CRS second working-group meeting
March 27, 2023
Project title: Promoting Dialogue and Shared Values to Improve Policymaking.
Implementing organization: The Center for Russian Studies.
The project was funded by the National Endowment for Democracy (NED).
On March 27, 2023, the Center for Russian Studies (CRS) organized the second working group meeting to continue the deliberations on the Russian-Ukraine war implications for Russia and the region in the foreseeable future. In addition to the four narratives developed for the first meeting, the group reviewed a new set of essays consisting of four additional themes:
Biopolitics, the cult of the dead, and the cult of war
"Three Sources and Three Constitutive Elements of Rashism" was the title of the essay by Sergei Medvedev, a professor at the Free University (Latvia), Charles University (Prague), and a member of the Helsinki Collegium for Advanced Studies. Sergei noted that in 2014, Russia went into permanent wintertime. In 2014, Russia froze politically, and it is now a permanent winter. However, it may not last forever. Medvedev deflects the question that Timothy Snyder has been asking since the war began: Is it fascism yet? Since the start of the war, Russia's actions have raised many accusations of fascism, but they sound rhetorical. Calling your opponents fascists is too easy a polemical strategy. Could this discussion be given a methodological value asked Medvedev?
What we see in Russia does not resemble the classic fascism of the mid-20th century, says Medvedev. There is a lack of total mobilization. The government is trying to increase mobilization so that citizens become active supporters. The growing number of denunciations is bringing Russian society closer to mobilization, but it is still far off. To understand the war, it is necessary to look at what made it possible, Medvedev is convinced. In the report, he traces the historical, social, and political roots of the Russians' acceptance of the war. They lie beyond the last 10 or even 30 years - in the way the Russian state and society are organized. War and its public approval are rooted in Russian tradition. Is the war with Ukraine Putin's war or Russia's war? In this debate, Medvedev is on the side of the objectivists; he says: "My task is to look at what made the war possible. Putin is the leading actor, but previous developments prepared the war.
Medvedev identifies three factors that made the war possible. These are biopolitics, the politics of memory, and the politics of war. The rise of authoritarianism after 2011-2012 was primarily due to biopolitics. The Dima Yakovlev law, the anti-LGBT laws, the destruction of European food caught up in Russian counter-sanctions, and demographic policies - Russia's authoritarian turn had a biopolitical character. In biopolitics, the state perceives the population as a single physical body at its disposal.
State violence against the population has recently become much more explicit. Torture is already commonplace in Russia. The state in Russia can easily gain power over a person's body and torture him or her. Russians are systematically tortured, and for the police, it is daily business. The state appropriates the body of the population. This approach reproduces itself in the practices of war. The state takes men from remote villages and, as military propagandists say, turns them into "mincemeat" near Bakhmut. In recent decades, Russia's population has grown. Now, it turns out this was necessary to provide it with old weapons and send it into the meat grinder. This is how biopolitics becomes necropolitics, said Medvedev. Fascism is also very biological (anthropometric measurements, pure and impure races). Putin is putting the human body back on the political agenda.
The second factor is the politics of memory. Its Russian version is also linked to fascism - look at the cult of the dead in the "Immortal Regiment" project. Our grandfathers fought, propaganda tells us, and so should we. The country looks to the past rather than the future, and the dead seem to justify the current state of affairs and legitimize Putin's power. The Russian cult of the dead, the cult of memory, reminds us again of Nazi Germany.
The third component is the cult of war. Russia has become a country that is constantly at war. Medvedev has noticed that war fits Russia as a glove fits a hand. The Russians quickly normalized the war. However, it was prepared in the previous 30 years. "Pobedobesie" (triumphalism), dressing small children in military uniforms, baby prams decorated as tanks, reenacting the storming of the plywood Reichstag: Russians see the modern world through the lens of war.
Biopolitics, the cult of memory (or of the dead), and the cult of war - these three elements make up the postmodern cargo-fascism or rashism that Russia has arrived at and has made the current war possible, concluded Medvedev.
Georgia: importing autocracy from Russia
In the following report, Boris Grozovsky, columnist, and author of the EventsAndTexts Telegram channel, discusses how Georgia is importing features of an authoritarian political regime from Russia While the USSR was highly successful in exporting its political regime, Putin has done nothing of the sort so far. He has supported authoritarian regimes that emerged without his involvement (Belarus, Hungary, and Venezuela). However, Russia has not participated in creating authoritarian regimes during the Putin years. Georgia, Grozovsky fears, could become the first example of the successful export of autocracy from Putin's Russia.
