Professor Simon Tormey, a political theorist and the Executive Dean of Arts and Education at Deakin University in Australia.

Professor Tormey: The World Is in an Era of Economic Liberalism with Great Power Rivalry

Professor Simon Tormey stated that great power rivalry is more significant than any new ideology, indicating a shift away from globalization, which suggested diminishing differences between countries. Tormey highlighted that nationalist and nativist power struggles are likely to shape political outcomes for at least the next two decades. He noted the reemergence of great power rivalry, alongside economic interconnectedness and trends of de-globalization and decoupling. Tormey predicted continued regional conflicts and the persistence of populism without evolving into a new form of neo-populism.

Interview by Selcuk Gultasli

In an interview with the European Center for Populism Studies (ECPS) on Monday, Professor Simon Tormey, a political theorist and the Executive Dean of Arts and Education at Deakin University in Australia, discussed the complex dynamics shaping the current global political landscape. Professor Tormey offered a deep dive into what he describes as an era characterized by economic liberalism intertwined with great power rivalry.

“Great power rivalry is probably more important than any neologism or new ideology,” stated Professor Tormey, highlighting the significant geopolitical shifts that have overshadowed the once-dominant narrative of globalization. He pointed out that we are witnessing a retreat from the idea that the differences between countries are becoming less significant than their similarities. Instead; nativist, nationalist great power rivalries are reemerging and are likely to dictate political outcomes for the next 15-20 years.

The interview covered various topics, including the role of populism in modern democracies. Professor Tormey explained that populism, whether from the right or left, often arises in response to crises. “We are in an era of poly-crisis,” he noted, referring to the simultaneous challenges of economic turmoil, climate emergencies, geopolitical conflicts, and social instability. These conditions create fertile ground for populist movements that seek to undermine trust in ruling elites and offer radical solutions.

Despite the rise of populism, Professor Tormey argued that the fundamental structures of capitalism and economic liberalism remain robust. “Neoliberalism is more entrenched than this description suggests. The belief in the market, capitalism, and the ability of people to invest in various countries is intrinsic to capitalist modernity,” he asserted.

On the topic of migration and social cohesion, Professor Tormey acknowledged the concerns of right-wing populists but emphasized the benefits of multiculturalism. He pointed out that successful multicultural societies, such as the US, Canada, and Australia, enrich democratic life. However, he also recognized the need for a balanced approach to immigration, as seen in the ongoing debates in the UK, the Netherlands and Australia.

Reflecting on the future, Professor Tormey underscored the importance of democratic engagement and innovation. He believes that democracy must adapt to include both traditional institutions and new forms of participation driven by technological advances. “We need both established institutions and the energy of street protests and new forms of political participation,” he concluded.

This insightful interview with Professor Simon Tormey offers a comprehensive overview of the current state of global politics, the challenges of populism and the enduring influence of economic liberalism and great power rivalry.

Here is the transcription of the interview with Professor Simon Tormey with some edits.

Crisis and Populism Are Closely Intertwined

Israelis protest in Tel Aviv against Netanyahu’s Judicial Coup in Israel. Photo: Avivi Aharon.

Thank you so much, Professor Tormey, for joining our interview series. I’d like to start right away with the first question. In your article titled “Stresses and Strains: Will We Ever Agree on What’s Going Wrong with Democracy?” you discuss the chronic nature of democracy’s crisis under capitalist conditions. How do you think current global economic trends, such as rising inequality and economic uncertainty are influencing this crisis and the public’s perception of democracy?

Professor Simon Tormey: We are in an era of poly-crisis, a modern term that encapsulates our current multifaceted challenges. We face an economic crisis, a climate emergency, significant geopolitical risks, a land war in Europe and threats of conflict elsewhere. Additionally, poverty, starvation and political instability plague many regions. These crises provide fertile ground for populism, which thrives by undermining trust in the ruling elites and their ability to improve the situation. To understand populism, we must recognize its deep interconnection with crisis; the two are closely intertwined.

We can see this dynamic clearly in Europe, where a confected immigration crisis is fueling the far-right. Italy currently has a far-right leader, and the Netherlands has just formed a new government. We’ve got the British, who are trying desperately to avoid tumbling into a populist right-wing formula for dealing with immigration problem. Ireland may also shift to the right soon. Additionally, of course, we have the run-up to the French Presidential election in 2027. It looks like the far-right is poised to do very well in the next European elections.

Another crucial point is that contemporary media amplifies these crises. The media thrives on crisis, generating a sense of collective doom with images from Palestine and other troubled regions. This exacerbates the feeling, especially among young people that we are heading towards disaster and that only those with radical, simplistic solutions can help. Contemporary democracy has amplified our sense of crisis, and populism feeds off this, making life increasingly difficult for the once dominant technocratic elite.

In your discussion of the democratic crisis, you mention that the global financial crisis and subsequent austerity measures accelerated certain negative traits in liberal democracy, leading to the rise of populism. How do you see the interplay between economic factors and political populism evolving in the current global landscape?

Professor Simon Tormey: These issues are very intimately interconnected. Before the global financial crisis, interest in populism was quite limited in my field. In political science, it was mostly a few scholars examining curious, idiosyncratic movements like the Narodniks in Russia, certain figures in the US during the 1920s and 1930s, and the Cordillo movements and parties in Latin America. However, what really sparked contemporary interest in populism was the global financial crisis, which called into question the competence and trustworthiness of the elites leading Western Europe, Australia, New Zealand, the US and similar regions.

This crisis elicited two main reactions. The first is the right-wing populist approach, which argues that open markets, free borders and cosmopolitanism have created a precarious interconnectedness where problems in one part of the world quickly impact another. This perspective fuels a backlash against these principles, exemplified by figures like Donald Trump, who represent a right-wing rejection of open markets and cosmopolitanism.

On the other hand, the global financial crisis also provoked a left-wing reaction. This began with Syriza in Greece and continued with movements like Podemos in Spain and Jeremy Corbyn’s anti-austerity stance in Britain. These movements also employ populist rhetoric, framing the struggle as the people versus the elites and critiquing the European Union as a pro-capitalist, pro-austerity entity.

The contemporary wave of populism is thus deeply rooted in the aftermath of the global financial crisis, manifesting in various forms. We see both right-wing and left-wing backlashes. Mark Blyth highlights this well in his work, justifiably arguing that populism can be seen as a response to the perceived failure of neoliberalism.

As populism scholars, we recognize that populism predates the financial crisis. It is more intrinsic to democratic life than merely a backlash or reaction to economic turmoil. Populist movements have existed since the mid- to late-19th century. Thus, there is a deeper aspect to populism beyond just responding to financial crises. It is a political stance that seeks to position elites as complicit in the hardships faced by the people. These hardships can be expressed in economic terms but also in other ways.

In unequal societies, there is a persistent dynamic where some claim that the people are being used or abused by elites for their own purposes. This is inherent in unequal societies, particularly in feudal and aristocratic systems, and in our modern capitalist societies, where inequality is deeply embedded in the structure.

Even Anti-Representative or Anti-Elite Movements Make Representative Claims

Techno-populist movements include the Five Star Movement (Italy) and the AfD (Germany), Podemos (Spain) in Europe, Occupy Wall Street in the US and One Nation in Australia through online communication. Photo: Shutterstock.

Given your discussion on the decline of traditional party-based representative politics and the emergence of new forms of political engagement, what do you consider the most promising alternatives to traditional democratic structures for addressing the current democratic stress? Additionally, what role will populist parties and leaders play in either exacerbating this crisis or potentially mitigating the crisis of representation and democracy?

Professor Simon Tormey: I think populism is an interesting case because populist leaders often say, “We, the voiceless, need a voice. I can be that voice for the voiceless.” This represents a paradoxical response to the crisis of representation. In my 2015 book, I didn’t delve deeply into this because it predated the rise of many populist figures. Populism can be seen as a form of hyper-representation, positioning the people against those who are supposed to represent their interests.

On the other side of the coin, we have various democratic innovations, closely linked to technological advances over the last 20-30 years. Researchers like Lance Bennett and Clay Shirky have documented the impact of digital mechanisms on increasing connectivity among people. Some political scientists dismiss this as “slacktivism” or “clicktivism,” but my research suggests that tools like Twitter, Facebook, and flash mobs have flattened organizational structures, transforming how political life operates. This shift calls into question the traditional modus operandi of political parties.

In Spain, for example, we’ve seen the rise of instant political parties. Technology hasn’t rendered political parties obsolete; it has transformed them. Now, we have a variety of political party types, from mainstream parties to pop-up parties, single-issue and flash parties, even those that are anti-representational by design. This has expanded the repertoire of representation forms, some paradoxically anti-representative.

I agree with Ernesto Laclau, who argues that even anti-representative or anti-elite movements still make a representative claim, asserting that they represent the people’s deepest needs. This challenges traditional theories of representation, leading to a rethinking of why we need political parties to represent us. Social media and digital mechanisms have dismembered, dismantled, and reprogrammed our understanding of political representation.

Despite these changes, I believe democracies are as lively as ever. We haven’t lost the desire to come together, participate, and make our grievances heard. The mechanisms for doing so have become more diverse, and we are still learning which are most effective.

Democracies Inherently Involve Crisis

Anonymous & Stop Mass Incarcerations Network held a Million Mask March & Rally that started in Union Square & marched to Columbus Circle by way of Times Square in New York on November 5, 2014. Photo: Shutterstock.

You highlight that some theorists view the democratic crisis as a permanent and endemic condition, while others see it as episodic and short-lived. How do you think these differing perspectives influence the strategies proposed to address the democratic crisis? You also argue that the term “stress” might be more appropriate than “crisis.” Can you elaborate on specific actions or reforms that could help alleviate this ‘democratic stress’ and strengthen democratic institutions?

Professor Simon Tormey: At one level, I share David Runciman’s view on democratic crises: democracies inherently involve crisis. Similarly, we might agree with Nassim Nicholas Taleb that democracies are “Anti-Fragile.” Democracies provoke crises, respond to them, and this is one of their strengths. If we consider democracy as a style of crisis management, it prompts the realization that crises aren’t existential threats to democracy. Instead, they are what democracies are designed to manage and organize. There’s always a crisis, whether it’s a COVID crisis, a geopolitical crisis, or a climate crisis. Democracies are remarkably permeable, malleable, and resistant to the kind of existential crises that often concern critics.

On the other hand, we might discuss democratic stresses—factors that impact how democracy functions. When people shut down a national newspaper, threaten insurrection or imperil the modus operandi of democracy, these can be seen as stresses. We need to be mindful that democracy is a civilizational construct, a way of life as well as a set of institutions and practices. Therefore, it’s crucial to consider how we can protect and fortify democracy against these stresses.

I’m still surprised by how little emphasis is placed on education in the accounts of those who support democracy. In most countries, we don’t teach citizenship or strive to inspire young people with the heritage and inheritance of democratic structures. This is evident in places like Australia and the UK, where I recently observed the same issue. There’s very little civics education, the kind that late-19th century thinkers like J.S. Mill or Henry Thoreau advocated for—educating and encouraging young people to understand and nurture democracy.

In the Australian case, for example, we have compulsory voting. Initially, I wasn’t in favor of this policy when I moved to Australia, as I lean towards a libertarian viewpoint and prefer people to make their own decisions about how to act. However, I’ve seen the impact of compulsory voting on my own children, their friends and students in general. It forces people to take a stake in the system, prompting them to get off the fence and stop blaming others for their situations.

If we consider enhancing civics education, maintaining compulsory voting and involving citizens more directly in deliberative or citizen juries, we could introduce interesting innovations. These could alleviate some issues related to the perception that democracy is controlled by elites in places like Canberra, Brussels or London. Viewing democracy as a practice that everyone should engage in—and indeed has an obligation to engage in—through voting and other interactions with our systems could foster a shared sense of responsibility. This collective engagement could serve as a defense against the unrealistic promises and rhetoric of some populist leaders.

The Contemporary Mindset Is Inherently Democratic

In your article published in 2015 and titled “Democracy will never be the same again: 21st  Century Protest and the transformation of Politics,” you discuss the emergence of new forms of political mobilization such as cloud, swarm, and connective initiatives. How do these new forms challenge traditional organizational structures, and what implications do they have for the future of representative liberal democracy?

Professor Simon Tormey: In political science literature, we discuss the difference between vertical organizations, like political parties and horizontal political organizations. Horizontal organizations are characterized by a commitment to open participation, with no leaders or representatives for the movement or groups. We’ve seen examples of this in recent history with the Occupy Movement, the Indignados Movement in Spain, and the Arab Spring. These innovations are often technologically driven. This isn’t to say that the belief in horizontal structures didn’t exist in classical, Marxist or socialist traditions but technology has made them easier to operationalize for social movements.

On the other hand, another recent lesson is that even these movements, like the Indignados, represent a broad social base and make collective claims. They speak for “we, the 99%” and highlight systemic failures and necessary changes. Despite their horizontal nature, these movements still embody elements of representation. This reveals that even the most horizontal movements incorporate vertical elements.

The binary between vertical and horizontal is not as clear-cut as we once thought. Vertical organizations, such as modern political parties, now often include elaborate forms of participation and engagement. They have evolved significantly over the past 40-50 years to include open structures, consultations, mechanisms of self-control, and accountability.

Conversely, horizontal structures, like social movements, need to be more transparent and accountable regarding leadership and organization. They must clarify their rules and regulations for diverse actor participation, ensure balanced agendas and maintain an equitable platform. This blend of vertical and horizontal elements in both types of organizations suggest a more nuanced understanding of political organization is needed. 

All of these points suggest to me the need for greater sophistication in our understanding of organization and how we organize. We need to be more visible, accountable, and transparent. This aligns with the current Zeitgeist. These themes are prevalent in universities, corporate governance and business. Society is now less accustomed to hierarchy and asymmetry and more inclined towards democracy, accountability and transparency, regardless of the organizational form.

The contemporary mindset is inherently democratic. We want people to be present and involved as much as possible. It’s crucial to establish and maintain mechanisms that enable this participation.

You highlight the decline in trust and participation in traditional electoral politics and the rise of anti-representative movements. Do you see these movements as capable of sustaining long-term political engagement and effecting substantial policy changes, or are they more likely to remain episodic and focused on immediate issues? What kind of populism-proof democracy are you envisaging?

Professor Simon Tormey: This is really about institutionalizing social energies. Reflecting on my fieldwork in Spain, there were initially many street demonstrations, followed by semi-permanent encampments. However, sustaining that level of engagement is impractical—people need to care for children, look after the elderly, work and study. Institutionalization is intrinsic to political life.

Agnes Heller, the renowned political philosopher, made this observation when I interviewed her about 30 years ago. She pointed out that we can’t have a polis or demos that is permanently active. People have lives to lead and responsibilities to manage, so institutionalization is necessary. A healthy democracy is one where both these dimensions—the vibrant moments of direct engagement and the stable institutional structures—are vividly enacted.

We also see citizens participating in various ways, whether through street protests, creating new Facebook groups or finding other methods to make their voices heard. Some of these activities will be brief and fleeting, while others will become institutionalized. For example, in Spain, the Indignados movement gave rise to Podemos, and other movements led to figures like Ada Colau in Barcelona and Manuela Carmena in Madrid. These leaders emerged from street protests and social movements, carried forward by the organizational structures that developed from those movements.

Currently, while large-scale demonstrations have subsided, there is still activity and noise from neighborhood communities and committees. This shows a blend of direct citizen engagement and the institutionalized outcomes of previous movements, reflecting the dynamic nature of democratic participation.

Political parties, in a few years, will themselves be challenged. This reflects a healthy democratic ecology, where we need both established institutions and the energy of street protests and new forms of political participation. If you have one without the other, problems arise.

For instance, if you only have street protests and public clamor without trust in political elites, you’re close to a breakdown, akin to post-Chavez Venezuela or Argentina. Conversely, if you only have a traditional party system without citizen participation beyond political parties, the system becomes stale and susceptible to challenges from those with vigorous social agendas. Thus, democracy requires both institutional structures and dynamic citizen engagement to thrive.

Democracy Should Be Emotional and About What People Want and Need

For right-wing populists in the Western world, “the others” primarily include immigrants but also encompass “welfare scroungers,” regional minorities, individuals with “non-traditional” lifestyles, communists, and more. Photo: Shutterstock.

In your article ‘Populism: Democracy’s Pharmakon’, you argue that framing populism as either negative or positive is, in an important sense, unsatisfactory. Taking into consideration the fact that populism is usually construed negatively, can you please elaborate the positive side of populism?

Professor Simon Tormey: In the 1980s, 1990s and early 2000s, much of the political science literature focused on why citizens were turning off, becoming apathetic and feeling bored with politics. This was largely due to a technocratic consensus around neoliberalism, market centrality and cosmopolitanism. This consensus dictated how the world should function, leading to a lack of contestation and technocratic governance, where citizens felt unheard.

What disrupted this system was the global financial crisis and the emergence of voices challenging the consensus. These challengers argued that democratic debate and discussion should encompass more than what the consensus allowed. Populists often brought this energy and sense of emotion into the public sphere, highlighting the need for a more inclusive and contested democratic discourse.

Depending on your ideological orientation, reactions to populism vary. Left-wing individuals may dislike far-right populism, while right-wing individuals and culturalists may oppose left-wing movements. However, it’s undeniable that this shake-up was probably necessary in hindsight. We were blindly walking towards a collapse of democratic life, marked by a lack of debate and a consensus that left citizens feeling unneeded. We had a democracy without citizen engagement, devoid of the contingency and emotion about the collective’s fate that populists brought with them.

So I saw very closely in Spain, at close hand, a left-wing set of responses to the global financial crisis. People like Ada Colau and Manuela Carmena from Podemos self-declared their populism. I’m not accusing them of being populist; they said we needed a populist series that required popular leaders like Jeremy Corbyn for the many, not the few. These are populist phrases and movements. What they did was shake our sense that we had to accept whatever the elites brought to us as medicine. They re-energized politics.

They re-energized the sense of possibility for citizens at a time when it seemed harmless. I use the parable of the pharmakon as a way of saying that sometimes shaking the tree hard is a necessary antidote to the opposite, which is boredom, paralysis and apathy on the part of citizens. Where it leads, of course, is dependent on the nature and forms of the populist movements that arise in those moments of crisis and urgency. But I think that is the political. I agree with Ron Sierra and Chantal Mouffe. Democracy isn’t a technocratic image; it’s not a machine and shouldn’t be one. It should be emotional and about what people want and need, where they see their interests, and it needs to play out. But that energy also needs to be institutionalized because, without institutions, we do have chaos, no doubt about it.

How can we check and balance the elite and make the elite more accountable?

Professor Simon Tormey: Obviously, in a democracy, we do have traditional means. We do have political parties and I’m not the kind of person who says that there’s no difference between them. There are incredible differences between political parties and there’s also an incredible difference now between presidential candidates if we look at the upcoming US election. The choice for citizens between Trump and Biden is significant, particularly in areas like geopolitics and immigration. However, if you’re looking for a candidate who supports socialism or transformational changes to capitalism, you will be disappointed.

But we know that in American political life, there are candidates who highlight these issues. We’ve had Bernie Sanders running for president, who brought these issues to the forefront. We’ve got Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, we’ve got Kennedy, we’ve got Beto O’Rourke, and so on. It’s naive to imagine that these arguments aren’t being discussed, but it’s also naive to imagine that the scales aren’t tipped in favor of the status quo in terms of consensus and so on. But I think that is all part of the cut and thrust of democracy.

I’d also point out that we have many more effective ways of being heard and participating in democratic life than our forebears. For example, in the 1950s and 1960s, street protests and demonstrations were seen as last resorts by some democratic theories. I can almost hear my former colleague, Pippa Norris, saying that elections are really what count. However, we can’t imagine that people standing for election are immune to street protests, mobilizations or the kind of ruckus we see regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. All these forms of clamor are ways of being heard. They are capable of influencing public opinion and ultimately, we don’t achieve social progress simply by trusting political elites and parties to do what’s best for us. We get progress because those elites come under pressure to respond and react to what ordinary citizens are articulating.

The welfare state, free education, housing and healthcare are products of a groundswell of popular opinion, sometimes expressed at the ballot box but also in various other ways—subtle and not so subtle—that citizens have available to them. That is the right and proper approach in a democracy. Democracy is not just about casting a vote every four or five years (or every three years in Australia); it’s also about people making themselves heard and they have many opportunities to do that.

Without Immigration, Aging Societies Are Dead in the Water

Is populism or its right-wing version problematic for social cohesion?

Professor Simon Tormey: Of course, right-wing populists believe that they are in favor of social cohesion. They think social cohesion is threatened by an influx of refugees and new migrants from parts of the world with different values, whether that’s the Middle East, Asia, or elsewhere. Their view is that social cohesion is a cultural artifact of indigenous people organizing themselves according to a common core of values. I believe multiculturalism is the antidote to that. There are very successful multicultural societies, such as the US, Canada, and Australia (where I am currently), which are essentially nations of migrants. The proper counterbalance is to point out the incredible richness and diversity of contemporary democratic societies.

One can also understand the concerns people have and that’s the debate we’re having at the moment in the UK, the Netherlands, Belgium, Australia and so on. Is there a critical mass picture? Is there an optimal number of people coming into a society before it gets out of control? We are living in an experiment of transnational populations, movements, and flows of people at the moment. There is also a very serious reaction to that, and we will find out over the next couple of decades whether people are happy to concede that our societies have been enriched or otherwise.

Ultimately, I think this is a topic for democratic contestation. People feel that the balance may tip too far towards open borders, creating issues. Here in Australia, the debate is about housing. We don’t have enough housing, infrastructure lags behind the sheer number of people coming in and so on. We’ll just have to find a happy medium. This is democratic life—people are interested in how many people are enough, basically.

However, we also have the problem of aging populations in places like Italy, Japan and parts of Europe. Without immigration, these societies are actually dead in the water—they won’t be able to pay for their welfare bills or support their aging populations and they won’t be able to renew themselves. So, there is an interesting balance in the argument and we just have to see how democracies are able to cope with this set of issues.

Economics Trumps Politics vis-a-vis Rise of Populism and Great Power Rivalry

Aerial view of a large, loaded container cargo ship traveling over open ocean. Photo: Sven Hansche.

How can liberal democracies tackle with the rising civilizational populism in the US, Russia, India, China, Turkey and elsewhere?

Professor Simon Tormey: It’s a kind of backlash against globalization argument. For 30, 40, 50 years, we’ve had globalization. We’ve had relatively porous borders and increased mobility. I was born in Ireland, moved to the UK, then to Australia, and back to the UK. My kids all have multiple passports, which has been a great advantage. However, this advantage is primarily enjoyed by the elite. The problem is that elites, even those who benefit from globalization—such as Donald Trump with his overseas investments, Nigel Farage, Marine Le Pen, and others—are often the ones arguing against it. This two-faced aspect is evident, but politicians are responding to the demands of their populace and trying to come up with creative solutions.

