What are the philosophies which underpin Vladimir Putin’s time at the pinnacle of political life in Russia? ‘Sovereign democracy’, ‘managed democracy’, ‘the power vertical’ and ‘the dictatorship of law’ are all phrases that have been used to understand ‘Putinism’. However, these all describe the methods which the President uses to exercise power, rather than the values which he believes in.
Some commentators have chosen to view Putin purely as a pragmatist and he has been largely disinclined to theorise about his beliefs. In his ‘state of the nation’ address, during December, the President explicitly called himself a ‘conservative’, who wants to defend Russian ‘national traditions’.
That might not please some people to the right of centre in areas of America or Europe, but in the classic sense, Putin’s conservatism is beyond doubt. In the US, and to an extent in the UK, conservatism has become synonymous with economic liberalism and even, increasingly, with pushing a certain model of democracy around the globe. It is important to remember, though, that unlike, for instance liberalism or socialism, conservatism is less an ideology and more a way of looking at the world. It is characterised by scepticism about dramatic change, preference for gradual - rather than sudden - reform, suspicion of grand schemes and respect for customs, traditions and institutions which shape society. Putin satisfies all these criteria and his actions in power have undoubtedly been consistent with a conservative outlook.
Throughout his tenure as President and Prime Minister, he has prioritised economic and political stability over wide-reaching reform or ideology. All his state-building schemes have been aimed at creating a stronger, steadier Russia. He centralised power, where it was previously dispersed unevenly across a huge country, comprising an array of republics and regions, all with their own constitutional arrangements.
Even Putin’s attempts to control democracy, by restricting the number of political parties, by regulating the competitive element of Russian politics and by providing opposition to United Russia, were aimed at staving off chaos and unpredictability.
That’s where liberal commentators, who can only view Russian affairs either as an advance towards liberal democracy and freer markets or backsliding away from that ideal, get stuck, when they’re trying to decode his aims and his regime’s relationship with the rest of the world. They see, either hopeful signs that Russia can conform with the ‘western model’, sooner or later, or evidence that its leaders want to rebuild authoritarianism and distance themselves from the West.
The President is not opposed to change but, as a Russian who witnessed the effects of the Soviet Union’s collapse, he is aware that it does not always signify progress. His career represents an attempt to make sure that Russia changes in a way that fits the customs, traditions and manners (to paraphrase Edmund Burke) of its people.
Of course, this attitude can lead to disagreements with administrations who believe that there is a universal model of government and a universal set of attitudes to which all states must aspire. His ‘state of the nation’ speech addressed that problem head on. It is particularly difficult for ‘western’ observers to accept the position Putin sets out on homosexuality, which is not tolerant, but does reflect the influence of the Orthodox Church and the mood of a great many Russian people.
Attitudes to sexuality have changed at lightning pace over a relatively short period of time in many ‘western’ countries and there is a whiff of the ‘ex-smoker’ to much of the hectoring of Russia on this issue. We seem to have forgotten, almost instantly, just how fiercely these matters were debated and just how much controversy they generated in the UK, the US and in many European countries, over the past number of years.
Putin certainly won’t win friends by mentioning homosexuality in the same breath as paedophilia, but he is justified in pointing out that same sex relations are not criminalised in Russia, whereas they are in many other parts of the world. He contends that the tone of hysteria, which has accompanied criticism of Russian attitudes, hasn’t extended to areas of Africa or much of the Islamic world. And he probably recognises that the surest way to entrench these attitudes further among members of the public in Russia is for political leaders to boycott the 2014 Winter Olympics.
There are two other aspects of ‘Putinism’ which confound and appal his western critics and both stem from innate conservatism. Firstly, there is his approach to the Soviet past. The frequently quoted comment about the end of Soviet Union being a ‘geopolitical catastrophe’, and the occasionally ambivalent attitude to a figure like Stalin, tend to cause dark mutterings about Putin’s KGB career or allegations that he has ambitions to resurrect something resembling the USSR. Secondly, there is a perception that the President has aligned Russia alongside rogue regimes, like Libya or Syria, as an affront to the US and its allies, or as a deliberate strategy to oppose American power.
I suspect that both these analyses also stem from a need to see either progress toward, or backsliding from, liberal democracy.
It is not odd, in Russia, as it is to western ears, to hear a defence of aspects of the Soviet regime from a declared ‘conservative’. Neither does it mean that Putin admires, specifically, the authoritarian aspects of the USSR. His motives are to keep Russia stable and to allow it hold an important, respected place on the world stage. It is the Soviet Union’s achievements in that regard that Putin wants to replicate, albeit through different methods.
Likewise, the Kremlin views the so-called ‘Arab spring’ and western intervention in Libya and Syria as dangerous and destabilising. Putin has argued very straightforwardly that he would rather see stable, secular regimes in place in the Middle East, even if they are unpleasant and oppressive, rather than chaotic, Islamist ones. Moscow’s feelings on the issue are strong, because of the Islamist threat in southern parts of Russia, as well as the danger that mayhem could spread to parts of Central Asia, if leaders there are succeeded by Islamists.
The idea that VV Putin is ‘a Tory’ certainly caused a fairbit of anger in some quarters. Conservatism, though, isn’t a fixed set of ideas, but a relative concept, which varies from country to country. Putin’s policies have been consistently conservative, with a small ‘c’. He has attempted to manage change, insisted that stability comes before ideology and refused to jettison the customs, traditions and history of his country.
You might not agree with his actions, but it’s impossible to deny that he fulfils every criteria to call himself a Russian conservative.