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The December 1999 Duma Elections: Russian Nationalism on the Rise?

Related Bios: Astrid S. Tuminez, and Henry E. Hale
January 10, 2000
Council on Foreign Relations


[Note: A transcript of this meeting is unavailable. The discussion is summarized below.]


Dr. Astrid S. Tuminez, Next Generation Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, opened the session with a discussion of Russian nationalism. Having completed the book, Russian Nationalism Since 1856: Ideology and the Making of Foreign Policy, Dr. Tuminez noted that nationalism would certainly play a key role in the consolidation of the post-Soviet Russian state. It is not a question of whether or not nationalism will be important in Russia’s future; the question is what kind of nationalism will take hold.

Since the 1980s, the competing variants of nationalism have ranged from the benign to malevolent. This is why Dr. Tuminez refers to the promise and peril of Russian nationalism. The promise is that nationalism can be a force for national unity and purpose. It helps consolidate the will to act for the public good; redefine state-society relations; give society more voice; and limit the power of the state. But according to many observers, the peril of Russian nationalism is that it inevitably deteriorates into a form of imperialism. There is a sense among Russians that their country has a purpose only when it can rule over others, and it is a great power only when it is a military power.

To discuss on where nationalism is at this stage and the impact of nationalism on the recent Duma elections, Dr. Tuminez introduced Dr. Henry E. Hale, a research associate and coordinator of Russian democratization programs at Harvard University’s Strengthening Democratic Institutions (SDI) Project. He is also editor and chief writer for Russian Election Watch, the widely-read monthly bulletin targeted to policymakers. He has written extensively on party politics, elections and ethnicity in Russia.


Dr. Hale began his presentation by highlighting the extraordinary events recently witnessed in Russia: the Russian president resigned according to constitutional principles for the first time in history; the third set of parliamentary elections were held on schedule according to the constitution and without any major disruptions; and the country was on track for presidential elections on March 26, 2000. Referring to Dr. Tuminez’s introductory remarks, he stated that nationalism is at the center of many of these events. The question is what sort of nationalism is involved and what are its implications.

The recent Duma elections, Dr. Hale noted, are widely perceived as a victory for aggressive Russian nationalism. Prime Minister and Acting President Vladimir Putin is seen as having built his political image on the brutality of the Chechen War, and the parties running in the Duma elections were seen as competing to be the bloodiest supporters of that war. In fact, those parties linked to Putin were the big winners in the elections, while those who doubted his Chechen policies were the big losers.

According to Dr. Hale, there are elements of truth in these allegations, but they are largely exaggerated. Highlighting the underlying factors in public opinion, he points to five reasons why the Duma election results do not reflect the rise of aggressive Russian nationalism.

(1) Public opinion in Russia is not aggressively nationalist towards the West.

Russians can hold hostile views on particular issues involving their country’s relations with the West. Surveys conducted by the Marttila Communications Group in July 1999 showed that:

  • 96 percent thought NATO’s bombing of Yugoslavia constituted a crime against humanity;

  • 77 percent believed there was nothing to stop NATO from intervening in Russia’s internal affairs;

  • 1 percent totally agreed and 9 percent agreed that President Clinton is a real friend of Russia (75 percent disagree);

  • 69 percent agree that Western countries hope the Russian economy will collapse entirely (22 percent disagree).

Although such figures reflect a great dissatisfaction with the West and distrust of its motives, a deeper analysis of public opinion in Russia tells a different story. Statistics show that Russians support continued cooperation with the West on key issues:

  • 84 percent believe that Russia should cooperate with Western countries to establish peace and stability in Serbia and the Balkans;

  • 22 percent support sending Russian troops to fight NATO if it began a ground operation in Serbia; that is, an overwhelming majority of Russians would not support military intervention in the Balkans as a response to NATO ground operations.

Russians may be dissatisfied with the West, but they are not assuming a blind, aggressive anti-Western stance. Most Russians still see cooperation and diplomatic engagement as the primary way for operating in the world, and have positive, although cynical, associations with the West. They do not trust the West fully, but recognize the need to work with them

(2) The Chechen War is more of a localized issue than a symptom of rising nationalism.

Western commentators have focused on the excessive bloodshed of the Chechen War, but Russians are largely concerned about the backdrop: the invasion of the Russian province of Dagestan by Chechen commanders and a series of terrorist bombings that reduced large apartment buildings to rubble. Chechnya is therefore perceived by Russians to be a threat to both national and personal security. This may explain why a 27 December 1999 survey conducted by a reliable polling agency showed that 71 percent of Russians support continuing the military operations in Chechnya; only 20 percent support entering into negotiations.