I hope the wheel will turn, as I believe economics trumps politics in this matter. Economic globalization and the ability of countries to import and export goods and people have driven significant economic growth over the last half-century. For example, the relative integration of the US and China means that China would be very unlikely to jeopardize this relationship by invading Taiwan, as the US has made clear that this would harm their economic ties. China also holds substantial investments in the US.

Even the emerging great power politics involving Russia, China, India and the US will likely be tempered by their economic needs. However, we are on the edge of a precipice. There’s no doubt about it. We must hope that the economically and commercially minded elites prevail over the aggressive nationalist and nativist factions, which are powerful in places like India, China, and the US. These economic elites are crucial, as many politicians depend on them for support and to maintain their political parties and privileges. We’ll see how it goes, but it’s a key question for the next part of the 21st century.

In a New York Times article titled “A New Centrism is Rising in Washington,” it is argued that a new centrism is emerging in Washington because neoliberalism has failed to deliver, and both Democrats and Republicans have grown skeptical of free trade. This shift is referred to as “neo-populism.” Do you agree with the assertion that we are witnessing the dawn of neo-populism?

Professor Simon Tormey: It’s an interesting article. Of course, people are reflecting on the 30 years between the early to mid-1970s and the global financial crisis when there seemed to be a strong consensus in favor of free trade, open borders, transnational flows and so on. In the current phase, it seems that this consensus has come to an end. People are using phrases like de-globalization or neo-nationalism to describe these emerging trends.

I think neoliberalism is more entrenched than this description suggests. The belief in the market, capitalism and the ability of people to place their money and bets in whatever currency they choose and to invest in various countries, including those in Europe and China, is intrinsic to capitalist modernity. I don’t see any real threats to this fundamental organization of our society. At this level, we’re kidding ourselves if we think politics will trump economics. We tend to take capitalism for granted as we try to come up with new phrases and terminology to describe the current situation. 

I think we are in an era of economic liberalism with great power rivalry. I would take a more cautious approach, much like John Mearsheimer, who I’ve been watching a lot recently because he’s very controversial, particularly regarding the origins of the Ukraine war and the rise of China. It seems that great power rivalry is probably more important than any neologism or new ideology. I don’t think we’re heading towards a new kind of consensus, as neo-populism suggests. Instead, we’re witnessing a retreat from the narrative of globalization, which posited that the differences between countries would become less significant than the similarities.

The core of nativist nationalist great power rivalry is present and will likely dictate political outcomes for the next 15-20 years at least. We’re in the shadow of the reemergence of great power rivalry, with an undercurrent of economic interconnectedness. This includes some forms of de-globalization and decoupling at the core, along with numerous regional wars and conflicts to manage over the next 15-20 years. It’s reasonable to imagine that populism is not going to die, but nor is it going to evolve into a new ideological neo-populism. I’m not a believer in that perspective.

Slovak Prime Minister Robert Fico and EU Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker hold a press conference after their meeting at the EU Commission headquarters in Brussels, Belgium on July 27, 2017. Photo: Alexandros Michailidis.

Professor Haughton on Fico Assassination Attempt: Polarization Boosts Charged Political Climate in Slovakia

In an illuminating interview Professor Tim Haughton assessed the recent assassination attempt targeting Slovakian Prime Minister Robert Fico and underlined that the camp around Fico has pushed numerous polarizing narratives that could be categorized under the populism label. “This polarization has contributed to the charged political atmosphere in Slovakia,” he noted, highlighting the environment that led to the assassination.

Interview by Selcuk Gultasli

Dr. Tim Haughton, Professor of Comparative and European Politics and Deputy Director of the Centre for Elections, Democracy, Accountability, and Representation (CEDAR) at the University of Birmingham, stated that the camp around Robert Fico has pushed numerous narratives that could be categorized under the populism label. “This polarization has contributed to the charged political atmosphere in Slovakia,” he noted, highlighting the environment that led to the assassination attempt targeting Fico.

In an illuminating interview he gave, on Friday, to the European Center for Populism Studies (ECPS), sheds light on the complex and evolving political landscape of Slovakia. With a deep understanding of Central and Eastern European politics, Professor Haughton provides insightful analysis on the rise of radical right and far-right movements, the influence of populism, and the role of national identity and immigration in shaping political rhetoric. He discusses the significant impact of Robert Fico’s leadership, the challenges facing Slovak democracy, and the broader implications for European politics.

Professor Haughton begins by addressing the characteristics of radical right parties in Slovakia, noting the historical roots of the Slovak National Party and the more recent emergence of neo-fascist parties like those led by Marian Kotleba and Republika. He emphasizes the shift in focus from ethnic Hungarians to non-European elements, particularly in response to the migration crisis, aligning these parties with broader European trends.

Regarding Robert Fico, Professor Haughton highlights the nuanced nature of his political stance, combining leftist economic policies with nationalist rhetoric. According to him, this complexity makes it difficult to categorize Fico simply as a far-right populist. Professor Haughton also delves into the polarization of Slovak politics, exacerbated by populist narratives and the divisive rhetoric surrounding the war in Ukraine.

The assassination attempt on Fico and its aftermath underscore the fragility of democracy and the deep-seated tensions within Slovak society. Professor Haughton discusses the influence of Russian disinformation, the significance of journalist Jan Kuciak’s murder, and the broader discontent with liberal democracy. Through his thoughtful analysis, Professor Haughton paints a comprehensive picture of the challenges and dynamics at play in Slovakia, offering valuable perspectives on the region’s political future.

Here is the transcription of the interview with Professor Tim Haughton with minor edits.

A Strong Stance Against Muslim Immigration Creates a Common Cause

Hungarian government’s anti-immigration billboard says “STOP the refugees” in Budapest, Hungary on April 4, 2018.

Professor Haughton, thank you so very much for joining our interview series. Let me start with the first question. What are the main characteristics of the radical right and far-right movements in Slovakia, and how do they compare to similar movements in other European countries?

Tim Haughton: It’s worth emphasizing that Slovakia has a number of radical right parties and movements. For example, the Slovak National Party, which has been a significant political force in Slovakia for the past 30 years, actually traces its roots back to the 19th century. This party has consistently maintained a radical right agenda.

In more recent times, particularly in the past decade, we have seen the emergence of parties that could be labeled as neo-fascist. These include the party led by Marian Kotleba and the party that split off to form Republika. These parties have a much sharper and stronger nationalist message and a more discriminatory stance towards specific minorities.

When comparing these Slovak parties to other radical right parties across Europe, there are notable similarities. Many radical right parties, especially in Central and Eastern Europe, have historically focused their criticism on neighboring countries or ethnic groups. For instance, the Slovak National Party has been very critical of ethnic Hungarians in the past. However, this focus has shifted more towards a common criticism of non-European elements, particularly in response to the migration crisis. This has included a strong stance against Muslim immigration into Slovakia, or even the perceived threat of it. This shift aligns these Slovak parties with many other radical right parties in Europe, creating a common cause among them.

How has Robert Fico’s leadership influenced the rise of populism and far-right politics in Slovakia? Additionally, how significant a role, do you think, populism played in the assassination attempt on the Slovak Prime Minister Robert Fico?

Tim Haughton: I should probably stress at the outset that, while I appreciate speaking to the European Center for Populism Studies, I am not the biggest fan of the term “populism” as a label. I prefer examining populist appeals rather than labeling particular politicians or parties as populist.

When considering broad populist appeals, such as the notion of a pure nation versus a corrupt elite, these have been utilized by Robert Fico over time. It’s also important to note that there have been increasing links between Robert Fico and parties or politicians known for using populist appeals. Fico has certainly played a role in promoting these messages in Slovakia.

Regarding the shooting involving Fico and the role of populist appeals, two key points are worth emphasizing. First, we can distinguish between the individual who was arrested and his motivations, which appeared to center on criticism of Robert Fico’s domestic policies, particularly changes to the state broadcaster. This was highlighted in the video he shared on social media.

Second, it’s essential to understand the broader context of Slovak politics, which has become highly polarized in recent times. The camp around Robert Fico has pushed numerous narratives that could be categorized under the populism label. This polarization has contributed to the charged political atmosphere in Slovakia.

PM Fico and His Party Can Not Be Classified As Far-Right

Protesters hold signs during an anti-government demonstration demanding a change in government in Bratislava, Slovakia on March 16, 2018. Photo: Ventura.

What is the role of immigration and national identity in the political rhetoric of Slovakia’s far-right parties? How do they use these issues to gain support, and what strategies have populist and far-right parties in Slovakia used to gain and maintain political power? How effective have these strategies been?

Tim Haughton: Firstly, I want to emphasize that I wouldn’t classify Robert Fico’s party as far-right. When discussing other parties that fit that description, the theme of immigration is very important. For these radical right parties, it’s not just about actual immigration but often a perceived threat or worry about its cultural and political impact on Slovakia.

This fear of the outside, or fear of the other, is something that far-right parties and politicians have exploited. However, it’s also crucial to note that their appeal hinges significantly on domestic issues. They rally support by focusing on what they perceive as the negative impacts of liberals and progressives on Slovak politics. This opposition to liberal and progressive agendas has been a significant rallying point for the far-right in Slovakia.

In your article ‘The Return of Robert Fico,’ you argued that the fate of democracy was at risk with the ‘Orbanization’ of Slovakia. Can you please elaborate on the future of Slovakian democracy after the assassination attempt?

Tim Haughton: In that particular article, my remarks referred to observations about Orbanization and the situation in Slovakia. Since the election, specifically, we have seen the creation of a government that has implemented measures which conflict with our understanding of liberal democracy. For example, there have been changes to the criminal code, efforts to alter the state broadcaster, and measures that have impacted funding for the NGO sector. This indicates a movement in a concerning direction.

I want to emphasize both the immediate and longer-term reactions to these developments. Initially, I was very concerned because several key politicians close to Fico blamed liberals and progressives, exacerbating the polarization of Slovak society. Efforts by leaders like incoming President Peter Pellegrini and current President Zuzana Čaputová to encourage unity among political party leaders were snubbed by several politicians, which was worrying.

In the last few days, however, the situation appears to have calmed somewhat, which is slightly reassuring. Nevertheless, Slovak politics is at a critical juncture, heavily influenced by Robert Fico himself. He has been the dominant figure in Slovak politics for the past 20 years and controls his political party. Currently, there are differing voices within his party on how to respond to recent events. Some, like the de facto Prime Minister Robert Kaliňák, advocate for a pragmatic approach, while others, like politician Ľuboš Blaha, push a more pro-Russian stance.

Slovakia’s future direction depends significantly on the language and rhetoric used by politicians around Fico. Although the rhetoric has recently toned down, making me feel a bit more optimistic, it’s challenging to judge the situation so soon after these events.

Slovakia Can Not Be Described As a “Black Hole” in Central Europe

Former US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright called Slovakia a ‘black hole in the center of Europe’ back in 1997. What do you think of this characterization? Does Slovakia still deserve to be labeled as the black hole in the center of Europe?

Tim Haughton: It’s worth emphasizing that Albright came up with that label during the time when Vladimir Mečiar and his government were in power. At that time, Slovakia wasn’t invited to begin accession negotiations to join the European Union in 1997, unlike the Czech Republic, Hungary, and Poland. It seemed as if Slovakia was diverging in a different direction, so the label may have been reasonably apt then.

However, it’s important to note that Slovakia has been a member of the European Union for 20 years now. It is more integrated into European structures than some of its Visegrád-4 Group partners. For instance, Slovakia is part of the eurozone, which is not true for all neighboring states. Thus, Slovakia is very much part of the European mainstream.

There have been some recent question marks since Fico took power, particularly regarding Slovakia’s stance on the war in Ukraine. The country has shifted from being a strong advocate and supporter of Ukraine to becoming critical of military involvement under Fico. While this indicates that Slovakia may be currently less aligned with the ideological core of the EU, I certainly wouldn’t describe it as a “black hole” in Central Europe.

Strong Polarization of Politics in Slovakia

From Left: Hungary PM Viktor Orban, Poland PM Beata Szydlo, Czech PM Bohuslav Sobotka and Slovakia PM Robert Fico pose prior their meeting in Prague on February 15, 2016. Photo: Shutterstock.

What does the assassination attempt on Slovak Prime Minister Robert Fico tell us about the political culture, the level of polarization, and populism in Slovakia?

Tim Haughton: So again, I would distinguish between the actual event itself and the reaction to it, which is important. Regarding the event itself, according to what we know about the individual who was arrested and charged for the assassination attempt, he seems to have been motivated by a strong political disagreement with Fico. However, various images and narratives about this individual have circulated on social media, making it difficult to say definitively.

More broadly, the reaction to these events highlights the strong polarization of politics in Slovakia. The country is quite divided. I was reading an article today that examined polling data on a range of political questions and policies introduced by the Fico government. It is very clear that there are significant numbers of people who strongly support the government’s agenda and those who strongly oppose it. What’s striking about this polarization is the strong overlap between the groups in favor of particular measures. This division underscores the significant polarization in Slovak society.

Interior Minister Matus Estok stated that the country was ‘on the doorstep of a civil war’ right after the shooting, suggesting that the assassination attempt on the prime minister confirmed this. Do you believe Slovakia, a member of the European Union and NATO, is truly on the brink of a civil war, or do you find this assertion a bit far-fetched?

Tim Haughton: I don’t think that particular characterization is accurate. Slovakia is a country where there are tensions and strong differences of opinion, but it’s much too strong to suggest that the country is on the verge of civil war. That phrase was uttered in the immediate aftermath of the shooting and was likely driven more by emotional reaction than by careful judgment. While Slovak society is divided, I don’t believe it is accurate to depict it as on the brink of civil war.

Senior officials in Fico’s governing Smer party have accused liberal journalists and opposition politicians of motivating the shooter to open fire. Rudolf Huliak, an ally of the government from the far-right Slovak National Party, claimed progressives and journalists “have Robert Fico’s blood on their hands.” Is there any truth in these accusations?

Tim Haughton: Obviously, that’s a very emotive phrasing, and I certainly wouldn’t want to use such language. If we step back and look at it in a more scholarly way, we can see that polarization in Slovak society has stemmed from the rhetoric and language used by both sides of the political spectrum. The liberal progressive media is very critical of the steps taken by Robert Fico, arguing that it is their right as journalists to call out what they see as wrong and to highlight the harmful actions taken by the Fico government.

However, there are critical voices and certain politicians who assert that we need to stop Robert Fico. We must be careful with this rhetoric, as it can be interpreted as providing some justification for what happened. I don’t think that’s true. This heightened rhetoric creates a context in which the stakes of politics seem much higher, contributing to the polarization of Slovak society and politics.

It Is Challenging to Categorize Fico Definitively

Mr. Fico is pushing a strongly contested overhaul of the judiciary to limit the scope of corruption investigations, reshape the national broadcasting system to purge what the government calls liberal bias, and crack down on foreign-funded non-governmental organizations. He opposes military aid to Ukraine, LGBTQ rights, and the power of the European Union, while favoring friendly relations with Vladimir Putin’s Russia. Do you agree that all these points indicate that Fico is a far-right populist leader par excellence or not?

Tim Haughton: I would not classify Robert Fico as a far-right populist politician. Reflecting on his political career and policies, it is challenging to categorize him definitively. At the core of Fico and his party, Smer, are leftist economic policies focused on the welfare state and supporting the poorer segments of society. Many of his socioeconomic measures, such as free travel for pensioners and increased pensions, have populist characteristics but are fundamentally left-leaning.

In recent years, particularly since the migration crisis in 2015, Fico has adopted more nationalist rhetoric. This shift is also reflected in the evolution of his party’s name. Originally called just Smer (meaning “Direction”), it briefly adopted the name Smer – Tretia Cesta (Direction – Third Way), echoing the era of Tony Blair and Gerhard Schröder. In the mid-2000s, it became Smer – Sociálna Demokracia (Direction – Social Democracy), emphasizing its social democratic roots. Recently, it has been rebranded as Smer – Slovenská Sociálna Demokracia (Direction – Slovak Social Democracy), which conveys both a Slovak version of social democracy and a stronger national emphasis.

This combination of leftist economics, nationalist appeal, and Fico’s leadership makes it difficult to classify his policies neatly. While my explanation may be lengthy, it underscores the complexity of Fico’s political stance. It is essential to recognize this nuance and understand that Robert Fico is not a far-right politician.

Russia Plays Substantial Role in Shaping Debate in Slovakia

An elderly lady is looking at the advertising newspaper of the presidential candidate Peter Pellegrini ahead of elections in Bratislava, Slovakia on April 2, 2024. Photo: Shutterstock.

How have pro-Russian media and the issue of Ukraine shaped Slovakian politics?

Tim Haughton: Regarding the war in Ukraine, it became a significant theme in domestic Slovak politics leading up to the elections. Robert Fico’s criticism of Western military involvement in the war played an important role in his re-election in 2023. While domestic factors were primarily at play in his 2023 campaign, the Ukraine war did have some influence.

Since taking power, Fico has implemented policies such as halting Slovakia’s military contributions to the war in Ukraine, stating that not another bullet would be sent. However, he has emphasized his support for Ukraine’s reconstruction and economic recovery. For instance, there was a meeting about a month ago in Michalovce, in the far east of Slovakia, where ministers from both the Slovak and Ukrainian governments agreed on deals regarding infrastructure, energy, and other areas.

Opponents of Robert Fico, particularly from the progressive side, have criticized his stance as moving Slovakia away from the European mainstream. They advocate for a stronger pro-Ukrainian position. This division was evident during the Presidential elections in Slovakia earlier this year, highlighting the differing views on military involvement in Ukraine.

Regarding Russia and Russian disinformation, numerous studies suggest that disinformation from Russian sources is influential in Slovakia. A significant number of Slovaks get their news from alternative media sources, many of which are believed to be influenced by Russian interests and funding. This impact on the media sphere translates into people’s views and attitudes, affecting actual politics. While it is challenging to provide concrete scholarly evidence for these influences, there seems to be a substantial role played by Russia in shaping debate and discussion in certain sections of the media. Additionally, Russian influence on social media platforms is also believed to be significant.

In 2018, Fico had to resign as prime minister in the face of enormous street protests following the murder of investigative journalist Jan Kuciak, who was investigating government corruption, and his fiancée, Martina Kusnirova. What has been the significance of Kuciak’s murder in Slovakian politics?

Tim Haughton: It was a very significant event with major consequences. It led directly to Robert Fico resigning as Prime Minister in 2018, although he remained the leader of his party. This event also played a crucial role in the defeat of Smer in the 2020 parliamentary elections. Broadly speaking, it has been a pivotal moment often used by anti-Fico forces to mobilize and rally support.

In the immediate aftermath of the murder, there were major demonstrations on the streets of Slovakia. The campaign “For a Decent Slovakia” became significant in mobilizing anti-Fico sentiment. This event was also instrumental in bringing together opposition forces after the 2020 election to form a government. It remains a key event in Slovak history, frequently invoked to rally anti-Fico forces. Even six years later, it still has significant resonance.

The Sense of Disappointment with Democracy Is Quite Widespread

Lastly, according to The New York Times, Slovakia has the highest proportion of citizens who view liberal democracy as a threat to their identity and values among all the countries in Central and Eastern Europe that shook off communist rule in 1989. Additionally, 27 percent of Slovaks see Russia as a key strategic partner, the highest level in the region. What does this tell us about the political culture of Slovakia compared to other Central and Eastern European countries?

Tim Haughton: This situation highlights some important factors. A significant proportion of the population in Slovakia feels that the system hasn’t delivered or hasn’t delivered well enough for them. This indicates that we need to be aware of the threats and dangers to democracy, as it is fragile in many respects—not just in Slovakia, but in many other countries across the region and even across Europe as a whole.

Concerns about the state of democracy are widespread. The data from Slovakia illustrates underlying tensions, problems, and challenges that many European countries face. The sense of disappointment with democracy is quite widespread. However, I don’t want to exaggerate or suggest that all democracies in Europe are on the verge of collapsing. Rather, it’s important to recognize that a significant portion of the population is dissatisfied with what democracies are delivering.

In Slovakia, this dissatisfaction is particularly evident. When large segments of the electorate are unhappy with the current political system, they may be more open to the appeals of politicians advocating for changes, whether minor or more extensive.

Sir Graham Watson is a liberal European politician and Advisory Board member of ECPS.

Sir Graham Watson: We Must Persuade Younger People to Go to the EP Polls

As opinion polls indicate a potential surge in support for far-right parties in the European Parliament elections scheduled for June 6-9, Sir Graham Watson emphasizes the critical need to persuade younger people to vote. “In recent years, we have seen significant abstention among younger voters. This was a major factor in Brexit,” Watson explains. “We desperately need everyone eligible to vote, especially those over 18 across the European Union, to exercise their democratic rights. Perhaps the younger generation does not fully grasp that freedom must be actively used, or it can be lost. If they do not use their freedom to vote and participate in democratic society, they risk losing that freedom in the future,” he warns.

Interview by Selcuk Gultasli

In an exclusive interview with the European Center for Populism Studies (ECPS), Sir Graham Watson, a liberal politician and Advisory Board member of ECPS, emphasizes the urgent need for mainstream parties to intensify their efforts in the upcoming European Parliament elections. “It is particularly important to persuade younger people to go to the polls,” Sir Watson asserts, highlighting a critical factor that influenced the Brexit vote. “In recent years, we have seen significant abstention among younger voters. This was a major factor in Brexit, where older voters, who largely supported leaving the EU, turned out in high numbers, while younger people, who favored remaining, did not vote in large numbers.”

As opinion polls indicate a potential surge in support for far-right parties in the elections scheduled for June 6-9, Sir Watson shares his concerns about the implications for the European Union’s future. He acknowledges the far-right’s growing presence in countries like Germany and Italy, where parties such as Fratelli d’Italia and Lega Nord are gaining traction. “Clearly, the next Parliament will include a larger far-right group,” Sir Watson notes. However, he believes that mainstream democratic forces will still hold a majority, provided they collaborate effectively to counteract the far-right’s influence.

Sir Watson, a former leader of the Liberal Group in the European Parliament, also addresses the broader threat posed by the far-right and populist radical right parties, arguing that their potential success does not signal the end of liberal democracy but represents a significant danger. “A lot of people think ‘Oh, well, it’s only the European Parliament. It’s not national parliaments.’ They underestimate the European Parliament’s role in shaping public policy in every Member State,” he explains. Watson warns that the presence of nationalistic and anti-democratic forces could lead to the fragmentation of the EU and a rollback of social progress.

Highlighting the external threats to the EU, Watson points to Russia’s aggression in Ukraine and its financial support for far-right politicians like Salvini in Italy and Marine Le Pen in France. “The Russians are trying to destabilize the European Union to reestablish their hegemony on the continent,” he warns. Sir Watson underscores the necessity for EU member states to recognize and respond to this threat.

