Photo by Jürg Vollmer

Populism in Power: Lessons from Russia for the future of European populism

Over the last year, populism has appeared throughout the world under many different guises. But Philipp Casula argues that Europe must look east to see the advanced stages of populism it may be heading toward.

Summer 2017 was a summer of populism: in the U.S. city of Charlottesville, right-wing extremists rallied and clashed with opponents. U.S. president Donald Trump, being wary of a possible backlash from his electoral base, only lukewarmly condemned “violence on all sides”, putting democratic protesters and right-wing extremists on the same level. Meanwhile, in Venezuela, a constituent assembly loyal to President Nicolás Maduro replaced the activities of the opposition-held parliament. In both Venezuela and the U.S., populism has taken hold of the political system. In all these instances we witness a paradoxical phenomenon: populism from above, populism in power that feeds on the division it creates within society.

In Central and Eastern Europe, however, we see more advanced stages of populism, which resemble the populism beyond the Atlantic: Viktor Orbán in Hungary, Jarosław Kaczyński in Poland, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in Turkey – they all are expressions of deeply polarised societies, in which the leadership does everything to maintain polarisation, because it is polarisation that keeps them in power. Despite historical and regional differences, these increasingly illiberal but formally democratic regimes share a number of structural features. With the clear exception of the Polish case, some of these regimes also share an admiration for the Russian model, and the Russian regime sees them as possible asset against EU hegemony. This Russian connection is no coincidence since the Russian regime itself has perfected the mechanisms of populism in power, without having arisen as a populist movement.

Russian lessons

Vladimir Putin came to power thanks to the support of Boris Yeltsin. Yeltsin needed a successor who could guarantee that the old guard could keep its privileges. The first thing the new Putin regime did was to pit Russians against Chechens and unleash the second Chechen war. It promised a “dictatorship of law” and domesticated the oligarchic system. In foreign policy, Putin vowed to restore Russia to world power status, for which he needed to resurrect the Cold War rivalry between East and West, finding willing allies for this enterprise in the West. All these moves were aimed at dividing the political space, leaving no third option: either you are with us or you are against us, either for Russia or a Chechen terrorist, either a patriot or with Russia’s enemies, either law or crime. Today, an increasingly static system continues to function along the populist principle of splitting the political space.

Despite having largely failed to deliver anything it promised but “stability”, the current Russian regime enjoys solid support among the Russian population, either because it benefits from the status quo or because any alternative would be worse than the existing regime. The logic of populism is not to deliver but to blame failures on the establishment or on the enemy. The key is to keep the political space divided. To maintain power once in charge, the division of society must be upheld. That is why the U.S. administration continues blaming the “swamp” in Washington, why both the Turkish and Russian regimes depict the dangers of a “fifth column” within, why European countries issue burqa bans.

Russia has produced a number of populist symbols that guarantee that the populist discourse with its disparate demands and aspirations is kept to together. The most important symbol is Putin himself. Vladimir Putin represents many different camps: he represents the demands of the economic elites and those of the nationalists; however, Putin also promises scared liberals that there will be no downward spiral into outright nationalism. Putin is the cornerstone of the system and yet he is often portrayed as being above or beyond the system: publicly reprimanding state officials, ministers, oligarchs, or listening directly to people’s demands on televised shows. On the one hand, there is the government and the elites on which all blame can be attributed to and whom Putin can scold. On the other hand, there is the president, who protects the people and listens to their sorrows.

Russian populism has skilfully oscillated between civic and ethnic conceptions of the nation. Competing concepts potentially open a door to every nationality in Russia to be or feel Russian. However, the official discourse does not fail to highlight the special position of ethnic Russians, appeasing nationalist demands. Foreign policy is particularly apt to be redrawn in populist terms: under Putin’s tenure, the West has become the main foe, once again. Russia prefers to stick with regional partners in Asia, turning world politics into a bipolar affair: Russia and its partners against the U.S. The current Russophobia in the U.S. and anti-Americanism in Russia strengthen each other. The re-traditionalisation in domestic politics, including a new key role for the Orthodox Church, and the re-traditionalisation in international affairs, including Russia’s bid to a leading role, reflect the longing for a past mythical, organic order.

The Russian populist experience shows that such regimes not only perpetuate cleavages in society, they also tend to become increasingly illiberal, curtailing pluralism and individual rights, cutting political alternatives as they propagate a divided society. Populism furthers a violent political climate and feeds on this violence as it strengthens the divisions within society, bolsters support for the regime among its followers, and sows fear among opponents.

Economically, all populist regimes promise to shield against the negative impacts of globalisation and neoliberalism. They also promise to give the state a stronger role in the economy. In Russia, while the state continues to be a strong economic player, it has a mixed record in creating a more-just society. The oligarchs have not disappeared at all and instead, now form a backbone of the system, economically and symbolically. Furthermore, despite sanctions and counter-sanctions, Russia remains part of a capitalist globalised world. Finally, even the opposition in Russia can hardly do without Putin. Whenever its voice is heard its key point of reference is “Putin”: “A Russia without Putin” is a key slogan of protestors, however, it seems to lack a positive vision. What would a Russia without Putin look like?


Philipp Casula is a post-doctoral researcher at the History Department of the University of Zurich.  Funded by the Swiss National Science Foundation, he is presently based at the Russian Studies Department of the University of Manchester. His research interests include the political and cultural history of contemporary Russia, political theory, and populism in Eastern Europe. He currently researches Russian cultural relations with the Middle East. An earlier version of this article has been originally published in «Geschichte der Gegenwart» and can be accessed here.

The opinions expressed in this blog contribution are entirely those of the author and do not represent the positions of the Dahrendorf Forum or its hosts Hertie School and London School of Economics or its funder Stiftung Mercator.