Populist politics based in the clash between 'us' and 'them' is taking over the European political stage replacing the traditional political division into left and right. Russia's regime seems populist too, but in the essence it is exactly the opposite.
Interview with Ivan Krastev, Chair of the Center for Liberal Strategies in Sofia
Would you say that populism is a new trend in today’s Europe or is it particularly characteristic of Eastern and Central Europe?
I would not say it is specifically an Eastern European trend. For me, the topic of populism is interesting, because it helps to understand the transformation European democracies are undergoing in the post Cold War period. ‘Populism’ is becoming a popular word to describe what is happening.
If you mention Berlusconi, his opponents will immediately say that he is a populist. Many people call the result of the French referendum [on the EU Constitution] ‘a triumph of populism’. Another example is Polish elections and the Kaczynsky brothers, which has been labeled a victory of populism. But it is very much about the way politicians behave and speak even in the mainstream parties. For example, Tony Blair. Many of his critics in the UK would say that he has adopted a very populist style. And then, of course, there is Chavez in Venezuela.
What strikes me is that people are keen to use the word even though they have no urge to define what it means. In the seventies and eighties you would hear the words ‘communist’ or ‘fascist’ used much more often, now it is ‘populist’.
What makes people so eager to use this term?
First we have to understand what are the common characteristics of all the politicians and regimes that are referred to as populist. First of all, we are talking about democratic regimes. One way or the other, they are all democracies. So populism has something to do with democracy. It has also something to do with personalization of political power and personalization of politics.
But my definition of the nature of populism is not so much about populist politics or populist movements. I believe that the main change in post Cold War European politics is the fact that the clash is not anymore between left and right, but more and more between the public and the elite.
Does that mean that the traditional political spectrum has been replaced by a struggle of ‘good people’ against the ‘bad people’?
Yes, society is divided into two homogenous groups. You have the ‘pure people’ and you have the ‘corrupt elite’. And improvement of life is only possible if people take power back from the corrupt elite. The conspiracy of the elites is a concept, which an ever-increasing number of people subscribe to.
So you have to have a fresh supply of ‘pure people’ every time elections come?
In a way these sentiments pave the way for newcomers to come into politics. But also the ones who used to be corrupt themselves use it to appeal to the majority. It is very hard to be relatively critical of populism without slipping into criticism of mass politics. Populism is very much anti-liberal, but it does not necessarily mean it is anti-democratic. Populism is much more the thing of the future than the thing of the past.
Can you draw a clear line where a ‘pure populism starts?
No, I cannot. Populism, just like all other things in politics, is very contextual. But the essence of populism today, as I said, is the understanding of politics as the clash between the ‘pure people’ and the ‘corrupt elite’.
But look at Poland and the Kaczynsky case. The main slogan of his campaign was that Poland should put an end to the Third Republic. He managed to criminalize the whole transitional period in Poland. Before that, there was an understanding that the transitional years were a hard period. He challenged that view in the most radical way and focused on what he called the criminal nature of the last fifteen years.
Would you say that populism was present in the Ukrainian Orange Revolution?
They were against the elites; the revolution was not pro-free market. The very fact that they were pro-European and pro-American prevented us from seeing the social nature of the movement. It was very much about ‘us’ vs. ‘them’.
But where would you place Russia on the ‘populist map’ of Europe?
I think Russia is very much an anti-populist elitist regime. Putin did not destroy the power base of the Yeltsin regime. He reformed it and consolidated it, but did not destroy it. It very much looks like a populist regime, but it is not. Unlike Chavez, who tries to mobilize people, Putin tries to neutralize people. The Russian regime does not care about them. When you have oil you do not need people. If I am living off your taxes I am interested for you to have something in your pockets. But if I am living off oil money then I do not care whether you have anything in your pockets or not.
Putin uses quite a lot of populist semantics…
Sure, but language is not that important. He says everything that works. But, more importantly, he has managed to consolidate the state and the oligarchs. Before, you had the oligarchs on one side and the Kremlin on the other. They were making murky deals but they were not on the same side.
But look what is happening now — who are the richest people in Russia? The top managers of state-owned oil and gas companies! The richest people are the state oligarchs, the people who control all natural resources. This is a very important transformation in Russia. So, Putin’s regime is a classic anti-populist regime and also strongly anti-pluralist.
What was the effect of the anti-elitist revolution in Ukraine on the elitist Russia?
I would compare the effect of the Ukrainian Revolution on Russia with the effect of 9/11 on the US. Firstly, look how many books have been published on the Orange Revolution in Russia. This is incredible — more than 20 books in one year.
Why was it so problematic for Russia? Because Russia suddenly felt vulnerable. After the Revolution, Moscow made four major changes in its policies. First of all, it decided not to concentrate on the elites anymore as they did with Kuchma. They consolidated the energy sector instead and turned it into a tool. Secondly, having seen the power of people in the streets, they had to make sure that they have their own people in the streets, somebody, who actively supported the regime. This is how the pro-Kremlin NGO Nashi came into being.
Another issue is identity. Russia’s failure in Ukraine was also a failure in identity-building.
What serves as foundation for that identity-building, in your opinion?
The understanding that Russia is a civilization of its own. And World War II plays a major role in it. That is why Russia is extremely offended by the position of the Baltic states and others, because by playing down the significance of World War II, you are attacking the only shaping event, on which the ethnically diverse Russia can try to build an identity. Russia is very ethnically diverse country, do not forget that they have a huge Muslim minority.
Would you say that Putin is using energy for state-building?
Yes, definitely. And it represents a major shift in thinking. Before it was a one party state. There was the monopoly of the Communist Party. Now it is a monopoly of a pipeline. And they will never let anyone else control that pipe. Pipeline and television are the two things that keep the state together. They are very powerful tools.
How will recent changes in Russia’s thinking reflect in its foreign policy towards the so-called ‘near abroad’?
I think it will differ from country to country, but the common characteristic will be that Russia will stop relying on the Moscow-friendly local leaders. They will try to work using other means. For example, we might see the inflow of Russian money into NGOs in the neighboring countries. They might also try to work through local ethnic Russian communities.
In the case of the Baltic states, Russia will try to isolate them and to reduce their influence in the European Union. Experience shows that even small countries like the Baltics and Poland could play a significant role in coalition with the US, so Russia will do its outmost to prevent it.
Russia will also try to build invididual relationships with the big countries of the EU, France, Germany, Italy, and not with the EU as the whole. Before the Ukrainian Revolution, Russia was much more friendly to Brussels. After Ukraine, it is no longer true.
Will Russia try to hamper the creation of a common EU policy towards it?
Naturally. A common foreign policy and common energy policy go against Russia’s strategic interests.