Addressing strategies to boost voter mobilization, particularly among the youth, Sir Watson stresses the importance of leveraging technology and social media algorithms to counter the far-right’s influence. “We need to use this technology ourselves to get our message across,” he says, emphasizing that mainstream parties must defend the principles of liberal tolerance and democracy more effectively.

As Sir Watson prepares to stand in Italy for the European Parliament elections, his commitment to combating the rise of the far-right and promoting European unity is clear. “We must persuade younger people to go to the polls,” he reiterates, underscoring the critical role of voter participation in safeguarding the future of the European Union.

Here is the transcription of the interview with Sir Graham Watson with minor edits.

Mainstream Democratic Forces Need to Collaborate Much More Effectively 

European Union flags against European Parliament in Brussels, Belgium.

Many polls and pundits argue that there is a significant possibility of a far-right surge in the upcoming European Parliament elections scheduled for June 6-9. Given the current political climate and recent events in Europe, how likely do you think a far-right victory is, and what would be its implications for the future of the EU?

Sir Graham Watson: I think the far-right will certainly perform better than they have in the past. Opinion polls suggest their growth in several countries, particularly in Germany and Italy, where I’m a candidate. In Italy, we see strong support for Fratelli d’Italia and Lega Nord, both of which can be considered far-right parties. There’s also Vox in Spain and the far-right in the Netherlands. Clearly, the next Parliament will include a larger far-right group. The question is whether they will have a majority and if they can organize themselves well enough to influence policy. Currently, the far-right is divided among two or three different political groups, making them less effective. I believe mainstream democratic forces will still hold a majority in the European Parliament, but they will need to collaborate much more effectively to minimize the far-right’s impact.

If the far-right and populist radical right parties win in the upcoming elections, do you think this will signal the end of liberal democracy as we know it?

Sir Graham Watson: I don’t think it will signal the end of liberal democracy as we know it, but it does represent a far greater threat than most people realize. A lot of people think “Oh, well, it’s only the European Parliament. It’s not national parliaments.” Many dismiss the significance of the European Parliament, thinking it doesn’t impact national parliaments. They underestimate the European Parliament’s role in shaping public policy in every Member State and the influence a strong performance in European Parliament elections can have on national elections. I am very worried about the immediate future of the European Union because of the presence of forces that are not only nationalistic, which can lead to the fragmentation of the EU, but are also fundamentally anti-democratic and aim to reverse social progress achieved in many areas.

People Have Not Yet Fully Grasped How Dangerous The Situation Is

Marine Le Pen, from the Front National, a national-conservative political party in France in meeting for the presidential election of 2017 at the Zenith of Paris on April 17, 2017. Photo: Frederic Legrand.

In an interview with The Guardian, you argued that the rise of the far-right and the threat Russia posed to the EU compelled you to accept the invitation to stand in Italy. How serious do you think the Russian threat to the EU is, and how do you assess the strong relations between Russia and far-right parties in Europe?

Sir Graham Watson: We see the military threat every day on our television screens in Ukraine. Although Ukraine is not a member state of the European Union, it is a candidate country, and Russia’s attack on Ukraine and attempts to seize more territory demonstrate that no European country is safe from expansionist policies. Alongside this, we see Russian money supporting figures like Salvini in Italy and Marine Le Pen in France, and previously Nigel Farage in the United Kingdom. The Russians are trying to destabilize the European Union to reestablish their hegemony on the continent. People have not yet fully grasped how dangerous this situation is.

There are stories in the European media that far-right voters are very well mobilized for the upcoming elections compared to the voters of mainstream parties. What strategies do you believe pro-European parties should adopt to increase voter mobilization, particularly among the youth?

Sir Graham Watson: Clearly, we, the mainstream parties, need to put much more effort into the campaign. It is particularly important to persuade younger people to go to the polls. In recent years, we have seen significant abstention among younger voters. This was a major factor in Brexit, where older voters, who largely supported leaving the EU, turned out in high numbers, while younger people, who favored remaining, did not vote in large numbers. We desperately need everyone eligible to vote, especially those over 18 across the European Union, to exercise their democratic rights. Perhaps the younger generation does not fully grasp that freedom must be actively used, or it can be lost. If they do not use their freedom to vote and participate in democratic society, they risk losing that freedom in the future.

European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR)’s research in March argued that the agenda of the European Union will not be defined by far-right parties as they are divided on their aims and ambitions. Do you agree with this finding?

Sir Graham Watson: I’m not sure I agree with it, but I understand where they’re coming from. Their arguments suggest that the far-right is not sufficiently unified at the European level, and that the parties comprising the far-right groups in the European Parliament are not well-coordinated. These parties may not recognize the same priorities, whereas the democratic forces in the European Parliament tend to be well-organized, accustomed to working together, developing common agendas, and reaching agreements even when compromises are needed on policies such as energy and transport. In contrast, the far-right tends to be more splintered and less effective. However, we should not let studies indicating the far-right’s lack of effectiveness make us any less concerned about the potential consequences of a far-right victory.

President of the European Commission Should Be Elected Directly

Viktor Orban, Hungary’s prime minister arrives for a meeting with European Union leaders in Brussels, Belgium on Dec. 13, 2019. Photo: Alexandros Michailidis.

As a former leader of the liberals and a candidate running in the EP elections, what are the basic promises you present to the electorate? What are your plans to combat the surge of far-right parties?

Sir Graham Watson: I think the most important thing is to make the European Union work properly. Currently, we have a Confederal Europe, where any country can veto important policies. For example, Viktor Orban can veto crucial developments in European defense policy needed to defend against Russia in Ukraine. We need majority voting by qualified majority in the Council of Ministers, rather than allowing individual states to have a veto. Additionally, we should see the President of the European Commission elected directly by the people, similar to how the President of the United States is elected. This would ensure a proper ideological debate during European elections and a President elected on a clear program for government. This is more understandable for most voters than the current situation, where individual parties present their programs, which are not always well understood.

It has been announced that the far-right Dutch politician Geert Wilders will be forming the next coalition in the Netherlands. Do you think this is a milestone in terms of far-right parties’ ability to form governments?

Sir Graham Watson: I believe they will not be forming a government on their own, as they don’t have the numbers to do so. We already have an example in Europe with a far-right party, the so-called Sweden Democrats, who are part of the governing coalition but have no ministers. They are part of the governing majority, but without ministerial positions. I hope we see a similar outcome in the Netherlands. I don’t think anyone is seriously considering Geert Wilders as Prime Minister, and I hope his party will not have any ministers. However, I believe parties should avoid participating in governments with the far-right if it is at all possible.

How concerned are you that mainstream parties might imitate far-right rhetoric to garner more votes? In other words, are you concerned that the values of far-right parties will be mainstreamed by center-right parties?

Sir Graham Watson: I’m very worried about what is happening within the European People’s Party (EPP), where member parties in some countries are shifting to the right on policy issues like immigration, abortion, and LGBTQ+ rights. They are doing this to try to protect their vote share, essentially saying, “We don’t want to lose votes to the far-right, so we’ll adopt their policies.” This approach is absolutely wrong. These parties need to defend the society built on principles of liberal tolerance against the far-right’s attacks. In other words, they need to advocate for their positions much more effectively rather than fearing voters on the far-right.

Democracy Is Now Being Undermined by Far-right Forces

From Left: Hungary PM Viktor Orban, Poland PM Beata Szydlo, Czech PM Bohuslav Sobotka and Slovakia PM Robert Fico pose prior their meeting in Prague on February 15, 2016. Photo: Shutterstock.

The recent assassination attempt on Slovakian PM Robert Fico has raised concerns about political stability and violence in Europe. How do you think the EU should respond to such incidents to ensure the safety and security of its political leaders, including the populist radical right or far-right ones, and maintain democratic integrity?

Sir Graham Watson: I think this is a big challenge. As we saw in the 1930s—although few people remember that time directly—politics can become very nasty. During that decade, we witnessed the assassination of numerous mainstream politicians as the far-right gained power. I’m very concerned about the current situation, not only with the attempt on the life of Robert Fico but also with attacks on candidates in Germany and other countries. Through the European Union, we have established something rare and incredible in European politics: a peaceful, secure, stable, liberal democracy. This democracy is now being undermined by far-right forces, often financed by the Russians, and it’s something we must defend. That’s why I’m a candidate. It was not in my life plan to run again at my age, having already served 20 years in the European Parliament. But I’m so worried about what’s happening and the failure of young people to stand up against it that I’ve decided to confront people like Matteo Salvini directly.

Considering the potential long-term challenges that the EU faces, including the rise of soft and hard Euroscepticism, anti-European sentiments, and anti-EU political parties, what strategies do you recommend for maintaining the EU’s resilience, strengthening European unity, to protect democratic values and institutions across member states?

Sir Graham Watson: First, we need to communicate all the remarkable achievements of the European Union, many of which people take for granted. It’s not just about programs like Horizon for scientific cooperation or Erasmus for student exchanges. It’s also about having Airbus, a leading aircraft manufacturer that competes with Boeing, and world-leading pharmaceutical companies thriving due to Europe’s single market freedoms. In emergencies, such as a major terrorist attack, we can seamlessly move human blood supplies across borders. These are all results of laws adopted at the European level.

When I was in the European Parliament, I helped pass the European Arrest Warrant, allowing police and judicial services from different countries to collaborate in arresting criminals and tackling international organized crime. However, very few people understand these achievements. We must first help them recognize what Europe is capable of and what it has already accomplished, especially as we seek to grant Europe more powers to achieve even more.

Additionally, we need to be smarter and acknowledge that the far-right has succeeded by effectively using social media algorithms, an inexpensive but powerful way to influence people against the European Union. When you lose a battle, it’s often because your enemy has better technology. We need to leverage this technology ourselves to get our message across.

Professor Christophe Jaffrelot is a research director at CERI-Sciences Po/CNRS and Avantha Professor of Indian Politics and Society at King's India Institute, School of Global Affairs, Faculty of Social Science and Public Policy at King’s College, London. Photo: H. Naudet.

Professor Jaffrelot: India under Modi Shares Similar Patterns with Israel in Their ‘Ethnic Democracies’

Professor Christophe Jaffrelot notes that under the leadership of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Hindutva has taken on a distinctly populist and more aggressive posture, marking a shift from the Bharatiya Janata Party’s previously disciplined, cadre-based approach. Modi’s populist influence has further polarized Indian society, rendering his brand of Hindu nationalism more exclusionary and assertive than ever. He also highlights the subtle yet significant similarities between India and Israel in their conceptualization and treatment of minorities. In India, minorities, particularly Muslims, experience systemic exclusion from equal opportunities in employment, housing, and other areas.

Interview by Selcuk Gultasli

In a compelling interview with the European Center for Populism Studies (ECPS), Professor Christophe Jaffrelot, a distinguished CERI-CNRS Senior Research Fellow who teaches at Sciences Po across three schools, delves into the intricate patterns of ‘ethnic democracies’ as exemplified by India and Israel. He highlights the subtle yet profound similarities between the two nations in how they conceptualize and treat their ethnic majorities and minorities. According to Professor Jaffrelot, while Israel’s ethnic democracy is de jure, India’s version manifests de facto, where minorities, particularly Muslims, experience systemic exclusion from equal opportunities in employment and housing among others.

According to Professor Jaffrelot, this discrimination is not just a passive societal residue but an active part of governmental policy and social rhetoric. Professor Jaffrelot articulates that the ideological underpinnings of this approach in India stem from a century-old ideology known as Hindutva. This ideology, largely unchanged since its formal introduction in 1923 by Savarkar in “Hindutva: Who is a Hindu?”, defines the nation in terms of Hindu heritage and culture, positioning Hindus as the rightful sons of the Indian soil. This framework inherently diminishes the status of other communities, effectively making them second-class citizens unless they assimilate into the dominant Hindu culture.

The Professor points out that under the leadership of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Hindutva has acquired a distinctly populist and more aggressive posture, which is a departure from the earlier disciplined, cadre-based approach of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Modi’s populist dimension has further polarized the Indian society, making his version of Hindu nationalism more exclusionary and assertive than ever before.

The implications of such a hardened stance are far-reaching, affecting not just the internal social fabric of India but also its external diplomatic relations, especially with countries like Pakistan and Israel. The shared ideological and strategic interests between India under the BJP and Israel, particularly their common stance on Islam and Islamism, underscore a unique geopolitical alignment that transcends mere diplomacy, touching the core of national identity and cultural politics.

As the interview progresses, Professor Jaffrelot explores the consequences of this ideology on India’s secular and multicultural ethos. He argues that the populist manipulation of Hindu nationalism under Modi’s leadership does not merely challenge the pluralistic foundations of India but also poses a significant risk to the democratic principles enshrined in the constitution.

Through this in-depth discussion, Professor Jaffrelot not only provides a critical analysis of the current political climate in India but also places it within a broader global context of rising ethnic nationalism and far-right populism. His insights offer a sobering reminder of the potent mix of populism and nationalism, which is reshaping nations across the world, making this interview a crucial read for anyone interested in understanding the contemporary challenges facing democratic societies today.

Here is the transcription of the interview with Professor Christophe Jaffrelot with minor edits.

Modi Has Changed Hindu Nationalism More Than Anybody Else

How has Hindu nationalism and Hindutva evolved, and what historical factors shaped its current form, especially in its intersection with populism in contemporary Indian politics?

Professor Christophe Jaffrelot: Well, this movement is now 100 years old. It was initiated in the 1920s, with the first ideological charter published in 1923 by Savarkar titled “Hindutva: Who is a Hindu?” The ideology, which remains largely unchanged to this day, defines the Indian nation on the basis of Hinduism, or more precisely, on the basis of the Hindu people. Hindus are seen as the sons of the soil, the main community, the primary people, and minorities are expected to pledge allegiance to their religion and culture or accept that they are second-class citizens. This ideology has not changed significantly. The organization evolved; in 1925, two years after Savarkar’s book, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) was born. This organization embodies Hindu nationalism and is non-political.

Initially, RSS didn’t seek any particular role but aimed to organize Hindus and make them more cohesive and muscular. They adopt a paramilitary style for disciplining young Hindus. This organization has remained largely the same since then, except that after independence in the 1940s, they started building additional subsidiaries such as student unions, trade unions, labor unions, peasant unions, and a political party. This political party is now the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), led by Narendra Modi. Modi has probably changed Hindu nationalism more than anybody else by enrolling it with a populist dimension. Until Modi, the BJP was a disciplined, cadre-based organization. With Modi, after the 2014 elections, a mass appeal emerged, making a huge difference, and as a result, the BJP has become the largest Indian party, with the majority of members of Parliament in the Lower House now belonging to it.

Ethnic Democracy Is De Jure in Israel, De Facto in India

What does Hindutva’s proliferation mean for the Indian democracy? How does Hindutva challenge the secularism, pluralism, and the multi-culturalism of the Indian state?

Professor Christophe Jaffrelot: As I mentioned, the Hindutva ideology considers that minorities must either pledge allegiance to Hindu culture or expect to be in a dominated situation. So, there is a rejection of multiculturalism and secularism. In India, secularism means that all groups are treated equally by the state. This principle is enshrined in the Constitution, which includes articles stating that minorities can apply for subsidies to run their own schools, among other provisions. However, Hindu nationalism has consistently opposed this idea, arguing that citizens should not be seen as equals and that Hinduism should prevail. This stance is detrimental to multiculturalism and democracy. But it’s not surprising, as populism tends to oppose pluralism. 

When you say that the people are enshrined, epitomized by the “sons of the soil,” it becomes very challenging for minorities to secure the collective rights they deserve in a democratic, multicultural setup. In this way, India appears to be following a pattern seen in many other places, including Israel. In Israel, the concept of “ethnic democracy” was introduced by Sammy Smooha, a political scientist. Ethnic democracy can be de jure, as in Israel, or de facto, as in India. In the de facto scenario, minorities are second-class citizens because they lack equal access to the job market and the housing market. This discrimination is precisely what we observe today vis-a-vis the Muslims.

Hinduism and Hindutva Are Distinctly Different

Volunteers of Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) on Vijyadashmi festival, a large gathering or annual meeting during Ramanavami a Hindu festival in Ghaziabad, Uttar Pradesh on October 19, 2018. Photo: Pradeep Gaurs.

How would you characterize the relationship between Hindu nationalism, Hindutva and populism in the context of the BJP’s rise to power? What factors have contributed or paved the way for BJP’s and Modi’s electoral victory in 2014? How has the BJP shaped and promoted Hindu nationalism, and is Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s leadership style effective in this context?

Professor Christophe Jaffrelot: Hinduism and Hindutva are certainly not the same, although some claim they are. They argue that Hindutva is merely an extension of Hinduism, but this is not the case. Hinduism, unlike many religions, lacks a definitive corpus; it has no central book with a capital “B,” no clergy, no church, and no singular center of gravity. Instead, its unit of analysis is the Sampradaya, or sectarian movements, which have been established by Gurus who demonstrated significant spiritual creativity. Unity in Hinduism stems from the caste system and social organization, rather than a religious framework, which is highly diverse. A fitting metaphor for Hinduism is the Banyan tree, where the trunk—or core—is elusive, and all Gurus are equally legitimate in their approaches to guiding disciples toward salvation.

Hindutva is an ideology and does not view Hinduism as a creed. It is not concerned with paths to salvation or beliefs; instead, it focuses on forging a collective identity to make a people. Hindus are not just believers; they are a people. This mirrors the difficulties in distinguishing between Zionism and the Jewish people. Hindutva has instrumentalized Hinduism for its purposes. For example, in the 1980s, proponents of Hindutva launched a movement to reclaim a sacred site in Ayodhya, in northern India. This site was the location of the Babri Masjid, a mosque built in 1528 by the first Mughal Emperor, Babur. They claimed this mosque was erected over a demolished Hindu temple, purportedly at the birthplace of Lord Rama, an avatar of Lord Vishnu—a belief widely held among Hindus. In the 1980s, this sentiment was leveraged to mobilize Hindus against Muslims, incite riots, and eventually lead to the demolition of the mosque and the construction of a new Hindu temple, which was inaugurated in January this year. This is a prime example of how religion can be instrumentalized by ideologues. However, I must emphasize again that Hinduism and Hindutva are distinctly different.

Populism Results in Authoritarianism

India’s Prime Minister, Shri Narendra Modi visits Gurdwara Rakabganj Sahib to pay tribute to Guru Teg Bahadur, in New Delhi on December 20, 2020. Photo: Shutterstuck.

How would you describe Narendra Modi’s populism and how does it differ from other populisms in particular populist parties in Europe?

Professor Christophe Jaffrelot: There are many similarities. The concept of populism, in my view, primarily involves a direct connection between the leader and the populace, bypassing traditional intermediaries. Narendra Modi, for instance, did not heavily rely on his party or the RSS, despite being a product of the RSS. As an RSS volunteer since the age of seven, he certainly embodies the organization’s ethos. However, upon becoming the Chief Minister of Gujarat, he opted to establish his own parallel power structure, which focused more on promoting his personal image rather than the party or organization. He pioneered the use of social media, holograms, and even a TV channel named after him to communicate directly with the public. This strategy of direct engagement is a quintessential element of his approach.

The second characteristic of populism is that the leader is perceived as “one of the people,” yet also possesses a unique charisma. Modi exemplifies this as he comes from a humble, low-caste background, making it easy for him to appear as one of the people, one of the plebeians, one of the common folk. He often speaks in a manner that resonates with the general populace, frequently discussing his impoverished childhood and his closeness to the poor. Despite this, Modi is also viewed as a charismatic and exceptional figure. Notably, he took bold actions, such as the military strike on Pakistan in 2019, which was unprecedented since 1971. Additionally, his tenure as Chief Minister is marked by controversial events like the anti-Muslim pogroms, underscoring his extraordinary and divisive role in politics. Thus, the second criterion of populism is being “a man of the people,” but one who is distinctly apart from them in capability and action.

This insight is crucial for grasping Narendra Modi’s populist style, a trait he shares with other populist leaders globally. Similar patterns can be observed in figures like Erdogan, Duterte, and Trump, who position themselves as antagonists of the elite, often claiming victimization by them. Modi frequently portrays himself as a victim of the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty and the liberal elite, English-speaking elite, emphasizing his vernacular identity by predominantly speaking in Indian languages rather than English.

Now there are two other very important criteria of populism that Narendra Modi fulfills, and they have to do with ideology. He is a national populist. He speaks in the name of the majority, not in the name of all citizens. Thus, he continues to polarize. In the ongoing election campaign, he has been very critical of Muslims, openly denigrating them in a mean manner. His style is also very vulgar because he wants to mobilize Hindu voters, not all voters. So, he is a national populist. Similarly, Netanyahu, when conversing, does not try to get the Muslim vote. He does not care for the Muslim vote. On the contrary, he tries to polarize by attacking Muslims, Palestinians in the colonies. The similarity there is also striking.

The fourth, but very important, dimension that I want to bring into the picture is that, like many other populists, he is authoritarian. Populism leads to authoritarianism almost automatically because the moment you can say, “I am the people,” there is no place for diversity, dissent, or opposition. If you are opposing the man who represents the people, you are deemed international. Therefore, you’re illegitimate. He has kept disqualifying the opposition leaders and has even sent many of them behind bars. Today, for the first time in the history of India, a chief minister, the chief minister of Delhi, is in prison, and that’s just one example among political prisoners. Secondly, the Congress party, the number one opposition party, has seen several of its bank accounts frozen because, again, they are seen as threats, which are considered illegitimate. 

The media is also captured by the ruling party, most of the time. News channels, including NDTV, the last independent channel, have been bought by oligarchs, friends of the ruling party. So, that’s another very important criterion of populism: populism results in authoritarianism, and this authoritarianism is conducive to fighting against opposition and transforming the election competition into a non-level playing field. It’s a non-level playing field because of the media coverage of the election campaigns and also because of money. The kind of financial resources the BJP has is nothing compared to what the opposition possesses. The opposition is, of course, at the receiving end of so many rules and regulations, making it very difficult for them to finance the election campaign. So, it’s still not a level playing field.

I conclude that in a populist regime like this one, the leader must take the risk of an election. It’s not North Korea; it’s not China. Populists need the popular mandate. They need legitimacy derived from the vote, from the electorate, to be in a position to say, “I can prevail because I am the people.” Of course, when you take the risk of the vote, of the election, you also risk losing. That’s why it’s an authoritarian regime, but not a fascist regime. It’s a different category.

Muslims in India Are Getting Ghettoized

A man chanting songs with a dummy cow in the background during the Golden Jubilee
celebration of VHP – a Hindu nationalist organization on December 20, 2014 in Kolkata, India. Photo: Arindam Banerjee.

What role do the BJP and Modi play in promoting exclusionary practices against Muslim minorities in India? How does the nexus of Hindu nationalism and populism impact social cohesion, diversity, and India’s democratic ideals?

