Contrary to common belief, civil society is not necessarily synonymous with pro-Western, liberal-democratic values. Many civil society groups promote what might be considered ‘illiberal’, nationalist, or conservative views. This is very much the case in Russia. And this weekend the nationalist version of Russian civil society was out on the streets.
Its aim was to mobilize Russian public opinion against proposals that Russia cede some of the Kuril Islands to Japan. These islands were captured from the Japanese in 1945, but Japan and the Soviet Union (and subsequently the Russian Federation) never signed a peace treaty. This has been a cause of considerable difficulties ever since. Aware of this, and wishing to improve and deepen Russian-Japanese relations, President Vladimir Putin and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe have been conducting intensive negotiations in an effort to finally conclude a peace treaty between their two countries. This has led to speculation that Russia would agree to return two of the Kuril islands to Japan in return for assurances from Japan that it would not allow foreign (i.e. American) troops to be deployed there, along with other concessions.
However, the idea of handing over territory to a foreign power is anathema to Russian nationalists. And so it was that several hundred of them came out onto the streets of Moscow chanting ‘the Kurils are ours’ and carrying placards with slogans such as ‘We’ll hand over Putin rather than the Kurils.’ Similar demonstrations took place also in Khabarovsk and Sakhalin Island.
The demonstrators represented a small fringe of left- and right-wing groups, including the likes of former Donbass rebel leader Igor Strelkov. But polls suggest that their views on the Kuril issue are very much in line with Russian public opinion. According to surveys, about 70% of Russians oppose handing any of the Kurils back to Japan. There is a perception in the West that public opinion doesn’t matter in Russia, that Putin decides what he wants and Russian state media then manipulate the people into following him. But this is a highly simplistic model of Russian politics. There are only so many unpopular decisions Putin and his government can do without threatening their own authority. With their poll ratings already much lower than a year ago due to the decision to raise the pension age, they can’t afford to alienate the Russian people even further by making another deeply unpopular move. As Dmitri Trenin comments in an article in Vedomosti:
Politicians will make decisions and diplomats will seek to work out mutually acceptable solutions, but the key question will be public ratification of agreements, if and when these agreements are reached. The Kremlin needs to understand clearly that it is up against not just Japan but also the Russian public-and based on public opinion surveys, two-thirds of Russians do not want to hand over the islands. The Kremlin will not be able to coerce the people into accepting its point of view.
In short, when it comes to foreign policy, the Russian government’s ability to manoeuvre is limited. Policy making in Russia is a complex process, and public opinion is certainly not the only factor determining outcomes. But it does matter, and it is not fully in the control of the state. Moreover public opinion (and in its organized form, civil society) is not necessarily liberal, is generally very patriotic, and is certainly not inclined towards making unilateral concessions to foreign powers. Solutions much beloved of Western commentators, such as democracy promotion and the enhancement of civil society in Russia, won’t help in this regard. Given the public mood, a more democratic Russia wouldn’t be any more inclined to do our bidding than an autocratic one. None of this means, of course, that the Kremlin won’t make concessions to foreign powers, be it regarding the Kuril islands, Ukraine, or anything else. But they will have to be concessions that it can sell to its public. And that means that the concessions will have to matched with equally significant concessions to Russia from the other side. In short, those wanting to deal with Russia will have to give as well as take. It’s a point our politicians would do well to bear in mind.