Global Extremes

Russia’s imaginary ‘radicals’

While many countries face a real problem of violent radicalization, others use the imaginary threat of it to construct their domestic and foreign politics.

Marat Iliyasov
19 October 2020
From left to right, Sergei Lavrov, Vladimir Putin and Sergei Shoigu during a meeting on 2 February 2019
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kremlin.ru (CC BY 4.0)
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In his speech broadcasted by the Russian TV channel NTV on September 2nd, the Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov claimed that “200 trained Ukrainian radicals are involved in the events in Belarus”. He did not specify who are these ‘radicals’, who trained them and what for, why are they there, and what makes them the ‘radicals’. These questions were neither important for him nor for the Russian audience. What was important is Lavrov's message that the unlawful forces from Ukraine are involved in the events in Belarus on the opposition side. This was the main goal of the Foreign Minister's reference to ‘radicals’ in his speech, which demonstrated the biased usage and understanding of the term by Russian officials.

Since its re-appearance in the political discourse in the early 1990s, the term ‘radical’ gradually became a buzzword that today goes hand in hand with two others: extremism and terrorism. The vague legal definition and the carefully drawn image that attaches the term ‘radical’ to violence and unlawfulness made it very convenient to refer to it while fighting the opponents of the regime. On the one hand, the lack of a precise definition rendered it possible to interpret any action or dissent as ‘radical’ by the law. This is widely used in Russia and some other authoritarian countries, where people sometimes are being sentenced to serve several years in jails even for ‘liking’ some posts on Facebook. On the other hand, the reference to it helps to create an atmosphere of fear and justify new and harsh measures of control. This, in turn, contributes to the regime's survival.

These advantages of using the term ‘radical’ in political discourse did not become obvious for the Russian political elite in the early 1990s, when radicalization was making its way to becoming a global trend.

The search for a handy explanation that can justify unpopular actions in foreign and domestic politics by the Russian government started with the Russo-Chechen confrontation in 1994. At that time, those to be later identified as ‘radicals’ had very little to do with radicalism. Indeed, no one would interpret the pro-independence movement in Chechnya as radical. On the contrary, it was rather normal in the context of the Soviet Union’s disintegration in 1991.

The term ‘radical’ evokes sufficiently strong negative emotions that allow mobilizing the population’s support

Separatism, at that time, did not bear any negative connotation and would not justify the hawkish policy. The portrayal of the pro-independence regime in Chechnya as unlawful was a better bid but did not scare the Russian population enough to support the war of 1994-1996. It took the Russian elite more time to saddle and ride on the global trends through labeling Chechen pro-independence movement as ‘Wahabbis/Islamists/Salafists’ synonymizing the terms with ‘radical Islamism’ and ‘terrorism’. The participation of volunteers from Arab countries in the Chechen wars was helpful for such labeling and increased popular support for the governmental policies from the general Russian public.

The success in the usage of this term inspired a further elaboration. The terms ‘radical Islamism’ or ‘terrorism’ had a rather narrow application (mostly regarding the Chechen case), which was not satisfactory for a country with multidimensional domestic and foreign politics such as Russia.

The suppression of the autocratic regime’s opponents and its politics of ‘the near abroad’ oriented towards the republics that broke away from the Soviet Union needed a more convincing justification than the fight with the imaginary threat of terrorism. The term ‘extremism’, which was more inclusive, still could not satisfy the growing need for more universal justification.

Detaching the Islamist component from the already colloquial ‘radical Islamism’ appeared to be a good idea. The term ‘radical’ evokes sufficiently strong negative emotions that allow mobilizing the population’s support. At the same time, it is not as frightening as ‘terrorism’ and ‘radical Islamism’, which gives the government an easier time reconstructing public opinion about the ‘radicals’.

Moreover, it gives flexibility in applying the law, measuring the sentence in line with the political necessity. Those, labelled ‘radicals’, can be sentenced as ‘terrorists’, ‘extremists’, or just ‘hooligans’. This universality of the term has made it very popular in the Russian political discourse since the beginning of the second decade of the new millennium. It became widely used in Russian domestic politics handling liberal protest movements and arresting their leaders. Furthermore, its demand in foreign politics grew immensely since Ukraine’s political turn towards the West and Russia's annexation of Crimea in 2014. Moreover, as Lavrov's speech demonstrates, the term proved to be useful in the Belarussian dimension of Russian politics too.

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