How is Russia exporting autocracy? At the state level, Russia has declared that the Near Abroad states (from ex-USSR) are its sphere of interest and influence. According to Russia, these countries should not have full sovereignty and are obliged to take Russian interests into account in their domestic and foreign policies. In return, Russia provides them with cheap loans, energy resources, military support, and finances pro-Russian politicians, thus 'buying' the elites of these countries. At the inter-state level, Russia creates a clientele of dependent politicians, and it is much easier to establish such relationships with authoritarian regimes than with democratic ones.
The second element through which Russia influences its neighbors is the Humanitarian Policy Concept, which was officially adopted in 2022 but has existed for some time. This document reaffirms Russia's commitment to imperialism and sees Russian culture as a tool to influence the policies of other countries. A vital element of this humanitarian policy is the defense of Russian speakers' interests in other countries. Russian culture, literature, and science are seen as instruments for extending influence.
As early as the mid-1990s, Georgia declared a Euro-Atlantic choice, a course towards integration into EU and NATO structures, and did so more firmly in the early 2000s after the Rose Revolution. This choice was paid for by two wars in which Georgia lost 20% of its territory, Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Unrecognized failed states have emerged in these territories, which exist at the expense of Russian aid. Russia is keeping them "on the breadline" and " buying " these territories' elites, binding them to itself. The aim of this policy is that the territories torn away from Georgia should have nothing in common with it.
After the Georgian Dream (GD) came to power in Georgia in 2012, relations between Russia and Georgia gradually improved. On his way to power, oligarch Bidzina Ivanishvili, who made his fortune in Russia, promised to normalize relations with Russia and has kept his promise. At the same time, about 75% of Georgian citizens believe that Russian aggression against Georgia continues, 90% consider Russia the main threat to Georgia, and about 75-80% support Georgia's accession to NATO and the EU.
In 2022, after Russia's aggressive war against Ukraine began, Georgia finds itself in a difficult situation. Objectively, Georgia cannot afford to adopt the same policy towards Russia as the Baltic States since it is not protected from a possible Russian attack. However, Georgia had to condemn the Russian invasion to not become a pariah in the eyes of the international community. Because of the GD sabotaging the reforms necessary for Georgia to join the EU, the country was not granted EU candidate status in 2022. Georgia's accession to the EU has been postponed indefinitely. The GD has not reversed course on EU accession but has taken many steps dictated by cynical pragmatism that make it impossible for Georgia to join the EU in the coming years. This is very much to Moscow's advantage.
Now, GD is scaring its voters with the prospect of war with Russia, claiming that Europe and the US want Georgia to open a second front. GD claims that the fact that Georgia is not at war with Russia is its great achievement. GD's rhetoric is in line with the Kremlin's propaganda, which threatens Georgia with war and demands that Georgia adopt a policy aligned with Russia. At the same time, friendship with Russia and the import of authoritarian technologies and institutions from Russia helped GD to stay in power. By establishing control over the courts, eliminating opposition media, and marginalizing the opposition, the government in Georgia is acting according to Russian recipes, Grozovsky notes.
The Georgian government is in a similar situation to Russia 10-15 years ago. Georgian voters see Russia as the aggressor, but they do not want a new war. That is why the GD's propaganda narratives resonate with voters, and its popularity is now about twice that of the main opposition parties. At the same time, the Kremlin has dramatically increased pressure on Georgia, fearing it could become a center of gravity for the Russian opposition. In response, Georgia has re-established air links with Russia, helped it circumvent sanctions, and kept Russian opposition figures out of the country.
In recent years, Georgia has taken on some of the characteristics of a state captured by an elite group. Ivanishvili, whose wealth equals about a third of Georgia's GDP, no longer holds a political position but makes critical decisions and controls the entire political system. The attempt to pass a law on foreign agents in the spring of 2023, wholly copied from Russian law, aims to eliminate independent civic initiatives, media, and think tanks from Georgian politics. Their role in Georgia is more significant than in Russia, and they are more closely linked to the political opposition, which in turn is stronger than it was in Russia in the late 2000s and early 2010s. An attempt to pass a law on foreign agents failed in the spring of 2023, but new attempts are on the horizon.
The fate of Mikhail Saakashvili has been a central turning point for GD and Georgian society. Many in Georgia are convinced that Saakashvili was poisoned on Putin's orders and that it is Putin who forbids his transfer to a clinic in Europe for treatment. It is in no way in Ivanishvili's interest to permanently damage relations with the US and Europe, but he needs to stay in power. The successful integration of Georgia into EU and NATO structures would allow Georgia to defend itself against Russia. However, it would prevent it from building institutions that could guarantee the irremovability of power. The problem is aggravated by the fact that in the post-Soviet years, every change of government in Georgia has been a zero-sum game. The losers were repressed, imprisoned, and lost their property. That is why GD believes that a peaceful exit from power is impossible for them.