Professor Christophe Jaffrelot: This time, Modi has been explicitly communal, using words vis-à-vis Muslims that he had never publicly used before, because he is on the defensive. He needs to mobilize his support base as much as possible. However, until recently, he was not explicitly anti-Muslim. Thus, the dirty job was done by others. There was a very clear division of labor: the government and the party tried to remain clean. By contrast, underground, there were groups we call ‘vigilantes’. These vigilantes indulged in cultural policing, patrolling university campuses to check whether Muslim boys were talking to Hindu girls, to prevent them from interacting with Hindu girls because of the fear of them seducing and converting Hindu women. It sounds banal, but in practice, it could be very ugly and result in violence. Violence is the order of the day when they patrol highways to check whether truck drivers are transporting bovines to the slaughterhouse, with the cow being the sacred animal, par excellence, in India. This movement, known as cow protection, is clearly a way to discipline and harass Muslims, and there have been many cases of lynchings. Similarly, the same groups make it very difficult for Hindus to sell their flats or houses to Muslims in mixed neighborhoods, to ensure that there is no interaction and that ghettoization remains the order of the day. Muslims are getting ghettoized for that reason among others, including socioeconomic decline. Of course, all these practices go together with discrimination in the job market, and Muslims are suffering socioeconomically.

These are the daily routines for Muslims, who live in fear, especially when they are in small minorities. However, what is new is the passing of laws that not only de facto but also de jure make them second-class citizens. For instance, a significant law passed in 2019, the Citizenship Amendment Act, states that only non-Muslim refugees from Bangladesh, Pakistan, and Afghanistan would be eligible for Indian nationality and citizenship. Many other laws have been enacted at the state level, making interreligious marriages very difficult, severely restricting conversion out of Hinduism, and complicating the sale of houses to someone from a different community. 

So, while BJP and Modi at the center appear to remain clean, underground vigilantes do the dirty work. But lately, we also see governments at both the state and national levels indulging in overtly communal practices. This is a notable change. In India, we use the term ‘communal’ because it was the word used, especially under Nehru in the 1950s and 1960s, to indicate a departure from nationalism. Communalism can be Hindu, Muslim, Sikh; nationalism is Indian. People were encouraged to feel like Indians and not indulge in communalism. I find this distinction still very useful.

You often refer to ‘the banalization of Islamophobia.’ How has this banalization evolved as BJP took root in Indian politics?

Professor Christophe Jaffrelot: The center of gravity in public discourse has shifted. For me, banalization is evident in the acceptance of words that would never have been deemed legitimate in the public sphere 15-20, or 25 years ago. Saying that Muslims have many wives and engage in polygamy, or that Muslims have many children precisely because they have many wives, or that they pledge allegiance to Mecca and the Middle East—none of these assertions would have been possible 15-20, or 25 years ago. They would have faced sanctions and been considered outside the bounds of legitimate discourse. Now, the situation is entirely different. There is a banalization of prejudice, making it very commonplace. This isn’t only in India; it’s something you find elsewhere. But it has emerged prominently in India, with the type of words and stigmatization that have become so routinized. It’s truly astonishing. This shift also manifests in physical violence, including lynching, which was not at all part of the public life scenario 10-15, or 20 years ago, again.

To what extent has Hindu nationalism influenced foreign policy decisions under the Modi government?

Professor Christophe Jaffrelot: It’s not so easy to establish a clear correlation between these two. Certainly, vis-à-vis Pakistan, but even there, this assertion must be qualified. Narendra Modi invited Nawaz Sharif to his swearing-in ceremony in 2014 and made a stopover in Lahore to wish Nawaz Sharif a happy birthday in 2015. He wanted to normalize relations with Pakistan, and Nawaz Sharif was seen as the right partner for this endeavor. This effort halted after terrorist attacks in India, likely perpetrated by Jihadi groups who were opposed to this normalization. These groups have consistently sabotaged the normalization process between India and Pakistan. After these incidents, Modi became probably more aggressive than any of his predecessors, except perhaps Indira Gandhi, vis-à-vis Pakistan, influenced by his ideological stance. It can be argued that his position as a Hindu nationalist leader played a role, but this became evident only after 2015-16. Regarding other international relations, there are affinities with Israel that can be understood only through ideological proximity and a shared opposition to Muslims or, at least, Islamists. The fact that the Modi government has not been critical of Netanyahu lately is very revealing.

There Are Affinities between Zionism and Hindutva

Photo: Shutterstock.

This is the next question, Professor, let me ask it. Why does Israel present itself as an ideal polity for BJP?

Professor Christophe Jaffrelot: It is because there are affinities between Zionism and Hindutva, as I’ve mentioned previously. These two ideologies perceive their people not merely as believers of a religion but as descendants of the original inhabitants of a sacred land. Very few religions in the world can claim that their practitioners have in their veins the blood of the original inhabitants of the land where their most sacred sites are located. Thus, you have two sides of the same coin: the identity of the people, a kind of ethnic unity, and the location, a sacred land. These commonalities are significant. Additionally, there are very few countries with these characteristics, and atop that, they can claim to have been there for 3,000 years or 4,000 years—and they are often generous with these estimates. This represents their common ground.

Of course, they share one more thing in common: the fear of Islam and Islamism. This fear is certainly exaggerated, and both sides play the victimization card very effectively. However, this fear is not entirely imagined; there have been Islamist attacks. The Jihadi attacks on India in the 2000s had a significant impact. These attacks targeted, of course, Kashmir, but also, as you may remember, Mumbai in 2008 and Delhi in 2001. This common enemy, so to speak, has brought them closer, even before the BJP took over. As early as the 2000s, the Congress-led government considered that fostering closer ties with Israel for security reasons made sense. This is why they also collaborate in military terms.

After EP Elections We Will See A Different Europe

Lastly, Professor, do you think the electoral victory of Geert Wilders and his Party for Freedom opens a new chapter in European politics signaling the normalization of far-right parties? How concerned are you about a possible surge of far-right parties in the upcoming European Parliament (EP) elections in June?

Professor Christophe Jaffrelot: It’s certainly a trend we see all across the board. Most European countries will witness the rise of far-right parties. Interestingly, they are not all aligned in their approaches, which is something we sometimes overlook. Some parties are striving to appear more moderate; Marine Le Pen, for example, is desperately trying to present a more moderate image, and it’s working. Conversely, in Germany, we see a radicalization of the extreme right. So, the trajectories are not the same.

Moreover, their views on Russia differ significantly. Many national populist parties in Eastern Europe, including Poland’s PiS, identify Russia as the main threat, whereas other parties, including Orban’s Fidesz, still regard Putin as a role model. Putin is also a role model for others, including Salvini’s Lega and Le Pen’s National Rally.

This divergence creates another point of contention. For instance, forming a unified group in the European Parliament won’t be straightforward; the risk of this happening is, in fact, minimal for all these reasons. However, this doesn’t mean they won’t impact the European Parliament. My concern is that they will consistently join forces on issues like immigration and the Green Deal, making it very difficult to continue many policies in the spirit they were initiated.

Yes, the risk is very real that we will see a different Europe. They don’t want to leave the EU; rather, they aim to transform it from within. Brexit is not a model they wish to emulate, especially given the high cost Britain has paid. Instead, they will try to transform the EU from the inside, and the European Parliament will be the laboratory for this transformation.

A photograph which was taken during Candlelight March in South Korea. Photo: Shutterstock.

Professor Sang-Jin Han: Threat to Democracy in South Korea Doesn’t Come from Populists, but from Neoliberals 

When queried about the correlation between populism and democracy and the potential jeopardy to democracy in South Korea, Profesor Sang-Jin Han argues the potential threat to democracy in South Korea does not come from populist citizens, but from neoliberal ones. By sharing insights from his 2018 empirical study, he elucidated, “My research aimed to discern which citizens genuinely endorse autocracy and strong leadership. Surprisingly, the findings unveiled that those meeting specific criteria for populism did not inherently endorse robust autocratic leadership. Rather intriguingly, it was the neo-liberal citizens who exhibited a tendency to endorse such authoritarian leadership.”

Interview by Selcuk Gultasli

Giving an exclusive interview to the European Center for Populism Studies (ECPS) on Monday, Profesor Sang-Jin HanEmeritus Professor of Sociology at Seoul National University in South Korea, says the potential threat to democracy in South Korea does not come from populist citizens, but from neoliberal ones.

When queried about the correlation between populism and democracy and the potential jeopardy to democracy in the nation, Professor Sang-Jin Han shared insights from his 2018 empirical study. He elucidated, “My research aimed to discern which citizens genuinely endorse autocracy and strong leadership. Surprisingly, the findings unveiled that those meeting specific criteria for populism did not inherently endorse robust autocratic leadership. Rather intriguingly, it was the neo-liberal citizens who exhibited a tendency to endorse such authoritarian leadership.”

According to Professor Han, the perplexing aspect is why neo-liberal citizens, who typically enjoy the benefits of political liberty and economic liberalism, would support authoritarian leadership. One possible explanation is that they perceive a threat from a powerful civil society and civil movements, fearing that these forces could potentially hinder democracy. In their view, embracing a strong leader is a means to mitigate this perceived threat and safeguard against the influence of civil society.

This puzzling phenomenon raises questions about the motivations of neoliberal citizens, who, despite enjoying political and economic liberties, rally behind authoritarian leaders. Professor Han suggests that their support may stem from a perceived threat posed by powerful civil society and civil movements, which they fear could hinder democracy.

The interview delves into various aspects of populism in South Korea, exploring its historical roots, manifestations, and implications for democracy. Professor Han also challenges the traditional left-wing/right-wing dichotomy often applied to populism, arguing that populism in Korea transcends ideological boundaries and is more about emotion than specific political positions. He highlights the rise of a populist leader, Cho Kuk, and the emotional fervor observed during recent elections, signaling a potential threat to democracy.

Moreover, Professor Han sheds light on the genealogy of populism in Korea, tracing its origins to the aftermath of the Korean War and its enduring influence on the country’s political landscape. He emphasizes the unique context of Korean populism, distinct from Western models, and the role of digital media in shaping public discourse.

Here is the transcription of the interview with Profesor Sang-Jin Han with minor edits.

Two Pillars of Populism: Distrust to Political Elites and Advocacy of the People as Source of Political Legitimacy

Professor Han, thank you so very much for your time and for joining our interview series. Let me start with the first question. How do you define populism in the context of South Korean politics, and what are the key criteria you use to identify populist movements?

Professor Sang-Jin Han: I propose two criteria for a theory of populism: a high degree of distrust towards political elites and conventional politicians, coupled with the advocacy of the people as the genuine source of political legitimacy. I define populism based on these overarching criteria.

Why do you think Derrida’s concept of hauntology is useful to the study of populism not only in Western Europe or Latin America but also globally?

Professor Sang-Jin Han: I was very fascinated by Derrida’s concept of hauntology because we can say that the specter of populism is spreading, haunting the world today, much like Marx and Engels declared the specter of Communism haunting Europe in 1848. Now, living in Asia, I find an interesting overlapping imagination. In East Asia, when someone passes away, we wish for their soul to rest in peace. However, sometimes these specters emerge, wandering around sensitizing attention to their deep-seated sorrows, resentment, or anguish. We feel compelled to address to this anguish in order for them to rest in peace. In a similar way, Derrida argues that the specter of Marxism resurfaces to express their desperate anguish over the lost future which is related to the normative principle of democracy. Thus, Derrida attempts to reconstruct the specific specter of Marxism as critique because it contributes to democracy while deconstructing other specters arising from the genealogical traces of orthodox Marxism or historical materialism. I find this hauntological approach very intriguing.

Profesor Sang-Jin Han, Emeritus Professor of Sociology at Seoul National University in South Korea.

In your article The Hauntological Approach to Populism, you argue that: Thus, there is no reason for the hauntological approach to treat populism in itself as an intrinsic danger to democracy. On the contrary, in many historical examples, populist orientations and movements have paved the road to democracy until modern democratic institutions became rooted there.” Can you please give concrete examples to clarify the assumption that populism is not intrinsically danger to democracy?

Professor Sang-Jin Han: To start, democracy operates on the normative principle that the people are the genuine source of legitimacy in political power. Populism often taps into this appeal. However, the empirical reality often diverges from this normative ideal, leading to the emergence of populism in the real world. This disjuncture serves as the starting point for analysis. Derrida, naturally, acknowledges this complexity. Populism arises as a response to this gap, representing a longing for a future that never quite materialized, yet refusing to relinquish hope for it.

What does this hope for the future entail in the context of populism? Primarily, it involves recognizing the people as the true source of political legitimacy. This underscores the importance of scrutinizing which aspects of populism contribute positively to democracy. While populism can bolster democracy by emphasizing the primacy and advocacy of the people, it also poses dangers. If populism breeds hatred, it becomes a threat to democracy. History provides ample examples. Many experiences in Latin America during the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s, as well as instances in Southern Europe and Korea in the 1980s, illustrate how populism can either serve as a catalyst for furthering democracy or undermine it, depending on its manifestations.

Role of “Minjung” in Shaping History of South Korean Populism

What are the basic historical milestones in the formation of the significant genealogical traces of populist imagination in modern Korean history?

Professor Sang-Jin Han: I believe one of the most significant occurrences in the 1980s was the transition towards political democracy in our country. The primary actors were the students and the protestant church, advocating a form of emancipation theology. Together, they played a pivotal role in shaping the history of populism. At the heart of this movement was the concept of “Minjung,” representing the grassroots people. The students endeavored to revitalize Minjung culture through various forms of expression such as art, folk dancing, and pop performances, all the while spearheading the democratization process.

Their advocacy extended to marginalized and oppressed individuals under military leadership and dictatorship. Thus, the 1980s stand out as a crucial milestone in Korea’s history. During this period, students ventured into urban shanty towns, rural areas, and factories, actively engaging with workers to help organize labor unions. Through these efforts, they contributed significantly to shaping a constructive image of populism in Korea’s democratization process.

Candlelight March Movement versus National Flag Movement

Ranks of men carry banners to protest against the policies of South Korea President Moon Jae-In in Seoul on November 16, 2019. Photo: Matt Ragen.

You state that, populism in itself involves both pro-democratic and anti-democratic streams. Yet, in the case of South Korea, the historical experience as well as the empirical analysis shows that the pro-democratic streams, exemplified by candlelight vigils, have been so far much stronger than the anti-democratic ones like hatred populism. Can you please elaborate on the pro-democratic streams that help consolidate democracy in South Korea?

Professor Sang-Jin Han: As observed by foreign onlookers, South Korea stands as a compelling example of political democracy despite enduring periods of military or authoritarian rule. The peaceful transition of government through elections in 1988, roughly four decades ago, marked a significant milestone. With two robust political parties, an active opposition, a vibrant political culture, and a strong civil society and public sphere, Korea doesn’t fit the mold of a populist country. However, there are populist tendencies evident among citizens, actors, and popular movements.

Notably, events like the Candlelight March and the National Flag Movement in 2016 and early 2017 showcased dramatic instances of populist movements. These gatherings, occurring in the same downtown streets of Seoul for months, remarkably remained peaceful with no clashes or violence. Despite their differences, with the Candlelight March predominantly composed of young, progressive, and liberal individuals advocating for democracy, and the National Flag Movement comprising older, conservative individuals leaning towards authoritarianism. They peacefully coexisted, competing for attention.

Interestingly, supporters of the Candlelight March emphasized the primacy of the people, while backers of the National Flag Movement harbored significant distrust towards politicians. This dichotomy suggests that populist movements advocating for the people, albeit in a republican sense, tend to bolster democracy, as demonstrated by the events of 2016 in Korea.

Your research distinguishes between the Candlelight movement and the National Flag movement. Could you explain the differences between these two movements and their respective impacts on democracy in South Korea?

Professor Sang-Jin Han: The Candlelight March Movement has a deep-rooted history in Korea, often emerging as a form of populism during periods of democratic regression. In the case of 2016, our government was under the control of President Park Geun-hye, the daughter of former President and military leader Park Chung-hee. Her administration sought to revert to a bureaucratic authoritarian regime by exerting control over civil society through a well-organized bureaucracy.

However, Korean society had undergone significant progressiveness since the democratization movements of the 1980s. The main energy within civil society had become younger, more dynamic, and increasingly committed to principles of freedom of expression, freedom of assembly, and democratic governance. This growing disparity between the political establishment and civil society eventually culminated in clashes, notably in downtown areas.

These clashes symbolize a recurrent pattern: whenever our democracy faces a threat of backsliding, energy within civil society surges, manifesting in movements like the Candlelight March. While not unprecedented, the 2016 protests were particularly decisive and successful. Ultimately, Parliament moved to impeach the President—a decision upheld by the Constitutional Court. This peaceful, progressive process demonstrated the power of people to advance democracy by countering threats and sources of democratic regression.

The events of 2016 stand as a remarkable chapter in Korean history, showcasing the resilience and efficacy of democratic movements in safeguarding and advancing democratic principles.

In your view, what are the main threats to democracy in South Korea, and how do these threats relate to populist movements such as the National Flag movement?

Professor Sang-Jin Han: I’d like to clarify that the National Flag Movement in 2016 didn’t pose a direct threat to democracy; rather, it represented a genuine voluntary effort by individuals, predominantly with conservative leanings, to defend Korea’s freedom against perceived threats from North Korea. Unlike past movements orchestrated by the government or conservative factions, this movement arose more spontaneously, indicating a positive evolution in democracy. However, its advocacy wasn’t inherently pro-democratic; instead, it focused on safeguarding freedom against North Korean threats.

Central to this movement was a strong aversion to the political elite, particularly those perceived as aligning too closely with North Korea. This sentiment, characterized by a sense of hatred or animosity towards certain political figures, rather than a commitment to democratic principles, has the potential to impede democratic progress. The National Flag Movement thus exemplifies this trend. While the movement’s intentions to defend national sovereignty and freedom are commendable, its emphasis on anti-North Korean sentiments and distrust of political elites may detract from broader democratic objectives.

Neo-Liberals as a Threat to Democracy

A group of demonstrators sit on the steps of a downtown building, chanting in protests against president Park Geun-hye in Seoul, South Korea on December 3, 2016. Photo: Kaitlyn McLachlan.

 

What were the findings of your empirical research regarding the association between populist movements in South Korea and support for democracy? How do these findings inform our understanding of the relationship between populism and democracy in the country? You argue; in the case of South Korea, the potential threat to democracy does not come from populist citizens, but from neoliberal citizens. Can you please explain why this is the case?

Professor Sang-Jin Han: Explaining this question in a simple yet insightful manner is indeed challenging. My empirical research, conducted in 2018, aimed to understand which citizens truly support autocracy and a strong leader. Interestingly, the findings revealed that those citizens meeting certain criteria for populism did not actually support a strong autocratic leader. Instead, it was the neo-liberal citizens who tended to favor such leadership.

The perplexing aspect is why neo-liberal citizens, who typically enjoy the benefits of political liberty and economic liberalism, would support authoritarian leadership. One possible explanation is that they perceive a threat from a powerful civil society and civil movements, fearing that these forces could potentially hinder democracy. In their view, embracing a strong leader is a means to mitigate this perceived threat and safeguard against the influence of civil society.

Despite being relatively privileged and satisfied compared to other groups in South Korea, these neo-liberal citizens still rally behind an autocratic leader. It’s a puzzle, but it’s the reality we uncovered through our research.

What is your response to the arguments that South Korea is democratically backsliding and in the middle of a democratic depression?

Professor Sang-Jin Han: As I previously mentioned, during moments of democratic backsliding, we often witness spontaneous societal movements pushing back against threats to democracy, ultimately succeeding in overcoming these challenges. Currently, while I don’t believe South Korea is facing democratic backsliding, there are concerning signs that suggest we may be heading in that direction.

In recent national elections held in April, both ruling and opposition parties and their leaders heavily relied on populist rhetoric, fueled by a sense of animosity towards each other. Unlike previous elections where strategists led the charge, this time, political leaders themselves actively advocated populist ideas, portraying their opponents not just as political adversaries, but as enemies deserving of punishment, even imprisonment. Consequently, the electoral atmosphere became emotionally charged, marked by harsh and unrestrained confrontations.

This heightened emotional struggle and the unprecedented level of confrontation during the election could potentially set the stage for democratic backsliding in the future. However, it’s worth noting that South Korea has overcome many difficulties in maintaining democracy thus far.

How will the elections held last month influence the political landscape in terms of right-wing and left-wing populism? What implications do you see for South Korean politics in terms of the polarization and demonization observed between the ruling conservative party and the progressive opposition party?

Professor Sang-Jin Han: I’m skeptical about the concept of left-wing populism versus right-wing populism, particularly in the context of South Korea. In my observation, neither left nor right ideology dominates the content of populism here. Populism, by its nature, tends to be more about emotion than adhering to specific ideological positions. Of particular concern is the cultivation of hatred, which I observed flourishing during the last general election.

A notable development during this election was the rise of a specific populist leader, Cho Kuk, a former law professor at Seoul National University and a close aide to former President Moon Jae-in. Over the years, for some understandable reasons related to the legal prosecution of himself and his wife, Cho Kuk has gained public sympathy as a symbol of political oppression and resentment. Just before the election he created a political party which became surprisingly the third party in national congress. He continues to employ aggressive rhetoric, labeling opponents as enemies deserving punishment. The emergence of such a populist leader and party may signal a potential threat to democracy in Korea.

This observation is intriguing, and while I can’t make a definitive judgment, I’m closely monitoring the role of this populist politician and party. Despite being a colleague and friend, his transformation into a popular populist figure underscores a significant shift in Korean politics. Unlike in the past, we now witness the emergence of a strong populist politician and party as a notable departure from previous political landscapes.

South Korea Follows Its Own Trajectory vis-à-vis Populism

Does the surge in populist movements in Europe and the US have any impact on South Korean populism? 

Professor Sang-Jin Han: When examining the genealogy of populism in Korea, I find little influence from either Europe or the US. The roots of populism in Korea can be traced back to strong emotions, particularly those that emerged during the Korean War from 1950 to 1953 and its aftermath. During this period, anti-communist sentiment proliferated, heavily influenced by American Cold War policies. While we’ve moved past this era, remnants of this anti-communist fervor persist, shaping the political landscape.

However, today’s populism in Korea is not directly tied to past influences from Europe or America. Rather, it’s evolving in its own context, influenced by the country’s unique historical trajectory. Populism is no longer neatly categorized into left or right ideological frameworks. Instead, it’s become more of a visually driven phenomenon, especially in the age of social media. Korean society is emotionally charged and deeply divided, and politicians and other actors capitalize on this by leveraging digital media to create and disseminate compelling images.

Korea’s advanced digital technology allows for effective image production and dissemination, shaping public perceptions and discourse. While foreign observers may attempt to apply labels like left populism or right populism, these dichotomies just reflect political slogans or flags but don’t necessarily capture the nuances of Korean populism. Korea follows its own trajectory, distinct from Western models, and its populism reflects this unique context.

