ARTICLE | Putin’s Managed Populism

By Fei Haiting, Beijing University

If we define populism as the presumption that ‘the people’ are the only and true source of legitimacy then Vladimir Putin is not a populist. After all, he values expertise and he speaks of the need for a well-organised civil society. Yet a striking feature of Putin’s government is its talk of ruling the people in their own name, the abundance of populist policies and the stated goal of Russia building a political system suited to its own traditions and circumstances. To make sense of this paradoxically populist feature of contemporary Russian politics we need briefly to compare the ideas of Putin and Russian populists.

Both 19th-century Russian populism and Putin have understood that the problem of political development in Russia is its long tradition of autocracy. Its most notable characteristic is the absence of effective government and a rigid bureaucratic system that is opposed to social and political reform. The bureaucracy has been so powerful that neither tsars nor presidents of Russia produced reforms. Finding an ‘outside’ force has therefore seemed to be the only alternative. Western democracy was deemed a poor choice. Populists and Putin are in agreement about the weaknesses of so-called democratic systems. They consider that these democratic systems fail both to mobilise ‘the people’ and to articulate their needs and yield reforms. Democratic institutions and procedures are unable to solve social problems; their bureaucracies separate ‘the people’ and ‘the country’. Both Russian populists and Putin further criticise the democratic systems of the Western world for betraying their proclaimed ideals. Especially during periods of transition and crisis, democratic institutions side with autocratic forces and profit-making institutions, instead of creating a just society. As Putin puts it, the only gift universal suffrage brought to Russia is a society trapped in the vicious circle of oligarchy and anarchy.

Despite the overlaps, it is nevertheless important to acknowledge the wide gap that separates Putin from Russian populism. After more than a century, the circumstances in which populist ideas originally flourished have greatly changed. Russian populists, known as narodniks, were revolutionaries. Putin is a policy maker who focuses not on the needs of the common people (mostly Russian peasants and serfs) but is instead concerned with the country considered as a whole political community. Revolutionists devoted their full attention to social reform. In contrast, Putin must carefully balance the enlargement of individual rights and the common good. He has to walk a tightrope between public participation and political order. Hence Putin’s different understanding of populism. Narodniks worshipped ‘the people’; some thought intellectuals should learn from the common people, even by turning themselves into ‘real people’. By contrast, Putin has never denied the role of elites and specialists. He believes that they could become fair representatives of a well-organised society comprising ‘the people’.

Several years ago, scholars began to define Russian politics as a case of ‘managed democracy’. Drawing upon this concept, we could call the populist tendency in contemporary Russian politics as ‘managed populism’. On the one hand, Putin thinks public engagement and direct democracy are essential prerequisites of political development. On the other hand, he insists on the need for organised participation. ‘Managed populism’ is a process of institutionalised direct democracy. Putin considers this a substitute for the democracy of the Western world, an alternative that is both closer to Russian history and more pragmatically effective in the contemporary Russian political system. The alternative aims to deliver solutions to complicated problems, some of which are for the moment hard to define. So Putin will hereon attempt to build platforms that enable ‘the people’ to evaluate and supervise the work of government, and even to initiate legislation. Whether these new mechanisms of managed populism can manage to combine legislative and judicial power, popular participation and the authority of law, remains to be seen.