Two recent editions of academic journals provide very different views of modern Russia and its political system. According to one, Russia is a ‘fascist’ state, whose rulers ‘show an utter contempt for Russia’s people’. According to the other, Russia’s government and people broadly share the same priorities; the government pays close attention to the wishes of the people, who in return see the government generally, though not overwhelmingly, positively.
The first assessment comes in a special edition of Communist and Post-Communist Studies devoted to the topic ‘Between Nationalism, Authoritarianism, and Fascism in Russia: Exploring Vladimir Putin’s Regime’. Edited by Canadian-Ukrainian scholar and vocal Putin critic Taras Kuzio, it contains articles not only by Kuzio himself but also (among others) by Rutgers University’s Alexander Motyl and the author of the Window on Eurasia blog, Paul Goble, both of whom are well known for their hostility to the Russian government.
Motyl’s contribution is entitled ‘Putin’s Russia as a Fascist Political System’. Motyl proposes that ‘Putin’s Russia may legitimately be termed fascist.’ To make this argument, he examines various definitions of fascism and then creates his own, calling fascism ‘a popular fully authoritarian political system with a personalistic dictator and a cult of the leader’. The rest of his article consists of an effort to show that all these features exist in Putin’s Russia.
The centrepiece of Motyl’s thesis is his claim that Russia has evolved from a ‘soft’ authoritarian state into a ‘fully authoritarian’ one. One can certainly argue that political opposition in Russia is constrained. Nevertheless, opposition exists and is tolerated. It didn’t, and wasn’t, in fascist regimes, such as 1930s Italy or Germany. In Russia, people hold rallies denouncing Putin and his ‘regime’. They publish books saying the same thing. They appear on radio and television. They make their hostility to their government clear on the internet. That is hardly compatible with ‘full authoritarianism’, let alone fascism. (Can you imagine Mussolini permitting such things?) Motyl’s thesis is well wide of the mark.
Rather better is an article by the University of Arizona’s John P. Willerton, entitled ‘Russian Public Assessments of the Putin Policy Program: Achievements and Challenges’, in the new journal Russian Politics, which has just produced its second edition.
Willerton avoids making moral judgements about Putin and his government, and limits himself to a study of how the Russian people assess their government’s performance. He notes that, ‘However one judges the state of the Russian polity, whether as some sort of “hybrid regime” or a returned “soft” authoritarian state, there is no doubt that Russian public preferences matter for the country’s political life, and elites – including Vladimir Putin – are well aware of this. … There is considerable evidence that Putin and his team are highly concerned about public opinion.’ Having been in power for 15 years, Putin and those around him need to perform well and fulfill public expectations in order to avoid ‘policy weariness’ and possible ‘mounting public impatience.’
As a first step, Willerton describes the policy priorities established by Putin in various areas. These are: ‘efficient state institutions’, ‘quality of social services’, ‘protection of people’s rights and freedoms’, ‘higher standard of living’, ‘provision of goods and services to the public’, ‘revitalization of cultural life’, ‘promotion of traditional families’, ‘fight against crime and corruption’, ‘ensuring social justice’, ‘returned trust to institutions’, and ‘protection of Russia internationally’. Using data from opinion polls, Willerton finds ‘a high correspondence between Putin and public assessments as regards what are important policy matters.’ In short, the ‘regime’ and the public care about the same things.
However, ‘the public’s assessments of the Putin team performance in addressing these eleven policy concerns is much more mixed.’ Russians rate Putin’s foreign policy highly, but their assessments of achievements in domestic policy are ‘middling … in some cases modestly good, while none can be described as failing.’ Russians think that the government is doing reasonably well in ‘providing goods and services necessary for the people’ and ‘efficient state institutions’ but less well in providing ‘better quality of social services’ and in fighting crime and corruption. Given the regular complaints by foreign commentators about increased government repression, it is interesting that Russians give their leaders an ‘above average’, though not ‘high’, rating for protecting their rights and freedoms.
The government can be reasonably satisfied with these results, Willerton suggests, but adds that there are some causes for concern. While the public’s top priorities are a higher standard of living, better social services, fighting crime, and ensuring social justice, it rates the government’s performance slightly lower on these matters than on those which it considers less important, such as more efficient state institutions and protecting the traditional family. Also, Russians rank Putin much higher than other than political actors, although everyone associated with the current ‘regime’ (e.g. the United Russia party and the Cabinet of Ministers) does much better than opposition figure Aleksei Navalny, who is rated very negatively. Willerton concludes:
The Russian public shares the same policy priorities as the governing Putin team, and that public offers a basically positive assessment of the performance of that team in implementing those policy priorities. The Russian public expresses strong confidence in Vladimir Putin himself, who appears as a paramount leader who stands above his team associates and the institutions – governmental and nongovernment – which they lead. The public’s confidence in those associates and institutions, however, is restrained, suggesting acceptance rather than enthusiasm. Meanwhile, if the public’s reaction to Putin critic Aleksei Navalny is any indication, elements strongly opposed to the Putin team’s efforts enjoy little support from the Russian mainstream.