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‘Pragmatic conservative’ Putin rejects totalitarian rule, but won’t embrace Western liberal democracy as Russia goes its own way

Western pundits use Vladimir Putin’s rejection of the idea of Western liberal democracy as a universal model to imply he rejects the concept of democracy outright. His latest comments reveal the reality is rather more complex.

‘Pragmatic conservative’ Putin rejects totalitarian rule, but won’t embrace Western liberal democracy as Russia goes its own way

Photo: www.rt.com

On Thursday, the Russian president gave his annual speech to the gathering of the Valdai Discussion Club – a select group of Russian and foreign experts who meet once a year to ponder the fate of the world. The 2020 event, normally held in Sochi, was staged online, due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

Putin’s address, and his answers to the questions that followed, wandered far and wide. At times, he delved into specific details, but at other moments, his words were broad-ranging and philosophical. The speech therefore provides a useful tool for analyzing what one might call the ‘ideological foundations’ of latter-day Putinism.

Commentary in the international press has focused primarily on what Putin had to say about the global political order. This was, in reality, quite conservative. He distanced himself from the Valdai Club’s most recent report, which stated that international institutions were more of an ‘obstacle’ to the construction of a successful global system than a help. “I cannot agree with the assumption that the existing international structures must be completely rebuilt,” he said.

Instead, Putin argued in favor of “adjusting the international arrangement of world politics.” He also lent his support to regional multilateralism, in which interested groups of states work together to solve common problems outside of the global institutional framework.

As a vision of the world, it is hardly revolutionary, and certainly doesn’t justify the common complaint that Putin and the Russian Federation are hoping for the end of the post-Cold War liberal world order, consider that set-up irredeemable, and therefore wish to destroy it.

In any case, foreign affairs took up only a small part of Putin’s speech, and were far from the most interesting of the topics under discussion. More revealing was what the Russian president had to say about the state, systems of government, and economy.

The general Western view is that Putin is an inveterate enemy of democracy, determined to undermine democratic systems wherever he sees them, lest they provide a model of success that discredits his own supposedly autocratic rule.

In reality, Putin has never said anything to justify such an analysis. As his Valdai speech reveals, his attitude towards what constitutes the ideal form of government is rather complex. The same may also be said about his attitude towards the ideal form of economy.

The main lesson of the Covid pandemic, said Putin, was the continued importance of the state, as 2020 has shown that “only a viable state can act effectively in a crisis.” In good times, Putin added, people tend to argue that the state should reduce its role in the economy. But in bad times, everyone suddenly demands it should intervene to prevent economic collapse.

A “strong state” is therefore essential, said Putin. Here, he was on familiar ground. Putin is nothing if not a ‘gosudarstvennik’, or statist, for whom a strong state is an absolute priority.

But what was more interesting is where Putin went from there. “What is a strong state?” he asked rhetorically. “Not total control or harsh law enforcement,” he said, and “not thwarted private initiative or civic engagement. Not even the might of its armed forces.” Rather, said Putin, “what makes a state strong, primarily, is the confidence its citizens have in it. … People are the source of power.” For this reason, he continued, “civil society will play a key role in Russia’s future.”

Putin added a caveat, however. “Genuine democracy and civil society cannot be imported,” he said. They are a “cultural phenomenon” and have to be “nationally oriented and sovereign.” For this reason, no single model is suitable everywhere. The model doesn’t even have to be democratic in the formal, mechanistic sense of choosing the government by counting votes. “This kind of state can be set up any way you like,” he said. “What you call your political system is immaterial. … Trying to blindly imitate someone else’s agenda is pointless and harmful. The main thing is for the state and society to be in harmony.”

This, then, is a more democratic Putin than people are used to imagining. But, at the same time, it is not a Western liberal democratic Putin. And herein lies much of the confusion about the Russian president’s beliefs. Given the Manichean, black-and-white view so many Western liberals have of the world, Putin’s rejection of Western liberal democracy as a universal model is wrongly interpreted as a rejection of democracy per se, and as an endorsement of authoritarian, even totalitarian or fascistic rule. But as his speech shows, the reality is rather more complex.

It is often said that Russia has moved in a conservative, more ideological direction since 2012. There is some truth to this, but Putin’s speech demonstrates a pragmatic flexibility that rejects rigid ideological models. This was clear in his comments on the economy. On the one hand, he spoke about “transitioning to a market economy” being a desirable goal. But, on the other hand, he argued that a pure market economy exists nowhere, that state intervention is often necessary, and that “no model is pure or rigid.”

So, how do we decide what to do, Putin asked. “Expediency,” he opined. “We need to avoid using any templates.” If there is a common theme to come out of his comments to the Valdai Club, it was that: the need to avoid templates, be they liberal, communist, authoritarian, or anything else. Putin once described himself as a “pragmatist with a conservative perspective.” That seems about right.

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