Last year, a large number of emigrants from Russia came to Georgia. This has seriously boosted economic growth through the inflow of capital and the activation of consumer demand. At the same time, it has led to rising inflation, a strong appreciation of the domestic currency, and significant political fears that Russia will eventually come to "protect" Russians in Georgia, even if they do not need it. Russia has behaved similarly in numerous conflicts in the territories of the former USSR. Moreover, since Russia is weaponizing Russian culture, the influx of emigrants to Georgia and the formation of a strong diaspora here may turn out to be a channel of Russian influence on Georgia. This is a matter of great concern for Georgian society.
Economically, Georgia has significantly benefited from emigration and capital inflows, but this poses significant risks. Georgia is not overly dependent on Russia for energy supplies, but Russia has almost complete control over its electricity sector. Increased trade and capital inflows from Russia make Georgia's financial system less resilient. GD tries to literally repeat Kremlin propaganda narratives, including those directed against "liberal-fascists" and “Satan-obsessed” youth. It seems as if Kremlin's political technologists write the speeches for the heads of the Georgian government and the GD. The GD copies the Kremlin's narratives, which allow for the fragmentation of society and the marginalization of the opposition while holding on to power. Unlike the Russian one, the Georgian civil society strongly resists these attempts, but whether it will withstand is a considerable question, Grozovsky concludes.
Three Russian Nationalisms
Continuing Sergei Medvedev's theme of Russian imperialism and nationalism, Gia Nodia, founder of the Caucasus Institute for Peace, Democracy, and Development, professor at Ilia State University, and former minister of education, also spoke about Russian imperialism and nationalism. Russian nationalism seems to be an ideological tool of Putin's war. However, what kind of nationalism is it exactly? Ideology is essential for understanding this war, Nodia noted. A popular idea among political analysts is that the consolidation of power in Russia is the real motive for Putin to start the war.
In this interpretation, the war is a matter of internal Russian politics. In 2014, Putin wanted a "small victorious war" as the best way to consolidate his power after the protests of the previous years. This is the popular theory. Nodia does not think it is wrong, but it is not enough to explain the war. In 2022, Putin's position was not so weak that he needed a war as the only means to stay in power. In addition, if Putin was counting on a small war in the run-up to the 2024 elections, he should have started the war not two years earlier but somewhat later. Therefore, the ideology behind the war is as essential as the issue of maintaining power.
Ideology is often seen as a tool for manipulating public opinion. This is quite true, and Putin's ideological constructs are often aimed at manipulating public consciousness. However, ideology is also the driving force behind political activity, Nodia argues. This was the case with Stalin and Hitler: they manipulated ideology while being obsessed with it. It is impossible to draw a clear line between the use of ideology to manipulate and the actual ideological views that drive politicians to act. Does Putin care about how his descendants will perceive him and want to "make Russia great again," or is he just manipulating the feelings of Russians? Either way, it is impossible to wage war for long without mobilizing support. Ideology is essential for legitimizing the war and mobilizing its supporters.
Nationalism can be a doctrine, an ideology, a political program, a rational construct, but it is also a feeling, an emotion. It cannot work as a doctrine if it does not appeal to people's feelings. It is impossible to distinguish between nationalism as a doctrine and nationalism as an emotion. What is at the heart of Putin's nationalist project as a doctrine and emotion? Gia Nodia traces three forms of Putin's nationalism, which contradict each other and do not form a consistent, coherent ideology. However, Putin uses all these forms.
The first is imperialism or imperial nationalism. Russia is in the business of expansion, conquest, and invasion. T. Snyder calls the current war a colonial war. Imperialism is the opposite of nationalism, which seeks the self-determination of nations. European nationalism began as anti-imperialism, as a movement against great empires. However, for modern nationalism, the Empire can also be a sign of greatness. This approach implies a division between "small" and "great" nations: you cannot consider your nation great until you have created something resembling an empire. In this sense, Putin's ideology is imperial nationalism.
The second form of Putin's nationalism, mentioned by Ivan Kurilla at the previous meeting, is ethnic nationalism. It denies Ukrainians the right to have a fatherland, arguing that Ukrainians are only Russians. This approach contradicts the vision of many Russian experts. Putin does not appear to be an ethnic Russian nationalist: he speaks of a "Russian world", a "Russian civilization". However, along with imperial nationalism, Putin also uses ethnic nationalism.
The third part of Putin's ideology is anti-colonialism. Putin uses language directed against the power of countries in the Western hemisphere. He speaks of the colonial past of many countries and appeals to their desire to live under their own laws rather than the rules invented in the United States or Europe. This strategy has had some international success in Asia, Africa, and Latin America, so Western countries primarily support Ukraine. Putin's admirers from the developing countries see Russia's imperialist war against Ukraine as Russia's anti-imperialist war against the West. They think the West is trying to mentally colonize Russia, which is resisting Western imperialism.
