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Should Putin fear Russia's extremist far right?

Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow, December 2014.
Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow, December 2014.

For months, as I have written about Russia, a fear that I hear over and over is that should Vladimir Putin fall from power, the result could look very different from the democracy the liberal opposition hopes for. Rather, Russian analysts and others have warned, the country could be overcome by far-right ethnic nationalist forces who hate the country's racial minorities.

Even if the scenarios they described seemed extreme and perhaps outlandish, it's not difficult to see why they worry. Polls find that xenophobic beliefs are widespread in Russia. The country is already home to extreme nationalist parties and to far-right groups like BORN, a neo-Nazi organization whose members murdered the lawyer Stanislav Markelov and the journalist Anastasia Baburova, as well as a number of immigrants. Far-right nationalist activists are fighting as volunteers alongside separatists in eastern Ukraine, gaining new skills in violence that they could bring with them when they return to Russia.

Some of these groups have been sharply critical of Putin. Could they turn against him more fully? What would they do if Putin's regime collapsed?

To find out more about whether those concerns are warranted, Max Fisher and I sat down with Alexander Verkhovsky, the soft-spoken, wild-haired director of the Sova Center, a Moscow-based organization that researches issues of racism and nationalism. His small basement office was accessible through a series of low-ceilinged tunnels — their height, he said, was the result of the building being constructed more than 100 years ago.

As we sat perched on office chairs amid stacks of Sova reports and countless owl figurines — the "wisest bird," Verkhovsky explained, and therefore Sova's mascot — Verkhovsky discussed Russia's widespread problem with xenophobia and racism, the threat that nationalists returning from Ukraine pose to Russian stability, and why he doubts that opposition politicians can build a support base on xenophobia or far-right nationalism.

What follows is a transcript of our conversation, edited and condensed for clarity.

The extremists now fighting in Ukraine

Max Fisher:Many of Russia's extreme nationalist activists have gone to fight in eastern Ukraine. Is there a fear that when they come back they'll be more violent?

Alexander Verkhovsky: Of course. It's for sure.

Hundreds of violent neo-Nazis went to Ukraine to take part in the war. So they left our streets and committed fewer hate crimes. It's just a temporary effect. Sooner or later they will return.

And that's maybe not the only consequence here. Because of course there will be more hate crimes, but I think what our government really has to think about is some other kinds of radical activity.

There are hundreds of nationalists in Donbass on the separatists' side. These several hundred nationalists are among several thousand other volunteers, and most of them, or almost all of them, will return sooner or later.

And what will they do here? Some of them, of course, will just sit at home — but not all. We've seen this already, a little more than 20 years ago. After the crash of the Soviet Union thousands of volunteers participated in the wars in Transnistria and Abkhazia. Then they returned here, and participated in clashes in Moscow until '93. So there is some political threat here.

Amanda Taub: Do you think the popular support for Russia's occupation of Crimea has shifted popular sympathies in Russia toward those militant nationalists who are fighting in eastern Ukraine?

Alexander Verkhovsky: Of course there are sympathies. The problem is what will happen with those sympathies when they return.

Of course they are heroes, and so on and so forth. But they are heroes while they are there. When they return and play some other role, then that will change, depending on their role and on the situation.

This war is really a very new development. It involved a lot of emotions of the majority of people, and all this extra support for Putin is, of course, very nice for him.

But these emotions have to be converted to something. People don't know how to do that. They may now hate Barack Obama — but they cannot do anything about Barack Obama. So that's why some strange phenomena appear.

[For instance] there is a strange organization called the National Liberation Movement led by Yevgeny Fyodorov, who is a Duma member from [Putin's ruling] United Russia party. His ideologies are rather odd — he thinks the country is occupied by "evil forces," and that the whole government is an occupation government, except for Putin personally.

That would be just his own madness, but he's got a group — which is not big, but there are activists in many towns. They commit violent attacks against opposition activists. And it's always with full impunity, which, of course, attracts more volunteers to do it next time

Amanda Taub:Why do you think United Russia would want someone like that to be an MP?

Alexander Verkhovsky: United Russia, it's more like the Communist party of Soviet times.

It's not a party at all. It's kind of a part of the state apparatus. There are different roles, like in theater. They just distribute it. So everything is there. Some crazy people, like Fyodorov, and some respectable experts who may really work on pieces of legislation.

Amanda Taub: Why do you think the government has people like Fyodorov play that role?

Alexander Verkhovsky: Somebody has to attack the opposition. Of course, the police can beat them, but that's not always useful tactically.

Previously, some hooligans were hired for that. But it didn't look pretty, because it was obvious that they were hired. Now it just looks like some activists beat other activists — like, I don’t know, fair play.

I think that's the role they play. Because the authorities need different instruments to keep independent activity under control.

Russian support for xenophobic ideas and policies

Amanda Taub: Is there support among ordinary Russians for xenophobic opposition to, for instance, people from the Caucasus, or immigrants?

Alexander Verkhovsky:Sociologists [conduct polls] to ask people some standard questions from year to year:

"Do you support the slogan 'Russia for Russians'?" (meaning ethnic Russians).