Public support for the military operations in Chechnya is unlikely to spill over into other foreign policy spheres. As Putin himself likes to stress, the war is considered an anti-terrorist operation aimed at countering the threat posed by Chechen rebels. Recent public opinion surveys show that the Chechen War is not about territorial integrity as defined in the 1991 war or imperialist revanche (these are a minority even among the war’s supporters). In late December 1999, a large majority of war supporters polled said they would accept an independent Chechnya; only 30 percent would support preventing Chechen secession at any cost, including military means; 59 percent would rather accept Chechen independence and 21 percent would be "happy" for this to occur.

(3) Putin’s political support is broader than his role in the Chechen War.

Russians not only support Putin because they like his war; they also like his leadership qualities. According to the Marttila survey, 47 percent totally agree and 45 percent agree that "Russia needs a strong leader who will bring order to the country." Russians preoccupied with finding someone who can effectively lead Russia and control all of its various parts, which seem out of control to most Russians.

Since political parties are weak in Russia, most Russians tend to vote on the basis of personality. The Carnegie Moscow Center office has shown that there are few differences in the platforms put forth by the parties competing in the Duma elections. Approximately 45 percent of respondents said they vote for leadership qualities, while 23 percent said they voted on the leader’s platform.

Putin has demonstrated his leadership qualities through the Chechen War, but these qualities transcend the war itself. Russians think he has shown effectiveness and decisiveness in managing the conflict, so they believe he can bring order to the country and an improvement in the economy. This fact is captured in the poll numbers. Putin’s approval ratings jumped from 2 percent in August 1999, when he assumed office as prime minister, to 65 percent in October 1999. About 41 percent of the electorate indicated that they liked him because he is "energetic, decisive and willful". Putin’s appeal also involves generational change and a preference for youthful vigor and effective action as opposed to stagnation.

If Putin’s popularity went beyond military aggression, he could expect continued support even if he backed less aggressive policies. Polls show that 48 percent would support Putin if he offered a cease-fire to stop the bloodshed and proposed solving the Chechen problem exclusively by diplomatic means.

(4) The pro-Putin parties in the Duma race did not win solely on the basis of blood lust.

The success of the Unity Bloc and the Union of Right-Wing Forces in the Duma elections was largely based on Putin’s coattails. The electoral showing of these parties has been attributed to their support for the Chechen War, but they also used their links to Putin in a clever campaign strategy.

Although the Unity Bloc did not exist three months before the Duma elections, it received 23 percent of the vote. Unity lacked an ideology and a platform, but it appealed to Russian’s because it was closely linked to Putin. When he endorsed them, Unity’s standing jumped from 9 percent to 18 percent in the polls. The block’s popularity was also due to its principal leaders, including Emergencies Minister Sergei Shoigu who is seen as tough, decisive, and effective. Shoigu received favorable coverage, as the main Russian media networks showed him in various places taking care of business.

The Union of Right-Wing Forces (URWF), which is led by former Prime Minister Sergei Kirienko and contains notable reformers like Anatoly Chubais, surprisingly did much better than expected in the parliamentary race. Few expected the URWF to clear the 5 percent necessary to get Duma seats under the system of proportional representation. While many commentators attribute their success to their support for the Chechen War, other factors also contributed to their better than expected showing.

First, the URWF played strongly on its general association with Putin; that is, they emphasized generational change and made a conscious effort to attach themselves to Putin’s youthful image. They nominated their most youthful and vigorous members and kept their older leaders waiting in the wings.

Second, the URWF had the best media strategy. While Russian media is basically divided into two opposing camps -- a pro-Kremlin camp and a pro-Primakov and Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov camp -- the URWF managed to get good coverage on both primarily because it was not seen as threat.

Third, the URWF vigorously opposed the union of Russia and Belarus, which would not have been expected if they were simply hard-line nationalists. They criticized the agreement between Moscow and Minsk quite strongly, while the dovish Yabloko party waffled on this issue and ultimately supported it.

(5) Yabloko’s dismal performance was not just due to its opposition to the Chechen War.

Although Yabloko had been polling as high as 15 percent before the summer, they barely cleared the barrier for Duma seats with a 6 percent share. Expecting at least a 10 percent showing, Yabloko leaders were clearly upset by these results. Yabloko’s lack of success has been attributed to its opposition to the Chechen War, but they actually did poorly because they did not oppose it strongly enough.

