While Western liberals might celebrate the startling decline in support for Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and his United Russia party ahead of Sunday’s parliamentary polls, they are unlikely to be as happy about the steady rise in nationalist sentiments.
"Nationalism is the most relevant topic in Russia today," Alexander Belov, the head of Russia’s outlawed ultra-right Movement against Illegal Immigration (DPNI), told RIA Novosti. “Both the ruling party and the opposition benefit from flirting with nationalist sentiment.”
While there were flare-ups of racial tension in the Soviet Union, the authorities managed - on the whole - to keep the lid on inter-ethnic hostilities. But the chaos accompanying the collapse of the world's first socialist state saw a rapid deterioration in relations between Russia's many peoples - in particular between ethnic Russians and natives of the volatile, mainly Muslim, North Caucasus republics.
Over 7,000 nationalists recently marched in Moscow to pledge support for ethnic Russians and call for the Kremlin to cut funding to the North Caucasus. The Stop Feeding The Caucasus! campaign has been fuelled in part by extravagant showcase projects in Chechnya, which has seen extensive reconstruction after two separatist wars.
The march was attended by influential blogger and anti-graft activist Alexei Navalny, a decision that both dismayed his more liberal supporters and demonstrated the grassroots strength of nationalist sentiments in Russia.
“Navalny might be able to consolidate the opposition around him,” Belov said. “But perhaps the people are not yet sufficiently tired of humiliation – the time has not come yet.”
The march came just under a year since thousands of nationalists and football hooligans had rioted near Red Square after the killing of a Spartak Moscow fan by a North Caucasus native. President Dmitry Medvedev called the violence on Manezh Square “a threat to the very stability of Russia.”
Statistics suggest though that participants in these two landmark events were just the tip of the nationalist iceberg. In opinion polls, some 60% of Russians say they support the slogan “Russia for the Russians” and race-hate attacks remain high both in Moscow and other big cities.
But the issue has remained, as Belov indicated, an explosive sideline to Sunday’s vote, with only the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR) forthright about its nationalist sentiments.
It’s unclear if this reluctance to capture the nationalist high-ground is down to a plea by Medvedev before the polls to “avoid” the topic in election campaigning. Medvedev also said that the Stop Feeding The Caucasus! campaign was reminiscent of Soviet-era complaints from ethnic Russians that Moscow was too generous towards then-socialist republics in “Central Asia, Ukraine and the Baltic region.”
“And the end result was that the Soviet Union collapsed,” Medvedev warned.
One party who certainly haven’t heeded Medvedev’s words is the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia. Election campaign posters all across Moscow portray the party’s colorful and bellicose leader, Vladimir Zhirinovsky, never one to shy from pandering to populism, staring down at passersby above the slogan “The LDPR is for Russians!”
“We don’t hide behind the screen of tolerance,” LDPR State Duma deputy Yaroslav Nilov told RIA Novosti. “We are the only party to have defended – for the last 22 years – the interests of ethnic Russians…We call on everyone to stop humiliating the Russian people.”
Nilov said that “proportionately, more ethnic Russians are dying.” And the statistics would seem to back him up - preliminary results from last year's census show Russia's population has fallen from just over 145 million to 142.9 million since 2002, with the only population increases in areas where ethnic Russians are not a majority. Alcohol abuse, a health system largely unfit for purpose and low birth rates among ethnic Russians have all contributed to the crisis.
He denied, however, that the “for Russians!” slogan implied the LDPR was against any of the country’s dozens of other ethnic groups. “Everyone should be equal,” he said, “including when it comes to federal budget funding.”
But many nationalists, wary of the LDPR’s strong Kremlin ties and non-confrontational voting record, are dismissive of Zhirinovsky.
“He’s just a showman,” one contributor to an online forum “Is Zhirinovsky a nationalist?” wrote. “He’s not up to it,” suggested another. “He’s just exploiting the movement.” “In words, yes, in actions, no,” another added.
Russia’s hawkish NATO envoy, Dmitry Rogozin, looked like he might be the man to unite nationalist sympathizers when he seemed set to make a return to the country’s domestic politics earlier this year.
"Some peoples in Russia are more equal than others, and the Russian people are now in the position of a discriminated majority," Rogozin told a political forum also attended by Medvedev. “Multiculturalism has not led to integration of minorities but to the creation of a fifth column.”
But Rogozin instead declined to register his Rodina (Motherland) party for the polls, and threw his weight behind United Russia.
Despite the lack of a clear nationalist push for power, something has undoubtedly changed on the Russian political landscape.
“The new trend is liberal nationalism,” Belov said. “Its rhetoric is reminiscent of that of the early U.S. republicans.”
“United Russia and its key figures are now fading, no one will believe them whatever they might come up with,” he added.
Change may well be coming to Russia. But, as ever here, it is unlikely to be either predictable or entirely to the West’s liking.