Doom and Duma?

Why the nationalists surged in the Russian election.

On election night in Moscow fours years ago, Russia’s liberals drank to celebrate their unexpected electoral victory in the 1999 parliamentary vote. Optimists predicted a resurgence of liberalism as economic prosperity continued to build a middle-class constituency for liberal ideas. That evening leaders of the liberal coalition, Union of Right Forces (SPS is the Russian acronym), even talked about a real run for the Kremlin by one of their own in 2008. The prospect that Anatoly Chubais, Russia’s privatization czar turned CEO of Russia’s electricity monopoly, might end up president did not sound fanciful. But last week, instead of toasting their momentum, members of the SPS drank to numb the bitterness of a resounding defeat. The xenophobic demagogue Vladimir Zhirinovsky’s Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR) doubled its share of the vote since the last Duma election four years ago, while a new nationalist coalition, Motherland (Rodina), came from nowhere to win 9 percent of the popular vote. The 50 or so seats previously held by liberals in Russia’s parliament will now be occupied by these nationalists. 

What happened to the vision that a rising middle class would translate into rising support for liberal democracy in Russia? It was a scenario embraced by the Marxist theorists among the liberal reformers (who were all trained in the Soviet era); the officers at the U.S. Agency for International Development (who were all trained in the United States in the 1970s, when modernization theory reigned) bought the idea, too. Remember your Poli-Sci 101 course and Barrington Moore’s famous one-liner, “No middle class, no democracy”? The pool of “winners”—that is, those Russians who own property and had started to do well in the market conditions sparked by Yegor Gaidar’s reforms back in 1992—were not the dewy-eyed pro-democracy force that the old human rights crowd of the Gorbachev era was. But the SPS felt confident that it had a corner on voters with a concrete economic stake in ongoing reform. Some polls put the proportion of Russians who now considered themselves “middle class” at 48 percent; most estimates hovered at around a third of the population.

On election night last week, the producers of sound bites on Russian television and CNN (including me) theorized that LDPR and Motherland were appealing to the “losers” of economic reform, not to the rising middle class. That’s why the Communist Party of the Russian Federation (CPFR) had joined the liberals in a big time defeat. And to be sure, both Zhirinovsky and the Motherland leadership tandem of Sergei Glaziev and Dmitri Rogozin spouted plenty of leftist populism during the fall campaign. Zhirinovsky claimed that the LDPR is the party for “Russians and the poor.” Meanwhile, Motherland promised to tax the super-rich more and to arrest more corrupt oligarchs, including Chubais.

But wait a minute. If the economy is improving—the four years since 1999 have seen an average of 5 percent growth per annum—and the “new” middle class shows signs of continued growth, then why are Communist clones surging in popular support? Eventually, survey data will give us real answers. Yet a plausible hypothesis is that the Motherland and the LDPR are not only appealing to former Communist sympathizers, but also to a middle class that has not proved to be such a liberalizing political force after all. Most of Russia’s rising middle class probably gravitated to Putin’s party, Unified Russia—which is not exactly the party of Sakharov. Putin seems to have calculated that a more authoritarian pitch would have widespread appeal. It was notable how insistently Unified Russia played on nationalist and patriotic themes during the campaign, including photos of Stalin in its leaflets and calls for “order” and “strength” as its main goals for a new Russia.

And a fraction of Russia’s rising middle-class voters seems to have strayed to the more virulent nationalist groups. Perhaps most surprisingly, Motherland finished second behind Putin’s party in both Moscow and St. Petersburg, cities traditionally considered bastions of liberalism and leaders in economic reform. Exit polls conducted by the Russian firm Romir show that Motherland’s voters were more educated, more urban, and richer than the average Communist voter. These same polls show that Zhirinovsky’s biggest support came from 18-to-35-year-olds, the very cohort that is supposed to be saving Russia from its authoritarian past. Middle-class Russians may like Rogozin’s call for “Russia for Russians” (i.e., not for Jews) more than SPS’s slogans about property rights or the pleas of Grigory Yavlinsky’s left-of-center liberal party, Yabloko, to defend human rights. During the campaign, Chubais floated the idea of erecting a “liberal empire” within the former Soviet Union, a feeble attempt to steal some thunder from the resurgent nationalists. It didn’t work. Voters, it appears, may want the empire, but without the liberalism.

Of course, it’s dangerous to generalize from one electoral outcome. We did that once before when Zhirinovsky splashed on to the scene in 1993, capturing a quarter of the vote in that first post-Soviet parliamentary vote in Russia. Many back then (including me) invoked the specter of Russian fascism. The analogies to Weimar Germany—collapsing economy, millions of ethnic Russians living in countries bordering Russia, a bereaved superpower feeling as though the West was taking advantage of its temporary weakness—seemed all too obvious. Yet fascism was the dog that didn’t bark in the 1990s. 

Nor are Dimitry Rogozin or Vladimir Zhirinovsky open advocates today of fascist ideas. Yes, Rogozin was eager to seize Ukrainian territory in a border dispute this fall. And there should be no question that he fears American troops in Central Asia and Georgia and NATO in the Baltics, a development he calls encirclement, and that he will do everything in his power to stop it. “Russia has three allies, its army, its navy, and its strategic rocket forces,” he is fond of saving. Zhirinovsky shrills louder and cruder than Rogozin but shares his basic orientation on all of these issues. Still, both are now eager to convince observers that they are not secret followers of Mussolini or Franco.

But what about tomorrow? If last week’s election results indicate a trend line, then nationalists will dominate the contest to replace Putin in 2008 or whenever he decides to step down. Right now, Rogozin and Zhirinovsky are rising stars. Their liberal opponents are fading figures, even if economic reform and economic growth continue to march on. And that is a scary combination. What could be worse than a thriving Russian capitalist economy helping to advance the foreign policy interests of autocratic nationalists in the Kremlin?