by Gordon M. Hahn
Many in that small but not insignificant minority of Western (including American conservatives) who to one degree or another support many of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s actions do so often under the illusion that he is a conservative. To what extent do Putin’s positions correlate with Western conservatism and to what extent do they differ?
Putin is not a conservative in the Western or American sense of the term. (Neither is he a Stalinist or restorer of the Soviet or even Russian emoire of old. Indeed, Putin has just approved a new monument and museum to be built in downtown Moscow dedicated the victims of Stalinism and communism.)
Russian Neo-Traditionalism, Not Conservatism
Although some of the positions Putin stakes out in building a post-Soviet Russian traditionalism overlap with views held by some Western conservatives, Putin is a Russian traditionalist and statist rather than a Western-style conservative.
Putin’s new Russian traditionalism or neo-traditionalism is based on several principles: (1) statism, (2) stability, (3) freedom of, not freedom from religion, and (4) cultural and social conservatism or traditionalism.
Putin is a statist in politics, economics, and sociocultural matters. In politics, the state and political stability are almost always to be given preference over individual liberty and freedom when these principles clash. For example, if mass public demonstrations run the risk of devolving into violence or attempts to overthrow the authorities, then those demonstrations will be banned or other wise restricted.
This is not to say there is no freedom of association and speech in Russia. There are political protests held somewhere in Russia everyday, and all points of view can be heard on the state and private airwaves, print media, and Internet. Another example is the state’s willingness to block the participation of some political parties in elections for fear they may destabilize the legislative and political process. Another is the state’s complete control of national television broadcasting or ‘airwaves’ (excluding satellite and Internet television), though ownership in radio, print and Internet is decentralized and includes private vendors.
In simple terms, Putin and many Russians are willing to restrict political and civil rights in order to ensure there is no risk of political instability whatsoever. This is an approach almost all American conservatives abhor. Russian liberals and leftists, on the other hand, are quite eager to put controls on media, especially conservative-dominated talk radio shows, to enforce political correctness (conformity) in the media, schools, universities, and the workplace in order to ensure ‘balance,’ and to enforce reverse discrimination against white males, calling it affirmative action and breaking the glass ceiling. On this last category, Putin would most certainly not aver.
The same is true with ‘Putinomics’. Since Putin’s arrival in the Kremlin in 2000, the state’s role in the economy has steadily expanded. Putin nationalized large chunks of major industries, creating national giants, and increased the state’s share in the economy from minority-ownership to majority-ownership. There has been no major restructuring through privatization or significant sectoral diversification. Exports of energy (mostly oil and gas), natural resources (gold, diamonds, coal) and unfinished products (steel and other metals) comprise most of Russia’s trade exports and budget revenues. Exceptions are the nuclear energy industry (state-owned) and the private but highly subsidized (as in the West) agricultural production and food manufacturing industries, where real reforms have produced globally competitive industries. Regardless, fully or partly state-owned companies account for some 60 percent of Russian stock market valuation, compared to 80 percent in China. State-owned banks control over half of Russia’s banking operations.
In 2011, the Russian business weekly Biznes i vlast’ (Business and Power) examined the state’s share in companies’ total shareholder value in order to determine the level of state participation in key economic sectors. The research showed that state participation was greatest in transportation (railways, oil and natural gas pipelines) with the state holding 75 percent of assets. Other sectors registered as follows: aerospace and shipbuilding – 57 percent, electricity – 50 percent or more, natural gas production – 50 percent, production of electronic hardware – 27 percent, machine-building – 15 percent, telecommunications – 14 percent, construction – 9 percent, oil industry – 23 percent, oil refining – 8 percent, and non-ferrous metals production – 3 percent. The steel industry’s assets are completely under private ownership (http://rbth.com/articles/2012/03/23/what_kind_of_capitalism_has_russia_built_15160.html). However, much of the privatization in these spheres occurred in the 1990s not under Putin. Indeed, in 2004 the Kremlin nationalized one of Russia’s largest oil companies ‘Yukos’, and in 2011 Putin reversed most the privatization of electricity production and supply, which was a test case of privatization for major sectors in the economy.