Yabloko leaders waffled on the issue and changed positions frequently; they did not stake a clear enough position to generate support. Polls showed that a significant part of the electorate had some anti-war sentiment, or at least a pro-negotiation inclination. About 20 percent actively supported an end to the war and the start of negotiations, and over 60 percent said they would not send their own loved ones to fight in Chechnya. These statistics suggest that Yabloko could have reaped some of that electorate by tapping into this sentiment, especially since no other party or faction was targeting it.

Moreover, Yabloko was undermined by the evident discord between Grigory Yavlinsky and Sergei Stepashin (who took a more hard line stance on Chechnya than Yavlinsky). Yabloko also reversed its position on the Russian union with Belarus in mid course of the campaign by ultimately supporting it.


Instead of signaling the rise of aggressive nationalism, the Duma election results signal the rise of assertive pragmatism. This is neither a form of rabid nationalism nor liberalism in foreign affairs -- a belief in the ultimate harmony of interests and institutions. Putin’s popularity reflects the widely held desire for two inter-related goals, which Putin himself shares.

(1) The creation of a strong Russian state: The state’s persistent weakness is one of the main sources of problems. Russians want a leader who will rein in the wayward federal ministries, control the regional governments that ignore federal law and the constitution, reduce corruption, and improve the state’s capacity to collect taxes. As a young leader, Putin has an incentive to make the state a more effective instrument for his government.

(2) A Russian foreign policy that stands up for Russian interests in the international arena: Russians want a pragmatic foreign policy that protects Russia’s interests abroad as defined by Realpolitik.

The good news for the West is that Putin’s credibility as someone who will stand up for Russia -- juxtaposed to the alternative presented under former President Yeltsin -- will increase his capacity to enforce agreements concluded with the West. If Putin is effective in introducing a degree of stability in Russia and getting control of the federal ministries, it is less likely that Russia will renege on its promises due to the will of some wayward leader or faction. He will be more likely than Yeltsin to deliver concessions to the West in critical areas like START II and WTO.

The bad news for the West is that Putin will have more ability and resolve to defy the United States and the West whenever it is in Russia’s interests to do so. For instance, he might be more willing to expand Russia’s arms trade or sell nuclear reactors to countries like Iran. Putin has also talked about passing anti-dumping legislation which could be used against U.S. imports and pursuing aggressive policies to combat trade discrimination against Russia.


After Dr. Hale’s presentation, Dr. Tuminez opened the floor to questions from roundtable participants. The discussion centered on the following key areas: (1) the Chechen War; (2) democratic assistance; (3) economic reform; (4) relations with the West; (5) ethnic minorities; and (6) political power.

The Chechen War

  • The Russian military can no longer cover up its casualties in Chechnya. Unless there is a dramatic turnaround, Putin will probably declare victory sometime before the March election, claim that the terrorist forces have been defeated, withdraw Russian troops and go back to agreement reached in 1996. Is such a scenario likely?

Dr. Hale agrees that such a scenario is quite possible, especially since the military campaign is increasingly under greater media scrutiny. Although Putin has a lot of incentive to declare victory before the presidential election, Dr. Hale believes that he could sustain a more honest treatment of the Chechen War in the media. Poll results already indicate that the majority of Russians (including those that supported the pro-Putin parties in the Duma elections) realize that they do not have accurate information on Chechnya, particularly about Russian losses.

  • How does the Yabloko phenomenon fit into general patterns described by Dr. Hale? The parliamentary election results and political trends do not reflect the growth of aggressive Russian nationalism, but the poll numbers for Grigory Yavlinksy declined 50 percent over a three month period, which was precisely the time that Yavlinsky become more assertive in his objection to the Chechen War. He was even branded as a traitor by Chubais for his vocal opposition.

While acknowledging that the Chechen War did produce a decline in Yavlinsky’s ratings, Dr. Hale argues that such a slide in the polls was preventable. Yavlinksy was in a difficult position. He supported military action for a "cordon sanitaire" around Chechnya, but it became difficult for him to draw the line as Russian troops moved in. If you support combating the terrorism, where do you draw the line? If Yavlinsky had taken a firmer stand against the war from the beginning, he would have had much more credibility. Instead, he waffled and failed to respond effectively to attacks. He was therefore perceived as someone who opposed the war, but was not willing to speak out against it.

  • Has there been any difference between public reaction to Russian intervention in Chechnya and Afghanistan?

Although reliable polling date is not available for the Soviet period, it is clear that the Russian government enjoys a greater degree of support for the Chechen War than the Soviets did for the Afghan War. In this case, the terrorism perpetrated through apartment bombings struck home with average Russians. Unlike the first Chechen War, Russian soldiers now believe they have something to fight for.