Dr. Meredith Shaw, a Research Professor at the University of Tokyo's the Institute of Social Science (社研) and the managing editor of Social Science Japan Journal.

Professor Shaw: Even Progressive Politicians in South Korea Occasionally Display Authoritarian Tendencies

Professor Meredith Shaw of the University of Tokyo discussed the issue of “autocratization” in South Korea, highlighting concerns about authoritarian tendencies even within progressive political circles. She pointed out that some progressive politicians on the left have at times exhibited authoritarian behavior. For example, they have proposed laws in mimicry of the existing national security law, which aimed to penalize statements perceived as supportive of North Korea. These include recent proposals for laws targeting the misrepresentation of historical events, such as the Japanese colonial rule or the democratic movements, including the Kwangju massacre under the military dictatorship.

Interview by Selcuk Gultasli

Giving an exclusive interview to European Center for Populism Studies (ECPS), Dr. Meredith Shaw, a research professor at the University of Tokyo’s the Institute of Social Science (社研) and the managing editor of Social Science Japan Journal, talked on “autocratization” in South Korea and stated that “Unfortunately, in the democratic era, some progressive politicians on the left have occasionally displayed authoritarian tendencies, though not to the same extent.”

According to Professor Shaw, even these progressive politicians in South Korea employed authocratic tactics, such as proposing laws like the national security law, which aimed to penalize statements perceived as supporting North Korea. “More recently, there have been proposals for laws punishing the misrepresentation of historical events like the Japanese colonial rule or the democratic movements, such as the Kwangju massacre under the military dictatorship. While preventing the spread of false historical narratives is essential, such laws could potentially enable governments to selectively dictate acceptable historical interpretations, ripe for manipulation by either side,” said Professor Shaw.

In this exclusive interview, Professor Shaw delves into the complex landscape of South Korean politics. With a wealth of knowledge spanning historical contexts, socio-political dynamics, and the intricacies of populism and authoritarianism, Professor Shaw offers insightful analyses and nuanced perspectives on the challenges and trends shaping contemporary South Korea.

South Korea’s political landscape is deeply influenced by its historical context, marked by a transition from anti-communism to a burgeoning anti-Japanese sentiment. Against this backdrop, the rise of populism and authoritarian tendencies presents multifaceted challenges. Professor Shaw sheds light on the historical and socio-political factors contributing to these phenomena, exploring how they intersect with the dueling antagonisms of anti-Japanism and anti-communism.

Throughout the interview, Professor Shaw navigates through the intricate dynamics of South Korean politics, examining how populist leaders frame their rhetoric and policies to resonate with the populace. She elaborates on the utilization of historical events and symbols by different factions to shape political messaging, providing insights into the evolving political discourse.

Furthermore, Professor Shaw discusses the impact of populist and authoritarian tendencies on democratic institutions and processes in South Korea. As the interview progresses, Professor Shaw explores the influence of nationalism in South Korean politics, particularly during election campaigns. She assesses the strategies employed by political parties to maintain relevance and examines the role of securitization theory in shaping political rhetoric and decision-making.

Drawing on her expertise in North Korean politics and literature, Professor Shaw also offers intriguing insights into the readership and dissemination of state-produced fiction within North Korea. She analyzes how these literary works intersect with the regime’s control over information and ideology, providing valuable perspectives on understanding the reception and interpretation of foreign interactions among North Korean society.

Here is the transcription of the interview with Professor Meredith Shaw with minor edits.

US Supported Authoritarian Military Dictators in South Korea

Professor Shaw, thank you very much for joining our interview series. I want to start right away with the first question.Given the historical context of South Korea’s democracy emerging from a period of severe anti-communism and anti-Japanese sentiment, what historical and socio-political factors have contributed to the rise of populism and authoritarian tendencies in South Korea? How have anti-Japanism and anti-communism shaped the South Korean politics as two dueling antagonisms?

Meredith Shaw: South Korea has emerged from a long period of Cold War classic anti-communism. Anti-Japan sentiment is a relatively newer phenomenon, and it has escalated over time. I perceive it as a response to anti-communism posing a threat to left-wing parties in South Korea in broad strokes, leading them to seek an equivalent emotional trigger to shift the discourse. With North Korea situated nearby, and with a liberal party in power, their left-leaning counterparts in South Korea often find themselves associated with North Korea. There are numerous reasons why this association occurs, but evidently, any party advocating for a redistributive welfare state is susceptible to accusations from the opposing side, much like in Europe. People assert, “this is socialism in South Korea.”

Some left-leaning parties have countered this by proposing a different vision of redistribution. They advocate for reclaiming wealth accumulated through ill deeds—be it from the colonial era or military dictatorships—and redistributing it to benefit the entire country. Instead of simply taking from the rich and giving to the poor, they may frame it as reclaiming wealth gained from ancestors who worked for colonial authorities. This approach aims to circumvent the traditional accusation of leftist policies being communist. Whether this strategy is a sound solution, given recent events showcasing various phenomena, remains debatable. 

Additionally, this addresses the aspect of authoritarian tendencies, albeit in a roundabout manner. We must also consider the role of the United States over decades, supporting fairly authoritarian military dictators in the South, under the guise of necessity to counter Communism. This has led even fairly centrist individuals to believe that measures such as the national security law and government censorship are essential for the state’s safety and security. Such beliefs may find easier acceptance in a country like South Korea, which faces an immediate, threatening neighbor.

Both Righ- and Left-Wing Parties Engage in Dueling Narrative of Weaponization of History 

Visitors and mourners tie yellow ribbons to tents in remembrance of the victims of the Sewol ferry tragedy in Seoul, South Korea on May 5, 2014. Photo: Joshua Davenport.

How do populist leaders in South Korea typically frame their rhetoric and policies to resonate with the populace? What messaging and discourse strategies do they employ to appeal to the grievances of the people they intend to exploit? For example, how do different factions utilize historical events and symbols to shape their political messaging? Is there any indication of an eagerness to move beyond colonial history?

Meredith Shaw: Great question. In South Korean politics, there are many symbols that hold significant importance for both the left and the right. Traditionally, the left-wing tends to emphasize symbols connected to traditional culture. Some left-wing politicians often appear wearing traditional Korean Hanbok attire and deliver speeches at historical sites linked to Korea’s premodern past. Alternatively, they may have a backdrop of young schoolgirls dressed in traditional costumes. This might seem counterintuitive from a European perspective, but in South Korea, it’s the progressive left that embraces traditional values and art forms, while the conservative right tends to adopt a more modernist, utilitarian approach. They typically opt for business attire, focusing on economic growth and technological advancement, showing little interest in the raucous religious or traditional dancing and cultural displays favored by left-wing activists.

It might sound somewhat counterintuitive, but I’ve observed that the left-wing in South Korea also employs symbolism in response to recent tragedies, such as the 10th anniversary of the tragic sinking of the Sewol ferry. Associated with this tragedy is the symbol of the yellow ribbon, prominently displayed in downtown Seoul around a shrine dedicated to the students who lost their lives. Interestingly, another tragedy occurred two years ago during the Halloween crush in Itaewon, where numerous young people were fatally crushed at a party. In South Korea, when such tragedies occur, people often look to the highest levels of leadership for accountability far more than they might in America. In both the ferry incident and the Itaewon crush, people wear yellow ribbons as an activist response directly challenging the conservative president in office at the time. Those displaying the yellow ribbon symbol are likely progressives or, at the very least, disapprove of the current president. It’s a curious connection to make from tragedies stemming from lax regulations over many years, attributing blame to the sitting president. But such is often the nature of events in South Korea.

On the right, certain far-right groups have weaponized anti-feminist sentiments, with men’s rights becoming a significant symbol. One such online community in South Korea is ILBE Jeojangso, openly far-right and primarily focused on anti-feminism and anti-immigrant rhetoric. Often regarded as the trolls of South Korea, they wield influence over the extreme right and shape political discourse, particularly concerning colonial history. However, it’s worth noting that everything right of center in Korea generally seeks to move beyond colonial history, as dwelling on it isn’t a winning message for them. Nevertheless, right-wing politicians are still often associated with that history and perceived as descended from collaborators, whether rightly or wrongly.

Interestingly, many politicians on both sides have family connections to collaborators. However, the progressive left tends to openly address and recount these stories from the past, emphasizing the importance of remembering history. While it’s crucial not to forget the past, it often becomes a political tool, with personal histories being used to assign blame by association for actions during the colonial era. On the right side, there’s a counteraction by pointing out whose ancestors were involved in certain activities during the Korean War or had connections to North Koreans, creating a dueling narrative of weaponization of history on both sides. Both sides have moments in history they would prefer to forget, yet they continually keep these discussions alive in the political discourse.

Favoring Cronies Is Acceptable Among Political and Business Leaders

From a historical perspective, how have populist and authoritarian tendencies impacted democratic institutions and processes in South Korea, including governance, civil liberties, the rule of law, and the broader implications for democracy in the country?

Meredith Shaw: As mentioned, the military dictatorship period, spanning from the post-war era through the 1980s and supported by the US as a bulwark against encroaching Communism, established a society accustomed to government crackdowns on various aspects of public speech and subcultures, such as hippie culture and rock and roll. This regime controlled what people could read and imprisoned individuals for owning certain books, ticking all the classic authoritarian boxes. One could argue that even before this period, during the Japanese occupation, a framework of authoritarianism was established in the country from which they never truly recovered. While the historical connection may be debated, it’s undeniable that prior to 1986, there were few instances when South Koreans could openly express themselves without fear of reprisal.

Unfortunately, in the democratic era, some progressive politicians on the left have occasionally displayed authoritarian tendencies, though not to the same extent. They’ve employed similar tactics, such as proposing laws like the national security law, which aimed to penalize statements perceived as supporting North Korea. More recently, there have been proposals for laws punishing the misrepresentation of historical events like the Japanese colonial rule or the democratic movements, such as the Kwangju massacre under the military dictatorship. While preventing the spread of false historical narratives is essential, such laws could potentially enable governments to selectively dictate acceptable historical interpretations, ripe for manipulation by either side.

There are factors like the national security law that are deeply entrenched and challenging to remove. Additionally, there’s a prevalent concept of guilt by association in South Korean society. If one’s parents or grandparents were involved in wrongdoing, there’s a belief that individuals should, at the very least, not benefit from their actions. This leads to a permisevness for punishing people based on family or friend connections. On the flip side, it fosters a mentality among political and business leaders that it’s acceptable to favor cronies, as everyone could face punishment together if things go wrong. In essence, there’s a perception that it’s preferable to mutually benefit one another while there’s an opportunity. I believe this tendency is deeply ingrained in South Korean politics.

All Perceived Shortcomings Are Attributed to the Current President

The election is viewed by many as a crucial midterm evaluation of President Yoon Suk-yeol’s government. President Yoon Suk-yeol (center) is pictured attending the NATO summit in Madrid, Spain on June 30, 2022. Photo: Shutterstock.

In its 2024 Democracy Report, the V-Dem Institute of Sweden ranked South Korea under Mr. Yoon as one of the 42 countries undergoing “autocratization.” What factors have contributed to the autocratization of South Korea?

Meredith Shaw: I’ve read the report, and I agree with their conclusion. However, I question the internal logic they used to arrive there. Based on what I read, it seems like they’re suggesting that a transition from a progressive administration to a conservative one automatically constitutes democratic backsliding. Additionally, they mention current President Yoon Suk Yeol’s predecessor Moon Jae-in as being a human rights lawyer in the 1980s, but they don’t provide much further context about him. This gives the impression of a human rights lawyer being replaced by a right-wing leader who has made efforts to prosecute the previous administration. While this is true, it presents a somewhat one-sided view of the situation. South Korean democracy is in trouble. While it may not be backsliding yet, there are tendencies on both sides to target their opponents when they are in power and then to distribute benefits to their cronies.

The Moon administration also implemented stringent restrictions on freedom of speech, particularly concerning the North Korean Human Rights Movement and North Korean defectors attempting to discuss North Korea in a negative light. The Moon Jae-in Administration was cautious about such discourse because they were advocating for closer inter-Korean ties and feared upsetting North Korea. Consequently, they imposed both direct and indirect limitations on the publication of certain reports, the writing of memoirs, and discussions about experiences on television. These restrictions were lifted when Yoon Suk Yeol came into power, leading to a resurgence in discussions about North Korean human rights abuses. However, discussing efforts to promote inter-Korean relations remains challenging. Thus, neither side is effectively upholding freedom of speech; instead, each prioritizes certain types of speech while suppressing others.

I would say that Korean politics has long grappled with issues surrounding free journalism and press freedom. There are significant challenges regarding media access, with certain media outlets receiving preferential treatment for offering favorable reporting, leading to clear biases. Most major media organizations in Korea are associated with either the left or the right, lacking a truly impartial centrist perspective. Consequently, the party in power tends to reward media outlets aligned with their own party, a trend observed on both sides of the political spectrum.

In short, the transition from Moon to Yoon Suk Yeol marked a shift from a left-wing to a right-wing leader, which in itself isn’t necessarily problematic. However, the deeper issue lies in widespread disappointment and disenchantment with the political process, irrespective of who holds power. There’s a tendency to attribute all perceived shortcomings to the current president. There’s a tendency to blame the current president for all perceived shortcomings, leading to rapid shifts in party favorability. As evidenced by the significant loss of Yoon Suk Yeol’s party in the recent election, there’s volatility in South Korean politics. While V-Dem might view this as a positive turnaround on the surface, the reality of the recent election was messy. There’s much complexity at play.

The former President of the Republic of Korea Moon Jae-in took a group photo with visitors who came to visit in Cheongwadae (Blue House) in Seoul, South Korea on August 30, 2019. Photo: Chintung Lee.

Both Sides of Political Spectrum Promote Nationalist Messages

How has nationalism been used during the election campaign both by the People Power Party and the opposition the Democratic Party? Can you elaborate on specific strategies or actions taken by these parties to maintain their political relevance? Furthermore, could you assess the role of these strategies in recent elections?

Meredith Shaw: Both parties have made nationalist appeals to the electorate. In the most recent election, the focus appeared to be more on domestic issues rather than regional tensions, given the significant domestic controversies driving the Conservative party’s message. The People Power Party engaged in actions early in the election cycle that aligned with their anti-North Korea, pro-nationalist stance. There was a brief story where the People Power Party warned of signs indicating North Korea’s potential interference in the election, alleging the possibility of a cyber attack. It remains unclear whether this warning was based on credible information or intended to escalate fear towards North Korea.

There was also a recent story I came across stating that the same party issued a directive to the regional election centers to emphasize an anti-North Korea message in this campaign. However, this directive faced resistance from some of the regional candidates, who didn’t perceive it as a winning strategy. If true, this represents a notable shift. In the previous two General Assembly elections, both sides enthusiastically promoted nationalist messages concerning the North Korean threat and Japan. However, in this most recent election, there seemed to be a change in focus. Perhaps they sensed that people were growing weary of such rhetoric, or maybe they found more productive messages centered around the economy. Regardless, this recent election appeared to be relatively more focused on domestic, internal, and economic issues compared to previous ones.

Dueling Antagonisms of Anti-Japanism and Anti-Communism

In one of your past articles, you applied securitization theory to analyze how domestic actors construct foreign threats, particularly concerning Japan and North Korea, within South Korean politics. Could you elaborate on how these securitizing speech acts contribute to the dueling antagonisms of anti-Japanism and anti-communism, and what implications they hold for political rhetoric and decision-making in the country?

Meredith Shaw: In that paper, I argued that politicians don’t only discuss the North Korean threat or engage in anti-Japanese rhetoric in reaction to actions by North Korea or Japan. They also tend to employ such rhetoric reactively in response to criticism from the opposing side. For instance, if North Korea conducts an attack or engages in a provocative action at the border, people immediately turn to left-wing politicians, expecting them to adopt a defensive stance due to their perceived association, whether justified or not.

In response, you see them turning to Japan as a way to bolster their reputation in handling Japan-related issues. There’s a sentiment of questioning whether one should trust those who appear overly friendly with Japan. Similarly, on the right, during the trade dispute with Japan about five years ago, Japan was frequently in the news, leading people to look to the political right-wing and expect them to face repercussions due to their perceived stance favoring better ties with Japan. Consequently, some right-wing politicians pivoted to North Korea, emphasizing its threat as a counterpoint. When individuals instinctively retreat to their comfort zones, it keeps both Japan and North Korea constantly in the public eye. When Japan takes action, the conversation shifts to North Korea, and vice versa. Internally, politicians cannot influence the actions of either country. However, these dynamic prompt reactive responses that often keep the conversation excessively focused on these external threats.

There’s also the issue of excessive scrutiny on family relations, as I discussed earlier. Past history is consistently brought up in every election cycle, which keeps memories of that history fresh and allows grievances to grow. While it’s important not to forget the lessons of history, consider a European example: if there were a highly competitive party in Belgium today with a past history of affiliations with the Nazi party, they would always be associated with that past by virtue of their lineage. It’s somewhat similar, in South Korea, past history remains ever-present in the political conversation, ensuring it is never forgotten.

South Korea Aims to Avoid Being Associated with Leaders Like Orbán

Presidential candidate Lee Jae-myung of the Democratic Party of Korea speaks in front of supporters for his election campaign in Jeonju-si, North Jeolla Province, South Korea on on February 19, 2022. Photo: Yeongsik Im.

How will the elections held last week influence the political landscape in terms of right-wing and left-wing populism? Does the surge in populist movements in Europe have any impact on South Korean populism? What are the potential avenues for countering the challenges posed by populism and authoritarianism and strengthening democratic norms in South Korea?

Meredith Shaw: Last week’s election marked a significant victory for South Korea’s mainstream center-left party, often dubbed progressive by some, though its level of progressiveness remains a subject of debate. This outcome is somewhat surprising considering the recent turmoil within the left-wing camp, with notable defections and attempts to establish new political entities. Amidst this, allegations of corruption and immorality were rife, tarnishing the image of the mainstream center-left party. Just weeks prior, the Conservative party appeared more composed and in control. However, the election revealed that these splinter groups from the left, including defectors, fared poorly, while the mainstream center-left party exceeded expectations.

The implications of this outcome may lead to a period of gridlock, as the mainstream center-left party, along with the third-largest party, nearly commands a supermajority in the legislature, enabling them to push their agenda with greater ease. Nonetheless, lacking sufficient numbers to override a presidential veto could result in political stalemate. This scenario might compel President Yoon Suk Yeol to adopt a more conciliatory approach, as evidenced by his recent offer to meet with the leader of the center-left Democratic Party, Lee Jae-myung, a gesture he had staunchly refused for two years. Such developments may hint at a potential shift towards more cooperative and compromising politics from both sides. It remains to be seen whether the defector politicians will reconcile and return to the fold, adding another layer of intrigue to the evolving political landscape.

In terms of the influence of populist movements in Europe, I haven’t observed significant connections, though I acknowledge this isn’t my expertise. South Korea seems to look to the West and Europe with a sense of pride in its democratic achievements, aspiring to be recognized as a leader among smaller democracies. Just last month, Seoul hosted a summit for democracy, garnering considerable media attention and support from President Yoon Suk Yeol and President Biden of the US. This event, promoted by various democratic nations, underscored South Korea’s desire to play a pivotal role in the global democratic movement. In this regard, South Korea looks to Europe as a model and aims to avoid being associated with leaders like Viktor Orbán. This aspiration serves as a deterrent against democratic backsliding and reinforces their commitment to democratic values.

There Isn’t Samizdat Tradition of Dissident Writers in North Korea

Caricatures of US President Donald Trump and North Korean Leader Kim Jong-Un. Photo: Willrow Hood.

Lastly, as an expert on North Korean politics and literature, could you provide insights into the readership and dissemination of state-produced fiction within North Korea? How does the distribution of literary works intersect with the regime’s control over information and ideology, and what implications does this hold for understanding the reception and interpretation of foreign interactions among different segments of North Korean society?

Meredith Shaw: This is my favorite topic: North Korean literature and how it affects the view of the outside world. So, I can share what I’ve learned and understood from conversations with a few North Korean defectors who’ve been involved in this industry, and also from reading the works of South Korean scholars who study it. North Korea has an impressive system of state-run, state-produced literature and art, which in some ways dates back to the early Soviet-controlled era right after the war, or even the Japanese colonial era. One could argue this because they also had some institutions created during that era for producing literature. But anyway, there’s not what you would call a Samizdat tradition in North Korea of dissident writers. The idea of that doesn’t make any sense; how would they even publish? Where would they find a press?

However, the State boasts a vast and seemingly efficient system for identifying talent. Talented young writers from all over the country are encouraged to compete for literary awards, thereby gaining recognition. Moreover, there’s a system in place where individuals can sign up to become what is known as literary correspondents. While maintaining their day jobs, they also write stories about their workplaces, be it a factory or a farm. If these stories are published by the party and garner attention, there’s a chance of transitioning into full-time writers. This includes the possibility of relocating to Pyongyang and enjoying a significantly better quality of life. In some respects, it appears to be a fairly functional system. Undoubtedly, many individuals are excluded from this system for political reasons. Nonetheless, they have an effective method of incentivizing potentially talented writers to produce work in support of the regime.

When you read these works, they tend to reside on the more mundane end of the Socialist-realist tradition. All the characters are meant to be role models for either extremely good behavior or extremely bad behavior, with the message at the end. The breakthrough always occurs when the leader encourages people, or when the leader comes up with the idea for the breakthrough they were seeking. Then, everyone exclaims, ‘Oh, it’s such a fantastic leader we have.’ An individual never comes up with the idea without some kind of help from the leader.

There’s a relatively small portion of this literature that discusses foreign events and foreigners, such as past US presidents or depictions of Perestroika in Moscow, or portrayals of traders at a convention in Singapore. Every once in a while, you’ll encounter a story where, for some reason, they have to depict a foreigner or a foreign setting. It’s really interesting because these authors have clearly never seen the things they’re describing. Perhaps they have some idea from the limited amount of foreign media they might be allowed to access. However, their depictions are obviously colored by their understanding of the world from within the confines of their environment. So, it’s an interesting phenomenon to analyze and to observe how they interpret foreign events.

To illustrate, consider the depictions of summits with foreign leaders that have occurred in the past. One might expect these portrayals to be somewhat adversarial, especially the meeting between the North Korean leader and former US President Jimmy Carter in the 1990s. However, in these depictions, President Carter is always presented as a relatively nice guy, especially for an American. He is portrayed as a positive character because he interacts with Kim Il-Sung, listens to him speak, and is immediately won over by the greatness of the North Korean leader in the story. Thus, depictions of foreigners who have actually met and conversed with the North Korean leader are consistently positive.

I think they haven’t written the story yet about the Donald Trump-Kim Jong-un summits, but I can predict that, regardless of their approach, they will portray the American President as being very impressed by the North Korean leader and immediately becoming amicable as a result of meeting him. Additionally, I anticipate they will enjoy writing about President Trump keeping Kim Jong-Un’s letters. I can envision how they might frame that particular news story, with the idea that the American President cherished the letters so much that he would break the law to retain them. That message could be seen as pure gold for them. With all the material I’ve read, I could practically write that story myself.