Nodia concludes by asking whether these conflicting nationalist narratives are merely a cover for another, actual cause of the war. Nodia believes that at the heart of the ideology behind the war is a sense of resentment, resentment of the West, and denial of its culture.
Together with Armenia - towards the EU?
Gigi Ugulava, former Mayor of Tbilisi, Secretary General of the European Georgian Party, and visiting scholar at Humboldt University, spoke about regional security and democracy in Georgia and Armenia. The war with Ukraine has caused major geopolitical shifts in the South Caucasus. The medium-term prospects for the Caucasus region have become alarming. Russia is heading for a crisis; after a defeat, it could face unrest, turmoil, and civil war, Ugulava believes. At such times, authoritarian regimes often resort to military adventures to suppress domestic resistance.
An increase in Turkey's influence will accompany the weakening of Russia's position in the Caucasus. Ukraine will become a significant force in the region. It will be the central pillar of the restraining arc of freedom around Russia, Ugulava believes. At the same time, Georgia, once a "beacon of democracy," has fallen into the hands of a pro-Russian oligarch who openly conflicts with the West and helps Russia evade sanctions. At the same time, Russia continues its occupation of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. In effect, Russia is offering Georgians, Abkhazians, and Ossetians to live peacefully under Russian rule, as they have in the past. In the long run, this will lead to the loss of Georgian sovereignty.
At the same time, oil-rich Azerbaijan has completed the creation of its own security system, relying on Turkey. Azerbaijan has built a stable autocracy. Azerbaijanis also have the advantage of speaking the two regional languages of the Caucasus, Turkish and Russian. Russia and Iran have been Armenia's strategic partners in ensuring its security, economic development, and the inviolability of its captured territories. However, when Azerbaijan returned the lost territories militarily, the Russian military did not intervene. The Russian guarantee did not work, but Armenia, which conflicts with Turkey and Azerbaijan, has nowhere to go. 70% of the imports go to Armenia through Georgia; the rest comes from Iran. The border with Turkey is closed.
Armenia has depended entirely on Russia since independence because of the Karabakh issue, Ugulava emphasizes. After Ter-Petrosian, the Karabakh clan really ruled there, although Armenia is ready for democracy. Pashinyan, who came to power on the wave of popular protests, managed to defeat the Karabakh clan. However, Putin hates leaders who came to power through color revolutions, including Pashinyan, Ugulava said. Despite the loss of Karabakh, Armenia's symbol of independence, and his open enmity with Putin, Pashinyan retained power in competitive elections. This may be because Armenia is ready to move into the future and build relations with the EU and its neighbors.
In addition to state structures, Putin's policies are often implemented by private structures that act more quickly, flexibly, and effectively. These include ethnic oligarchs who have their own national fiefdoms. Thus, through Ivanishvili, the Kremlin controls Georgian society, which is hostile to it. In Armenia, the Kremlin prepared to implement a similar scheme with the help of Vardanyan but failed.
The war in Ukraine deprives Russia of the possibility of being a security guarantor for Armenia. On the contrary, an alliance with it could become a source of permanent instability for Armenia. However, whether Armenia can turn to the West is complex. Iran and Russia, Armenia's historical partners and overlords, limit its development. Can Armenia recognize its 1991 borders, sign a peace treaty with Azerbaijan, and improve relations with Turkey? Armenia is already taking modest steps in this direction. Russia and Iran will not like this development. Turkey's strategic interest is stable and peaceful Caucasus, where Russia's position is weakened. The weakening of Russia will force Turkey to assume leadership positions in the region. Azerbaijan also needs peace for the sake of energy projects after the return of its territories. Such a development is also vital for Georgia in terms of the prospect of creating a single market and restoring territorial unity, Ugulava believes.
The collaborationist policy of the Georgian government has brought Georgia to the verge of falling out of the troika of EU candidates (Ukraine, Moldova, Georgia), in which Georgia used to be the leader. If Georgia falls out of the troika, which is very likely if the GD policy continues, it will need a new partner on its way to the EU. This could be Armenia, which can build a liberal democracy. Turkey and Azerbaijan should agree to this, as it is an excellent way to end their problems with Armenia. Then Georgia should focus on partnership with Armenia and joint accession to the EU.
Ugulava concluded by saying that several caveats could hinder the optimistic development of events. Will Russia's defeat in the war be apparent, or will the war become routine and drag on? Will the West continue to try to eliminate Russia as a global and regional threat? Will Armenia be able to turn decisively to the West, or should we expect an oligarchic coup there as Georgia's politics become increasingly pro-Russian? The path of Georgia and Armenia to Europe will be long, but it is the right path from the point of view of the national survival of these countries and the peaceful development of the whole Caucasus. However, the primary condition for this scenario is Russia's unconditional defeat in Ukraine.