international, Russia, nationalism
Alexander Zemlianichenko, Pool/AP
Russian President Vladimir Putin, right, and First Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev. (AP)

Nationalism and a Faltering Economy Vie for Russia’s Attention

October 28, 2008 03:11 PM
by Christopher Coats
Motivated by the perceived threat of NATO expansion and a newly cohesive suspicion of the West, nationalism has new life in Russia, though it may be no match for the country’s worst economy in a decade.

Soviet Era Leaders Advocate Return to Past Glory

Anchored by a trio of immensely popular and charismatic leaders, Russian nationalism received a shot in the arm with the country’s invasion of Georgia’s breakaway region of South Ossetia.

Within the last year, the Russian population has come together behind its national leaders and begun to support efforts to promote ethnic Russian solidarity and expansion beyond the country’s borders.

Seen as figures that came of age during the height of Soviet power, these leaders have stressed a return to a more powerful state, ethnic Russian pride and what some have described as a “new Russian empire.”

Although nationalism in Russia has seen an upswing in the past few years, it was only recently that the movement was able to attract a wide audience, including the country’s more liberal class.

Background: Cohesion through international crisis

Traditionally distant from figures such as Putin, the country’s liberals were drawn to the state by the West’s support for Georgia during the dispute over South Ossetia, viewing such support as hypocritical given the U.S. support of Kosovo’s bid for independence from Russia.

Leading the way, Moscow’s Mayor Yuri M. Luzhkov has used his popularity and personality, and his city’s substantial fortune, to help fund and support ethnic Russians left to live in neighboring countries after the break-up of the Soviet Union.

Meanwhile, countries such as the Ukraine and Georgia have viewed Luzhkov’s efforts as intentional and dangerous ways to undermine local power and destabilize their governments in favor of pro-Russian separatists.

These efforts were viewed on the world stage during the recent troop movements into South Ossetia by the Russian military, when Luzhkov sent supplies and food to the pro-Russian local government.

The country’s growing nationalism has been at the center of the administrations of current President Dmitry Medvedev and especially former president Vladimir Putin, who called the break-up of the Soviet Union “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe” of the 20th century.

Now acting as the country’s prime minister, Putin found that his “relentless campaign to restore Russia’s position as a great power” truly began to get traction after the invasion of South Ossetia.

Finding support among even the country’s educated elite, Putin has announced a series of efforts to produce films and television programs stressing Russian nationalism and pride.

“The state should be taking a lead in forming the intellectual and spiritual life of Russians,” Alexander Zapesotsky, president of St. Petersburg’s Trade Union Humanitarian University told Newsweek.

The Russian government has stressed that a stronger Russia is necessary to combat influence from a threatening West, taking special aim at the United States and the expansion of NATO membership to former Soviet Republics.

Like similar campaigns, this period of “patriotism, jingoism and staunch Russian nationalism” has seen a spike in violence directed at non-Russians. From January to September of this year, there were a reported 75 deaths and 291 wounded as a result of ethnic violence in Russia, representing a dramatic increase since last year.

Opinion & Analysis: An economic hurdle

Ultimately, what may stand in the way of Putin’s plans may be the very thing affecting and weakening the West—a faltering economy. Deeply dependent on the country’s oil reserves, Russia has seen rising production costs coupled with the global credit crisis greatly weaken their economy.

“After years of growth, Russia’s once mighty oil machine is feeling the strains of declining production and energy prices as the industry copes with the worst economic crisis in Russia in a decade,” reported the International Herald Tribune.

While financial downturns traditionally provide the proper environment for nationalist movements to thrive, the Kremlin has seen its most visible supporters dwindle from public view.

The pro-Kremlin youth group, Nashi, that organized massive gatherings in support of the government and created patrols to monitor opposition voices and protestors, has become much less active following the recent elections.

The Moscow Times reported a drop off in activity among such nationalist organizations, with Vladimir Nasonov, spokesman for the United Russia youth group Young Russia, stating that “mass action” is not a wise tactic during times of crisis, referring to the economic struggles.

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