Professor Staffan I Lindberg, Director of the Varieties of Democracy (V-Dem) Institute at the University of Gothenburg and Dr. Marina Nord, Postdoctoral Research Fellow at V-Dem Institute.

V-Dem Director Lindberg: If Trump Is Reelected, Democracy in the US Might Not Survive

V-Dem’s Director Staffan I. Lindberg expresses his concern: “I am deeply concerned about the possibility of Donald Trump being reelected. In the current context, I believe that if Donald Trump is reelected, democracy in the US might not survive. He has been explicit about his dictatorial intentions, even going as far as labeling Democrats as vermin, a term that evokes disturbing parallels with Nazi Germany from the late 1930s to 1945. Such statements must be taken seriously, as they could embolden autocrats worldwide.”

Interview by Selcuk Gultasli

Expressing deep concern over the potential reelection of Donald Trump in the upcoming November elections in the US, Professor Staffan I Lindberg, Director of the Varieties of Democracy (V-Dem) Institute at the University of Gothenburg, warns, “In the current context, I believe that if Trump is reelected, democracy in the US might not survive.” Highlighting Trump’s explicit dictatorial intentions, Professor Lindberg points out his divisive rhetoric, such as labeling Democrats as “vermin,” drawing disturbing parallels with Nazi Germany from the late 1930s to 1945. Lindberg emphasizes the seriousness of such statements, as they could embolden autocrats worldwide.

In an exclusive interview, Professor Lindberg and Dr. Marina Nord, Postdoctoral Research Fellow at V-Dem Institute, share their analysis of the recent V-Dem report and discuss current political developments worldwide. While Lindberg underscores, “It’s premature to declare the end of democracy,” he remains hopeful for the perseverance and strengthening of democracies, with a vision for more people to enjoy democratic rights, human rights, and freedoms in the future. Dr. Nord adds that their examination of data suggests an era of instability, noting that “while autocratization is frequently reversed, so too is democratization.” Therefore, she underscores the importance of shifting the focus of democracy promotion towards democracy protection.

Professor Lindberg sheds light on the pervasive trend of autocratization, spanning almost 15 years, during which the share of the world’s population residing in autocratizing countries has outstripped that in democratizing nations. He identifies key drivers such as China’s anti-democratic stance, Putin’s influence in former Soviet republics, and Saudi Arabia’s support for non-democratic ideologies, underscoring the gravity of these global shifts. The interview also delves into Israel’s departure from the liberal democracy category, reflecting on the constitutional crisis that precipitated this shift.

Additionally, Professor Lindberg emphasizes that according to their criteria, neither India, Hungary, nor Turkey qualify as electoral democracies anymore. He states, “They now fall below that threshold and are classified as electoral autocracies. Turkey has held this classification since around 2016 or 2017, while Hungary followed suit after 2018-19, and India shortly thereafter. Consequently, they rank among the worst offenders in terms of autocratization globally over the past decade and a half.”

Amidst the concerning trends, Dr. Nord emphasizes the importance of resilience and defiance against autocratization. Drawing from their research, she delineates five key factors driving democratic resurgence, ranging from large-scale protests to international democracy support.

The interview with Professor Lindberg and Dr. Nord offers a profound exploration of the complexities and challenges facing global democracy. The interviewees unveil the challenging landscape of global democracy, marked by concerning trends and crucial insights that demand attention and action. Their arguments offer valuable insights into strategies for combating autocratic tendencies and illuminate the path forward, urging concerted efforts to defend democratic ideals and uphold the rights and freedoms of people worldwide.

Here is the transcription of the interview with Professor Staffan I Lindberg and Dr. Marina Nord with minor edits.

Far-Right Nationalists Is Undermining Democracy with a Shared Recipe, Diverse Flavors

Professor Lindberg and Dr. North. Thank you so very much for joining our interview series. I want to start right away with the first question. One of the basic findings of your 2024 report, which was published last month, is the level of democracy enjoyed by the average person in the world in 2023 is down to 1985-levels; by country-based averages, it is back to 1998. Since 2009 – almost 15 years in a row – the share of the world’s population living in autocratizing countries has overshadowed the share living in democratizing countries. How do you explain, broadly, the trend of autocratization, what major factors have accelerated this trend?

Staffan Ingemar Lindberg: I suppose that’s a billion-dollar question these days. The first thing to note is that we lack a scientific, rigorous answer to that specific question. While there are some certainties about factors contributing to this trend, the scientific community is still debating many aspects. It’s widely acknowledged that China has been working against democracy since at least the mid-1990s. They expressed dissatisfaction with the third wave of democratization, the dissolution of the Soviet Union, and the global movement toward democracy and human rights. Similarly, Vladimir Putin, upon assuming power in Russia, exerted influence over many former Soviet republics. His recent illegal invasion of Ukraine and involvement in disinformation campaigns and support for radical right-wing, nationalist movements across Europe undermine democracy.

Additionally, Saudi Arabia has long supported the spread of a Salafist version of Islam incompatible with democracy and human rights, which has gained significant ground globally. Moreover, there is a global rise of far-right nationalist, reactionary, and anti-pluralist political parties, leaders and movements, evident not only in Europe and America but also in other regions. These movements, whether Hindu nationalists in Modi’s India, Muslim nationalists in Erdogan’s Turkey, or Christian nationalists in Hungary, among others, share a common recipe, albeit with different flavors, undermining democracy in their respective countries.

 

V-Dem Democracy Report 2024.

One of your findings in the report is ‘the decline is stark in Eastern Europe and South and Central Asia.’ What went wrong in Eastern Europe and South and Central Asia? How do you explain this downward trend?

Staffan Ingemar Lindberg: I’m not entirely sure what to say about that. I believe there are factors present in Eastern Europe and across Central Asia, beyond those I mentioned. Additionally, I think there are individual country-level factors that vary from one nation to another, making the local context crucial. In Europe, one could at least speculate, although it’s challenging to claim we have concrete evidence. It’s suspected that in countries where the transition from a common ideology occurred before the end of the Cold War, followed by a rapid shift to a market economy and a more liberal political sphere, there might have been expectations of significant improvement. However, when this transformation didn’t lead to the anticipated results, many individuals were financially and otherwise harmed in the process, potentially triggering reactions. However, I wouldn’t generalize this to be the same situation in South and Central Asia. Different processes are at play there, and each country may have its own set of contextual factors influencing the situation.

Israel No Longer Falls within the Category of Liberal Democracy

V-Dem Democracy Report 2024.

Another finding of the report is ‘Israel falls out of the liberal democracy category for the first time in over 50 years.’ Can you please elaborate on Israel falling out of liberal democracies league as it was often referred to the only democracy in the region?

Marina Nord: For many years, Israel stood as the sole liberal democracy in the Middle East and North Africa region. However, in 2023, there was a significant decline in the indicator measuring the transparency and predictability of laws. This decline was largely attributed to the constitutional crisis that unfolded in 2023 when Netanyahu’s Government passed a bill stripping the Supreme Court of its power to declare government decisions unreasonable. The crisis persisted for several months, marked by widespread protests against the change. Eventually, in January 2024, the bill was revoked. Nonetheless, since we only measure indicators for 2023, Israel no longer falls within the category of liberal democracy for that year. Without knowledge of events in the current year, we cannot predict whether it will regain its status.

In the report, you argue that: ‘Almost all components of democracy are getting worse in more countries than they are getting better, compared to ten years ago. Freedom of expression remains the worst affected component of democracy and is worsening in 35 countries in 2023.’ What is the underlining factor in this finding both globally and domestically?

Staffan Ingemar Lindberg: I think you need to put yourself in the shoes of a would-be dictator. What’s one of the first things you’d aim to undermine? It’s freedom of expression, particularly freedom of the media. When you’re in power, you don’t want people freely writing about your actions, voicing opposition against you, or communicating the true facts instead of the disinformation you’re trying to spread. You seek control over the media sphere, as well as the ability of civil society and other actors to speak openly and freely. Therefore, it shouldn’t come as a surprise to us, or to anyone, that we observe many countries moving in the wrong direction, towards autocratization, with freedom of expression being the most affected area, often targeted first.

You also underline in the report: ‘The wave of autocratization is notable. Autocratization is ongoing in 42 countries, home to 2.8 billion people, or 35% of the world’s population. India, with 18% of the world’s population, accounts for about half of the population living in autocratizing countries.’ But you also argue that ‘There may be signs that the autocratization wave is slowing down but one should be cautious with that interpretation.’ What are the signs that show the autocratization is slowing down and why one should be cautious about it?

Staffan Ingemar Lindberg: It primarily originates from the new methodology adopted for this year’s report, which has been evolving over the past few years. With this methodology, the number of countries experiencing autocratization appears to potentially decrease from 47 to 42 in recent years. There’s a slight uptick in the number of countries democratizing. However, because this new methodology sets high standards for a country to qualify as autocratizing, requiring statistical significance and substantial meaning, it can take 2-3 years after a country starts declining before it qualifies as an autocracy according to this rigorous criteria. Therefore, the decrease from 47 to 42 is accompanied by 25 countries that have begun to decline, termed as “near misses” that have not yet met the criteria. While not all of them may ultimately qualify, it only takes a few to meet the criteria to potentially raise the count from 47 to 42 or even higher. Thus, while the trend has shown a slight decline in the past couple of years, this may change in the next one or two years. Consequently, one should exercise caution when interpreting this specific graph as proof or conclusive evidence that the wave of autocratization is slowing down.

Five Key Factors for the Resurgence of Democracies

V-Dem Democracy Report 2024.

In your report, you highlight “Defiance in the Face of Autocratization,” showcasing countries that have managed to reverse democratic decline. Can you delve into the key factors that contributed to these countries bouncing back, and how can their experiences inform strategies to combat autocratization globally?

Marina Nord: We conducted a similar analysis last year, examining the factors primarily responsible for the resurgence of democracies. We identified five key factors. Firstly, large-scale protests, often referred to as “magic protests” in the literature. These instances, such as the mobilization of millions in places like South Korea, demonstrate a powerful force against autocratization. Secondly, unified opposition, which frequently aligns with civil society movements. Thirdly, judicial independence emerged as a significant factor, with courts resisting executive overreach, as described by Nancy Burnell as “executive aggrandizement.” The fourth factor encompasses critical elections or other major events, like the end of two-term limits. Finally, international democracy support and protection played a crucial role. While not all these factors guarantee a reversal of democratization, they have consistently influenced outcomes in numerous cases. These are the primary elements we believe could contribute to countries reversing autocratization and rebounding. However, further research is essential. To provide some statistics, our ongoing research indicates that approximately 70% of countries have managed to reverse autocratization trends within a maximum of five years after the autocratic regime ended. Thus, we hold optimistic prospects for many countries currently experiencing autocratization, as we anticipate eventual rebounds.

Academicians like Prof. Steven Levitsky of Harvard University and Prof. Kurt Weyland of Texas University argue that the findings of V-Dem are ‘exaggerated’ and they underscore the resilience of democracy globally. How do you respond to this criticism?

Staffan Ingemar Lindberg: There are various ways to approach this. One way is to emphasize that we’re simply reporting on the data. V-Dem stands as the largest dataset on democracy globally, comprising 31 million data points, and our analysis reflects the trends revealed by this extensive dataset. So far, there hasn’t been any substantial argument challenging the accuracy of the data from individuals like Steven and Kurt.

Another perspective to consider is the broader context. Steven has presented an argument alongside Lucan Way regarding the resilience of countries that democratized during the third wave of democratization. However, this viewpoint only captures a fraction of the overall picture. It’s essential to recognize that there are numerous countries currently experiencing autocratization during the third wave that were not part of the democratization wave. For instance, India serves as a notable example. When we adopt a global perspective and assess the development of all countries since the late 1990s, the outlook for democracy appears rather grim, as evidenced by various indicators. Marina, would you like to contribute further to this discussion?

Marina Nord: I would like to add briefly that it’s a major question of how we measure certain things, such as democratic breakdown or democratic backsliding. Many papers only measure the transition from democracy to autocracy, overlooking the potential decline in the quality of democracy itself, which is also a concerning trend. Secondly, there is a moral obligation for us as researchers to be confident in the claims we make. If Steven Levitsky claims that there is no decline in democratic practices worldwide, it sends a troubling message to those striving to protect democracy globally. This is particularly worrying given the observed declines in media freedom even within democracies. While resilience in terms of democratic survival may endure, liberal democracies may not be affected, but many countries are experiencing a decline in democratic quality, and this is indeed worrisome.

Turkey, India and Hungary Are Electoral Autocracies

Your research has shown worrying trends not only in autocracies like Russia and China but also in countries classified as electoral democracies, such as India, Hungary, and Turkey. Could you elaborate on the factors driving democratic decline in these countries, and what measures can be taken to reverse these trends and strengthen democratic institutions?

Staffan Ingemar Lindberg: Let me start by stating that neither India, Hungary, nor Turkey qualify as electoral democracies anymore according to our measures. They now fall below that threshold and are classified as electoral autocracies. Turkey has been classified as an electoral autocracy since around 2016 or 2017, while Hungary followed suit after 2018-19, and India shortly thereafter. Consequently, they rank among the worst offenders in terms of autocratization over the past decade and a half globally. What measures can be taken to reverse these trends in these specific countries? I’m not entirely certain. It would likely require a substantial shift in public opinion, as these autocrats and their parties still enjoy significant popularity among large segments of the population. Perhaps, as seen in Turkey’s recent local elections, there’s a diminishing support for these leaders. However, it would also necessitate the independence of institutions such as electoral management bodies, which have been compromised in recent years. Furthermore, it would entail creating more freedom in the media space and fostering freedom of expression more broadly, along with relaxing restrictions on civil society. This would require significant effort on their part, along with potential international pressure. Nonetheless, experts who specialize in studying these countries in detail would be better positioned to provide more specific recommendations on reversing these trends.

I am sure you followed local elections in Turkey that were held on March 31 and which Erdogan badly lost. In your last report, you categorize Turkey as ‘electoral autocracy.’ Do you see his defeat as a venue for Turkey to bounce back from authoritarian politics?

Staffan Ingemar Lindberg: Maybe, maybe not. I haven’t been keeping up with developments in Turkey over the past week or so. The initial reports I saw indicated that the opposition was prevented from assuming power or winning in at least one of the major cities they had secured. This suggests some potential vulnerability or weakness. However, we are unsure of the extent to which Recep Tayyip Erdogan and the Justice and Development Party (AKP) are willing to go to maintain power; the future will reveal that. Nevertheless, it does demonstrate the existence of a substantial opposition in Turkey, which could be considered a prerequisite for initiating a turnaround.

Trump’s Statements Embolden Autocrats Worldwide

In the interview you gave to Democracy Paradox, you talk about the possibility of Donald Trump to get re-elected. How concerned are you about the possibility and how do you think a possible re-election could galvanize autocrats globally?

Staffan Ingemar Lindberg: I am deeply concerned about the possibility of Donald Trump being reelected. I have expressed this concern on multiple occasions in various public settings. In the current context, I believe that if Donald Trump is reelected, democracy in the US might not survive. He has been explicit about his dictatorial intentions, even going as far as labeling Democrats as vermin, a term that evokes disturbing parallels with Nazi Germany from the late 1930s to 1945. Such statements must be taken seriously, as they could embolden autocrats worldwide. During his previous term, Trump demonstrated a willingness to cozy up to dictators in North Korea and Putin in Russia. They understand what they could expect from him. We can extrapolate the potential consequences for NATO collaboration, support for Ukraine in its conflict with Russia, and the ongoing conflicts in the Middle East. In summary, it presents a bleak outlook not only for the United States but also for the world as a whole.

V-Dem Democracy Report 2024.

You highlighted the role of nationalist reactionary narratives in driving autocratization, citing examples such as Putin’s Russia, Modi’s India, and Erdogan’s Turkey. How do you think these narratives interact with existing socio-political tensions within societies, and what strategies can be employed to counteract their influence?

Staffan Ingemar Lindberg: Once again, this is a difficult and complex question, and I believe it’s incumbent upon us to acknowledge that social science may not yet have all the answers. However, what we do know is that there is a growing body of literature utilizing various methodologies, including experimental evidence such as experiments with people, survey experiments, and lab experiments, as well as more traditional opinion surveys. These studies increasingly demonstrate a clear relationship between individuals who perceive social and economic relative deprivation. Typically, these perceptions are gauged through questions such as “Do you think your children will be better or worse off than yourself?” or “Do you feel that you yourself are better or worse off than your parents?” Individuals who perceive themselves or their children as worse off economically or socially are much more likely to vote for far-right nationalist or reactionary political parties and leaders, who often drive autocratization if they come into power. Therefore, there is mounting evidence of a link between sociopolitical or socioeconomic tensions and autocratization.

In your article, ‘A Third Wave of Autocratization is Here. What is new about it?’ you argue that “As it was premature to announce the ‘end of history’ in 1992, it is premature to proclaim the ‘end of democracy’ now.” Do you still think the same or do you have a more somber view about the global nature of democracies?

Staffan Ingemar Lindberg: Of course, it’s premature to declare the end of democracy. We remain hopeful that democracies will persevere, regain strength, and that more people will enjoy democratic rights, human rights, and freedoms in the future than they do today. However, this hopeful outcome is not guaranteed, and it will require continuous efforts from leaders worldwide as well as grassroots movements advocating for democracy. We hope to see such efforts emerge both from leaders and people on the streets standing up for democracy. What are your thoughts on this, Marina?

Marina Nord: I agree with that assessment. It holds true in many respects. In our upcoming article, set to be published at the end of this month, we examined some data and observed that we seem to have entered an era of instability. Notably, autocratization is frequently reversed, but so too is democratization. Therefore, the focus of democracy promotion should now shift more towards democracy protection. This is a crucial perspective to keep in mind moving forward.

Professor Emre Erdogan, Head of the Department of International Relations at Bilgi University, Istanbul, Turkey.

Professor Emre Erdogan: Turkish Opposition Must Adeptly Harness Power of ‘Good Populism’

Stating that populism’s appeal has not significantly diminished in Turkey despite the opposition’s recent win in local elections, Professor Emre Erdogan underscores the fact that even leading politicians within the opposition, such as Istanbul Mayor Ekrem Imamoglu, exhibit certain populist characteristics. “Imamoglu’s use of populist rhetoric suggests that populism continues to hold sway in Turkish politics,” argues Professor Erdogan, urging the opposition in Turkey to adeptly harness the power of “good populism” to achieve success in upcoming elections.

Interview by Selcuk Gultasli

Professor Emre Erdogan, Head of the Department of International Relations at Bilgi University, Istanbul, sheds light on the enduring allure of populism in Turkey despite recent opposition victories in local elections. In an exclusive interview with the European Center for Populism Studies (ECPS), Professor Erdogan emphasizes the continued presence of populist characteristics even among leading opposition figures like Istanbul Mayor Ekrem Imamoglu. He argues that Imamoglu’s use of populist rhetoric underscores the persistent influence of populism in Turkish politics and urges the opposition to adeptly harness the power of “good populism” to secure success in upcoming elections.

Professor Erdogan delves into strategic discussions surrounding populism, noting the advantages it affords in electoral contests and its role as a feedback mechanism within Turkey’s political landscape. He highlights the historical context of populism’s rise, tracing its roots to the failures of the classical parliamentary system and the subsequent alienation of the populace. Despite criticisms of populism’s negative consequences, Professor Erdogan asserts its necessity for system improvement, advocating for its skillful utilization by the opposition.

Examining the intersection of populism and authoritarianism, Professor Erdogan elucidates the unique characteristics of Turkey’s political regime, marked by a concentration of power and a lack of autonomous institutions. He underscores the pivotal role of fear in shaping populist discourse, particularly evident in the rhetoric of the ruling AKP to mobilize support and maintain its grip on power. Reflecting on recent election results, Professor Erdogan suggests that while populism’s appeal persists, strategic alliances and shifts in voter preferences offer hope for potential change in Turkey’s political trajectory.

Moreover, Professor Erdogan offers a cautious prognosis on the future of Turkish politics, acknowledging the complexity of upcoming elections and the global resurgence of populism. While populist right-wing movements may continue to thrive, he remains skeptical of any immediate shift away from populism in the current political climate. 

Here is the transcription of the interview with Professor Emre Erdogan with some edits.

Authoritarianism Is Deeply Ingrained in the Fabric of the Turkish Republic

How would you characterize the historical evolution of populism and authoritarian politics in Turkey, particularly focusing on key milestones and major factors contributing to their rise? 

Emre Erdogan: First, let’s clarify the distinction between authoritarianism and populism, a crucial aspect of Turkey’s political history. Populism, akin to many other contexts, traces its roots back to the early 20th century in Turkey. Inspired by the Narodnik Movement, a group of intellectuals emphasized the significance of the people, who were pivotal in the founding of the Republic. One might recall Mustafa Kemal Ataturk’s renowned assertion that “the peasant is the master of the country.” During this period, there were significant debates regarding opening up the country to peasants, marking the zenith of corporatism in Turkey.

From 1935 onward, Turkey transitioned to a robust corporatist regime, wherein people were represented through various cooperative groups, including labor and peasants. Populism, akin to one of the six foundational pillars of the Republican People’s Party (RPP/CHP), emerged, albeit within a predominantly Jacobin party structure. The CHP, established by bureaucrats and the military, exhibited strong elitist tendencies. Thus, while the party rhetorically championed the importance of the people, it wasn’t a quintessential populist entity.

The rise of the Democrat Party (DP) after 1946 marked a shift. Comprised of leading politicians from the CHP, DP focused on the peasantry and rural areas, gradually adopting a more populist stance throughout the 1950s. However, it too retained elitist elements, transitioning from liberalism to right-wing conservatism. This trajectory continued with subsequent parties such as the Justice Party (AP) under Süleyman Demirel, followed by the Motherland Party (ANAP) and the True Path Party (DYP) in the 1980s and 1990s. These right-leaning parties emphasized the importance of the periphery, conservative values, and peasantry, though not all embraced full-fledged populism.

The true emergence of populism in Turkey materialized with the ascent of the Justice and Development Party (AKP). While some scholars draw parallels between the AKP and the earlier Democrat Party due to their representation of peripheral values and religiosity, the AKP stands as a distinct conservative entity. Under Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s leadership, the AKP introduced a novel perspective on populism in Turkey.

In summary, various political parties in Turkey have emphasized the significance of the people, but true populism as we recognize it today became evident with the rise of the AKP.

What about authoritarianism? Over the past century, Turkey has grappled with authoritarian rule. Particularly in the early years of the Republic, free and fair elections were absent, alongside restrictions on freedom of speech and press, especially post-1924. While a brief experiment with multi-party politics occurred in 1930s, it fell short of democracy. The transition to multi-party politics in 1946, without constitutional amendments, marked a significant shift, yet the ruling CHP retained power for two decades under the same constitution.