Democratic Assistance

  • Should the United States help develop democracy in Russia? Some claim that countries in transition are better served by pursuing economic growth before political liberalization.

According to Dr. Hale, there is no reason why the United States cannot do both. As long as it is not pursuing counterproductive policies, it should continue to support democratic development along with economic growth. There is no trade off because each side demands a different set of resources. More broadly, the relationship between economic development and democracy is one of the big questions in political science. Cases like India, which has stable democratic institutions, yet low levels of economic development, show that a less developed country can be a functioning democracy as well.

  • What can the United State do to encourage the deepening of democracy in Russia?

One problem, notes Dr. Hale, is that Russians tend to be suspicious of overt American actions designed to support democracy. Nevertheless, there are two areas that are currently not part of the general plan. First, the United States should support free media and greater access to information. Russians may be suspicious of media outlets that have U.S. support, but they might tune in if they find it interesting. Much of the media, especially at the regional level, has come under state control. Second, the regions could be rated according to democratic practices. The distribution of democratic and economic assistance could be determined on that basis. One of the greatest threats to Russian democracy is at the regional level; governors crack down on civil liberties because they want to prove that they can control their electorate and produce votes at the federal level.

Economic Reform

  • Are there policy areas outside of Chechnya, especially in the economic realm, where Putin has exhibited real leadership qualities? The Russian government is now proposing to require all exporters to convert 100 percent of their hard currency into rubles. Putin himself has waffled on the idea.

In Dr. Hale’s view, Putin has no incentive to take any decisive actions on the economy until after the elections. In fact, Putin has studiously avoided taking a stance. If he were to take a strong stand on any particular issue, he would risk alienating certain segments of the population or oligarchs. Putin can build up his political capital in foreign policy issues like Chechnya, where most Russians are in agreement and the potential costs are lower.

Dr. Tuminez notes that the step of requiring all exporters to convert 100 percent of their hard currency into rubles is a statist approach rather than pro-market policy. Such a measure would increase the content of the state’s coffers, which is what Putin needs to do. It would be a decisive and effective move if it increases the strength of the state. In the long-run, however, it is clearly harmful.

  • What is the outlook for the development of an equitable tax system under Putin?

All politicians agree that the tax system needs to be rationalized, so Putin is probably no exception, says Dr. Hale. Putin has already talked about using tax policy as an economic lever to stimulate investment in certain industries, particularly high-tech areas such as the defense industry. He probably will continue to rely on export taxes, which provide the majority of government revenues.

Relations with the West

  • What will be the balance between nationalism and pragmatism in the areas that deeply trouble U.S.-Russian relations: NATO expansion, missile defense, and economic exploitation of the Caucauses? The Caucauses, for instance, are seen as an extension of Russia’s vital national domain. Will Putin come down in favor of finding pragmatic compromises or will he use the power of Russian institutions (the military and intelligence agencies) to destabilize the Caucauses to keep them under Russian sway?

The fundamental point about assertive pragmatism is that Putin will push hard for Russian interests, but he is unlikely to submit to uncompromising nationalism. There will be some degree of give and take on all of these issues because he is a tougher customer than Yeltsin. The United States will move forward on its anti-ballistic missile (ABM) defense, but Putin will put up a fight anyway and demand some serious concessions in order to acquiesce.

NATO expansion has a lot of symbolic significance for Russia. Here again, it will be difficult to know what Russia will do because it will be presented with a fait accompli. Putin will have to accept it to some extent, but he will push harder than Yeltsin. He might use troop maneuvers around the Baltics as a threat, and hold out for concessions and compromises on the other issues.

Russian attempts to manipulate politics in the Caucauses have been disastrous. The countries Russia has tried hardest to destabilize -- Georgia and Azerbaijan -- have turned out to be its toughest opponents in the region. If anything, Putin will be in a better position to control wayward military figures who operate independently of Moscow. Russia stands to gain a great deal if it can work with the West to profit jointly from the region’s resources.

  • Is there a legitimate nationalist current among the foreign policy elites?

Dr. Hale agrees that it is remarkable that there has not been a major aggressive nationalist strand in Russian politics. The big exception was in 1993, when Vladimir Zhirinovsky surprised everybody by getting 23 to 24 percent of the vote on the basis of crazy claims. Although Zhirinovsky’s most outlandish claims attracted international attention, it was his emphasis on law and order and getting wages paid that created his support. Analyses of his support found little correlation between people’s views on foreign policy and their decision to support him. The only correlation found was with the desire for law and order within Russia itself.

  • Russia’s only foreign policy principle seems to be thwarting the United States wherever it can. Are there any others?

