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The Nationalists and the Protest Movement

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The Russian opposition movement is of necessity a broad coalition, with little to hold it together but a common hatred of the Putin regime. Alexander Verkhovsky looks at how its most controversial element, the nationalists, fit into the picture.

Alexander Verkhovsky
21 August 2012

The involvement of Russian nationalists, including some pretty radical ones, in the protest movement that was born last December raises any number of questions, but the three central ones are: how did this happen? How large a role do nationalists play in the opposition movement? And what might come of this?

The first question is easy enough to answer. Back in October 2010 the leading Russian nationalist organisations issued statements designed to position them as part of the democratic opposition. At that time they also made attempts to develop contacts with the liberal opposition, but didn’t get very far, despite the fact that some liberal groups and activists (Aleksey Navalny and Vladimir Milov, for example) were already showing nationalist leanings.

Police harassment of all opposition groups helped generate some fellow feeling, but the distance between them was too great, and was exacerbated by the events on Manezhnaya Square in December 2010, when a memorial rally held by football fans and nationalists for a Spartak fan killed in a brawl by a young man from the northern Caucasus turned into a virtual race riot. Even the most moderate nationalist leaders supported what they called ‘the Spartacus Uprising’, but for liberals and leftists it looked like, if not an actual pogrom, at least a foretaste of one.

“Stop feeding the Caucasus” was the chant that rang out from some 400 nationalists at a rally in October last year. The popular opposition leader Alexei Navalny, known for his nationalist inclinations, took part in the meeting. But his appeal to stop buying cars for the "mobsters of the North Caucasus" did not gain him a lot of applause.

By the time of the parliamentary elections in December 2011, the nationalists were the most substantial element of the opposition: the annual ‘Russian March’, held the previous month, attracted about 7,000 people (SOVA Centre figures, lower than those claimed by the organisers) – more than could be mustered by the Communists, let alone the assorted liberals and leftists. The Manezhnaya Square riot, by drawing public (and government) attention to Russia’s ethnic tensions, could well have widened the nationalists’ support base. So after the elections they were assured of a prominent role in the protest movement.

How the nationalists fit in

How did they come to be accepted by the rest of the movement? Well, firstly, it would have been almost impossible to exclude them from what were fairly spontaneous demonstrations. And secondly, the opposition had, and still has, no selection criteria: if someone is in favour of free and fair elections and democracy (in whatever form – no one goes into the details), and against Putin, there are no grounds for throwing them out, since these three points make up the entire opposition agenda. And if it was by pure accident that Ilya Lazarenko, former neo-Nazi and now head of the tiny National Democratic Alliance, was able to address the crowd at Bolotnaya Square on 5th December, then the invitation to one of the nationalists’ best known leaders, Vladimir Tor, to speak at a rally of ‘Yabloko’ party members on 18th December gave a clear sign that the liberal opposition was ready to ally itself with anyone that would help it bring down the Putin regime. The furthest the organisers of the massive opposition rally on Sakharov Prospect on 24th December would go in curbing the nationalists was to refuse the platform to the well-known neo-Nazi Maksim Martsinkevich, who has served time in prison for his advocacy of racist violence. Three activists from mainstream nationalist coalitions were however allowed to speak.

'The opposition has no selection criteria: if someone is in favour of free and fair elections and democracy (in whatever form – no one goes into the details), and against Putin, there are no grounds for throwing them out, since these three points make up the entire opposition agenda.'

The protest movement’s leaders have seemed unperturbed by the boorish behaviour of some nationalists at rallies, including frequent attempts at storming the stage (this happened again at the last one, on 12th June). And the reason for such tolerance could not have been that their presence at such mass events is essential to make up the numbers. The fact is that the overwhelming majority of the nationalist activists that swell the ‘Russian Marches’ belong to small neo-Nazi type groups and have no time for the leaders of the mainstream nationalist organisations, who have never attracted more than 2000 people to their own events – and more usually have to be content with 300-400. Only a small number of these ultranationalists ever come to general opposition rallies and marches – they can’t stand liberals and left-wingers and they see their best hope for the future in the prospect of Russia’s destabilisation and a resort to force. The largest turnout of nationalists was at the demonstration on 4th February, when there were perhaps 900 of them, out of a crowd of several tens of thousands. At other events there were far fewer, and even these hundreds didn’t always pay any attention to the mainstream nationalist leaders.

So far I’ve been talking about Moscow; in other cities the proportions of the various factions were slightly different, and in a few places the nationalists even got involved in organising events, but the overall picture was much the same everywhere. So protest movement leaders who invited known figures in the nationalist movement, such as Aleksandr Belov and Konstantin Krylov, to speak at their rallies, got little out of it apart from a vague hope of attracting xenophobic citizens with no fondness for either the regime, the liberals or the leftists to the cause. So far, it must be said, these hopes have remained unfulfilled.