The Democrat Party initially opposed this authoritarian trend but eventually succumbed to its own authoritarian tendencies, contributing to the turmoil culminating in the 1960 coup. The period between 1960 and 1980 witnessed fleeting liberalization, though even in 1965, political leaders expressed reservations about the constitution’s liberal nature. Suleyman Demirel, a prominent figure, found the constitution too lenient. Subsequent changes in 1971 saw decreased tolerance toward extremist and radical leftist movements.

The 1980 military coup ushered in a period of authoritarian rule, though a transition to democratic governance occurred three years later, the military retained influence. The post-modern coup of 1997 further restricted liberties, extending beyond religious and speech freedoms. Throughout the 1990s, escalating tensions surrounding the Kurdish issue saw heightened state of intolerance towards Kurdish and separatist movements, stifling freedom of expression.

Authoritarian policies are deeply ingrained in the fabric of the Turkish Republic. Despite periodic calls for freedom and liberalization, each decade often witnesses a regression towards greater authoritarianism. Various factors contribute to this natural inclination towards authoritarianism, perpetuating a cycle of authoritarian tendencies in Turkey.

Some Turkish people engage in discussion with Suleyman Demirel, the leader of the Justice Party (AP), during a political meeting on the streets of Istanbul, Turkey in the 1960s. Photo: Shutterstock.

What is the nature of populism in Turkey? How could you define the major characteristics of populism in the country? Does it belong to only one flank of the politics or is it much more widespread?  In what ways have populist and authoritarian tendencies intersected or diverged in Turkey’s political landscape over the years, and what have been the implications for governance and societal dynamics? 

Emre Erdogan: There is no consensus on the definition of populism, with various interpretations existing. Our definition heavily revolves around the creation of an “us versus them” narrative. When politicians employ such rhetoric, they often resort to forms of discrimination or othering. Populist leaders typically cast the populace as “us” and identify other groups as “them.” These groups can include elites such as bankers, industrialists, bureaucrats, and even the judiciary or foreign powers, along with organizations like the Illuminati or international bodies. Subsequently, populist leaders position themselves as the true representatives of the people. At times, they go as far as presenting themselves as the embodiment of the people, declaring, “I am the people,” rather than simply stating they represent the people. This distinction is crucial in understanding populism.

From this perspective, the anti-establishment rhetoric emerged notably with Suleyman Demirel’s approaches. Demirel, a member of the elite class, held an engineering degree, excelled as a bureaucrat, and obtained a master’s degree in the US. Transitioning into politics, he sought to supplant all Democrat leaders following the 1960 military intervention. Presenting himself as the offspring of peasants, he adopted the moniker “Çoban Sülü” or “Shepherd Sülü,” reconstructing his image as a successful peasant. Despite his qualifications and English proficiency, his rhetoric positioned him as a champion of the common people against the elites. These elites primarily comprised westernized or modernized bureaucrats, and Demirel was particularly critical of the judiciary, which, under the 1961 Constitution, enjoyed significant independence, thus constraining governmental powers. Additionally, he opposed planning and autonomous agencies, typical populist targets. However, notably, Demirel did not antagonize big business; rather, he collaborated with it. The relationship between Demirel and the military is intricate; though he initially opposed the military, his stance evolved over time, particularly after 1970. This complexity warrants further scholarly investigation. While Demirel adopted a populist tone, his collaborations with big business and the military suggest a nuanced political strategy.

In addition, another notable figure, Necmettin Erbakan, emerged as a prominent traditionalist. A professor and engineer of considerable intellect, Erbakan positioned himself as a genuine representative of the “people.” He garnered support from small businesses and religious segments of society who felt marginalized by the government. Erbakan epitomized the populist ethos, emphasizing the significance of the people and espousing anti-Western values. He vehemently opposed the capitalist worldview, big business, and the military, criticizing them extensively. Despite his criticisms, he found widespread support among many segments of society. Both Demirel and Erbakan enjoyed prolonged success, remaining influential figures without clear successors.

An Environment Conducive to Authoritarianism Always Exists in Turkey

Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the founder of the Turkish Republic, during a visit to Anatolia in the 1930s. Photo: Shutterstock.

How would you characterize the current regime in Turkey, and what roles do institutions like the military, judiciary, media etc. play in either moderating or intensifying populist and authoritarian tendencies in the country?

Emre Erdogan: The most important characteristics of this regime are, first, concentration of power, something important to remember, and the lack of autonomous institutions. Firstly, we have a presidential regime, and it’s a very strong one. Presidential regimes are known for their separation of powers characteristic. However, in Turkey, we don’t have separation of powers. The President controls the Parliament because he’s the head of the majority party. Meanwhile, the Parliament is almost powerless and doesn’t have the power to effectively control the government. The President has direct control over the judiciary through the government, as the Minister of Justice is very active in the judiciary. Since 2000, we have seen a weakening of autonomous institutions such as the finance regulation institutions or the central bank, all of which are now under the direct control of the president. Parliament is powerless.

What about the media? Turkish media has always been polarized, as we know. Currently, we still observe a polarized media landscape, but one faction dominates significantly. This segment of the media is supported by the government, with access to government funds, and owned by conglomerates with various business ties, some of which are construction companies dependent on the government. Approximately two-thirds of the Turkish media rely on government support. Meanwhile, a smaller portion of the media is also dependent, lacking autonomous income and relying on support from opposition leaders for survival. There are no independent and autonomous media outlets. Traditional journalism, including printed media, is essentially defunct in Turkey. Additionally, social media exhibits polarization, although it tends to be slightly more balanced due to the relatively stronger presence of the opposition. Nonetheless, it remains polarized, lacking a middle ground.

Furthermore, there is a lack of autonomous civil society in Turkey. Historically, civil society has not wielded significant power in the country. As I mentioned at the outset of the interview, Turkey operated as a corporatist state for many years, which discouraged the development of autonomous civil society organizations. The emergence of civil society in Turkey began in the 1990s, but it has always been weak. What does this weakness entail? It means that these organizations were reliant on external resources, which could originate from European funds or the government. This dependency has led to the rise of government-organized NGOs, known as GONGOs, where bureaucrats are involved in organizing NGOs—an unusual scenario that undermines their independence. Additionally, the bourgeoisie in Turkey has historically been dependent on the state and lacks autonomy. Leading institutions such as TÜSIAD or TOBB have had to align themselves with the state. Although they may attempt to criticize the state on occasion, they often end up conforming to its stance in the long run.

Do you see the pattern? There’s a significant concentration of power in Turkey. We lack a clear separation of powers. The fourth estate, the media, is highly polarized and subject to both indirect and direct state control. Moreover, our civil society is weak, and the bourgeoisie is not strong enough to serve as a check on the government or the state. This creates a fertile environment for authoritarianism in Turkey. Additionally, it’s essential to consider that Turkish political culture tends towards authoritarianism. Turkey is a patriarchal society, and we perpetuate this patriarchal structure daily.

Erdogan Exploits Collective Traumas to Manipulate Fear

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Ankara, Turkey on August 30, 2014. Photo: Mustafa Kirazlı.

In one of your articles which analyzes campaign speeches of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) elites, you emphasize the role of fear in populism, particularly through the construction of ‘us-vs-them’ group differentiation. Can you elaborate on how fear is strategically utilized in AKP discourse to mobilize support and shape voter perceptions? 

Emre Erdogan: It’s crucial to note that from the early days of the AKP, Recep Tayyip Erdogan has employed this rhetoric, drawing from significant collective traumas in the history of the Turkish Islamist movement. We can look back to events like 1924 or the single-party government of the 1930s, but perhaps the most recent and impactful was the “post-modern coup” of 1998. During this period, Islamist politicians in government faced indirect intervention from the military, resulting in their departure. Subsequently, a repressive political environment was witnessed against the Islamist movement, leaving a profound impact. This trauma has instilled a belief among these individuals that their access to power is precarious, always fearing it will be usurped by the establishment.

They identified themselves as a political movement against the “over-Westernized” establishment—a crucial aspect. This stance stemmed from a significant collective trauma. Through our research, we’ve noted that many conservatives expressed discontent with the practices of this period, often relying on inherited memories from their parents. Erdogan has built his rhetoric on this fundamental premise. They saw themselves as authentic Anatolian people, opposed to the establishment and feeling alienated from Westernized bureaucrats.

An essential aspect is the significant economic crisis of 2001. It devastated the economy, and Erdoğan positioned himself as the representative of the people who suffered from this crisis. He portrayed it as a consequence of bankers’ actions or corrupt politicians, leading to a loss of confidence in political institutions. Erdoğan capitalized on this sentiment. The parliamentary system was in disarray for two years, during which Erdogan consistently utilized a rhetoric asserting, “We are elected by the people, yet we are not in power.” He blamed institutions such as the presidency, constitutional court, judiciary, and press for hindering their actions, asserting that they limited their abilities to govern.

In 2008, they experienced the trauma of the constitutional court nearly dismantling the party. This was followed by the Gezi protests, which Erdogan perceived as a precursor to broader challenges. These events occurred amid growing dissatisfaction with the system. Erdogan capitalized on these sentiments, portraying Western powers as advocates of the old Turkey, threatening the Turkish people. He positioned himself as their defender, equating attacks on him with attacks on the people themselves. This fear narrative intensified following terrorist attacks, such as those by ISIS or the PKK, prompting Erdoğan to emphasize the need for unity against external threats.

This rhetoric was consistently employed during the 2017 referendum and the 2019 local elections. It’s noteworthy that Erdogan did not rely on this rhetoric until the final days of the campaign, suggesting a strategic use of this tool. Nevertheless, it remains a potent instrument, allowing Erdogan to rally support by framing attacks against him as attacks against the nation.

Potential Reversal of the Current Political Trajectory

Could you provide a prognosis on the potential trajectory of Turkish politics regarding populist and authoritarian tendencies following last year’s presidential elections and the recent local elections? Moreover, how do you anticipate future electoral dynamics in Turkey will impact the evolution of populist discourse within Turkish politics?

Emre Erdogan: In 1996, there was an article highlighting the inherent challenges of a Presidential system. Governing a diverse country under this system proves to be quite arduous. Unlike a parliamentary system, where power is more distributed, the winner-takes-all nature of the Presidential system concentrates authority in the hands of the victor of the presidential elections. This means that if leaders like Erdoğan and his followers consistently win these elections, their grip on power will only strengthen over time. However, it’s crucial to note that the system also offers the potential for significant change if the opposition manages to secure victory in elections. This dynamic presents a pivotal juncture where the trajectory of the country can shift towards either more authoritarian or pluralistic governance. The outcome hinges on the electorate’s choices and the ability of opposition forces to mobilize support effectively.

Last summer, the opposition missed their chance. What will happen? We thought the game was over. What does that mean? Okay, it was the best performance by the top position holding president. Because they’ve invested in forming coalitions, alliances, addressing needs, nurturing politicians, etc. They investigated; they acted as a bloc. They were successful, very similar to what we see in Brazil or Poland, etc. There was a kind of coalition of alliances, but they failed, and we thought, “Okay, the game is over.” They couldn’t form this kind of allies, but after the local elections, there’s a feeling of a possibility to reconstruct that kind of coalition, not similar to the last one, not an institutional one. But a coalition based on the voters’ preferences. People voted strategically, and they voted for their second most preferred candidate, or they voted with negative emotions. They voted against a candidate. That’s why, in many places, the opposition had a majority, around 58-60 percent, something like that. It was very surprising.

There’s indeed such a probability, but we have four years until the next elections. Early elections aren’t possible due to the Constitution; it’s a challenging situation. However, we can consider that the opposition might succeed in mobilizing the majority of people to vote for their candidate. They can bring this issue to the forefront of their agenda. That’s why we can say, “Okay, there’s always hope from that perspective.” There’s a possibility that the trajectory can be reversed.

Populism Serves as a Feedback Mechanism

Mayor of Istanbul Ekrem Imamoglu of the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) addresses his supporters during a rally in Istanbul, Turkey on April 21, 2019. Photo: Kemal Aslan.

How would you characterize the local election results held on Sunday in terms of entrenched populism constructed by AKP in Turkey? Can we say that populism has lost some steam after the elections?

Emre Erdogan: While the results may directly indicate a loss for the AKP, a closer examination of the aggregate numbers reveals that the AKP, Refah Party, conservative Party, and MHP have maintained their relative strength compared to the last election. The bloc’s power remains largely unchanged. However, when considering the status of populism, it appears that its appeal has not significantly diminished. Leading politicians within the opposition, such as Ekrem Imamoglu, exhibit certain populist characteristics. İmamoğlu does not shy away from employing populist rhetoric or embracing populist ideas. He positions himself as a representative of the ordinary people, emphasizing phrases like “we worked as 16 million people did,” referring to the population of Istanbul. He frames issues in terms of “we the people” versus the government, presenting himself as aligned with the interests of the populace. Thus, İmamoğlu’s use of populist rhetoric suggests that populism continues to hold sway in Turkish politics.

Moreover, there are various strategic discussions underway, with some advocating for the approach of “when dealing with populists, act as a populist.” The rationale behind this perspective is that in the presence of a populist figure, adopting a similar style may prove advantageous. Winning elections without embracing populism is often deemed challenging, as populists tend to enjoy certain advantages in this regard. Additionally, it’s crucial to acknowledge that populism serves as a feedback mechanism, often emerging in response to perceived failures within the classical parliamentary system.

Turkey’s political landscape is not characterized by participatory democracy; even during the peak of the parliamentary system, true participatory elements were lacking. Party leaders exerted tight control over Parliament, effectively dictating proceedings and appointing members at their discretion. This system fostered a sense of alienation among the populace, ultimately paving the way for the rise of populism as a counterforce. Thus, the argument follows that without replacing this outdated and flawed system with a more robust alternative, electoral success may remain elusive.

From a perspective that I disagree with, the current presidential system is perceived as being closer to the people compared to the previous parliamentary system. This is why there is advocacy for presidentialism. Under the current system, the president is elected in two rounds, providing a more direct link between the leader and the populace. In contrast, in a parliamentary system, directly electing the Prime Minister is not feasible. While there are exceptions, such as Israel where direct election of the Prime Minister is possible, the overall system remains complex. Historically, people have felt alienated from politics, and populism serves as a means to re-engage the populace with political issues. The prevalent sense of alienation underscores the need for approaches that attract attention and foster a stronger connection between the people and the political process.

From a normative standpoint, the necessity of populism becomes apparent. Despite its associated negative consequences, as advocated by Margaret Canovan, populism serves as a vital feedback mechanism for system improvement. It provides a channel for addressing issues and engaging with the populace. Therefore, there’s a clear imperative for populism. Personally, I believe that for the opposition to achieve success in upcoming elections, they must adeptly harness the power of good populism.

Do you agree with CHP mayor Ekrem Imamoglu’s prognosis that the local election results will signal an end to authoritarianism not only in Turkey but also globally?

Emre Erdogan: I’m not sure about the future trajectory, especially considering the numerous upcoming elections, including the European Parliament elections and those in the United States. However, I anticipate that the populist political right may fare well in the EP election, and there’s a possibility that Donald Trump could secure the presidency once again. These potential outcomes may be driven by various factors, including ongoing crises such as economic instability, immigration issues, inflation, and the conflict in Ukraine. In times of uncertainty, populists often capitalize on manipulating people’s emotions and reactions to these challenges. Given this context, I see little objective basis for a resurgence of non-populism in the current political climate.

Vladimir Putin's portrait. Illustration: Tpyxa_Illustartion.

Professor Veljko Vujačić: The Recent Election Doesn’t Strengthen Putin

Emphasizing that winning 87 percent of the vote and handpicking compliant candidates does not constitute a genuine election, Professor Veljko Vujačić argues that such practices do not strengthen Putin’s position; rather, they highlight the regime’s weaknesses. Similarly, the murder of Alexei Navalny does not demonstrate strength; it reveals weakness. He further asserts, “I find the term ‘dictatorship’ more accurately encapsulates the reality of the Putin regime than ‘autocracy’ or ‘authoritarianism’ because Putin’s behavior epitomizes dictatorship, where power is wielded outside the confines of law and constitution. Currently, his regime seems to be veering toward a weak form of totalitarianism.”

Interview by Selcuk Gultasli

Professor Veljko Vujačić, a distinguished scholar of Russian, East European, and Eurasian Studies at Oberlin College and Conservatory, is renowned for his deep understanding of Russian history and contemporary politics. In an exclusive interview with the European Center for Populism Studies (ECPS), Professor Vujačić argues, “The recent election doesn’t strengthen Putin.” Through this lens, he peels back the layers of Putin’s grip on power, delving into the historical origins of autocracy in Russia. “It traces back to Ivan the Terrible and finds reinforcement during the reign of Peter the Great,” he remarks, emphasizing the enduring legacy of authoritarianism.

Drawing upon his extensive research and firsthand experiences, Professor Vujačić sheds light on the fundamental drivers propelling authoritarianism and populism in contemporary Russia. “Populism has increasingly become a ubiquitous term in the Western discourse,” he notes, “but it’s crucial to discern that populism typically originates from grassroots movements.” Yet, amidst the rhetoric of representing the will of the nation, he argues, “the reality is that the state dictates to the nation, not the other way around.”

With incisive analysis, Professor Vujačić explores the blurred boundaries between autocracy and dictatorship, challenging conventional narratives and revealing the intricate interplay between state power, societal dynamics, and geopolitical ambitions. “I firmly believe this regime qualifies as a dictatorship rather than simply an autocracy,” he asserts, highlighting the shift towards personal rule under Putin’s leadership.

Furthermore, Professor Vujačić illuminates the internal dynamics shaping Putin’s governance approach, examining the suppression of dissent and the erosion of democratic norms. “The murder of Navalny does not demonstrate strength; it reveals weakness,” he remarks, underscoring the regime’s vulnerabilities amidst mounting opposition.

Throughout the interview, Professor Vujačić’s voice emerges as a beacon of clarity, offering a nuanced understanding of Russia’s past, present, and future. As the world grapples with the implications of Putin’s regime, his insights serve as a timely reminder that the recent election does not fortify Putin’s grip on power, but rather exposes the fragility of his authoritarian rule.

Here is the transcription of the interview with Professor Veljko Vujačić with some edits.

Putin Regime Fundamentally Operates as a Dictatorship

Thank you very much for joining our interview series, Professor Vujacic. I want to start right away with the first question. What are the historical origins and fundamental drivers underlying autocracy and authoritarianism in Russia, considering both the factors driving their implementation by governing authorities and the societal dynamics that sustain them? Additionally, what are the key factors contributing to the observed state of autocracy in both historical contexts and contemporary Russia?

Veljko Vujačić: The origins of autocracy in Russia are hardly a mystery, given the extensive literature on the subject. It traces back to Ivan the Terrible and finds reinforcement during the reign of Peter the Great. This autocratic tradition became deeply ingrained, persisting even into the era of the Russian Revolution. Nicholas the Second, despite conceding to the establishment of a Parliament (Duma), maintained a personal relationship with his subjects, viewing himself as the rightful owner of the realm. While there are undeniable deep roots to this tradition, there’s a temptation today to overemphasize continuity while downplaying discontinuities.

One aspect often overlooked is the bureaucratic tradition. Having served as the provost of the European University in St. Petersburg for four years, I can attest that dealing with the Russian bureaucracy was often more challenging than anticipated. Instead of serving society, it often operates as an instrument of state repression. While autocracy garners attention, the bureaucratic machinery operates with its own dynamics. Pleasing the autocrat or one’s boss is paramount at all levels, leading to distortions in information transmission and feedback mechanisms. Many of the regime’s mistakes can be attributed to this dynamic, even concerning its own goals.

How do you perceive the evolution of populist nationalist rhetoric and authoritarian socio-political implementations in Russia, especially considering Putin’s prolonged tenure and recent electoral processes?

Professor Veljko Vujačić, a distinguished scholar of Russian, East European, and Eurasian Studies at Oberlin College and Conservatory, is renowned for his deep understanding of Russian history and contemporary politics.

Veljko Vujačić: Populism has increasingly become a ubiquitous term in the Western discourse, often associated with various forms of illiberalism, albeit occasionally aligning with left-wing ideologies. It’s crucial to discern that populism typically originates from grassroots movements, albeit frequently catalyzed by demagogues like Donald Trump in the United States. Conversely, left-leaning movements such as those championed by Bernie Sanders or Podemos in Spain also exhibit populist tendencies. Whether the Putin regime merits the label of populism remains debatable. While it does leverage populist rhetoric, asserting the primacy of the Russian people, it fundamentally operates as a dictatorship wherein the state reigns supreme over the populace. Hence, while there’s an appeal to the notion of representing the will of the nation, the reality is that the state dictates to the nation, not the other way around. Thus, it’s essential to avoid overgeneralizing the concept of populism.

When it comes to authoritarianism, there’s a discernible progression from what initially resembled a relatively mild authoritarian regime in the early 2000s. This has transitioned into a more pronounced emphasis on Putin’s personal rule, especially post-2014, notably following the events surrounding Crimea. The trajectory towards a more dictatorial form of governance became even more evident after 2012, notably following protests and Putin’s subsequent inauguration. Personally, I find the term “dictatorship” to encapsulate this reality more accurately than “autocracy” or “authoritarianism.” But I guess we will continue this conversation within that vein.

Russia Seems to Be Veering toward a Weak Form of Totalitarianism

Considering your profound research on nationalism, autocracy, and authoritarianism in Russia’s historical and contemporary contexts, how would you characterize the current form of Putin’s regime? 

Veljko Vujačić: As I mentioned earlier, I firmly believe this regime qualifies as a dictatorship rather than simply an autocracy. Autocracy historically implied a stable system akin to a monarchy, where authority passed from one ruler to the next within a hereditary lineage. However, what we’re witnessing here is markedly different. For the past 24 years, it’s been characterized by one-man rule. The pivotal moment came in 2019 with changes to the Constitution, facilitating Putin’s continued presidency—an exercise of power that bypassed legal and constitutional boundaries, constituting a form of usurpation. This behavior epitomizes dictatorship, where power is wielded outside the confines of law and constitution. Unlike autocracy, which implies stability, this regime has rapidly transitioned from a relatively authoritarian system with limited citizen freedoms to a more dictatorial one. Currently, it seems to be veering toward a weak form of totalitarianism, though not on the scale of historical totalitarian regimes in terms of repression. Nevertheless, the trajectory is concerning, hinting at a shift towards a more oppressive system.

Current Regime Is More Problematic Than the Soviet One

Based on historical comparisons, how do you evaluate Putin’s regime compared to past authoritarian regimes in Russia, including those in the Soviet and tsarist eras? Are there significant continuities or differences between them?

