hence, President Putin has a clear opportunity in steering focus away from Mr. Navalny’s satirical treatment of his romantic liaisons and underlying degrading commentary of women in working class conditions, and instead redirect focus on building a more inclusive Russia that highlights and encourages the achievements of women.
Vladimir Putin congratulates women on Women's Day, 2011. Photo by Alexsey Druginyn, wikipedia commons. President Putin can utilise attacks on his romantic relationships in order to launch initiatives for the advancement of women, to counter against the discrimination of women in male dominated industries, to educate women in investment and mentorship, and a fund to help them launch businesses.
Point 4: Adoption of a British-style Education
It is well known that the 1% in Russia often send their children to become educated in the UK. However, this type of education is not available for the average Russian citizen. The development of a British-style education within Russia would allow its youth to develop into conscientious, international citizens, expanding Russia’s soft power and influence. In the days of the Russian Empire, when St. Petersburg was the centre of art and culture, people from all around the world came to Russia to share their insights in art, philosophy, literature and science. Similarly, Peter the Great who was considered a revolutionary leader who grew Russia into a global power, wanted the Russian population to be an educated population, and not one that blindly held onto the tenets of war and merely followed orders. His reforms in education ultimately led to Russia becoming a European centre of art and culture in the 17th and 18th centuries.
The Bronze Horseman, a statue of Peter the Great in St. Petersburg. Peter the Great introduced a western style of education into Russia, in order to educate his people away from militiarism. President Putin can introduce a British style of education, in order to transform Russia's youth into a civil society that nurtures and produces future thought leaders.
A restructuring of Russian education towards the Socratic education style of asking questions and questioning assumptions and installing critical thinking and integration of both East Asian philosophies and European liberalism would lead to a more balanced education in Russia, and fulfill President Putin’s ideal of a civilised society, instead of “training” students to be proficient in military technology and patriotism, which might ironically, have the opposite effect and also lead towards the youth population becoming susceptible towards ethno-nationalism, as what is currently transpiring under Alexei Navalny.
Russia needs a society brimming with love for the country, a civil society that would be such, not only in name, but in status, that would do its job, not for money, but put its soul into efforts to right the wrongs. -Vladimir Putin
Vladimir Putin practicing martial arts, a favourite pastime. Photo by the Kremlin.
In Japanese philosophy, Aikido is a type of martial arts that uses ‘ki’ energy in redirecting opposing energy. A proponent can negate or redirect an opposing power using an attack as an opportunity. President Putin can readily avoid the mistakes made by his neighbour and ally, Alexander Lukashenko and instead show leniency towards his harshest critics, and redirect public focus on initiatives that benefit the Russian population.
All in all, over the span of his 20+ year career in politics, Vladimir Putin has become a recognisable, iconic figure on the global stage. Western critics have reviled him and painted him as an authoritarian figure whilst he has won the respect of all his political adversaries through his pragmatic, thoughtful and measured leadership style. He has been the subject of satire, caricatured in popular culture, featured in numerous documentaries, and has been the focus of widespread speculation and allegations despite being rather secretive about his personal life. Regardless of being a figure of immense controversy, it is clear that he has led Russia out from the instability of post-Communism towards the rising global power it is today. Now, Russia is at a particular juncture in which embracing stakeholder capitalism and moving away from the predatory form of globalisation could launch it as an Eurasian epicenter into the next era. Whether one loves him or hates him, it is clear that the world is fascinated with Vladimir Putin.
By Sierra Choi