"Do you think the population who lived in the region historically should have more rights than newcomers?"

"Do you think certain ethnic groups have to be excluded from your local area, from your town, from your region?" Things like that.

According to the Levada Center, which is most prominent on these issues, from the year 2000 until 2012 about 55 percent of the population answered "yes" to all these questions. I think that's a very high level, but at least it was stable.

In 2013 it became higher, because there was an official anti-migrant campaign that year on TV. Usually the official line is to avoid talking about [migrant issues], but in 2013 something was broken in this mechanism. I really cannot explain why it happened, but this campaign was conducted in several regions, including Moscow and St. Petersburg.

We saw a lot of news about the "crimes of migrants," and other such things. Much more than previously.

Max Fisher:Why would the authorities run that campaign?

Alexander Verkhovsky:Nobody knows. Really, nobody knows. We may guess that people on the top, they felt some pressure from this massive xenophobia. For a long time they understood that it's just dangerous to play with that, because it's easy to provoke disturbances, but they had to react somehow. Maybe it just coincided as different people started to play on these xenophobic things.

But then we had a riot here in Moscow, on the outskirts. It was October 2013, and right after that, the anti-migrant campaign immediately finished, because somebody finally understood that it’s dangerous, and finished it immediately, the very next day.

Why support for xenophobic ideas doesn't translate into support for nationalist parties

Amanda Taub:When violent xenophobic attacks happen, what is the public's attitude toward them?

Alexander Verkhovsky:I think it's difficult to say. Mostly people say it's wrong. But usually people say that it's just an "overreaction" of some "hot young guys who just can't control themselves." Because "these aliens, they really make trouble, and we have to do something with them."

But if you ask directly, "Would you participate if something happens in your town?" just a few percent answer yes. And in fact, I think even most of them would not participate.

And we see that in practice. The [annual ethnic nationalist rally] Russian March, for instance: it looks "too Nazi." It's really difficult for the typical person to participate.

Some more moderate groups tried to organize a "Stop feeding the Caucasus" campaign, which would be attractive [to ordinary people]. But more people didn't come.

Amanda Taub: So people hold these xenophobic views, but they're not looking to nationalist or opposition groups to address them?

Alexander Verkhovsky: Russian citizens do not trust independent groups. Not because they like the government so much, but because they like independent groups of any kind even less.

For instance, they do not rely on trade unions when they have a conflict in their workplace.

There are some changes in the middle class. There are some changes in some certain regions. People are more active in self-organizing. But in general, it's still there, this paternalistic approach.

Max Fisher:Separately from the really extremist violent groups, do you worry about some liberal groups embracing ethnic nationalism? For instance, we hear about liberal opposition politician Alexei Navalny as someone who is maybe making these ideas more mainstream.

Alexander Verkhovsky: Yes. Alexei Navalny did a lot.

It’s not only about legitimation of the ideas, it’s also the legitimation of certain people who were seen as radical.

When we had the protest movement in 2012, when there was an attempt to create formal leadership to elect coordinating committee of the opposition, it was a funny moment, because most of the ultra-left and ultra-right leaders had no chance to be elected. They were not popular enough. So people like Navalny and [former Duma member Ilya] Ponomarev, they pushed the idea of ideological quotas for them.

Without such quotas, none of them would be elected. None of these leftists, none of these nationalists. [But] they were just invited.

And it’s not only because Navalny himself is a person of nationalist ideas, but because most of the leaders of liberal parties at the time also knew about the statistical fact that the majority of Russian citizens are rather xenophobic.

So they tried to play that card. To me, it was not a clever idea to involve our nationalists as representatives of the xenophobic majority, because they were not representatives of anybody. But that's how it was.

Max Fisher:Were ideas like "stop feeding the Caucasus" also a way to try to develop broad political support for nationalists?

Alexander Verkhovsky:It was a very clever thing. Because it was not only about the Caucasus, which is most hated, but also about the idea of subsidies. [The Russian government heavily subsidizes the northern Caucasus region.]

Because people think — and mostly they are right — that most of these subsidies are just stolen. So, the idea of "stop feeding the Caucasus" was not only xenophobic, it was also anti-corruption, so it could become popular.

And it was rather popular, but not much. For example, there were specific rallies organized by these moderate nationalists, under this slogan. And Navalny personally came there, when he was already rather popular. But his numerous supporters didn't come, because they didn’t want to participate in a nationalist rally.

So Navalny’s popularity was not popularity based on nationalism; it was popularity based on anti-corruption.

That's why after these experiments he mostly avoided nationalist rhetoric. Not fully, but much more than previously. It doesn't work.

Amanda Taub:So if xenophobia and nationalism were to become bigger political issues, something that was potentially a problem for Putin's popularity, will that be something the government takes a stronger role in addressing?

Alexander Verkhovsky: This xenophobia could turn again to some riots and clashes in certain cities, which we have had before, especially in 2013.

If the riots come to Moscow, or there are many of them, then something has to be done about that.