Beyond sectoral ownership analysis, there are some areas where the economy has seen liberalization in the Putin era, but it has been achieved by way of a state-driven modernization that seeks to keep any economic liberalization from affecting the political economy and politics proper. This can be seen from the spheres where liberalization has occurred: business freedom, trade freedom, fiscal freedom, labor freedom, and freedom from corruption (www.heritage.org/index/country/russia). Another caveat here is that almost all these successes are the results of reforms carried out during Dmitrii Medvedev’s presidency. Thus, it depends on how much free rein one thinks Medvedev had in order to determine how much credit then Prime Minister Putin deserves. Medvedev billed himself as a Reaganite/Thatcherite conservative in economics at the outset of his presidency, but the promised robust privatization program never materialized, leaving the economy largely state-run and state-owned.
It is really only in the social and cultural realms that many of Putin’s views approximate Western conservatism. He defends religious freedom against attempts by Russian liberals to restrict religious freedom. For example, rather than banning religious education in public schools, Putin’s Education Ministry implemented a program of choice, whereby parents could choose from courses on Russian Orthodox Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, and ethics for their children. Official state functions and chaplains for the military include the clergy of Russia’s other traditional religions – the ROC, Judaism, Islam, and Buddhism. State funds help finance the building of churches, synagogues, mosques, and datsans. To be sure, Putin has given pride of place to the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC) but only slightly, and 80 percent of believers in Russia identify themselves as Russian Orthodox.
Inconsistent with his pro-religious socio-cultural position is Putin’s tolerance of free, state-funded abortions, which remains a non-issue in Russian politics – a holdover from the Soviet era that Western liberals do not challenge.
Consistent with his religious stance, Putin has put modest limits on homosexuality, specifically the banning of propagandizing homosexuality and transgenderism to children. As an aside: clearly, any sane gay person would much prefer to live in Russia than in the many repressive Islamic countries with which the U.S. has had close ties. As another aside: I do not recall U.S. President Barack Obama lecturing the Saudi King about the need to observe gay rights, including gay marriage, the stuff of fun, prosepctive Saturday Night Live sketch.
One area where some conservatives seem to suffer from military envy is their sometimes support or understanding for Putin’s robust foreign policy and military adventures. Conservatives tend to be more hawkish than liberals and leftists, putting aside the fact that some liberals are becoming rather gung ho when it comes to humanitarian interventions that often do not involve a vital American interest. Most conservatives, excluding libertarians and some others, respect a leader willing to stand up for the country’s national interests and security. The conservative critique of President Obama’s foreign policy is sometimes couched in terms such as: ‘At least Putin defends his country.’
Putin is a Russian traditionalist and statist rather than a Western-style conservative. His views, while closer to those of American conservatives on social issues, are much closer to American liberal and leftist positions regarding state interference in the economy. Putin has achieved in the Russian economy what President Obama and other American and even European leftists can only dream of, for now. Even in politics, Putin is closer to the increasingly intolerant left than the right.
So which is greater – the extent to which Putin’s positions correspond with conservatism or differ from conservatism? It appears the latter and by a considerable, not conservative margin.
Gordon M. Hahn is an Analyst and Advisory Board Member of the Geostrategic Forecasting Corporation, Chicago, Illinois; a Senior Researcher, Center for Terrorism and Intelligence Studies (CETIS), Akribis Group, San Jose, California; and an Analyst/Consultant, Russia Other Points of View – Russia Media Watch, http://www.russiaotherpointsofview.com. Dr Hahn is author of three well-received books, Russia’s Revolution From Above (Transaction, 2002), Russia’s Islamic Threat (Yale University Press, 2007), which was named an outstanding title of 2007 by Choice magazine, and The ‘Caucasus Emirate’ Mujahedin: Global Jihadism in Russia’s North Caucasus and Beyond (McFarland Publishers, 2014). He also has authored hundreds of articles in scholarly journals and other publications on Russian, Eurasian and international politics and wrote, edited and published the Islam, Islamism, and Politics in Eurasia Report at CSIS from 2010-2013. He has taught Russian politics and other courses at Boston, American, Stanford, San Jose State, St. Petersburg State (Russia), and San Francisco State Universities as well as the Middlebury Institute for International Studies at Monterey, California. Dr. Hahn has been a Senior Associate at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (2011-2013) and a Visiting Scholar at both the Hoover Institution and the Kennan Institute.