A negative coalition

It is impossible to say who ‘brought the nationalists in’, but it is possible to look at the part played by certain opposition figures. According to some people, Aleksey Navalny played a role as a mediator. I think it was important for Navalny, a moderate nationalist, to get some less moderate nationalists involved, in order to make himself look more mainstream and so strengthen his own position in the movement. The moderate left-winger Ilya Ponamaryov (a ‘Just Russia’ MP) also had a hand in it, to avoid losing some of the nationalists who had managed to become members of the Civil Council, set up in February, above and beyond their allocated quota. And there are other people I could mention. This Civil Council, with its (quickly forgotten about) ideological quotas, was the fruit of compromise by the leaders of many small political and quasi-political groups, most probably out of a fear of being swamped by this sudden enormous protest movement.

Of course as well as political expediency, there was a general matter of principle bringing people together - the creation of an anti-Putin front embracing as many shades of opinion as possible in a kind of negative solidarity. This principle continues to guide the movement: the Organising Committee for Protest Actions has announced elections to a Coordinating Council of the Russian Opposition, to be held in October and again organised on the principle of quotas for the liberal, left-wing and nationalist wings of the movement. There is in fact nothing new in this idea: Garry Kasparov’s ‘Other Russia’ (not to be confused with Eduard Limonov’s current party of the same name) was intended as a union of ‘everyone who is against Putin’.

'The idea of bringing the nationalists on board has not only brought no benefit to the protest movement, but legitimises the activities of their previously marginal organisations.'

I feel, however, that this idea has no future. A ‘negative solidarity’ strategy can only be effective as a short term measure. Even in the medium term it has never worked and has in fact been a brake on reaching new supporters, since the level of general unity is inversely proportional to the level of intelligibility of the generally positive political manifesto that usually interests the average apolitical voter. If anyone still believed in December that the current political regime could be overthrown overnight, today it is obviously impossible to imagine this happening in the short term, but many activists at all levels nevertheless continue to expect the regime to fall in the near future, or at least say they do in public. This is probably an essential exercise in self-motivation for activists, but a poor basis for political planning.

In other words, the idea of bringing the nationalists on board has not only brought no benefit to the protest movement, but legitimises the activities of their previously marginal organisations. A good example is their largest organisation, ‘Russians’, which has brought together not only the Movement against Illegal Immigration, outlawed for inflammatory propaganda and the involvement of some of its activists in hate crimes, but also the openly neo-Nazi groups ‘Slavonic Force’ and ‘the National Socialist Initiative’. What is particularly ludicrous is the fact that legal nationalist organisations representing only a tiny proportion of the real nationalist movement are being presented as major political forces.

Hardcore Russian nationalists were also present on Bolotnaya Square at the major Moscow protest rally against election fraud last December. (photo: ru-nsn.livejournal.com).

Can there be ‘good’ nationalists?

In part the idea of forming a bloc with the nationalists is that there are ‘good’ ones and ‘bad’ ones. There are ‘good’ ones – they are the ‘National Democrats’, who are not connected to any neo-Nazism or racist street action, and who are the potential equivalent of legal nationalist parties in European countries. Why not conclude alliances with the National Democrats, who could have an essential political role to play in a future democratic Russia? And here there is a certain degree of truth: yes, if democracy were to be re-established in the foreseeable future, such elements will be an inevitable part of a parliamentary democracy, and it is good to be prepared for this. But there is also a certain degree of untruth, or rather, wishful thinking.

The problem is that our present National Democrats are too entrenched in an aggressive racist and neo-Nazi environment (it used to be called ‘nazi-skinhead’, but you don’t see many skinheads any more) which is at the heart of the whole nationalist movement. So, they can’t condemn racist violence, and after their peaceful protests their supporters have been known to resort to ‘direct action’. And their leaders (many of them, at least) have too recently renounced (if they have indeed renounced) rather more extreme political views.

'Perhaps – probably, even – a National Democratic movement will emerge in the future, but at present it is more of a project than a reality.'

But this doesn’t seem to bother anybody – people give them anything they want, presumably in the hope that they will reform themselves with time. A typical example is the aforementioned Ilya Lazarenko’s membership of the liberal (!) fraction of the Civic Council. Sweeteners like this may not be a bad strategy, but in this case they are a little premature, not just because the National Democrats have not yet distanced themselves enough from the aggressive racist and neo-Nazi majority of Russia’s nationalists, but because they are simply too small. My remarks above about the insignificance of the nationalist political organisations are triply applicable to the National Democrats: for example, only around 50 members of the future National Democratic Party turned out for the demonstration on 12th June, and other National Democrats are no more impressive.

Perhaps – probably, even – a National Democratic movement will emerge in the future, but at present it is more of a project than a reality. Navalny himself – an almost flawless example of a national democrat – is, despite his enormous popularity, totally unpopular among nationalists, as was clear from his isolation at actions such as the ‘Stop Feeding the Caucasus’ rally last autumn. And it is completely unclear why the opposition movement should see the phantom of national democracy as a fully-fledged coalition partner.

Nationalists of all shades are nevertheless sure to be part of opposition initiatives this autumn. And the leaders of all the ‘organising committees’ will still be allocating them their quotas, avoiding any real discussion of those questions that actually arise out of the nationalists’ presence. And primarily, the question of the further legitimisation of nationalist ideas and nationalist language in opposition and in power (these two processes are interdependent) – and consequently in Russian society as a whole.

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