Russian President Putin declared, in an interview to the Financial Times on the eve of the G20 summit meeting in Japan at the end of last month, that “the liberal idea has outlived its usefulness.” and had “become obsolete.”
Such a declaration by a Russian leader of the superiority of Russia’s political and social path over that of the West is strangely reminiscent of Soviet leaders of the past. While Putin implicitly suggests his autocratic form of governance is superior to Western liberal democracy, he echoes the boasts made by previous inhabitants of the Kremlin of the inferiority of the West compared to the glorious Soviet model. Nikita Khrushchev told Western diplomats in 1956 that “whether you like it or not, history is on our side. We will bury you.”
With such bombastic claims, Khrushchev would have made few converts outside the Soviet Union who were not already admirers of the Communist model. But Putin‘s attack on “liberalism” is clearly designed to exploit doubts and divisions inside democratic societies over what liberalism means today and to present his autocratic model of governance as a superior one for countries around the world to follow.
Putin knows he has supporters on the anti-liberal left in the West as well as among the populist right, both of which political trends have a particular fondness for the charismatic strong leader over the dull grind of debate, compromise and muddling through that characterizes day-to-day democratic politics. He seeks to exploit doubts and debates over the social and economic liberalism around the world so as to undermine faith in political liberalism that underpins free societies. In doing so, Putin seeks to win support for his autocratic model from both the right and left in liberal societies.
On the social side, Putin wades into the debate in Europe over competing rights of migrants and host populations, exaggerating fears within Europe over mass influxes of economic migrants and asylum seekers. He declares that liberalism “has come into conflict with the interests of the overwhelming majority of the population," because it has led to a situation where “migrants can kill, plunder and rape with impunity because their rights as migrants have to be protected.”.
Clearly the immigration issue has sparked dissatisfaction with the policy of the European Union and the growth of more right-wing parties in parts of eastern and southern Europe. And stories of criminal acts by migrants have grabbed the headlines, particularly in Germany. But this is far from the whole picture. The Pew Research Center reported in March this year that around the world, the majority of people saw immigrants more as a source of strength to society than a burden on it. This included the Germany, where Putin claimed Chancellor Merkel’s decision to admit a million Syrian refugees had been a “cardinal mistake.”
Putin also seeks to exploit unease among social conservatives over the current emphasis in liberal societies on recognition of the rights of gay and transgender people, claiming children are encouraged to “play five or six gender roles.” And he simultaneously seeks to draw support from the political left, appealing to opposition to economic “neoliberalism” and the post-war system of free trade and self-regulating markets. The left has always favoured more intervention in and regulation of financial markets. And their arguments received a major boost after the 2008 global economic crash when the system was widely seen as benefiting the rich, powerful international elite over ordinary citizens.
Putin’s real target in all this is political liberalism, which emphasises the autonomy of the individual and political and civil liberties. The Russian president prefers a domestic system where journalists and dissidents can be murdered if they pose a threat to his autocratic rule or shine a light too closely on the methods he and his cronies use to enrich themselves. And internationally, Putin clearly feels he has restored Russia’s international prestige though annexation of Crimea and bombing of Syrian civilians in support of his ally in Damascus – a murderous campaign he cynically welcomed as “practical experience” for Russia’s army which “they could not have obtained through any peacetime exercises.”
And now Putin seeks to use his newfound international prestige to market the Russian autocratic model and portray democratic government, liberty and the rule of law as outdated. With Russia, as well as the economically more powerful China, seeking to persuade emerging nations that economic development does not need to be accompanied by political freedom at home, the challenge to liberal democracy is more severe now than during the Cold War. But dictators and authoritarian rulers of the past, from Hitler to Khrushchev, have underestimated the power of democracies before and today’s strongman in Moscow seems to be determined to do the same.
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