The distinction between nationalism and assertive pragmatism is that nationalism represents a visceral desire to stick it to others at any cost. Yeltsin’s weakness in the foreign policy arena started when Zhirinovsky’s surprising performance in 1993 was interpreted as a rise in Russian nationalism. Yeltsin felt compelled to respond and show that he was doing something for Russia -- even in petty ways like sending troops into the Pristina airport. Putin will not have to do that. He will be a better friend when he strikes a deal with the West because he will be more reliable; however, he will be a tougher rival on issues where Russian interests do not coincide with the West.

Ethnic Minorities

  • Has the negative characterization of "the untrustworthy Chechen" played a factor in Russian aggression?

Dr. Hale believes that the history of conflict between the Russians and the Chechens has certainly added an element of prejudice in the current situation. Dr. Tuminez finds the prejudice against people from the Caucauses worrisome. The Chechen War of 1999 has been a point of some consolidation between the Russian state and society; that is, the two sides actually agree on something and are willing to make some sacrifices for it. What is disconcerting is that the agreement is motivated by a common enemy rather than pro-Russia or pro-issue stance. The one piece of good news is that Yeltsin may have tried to drum up support for the first Chechen War of 1996 by calling them bandits, but it did not work. In 1999, the mobilization of support has been based more on an anti-terrorist rather than anti-Chechen sentiment.

  • To what extent is Russian nationalism inclusive of people from different ethnic communities or exclusive to ethnic Russians? How much support have polls picked up for the incredibly aggressive manner in which the LKNs -- dark-skinned peoples -- have been treated over the past several months in cities like Moscow and St. Petersburg? How much support is there for a more aggressive stance against these people in their traditional homelands?

According to Dr. Hale, this issue gets to the dark side of what is happening in Russia today. The polls do reflect these trends, but Russian and Western pollsters have not addressed that question directly since early fall. After the apartment bombings last year, the majority of Moscovites supported expelling all Chechens from Moscow. The sentiment is evident in the political arena although it is illegal to stir up inter-nationality hatred according to Russian. A leader like Yavlinksky would not play on those sorts of fears anyway, but it is not clear that the Communists or Zhirinovsky, although he is shifting away from that rhetoric and towards more of a law and order stance, would do the same.

In elections from 1991 to 1999, notes Dr. Tuminez, the parties and personalities with the most vehement anti-Semitic or anti-Caucasian rhetoric actually did poorly over time. Actual public support is minimal, so many of these parties have not been able to reach the five percent hurdle to get seats in parliament. Nevertheless, these fringe groups are there to the extent that people will vote for them. Most societies have a figure like Le Pen and perhaps Russia has the same phenomenon. The danger is that these feelings might translate into political action under conditions of deep stress.

Political Power

  • Will Putin be effective on domestic policies in Russia without garnering the support of regional governors?

Countries with federal systems typically have a harder time developing democratic institutions and economic development because both central and local governments compete for taxation. This is especially true when you have corrupt governments that compete to steal. One of Putin’s key tasks will therefore be to bring the regional governors into line. He will probably try to please them until they deliver votes in the next presidential elections, but after that, all bets are off. Putin might engage the governors in a selective strategy of attacking the one that sticks his neck out too far. For example, the Bashkir ethnic group controls the republic of Bashkortostan although they only represent 22 percent of the population. Its president was recently elected after illegally excluding two opponents. Putin could use that excuse, along with the large base of opposition within Bashkortostan, to remove him and get a more acceptable leader. However, Putin needs time to develop the political capital for such a strategy.

  • Will Putin try to boost his political support by challenging some of the oligarchs, especially if the Chechen War is not going well?

The answer is similar to the question about governors. Putin needs the oligarchs to get elected, but after that, he needs to be free himself from them. The oligarchs are vulnerable because even the regional oligarchic groups are now challenging them in terms of power. But if they have any significant "kompromat," he will not touch them. He might follow Eduard Shevardnadze’s example in Georgia -- pick one, convince others to support you, and then move on to the next one.

  • Can Putin restore political rhetoric to some kind of realism? Under Gorbachev and Soviet leaders, the words they spoke had some connection to a reality that might actually happen. Yeltsin and other politicians have launched into irresponsible rhetoric that means nothing.

Nationalist rhetoric will continue to be a big part of Russian politics. There are segments of the population that are outraged with the West, so there is a sense that nationalist rhetoric can satisfy them. Yeltsin was always vulnerable on the charges of betraying the nation, but Putin has successfully portrayed himself as someone in whose hands Russian interests can be trusted. He might pull off this policy of using nationalist rhetoric at home and then cooperating abroad.