Veljko Vujačić: I’d like to underscore the distinctions more prominently. While it’s undeniable that Putin’s background is rooted in the Soviet regime, particularly his socialization within the KGB, it’s crucial to note that Putin’s regime differs significantly from its Soviet predecessor in terms of stability and institutionalization. Recent events highlight this disparity vividly. Take, for instance, Putin’s spokesperson openly invoking nuclear threats on television—a scenario unimaginable in the Soviet era. During the Soviet period, there existed a stringent institutional framework, and any announcer who independently made such dire threats toward the West, such as “we will destroy London” or “we will deploy a nuclear bomb on Poland,” would undoubtedly face swift removal by the Politburo and the Communist Party. This stark contrast underscores the evolving nature of governance under Putin’s leadership.

Paradoxically, in some respects, this current system appears to be more problematic than the Soviet one, particularly regarding institutionalization. Unlike the Soviet era, where power was distributed among various institutional bodies such as the Communist Party, with regular elections for the General Secretary and oversight from the Politburo, the present system hinges largely on the whims of a single person and his inner circle. If the General Secretary of the Communist Party deviated too far from the party line or took excessive risks, as exemplified by Khrushchev’s removal, there were mechanisms for replacement. Crucially, the Communist Party retained control over the KGB, not vice versa. However, in the current setup, there lacks such structured oversight. There’s a notable absence of party structures or civilian bodies regulating what Russians refer to as the “ministries of coercion” or “ministries of force.” This absence underscores a significant weakness in the current governance model.

Who truly wields power in Russia today? Is it the former KGB or FSB? Without any meaningful institutional constraints, they seem to operate with impunity. Recent events, particularly the shocking images of torture circulated widely, underscore their unchecked authority. While the targets are labeled as alleged terrorists, their identities and culpability remain uncertain. Yet, the brazen display of their torment on television represents a departure from the clandestine methods of the Soviet era. In those times, dissenters were often silenced through incarceration in psychiatric facilities or covert torture, shielded from public scrutiny. Unlike the brutal purges of the 1930s, by the 1970s and 1980s, dissent typically led to imprisonment rather than execution. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, for instance, was expelled from the country rather than imprisoned, reflecting the regime’s uncertainty on how to handle outspoken critics. Others, like the Jewish refuseniks and even long-standing dissidents such as Vladimir Bukovsky, were eventually released, sometimes in exchange for political leverage. Despite the repressive nature of the Soviet regime, there was a degree of predictability in its methods—a stark contrast to the arbitrary rule characterizing the current regime. This arbitrariness is why I characterize it as a dictatorship.

There Are Significant Internal Obstacles to Putin’s Ambitions

Police officers detain a woman on Pushkin Square in Moscow, Russia, at a rally protesting war in Ukraine on February 27, 2022. Photo: Konstantin Lenkov.

 

Does the current regime in Russia persist in its historical expansionist policies as it seeks great power status? What could be the next step for the Putin regime in its politically revisionist and territorially expansionist pursuits following the attempted invasion in Ukraine?

Veljko Vujačić: Your question, while pertinent, risks overstating continuity. Undoubtedly, Russia has a history of expansionism, but it’s crucial to differentiate between the Soviet regime and the earlier Russian imperial one. The Soviet expansionism wasn’t akin to traditional imperialism; rather, it was driven by revolutionary messianism. Communism sought global triumph, advocating support for movements in places like Vietnam, Angola, and Cuba. This mission, and consequently its behavior, markedly differed from the goals and methods of the Russian imperial regime.

In the 1990s, a significant aspect often overlooked or forgotten—rather than actively suppressed—pertains to the collapse of the Soviet Union. It’s essential to remember that in 1991, it was Boris Yeltsin and the Russian Federation that played a pivotal role in the dissolution of the Soviet Union. At that juncture, Russia, or more precisely its elites, demonstrated a reluctance towards imperialism. They sought a new arrangement with the republics, indicating a departure from historical expansionist tendencies. Reflecting on the subsequent two to three decades, I may not be the most adept in matters of international politics, but it’s evident that there has been a significant geopolitical shift. The expansion of NATO, whether justified or not, was perceived by Russian elites as a threat, primarily on a psychological level, which influenced their perceptions and actions. Putin’s invasion of Ukraine can be seen as an attempt to redefine the terms of the international order.

The lack of significant repercussions for Russia’s actions in Crimea in 2014 just emboldened Putin. This historical expansionism and revisionism, particularly in terms of challenging the established international order, represent a relatively recent development. Putin’s actions can be seen as a form of retaliation for what he perceives as Western slights over the past 15 to 20 years. It’s noteworthy that during this period, Putin initially demonstrated cooperation with the West, supporting initiatives like the “war on terror” and granting the United States military access to bases during the Afghanistan invasion. At one point, he even wanted or at least he stated, expressed interest in joining NATO or a similar security structure. However, a shift occurred after 2007, notably marked by his Munich speech. Therefore, to better understand this expansionist behavior, it’s crucial to analyze the factors influencing Russia’s trajectory over the past 25 years.

Now, I doubt he would risk invading a NATO member, such as the Baltic States or Poland; the stakes would be too high. Even Ukraine presents significant challenges. Instead, his strategic focus seems to be consolidating control over territories like Donetsk and Luhansk, connecting them to Crimea to establish a secure land route to Sevastopol and its military bases. This appears to be the current extent of his ambitions. However, the future is uncertain. Putin may have allies in countries like Iran and China, albeit with varying degrees of reluctance. These forces could potentially destabilize the existing international order. Ultimately, the trajectory of this expansionism hinges on the evolving geopolitical context.

Furthermore, there are significant internal obstacles to Putin’s ambitions. Russia has already incurred substantial military losses, though the exact numbers remain undisclosed. A potential mobilization effort to bolster forces for a decisive victory in Ukraine—potentially involving several hundred thousand to half a million people—carries considerable internal risks. Opposition is emerging, with mothers of soldiers forming a social movement against further recruitment. This underscores a pervasive fear among Russians that their youth may be thrust onto the front lines. Despite the regime’s outward confidence, these internal constraints are crucial considerations.

Murder of Navalyn and Election Results Highlight Putin Regime’s Weaknesses

How do recent events such as the war in Ukraine, the murder of Alexei Navalny, and the presidential elections reflect or challenge the autocratic tendencies in Russia, particularly under Putin’s strongman leadership, analyzed through the perspective of authoritarian and nationalist populism?

Veljko Vujačić: I expressed my thoughts on the aspect of populism. Winning 87% of the vote and handpicking other compliant candidates to create the semblance of pluralism does not constitute a genuine election. However, what is more significant is the fact that hundreds of thousands of people queued up to collect signatures for the relatively moderate opposition candidate, Boris Nadezhdin who ran as a candidate for peace. Therefore, the fact that he could gather 300,000 to 400,000 signatures without any state support indicates the presence of a constituency for peace in Russia that is willing to actively engage.

Similarly, the murder of Navalny does not demonstrate strength; it reveals weakness. It is, in fact, a significant blunder. Whether it was intentional or a mistake that led to his exposure to torture and cold, resulting in his demise, the exact circumstances may never be fully uncovered. Nevertheless, it was a grave error on the part of those responsible. In Russia, figures like Navalny often become martyrs in the struggle against the state, gaining increased popularity in death or through prolonged repression and torture. Consider the examples of Solzhenitsyn and Sakharov; the history of Russian dissent is replete with such instances. Navalny will persist as a symbol of resistance to dictatorship and a rallying point for various opposition forces, whether through his wife, his collaborators, or others following in his footsteps. Therefore, it is clear that his assassination was a significant misstep.

Consider the case of the Kurdish leader (Abdullah Öcalan) whom Turkey has imprisoned for over two decades. Nelson Mandela endured 27 years in jail without being killed. Therefore, it wouldn’t have harmed Putin’s regime to keep Navalny in decent conditions in prison for an extended period. However, his assassination signifies weakness. Recent events, such as the terrorist attack, have exposed vulnerabilities within the regime, particularly its failure to ensure Russian security and stability. This incident, in which nearly 200 people were killed, and several hundred others injured, underscores a significant state failure that authorities are attempting to conceal. Despite efforts to suppress or manipulate events, they do not bode well for the regime. The election does not strengthen Putin’s position; rather, it highlights the regime’s weaknesses.

People mourn for Alexei Navalny in Budapest, Hungary on February 16, 2024. Photo: Alexey Gorovoi.

Please Support Russians Living Abroad

Considering the crackdown on dissent in Russia, how do authoritarian practices such as repression of opposition figures and independent media shape the political landscape under Putin’s rule?

Veljko Vujačić: Organizing against the regime in Russia is incredibly challenging. Minor posts on Telegram are landing people in jail with lengthy prison sentences, effectively breeding a generation of martyrs, many of whom are young and some are women. Traditionally, political prisoners in Russia have garnered sympathy from a significant portion of the populace, albeit not the entire electorate. Roughly 20-25% view such actions as wholly illegitimate. However, much of this dissent remains latent, stifled by severe penalties. It’s crucial to remember that over 20,000 arrests have been made in Russia since the onset of the war, possibly more. This indicates that Russian society is not entirely united behind Putin or the war effort. Monitoring Russian blogs, posts, and Telegram channels reveals a pervasive anti-war sentiment among the populace, who are weary and fatigued. This aspect is often overlooked in Western media coverage.

This isn’t a youthful nation. Russians aren’t overflowing with young individuals they can readily send to the front lines. It’s an aging population, predominantly consisting of pensioners who require support. Demographics are dire at present. Who would want to raise a child in Russia given the circumstances? They’ve suffered a significant loss of human capital, with perhaps a million people—potentially fewer—fleeing the country, primarily talented young middle-class individuals who could compete on the global job market. So, there’s substantial fragility beneath the facade of strength. 

However, Russia possesses a menacing poker card: nuclear weapons. This poses a formidable challenge for Western powers, and indeed for any entity, particularly when wielded by someone who acts recklessly and unpredictably, akin to a rogue state. We’ve witnessed how even North Korea can flout international norms with impunity, let alone Russia. That’s a big problem. Internally, organizing opposition is exceedingly difficult, a factor we must acknowledge and comprehend.

I concur with Yulia Navalnaya’s call within the European community: “Please support Russians living abroad, and refrain from revoking their bank cards, credit cards, or visas. Show generosity towards these individuals.” However, it is imperative to exercise caution and implement security measures while extending support. As highlighted by the Czech president, there exists Russian citizens engaged in espionage activities, and it is vital to prevent their entry into Europe and Western nations. These individuals include bots, bloggers, and troublemakers. Nevertheless, it’s crucial to recognize the potential of this generation of emigrants to contribute positively to Russia’s future. Despite the presence of opposition abroad, it is essential to provide them with support to prevent their potential irrelevance, akin to the fate of Russian immigrants post the Russian revolution.

Given recent security challenges, how do you foresee events like the recent terror attack by Islam State Khorasan (ISK) influencing Putin’s governance approach and the continuation of his autocratic policies?

Veljko Vujačić: It’s evident that there’s an attempt to manipulate the narrative by linking it to Ukrainian fascists and other unfounded claims. Russia has long grappled with attacks from Islamist movements, evident in past incidents like the Beslan school shooting during the Chechnya war. There were radicals from Dagestan who went to fight for groups such as ISIS in Syria. These threats are not new; during my time in St. Petersburg, there was an explosion on the metro near a station I frequented with my child. Despite Russia’s extensive security apparatus, which includes a vast number of police officers, FSB personnel, and military forces, such incidents continue to occur, raising questions about their effectiveness.

Many Russians are skeptical of the official narrative attributing the events to Ukrainians because the individuals involved bear Tajik features. Tajik people are also present in Afghanistan, prompting people to question the connection. The absence of Ukrainian involvement raises doubts about the narrative’s credibility. It seems authorities are attempting to manipulate the story for their own agenda, but I doubt it will be readily accepted. Their efforts to spin the situation seem forced and unlikely to convince the public.

Professor, do you have any suspicions that the attack was carried out by ISK?

Veljko Vujačić: I’m not a security specialist, but I don’t believe the idea that somehow Putin’s FSB was behind this, as they may have been behind some of the explosions in Moscow and Ryazan attempted just before Putin’s assumption of power. At this point, I don’t subscribe to this kind of conspiracy theory. This event isn’t in their favor; it’s not something the regime would want, especially now when they need to mobilize more people for the war and garner more support. They’re aware that the election was fraudulent. Trust me, to build consensus, they need much more societal support. They don’t need a disruptive event like this. So, I see no reason to doubt Western intelligence services when they predict such events. They first received intelligence on the ground and through satellites, warning of a potential attack. They advised their citizens to stay away from Moscow concert halls weeks ago. Putin dismissed it as a bogus Western plan, and this is what resulted. I’m not part of those intelligence services; I’m not privy to that kind of information. Nonetheless, I have no reason to doubt that this is probably what happened.

Passivity of Russian Society in Response to War Creates Astonishment

Reflecting on your research, what key factors do you believe are crucial for understanding the persistence of autocracy and populism in Russia amidst shifting geopolitical dynamics and internal challenges?

Veljko Vujačić: I believe I partially answered this question. One aspect that I didn’t elaborate on is the astonishment felt by many Russian intellectuals, educated individuals, and professionals regarding the passivity of Russian society in response to war. They anticipated much more resistance, particularly regarding the recruitment of young soldiers. If there’s something that deeply concerns every person in Russia, it’s the prospect of their son going to war and possibly not returning home. This sentiment was evident in the 1990s, for instance, when attempts were made to mobilize Russian soldiers to participate in the conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan that erupted in 1988 in Baku, leading to pogroms, and later, war over Nagorno-Karabakh. There was a significant protest by Russian mothers in the Krasnodar region of Southern Russia, resulting in the cessation of recruitment. Similarly, in Chechnya, there were instances of Russian mothers mobilizing and even journeying to Chechnya to retrieve their sons from the army. However, this did not occur this time around. 

Another aspect often overlooked, although noted by observers like Marlene Laurel at George Washington University, is the substantial payments made to impoverished individuals to incentivize their participation in the war effort. In their circumstances, these payments were considerable, amounting to $5,000, $6,000 or even $7,000. This represents a significant sum of money that many people in villages and smaller towns would not earn over the course of several years. Thus, in a sense, they were bought to participate in the war through financial means.

I also believe there’s another factor that isn’t taken into account, and that is the Covid epidemic, not so much because of Putin’s isolation, which is often discussed. He was indeed isolated and cut off. I think what he realized was that the population was responding to mass death with relative indifference. Russia experienced a significant number of casualties from Covid, which was disproportionately high, almost comparable to the United States, despite having a population two and a half times smaller. I think Putin looked around and thought, “well, it doesn’t seem like people care too much if someone dies; they accept it fatalistically. So maybe I can send them to war.” 

Now, this is not what happened in the 1990s at all. There was much more resistance to that. And I think that’s a big surprise. Part of it is money, and part of it is that many of these people in the vast Russian provinces lead dreary day-to-day lives, and suddenly some of them can become heroes. Some of them can be elevated to positions of power or status, and so on. And glory is always very attractive in a society that is essentially dominated by wealthy oligarchs, even if they are state oligarchs under Putin. There’s a huge inequality in Russia, and the war serves as a mechanism for redistributing some money to those social strata. So, that’s one of the major obstacles to real opposition in Russia. But I think, again, that patience will run out as more and more young men return in horizontal positions from the front. That has to thin out at some point.

Pan-Slavism Is Dead

Selective blur on a T-Shirt with the Z letter and Putin portraits in Belgrade, Serbia, supporting Russia and the war in Ukraine on September 25, 2022. Photo: Shutterstock.

Lastly, do you perceive a sense of Pan-Slavic solidarity, shared emotions, and ideals between Putin’s Russia and other Slavic nations, like Serbia? How do Slavic nations generally interact with Putin’s regime in Russia, taking into account both political and emotional dimensions? Furthermore, what is the nature of the relationship between Putinism and Pan-Slavism?

Veljko Vujačić: Pan-Slavism is dead. I mean, how can there be Pan-Slavism when you’re attacking a fellow Orthodox nation, Ukraine, which you claim to be Russian, not even part of a Slavic brotherhood? But in the name of Slavic brotherhood, you’re bombing them, invading them, and killing them. Secondly, there’s no homogeneous Slavic world. It’s a myth; historically, Poles and Czechs dread Russian expansionism. They don’t want to see that again.

Serbia occupies a very unique position. This is because there’s an analogy to be drawn, as I did in my work, between the breakup of Yugoslavia and the breakup of the Soviet Union. Historically, Serbs viewed themselves as being on the right side of World War One. They were opposed to the attempts made by Austria-Hungarians and were victimized by them. They also emerged victorious in World War Two, with Allied assistance. There was significant resistance in Serbia initially by the monarchists, and later by the Communists, many of whom were ethnic Serbs, particularly those from Croatia and Bosnia who played a significant role in Tito’s Partisan Movement.

There’s this perceived loss. “We are nations that lost World War 2. The Germans are living well. The Japanese are living well, but we are not living well. We lost, and so there’s this perception of some kind of historical injustice. And not only that, but we are not even allowed to stay together with our fellow brothers and sisters in Croatia and Bosnia, and so on. They deny us the right to self-determination.” I mean, that’s the narrative. “And here we are. We were exposed to genocide in World War 2.” That’s the Serbian narrative. “We were heroes and victims and look what they did to us.” So, especially the NATO bombing changed the equation in Serbia a lot, and people remember that, unfortunately, and that’s one of the big reasons for pro-Russian sentiment. 

Another reason is, of course, Russian propaganda. That’s quite obvious, and it’s quite intense in the case of Serbia. But a third reason that’s not taken into account is that Yugoslavia was never invaded by the Soviet Union. Serbia is not part of the Soviet bloc. So, therefore, the anti-Soviet/anti-Russian feelings that are characteristic of so much of Eastern Europe were just not present in Yugoslavia. That’s forgotten completely. It was a pro-Western country, essentially, even in Communist disguise and culturally.

So, this notion of Pan-Slavic solidarity is terribly inflated and unrealistic. However, what I do think fosters some affinity between Russia and Serbia is this shared historical experience of state breakup, where both Russians and Serbs feel they got a raw deal. They were heroes and victims of World War 2, and their contribution to the Allied victory was underestimated and undervalued by Westerners. They felt slighted in their pursuit of self-determination, observing NATO’s unilateral actions, such as in Iraq, Afghanistan, and the bombing of Yugoslavia, which was a significant turning point for Russia. Not because of pro-Serbian sentiments at that time, but simply due to the perception that “nobody consulted us.” “How could they bomb European cities like Belgrade without seeking our input? Our cities were bombed in World War 2.” I’ve met Russians who were very young, saying, “We had nothing to do with Serbia; we barely knew where it existed. But all we could think was, how can they bomb a European city in 1999? What are they thinking?” This was a crucial psychological turning point in Serbia, explaining much of the lingering anti-Western sentiment and the inclination to support Russia in disrupting the Western-dominated order.

However, it has very little to do with Pan-Slavism. Sure, there’s Christian Orthodoxy, some historical similarities, and always the Russian soul and all these sorts of mystifications. But they are mystifications. It’s much more important to understand that the real historical experiences they generate memories, whether it’s World War II or the NATO bombing and so on. That’s very immediate to people. Whereas Pan-Slavism, that’s sort of 19th century. Maybe there was some of it in 1945 because there was so much anti-German sentiment then. And when the Soviet army swept through Eastern Europe, there were expressions of Pan-Slavism in some countries, like the Czech Republic, for example, Czechoslovakia then, because they were betrayed by the Western powers, and here were the liberators, the Russians, and so on. So, there was some of that initially. But that’s long ago.

Dr. Neil Robinson, Professor of Comparative Politics at the University of Limerick.

Professor Robinson: Evolution of Putinism as ‘Collective Putin’ Reshapes Russian Politics

Professor Neil Robinson expresses his concerns regarding a potential escalation in the crackdown on dissent, heightened control measures, intensified efforts to label domestic opponents as foreign agents or traitors, and increased indoctrination through the education and media systems following Vladimir Putin’s resounding victory in the recent election. Additionally, he underscores the notion that Putin does not operate alone at the apex of power but rather is bolstered by a circle of allies. Robinson argues, “While this has always been true, there’s now an effort to transform this ‘collective Putin’ into more than just a hegemonic identity that Russians are expected to adhere to; it’s becoming a true collective, an unquestionable identity. Thus, the expansion of these dynamics may lead us to reconsider Putinism as something distinct from official populism.”

Interview by Selcuk Gultasli

In a landscape characterized by shifting power dynamics and heightened political tensions, Professor Neil Robinson, a distinguished scholar of Comparative Politics at the University of Limerick, offers profound insights into the evolving nature of Putinism and its ramifications for Russian politics. In an exclusive interview with the European Center for Populism Studies (ECPS), Professor Robinson delves into the intricate layers of Vladimir Putin’s regime, shedding light on the mechanisms through which power is consolidated and dissent suppressed.

Professor Robinson’s analysis underscores a fundamental shift in the dynamics of Putinism, emphasizing the emergence of what he terms as the ‘collective Putin.’ Contrary to conventional perceptions of Putin as a solitary figure at the helm, Professor Robinson elucidates how Putin operates within a circle of allies, transforming this collective into an unquestionable identity for the Russian populace. He warns against overlooking this transformation, asserting that it signifies a departure from traditional notions of official populism, warranting a re-evaluation of Putinism as a distinct political phenomenon.

Moreover, Professor Robinson highlights his concerns regarding an escalation in the crackdown on dissent, heightened control measures, intensified efforts to label domestic opponents as foreign agents or traitors, and increased indoctrination through the education and media systems in the aftermath of Vladimir Putin’s decisive victory in the recent election.

Drawing from his extensive research, Professor Robinson elucidates the evolution of populist rhetoric in Russia, contextualizing it within broader political frames such as constitutional order and legality. He delves into the strategic deployment of these discourses to stabilize regime hybridity, putting forward how they interact to shape the political landscape. Robinson’s nuanced analysis dispels simplistic characterizations of Putinism, emphasizing its complex ideological layers rather than a cohesive doctrine. He cautions against dismissing Putinism as devoid of ideology, highlighting its profound impact on political discourse and policy formulation.

Professor Robinson provides critical insights into the intersection of official populism with cultural themes, probing its implications for addressing the material needs of diverse social groups within Russia. He explains how the cultural-centric approach adopted by the regime has ramifications for economic development and social cohesion, underscoring the inherent tensions between the cultural narrative of official populism and the economic realities faced by the populace.

Furthermore, Professor Robinson examines the strategies employed by Putin to consolidate power domestically and advance Russia’s interests on the global stage. He analyzes the utilization of events such as terror attacks and elections as opportunities to bolster the regime’s position, both domestically and internationally. Professor Robinson’s comprehensive analysis offers invaluable insights into the complexities of contemporary Russian politics, providing a nuanced understanding of Putinism and its implications for the trajectory of the Russian state.

Here is the transcription of the interview with Professor Neil Robinson with some edits.

The Construction of Putinism Has Undergone Significant Evolution Over Time

In the article titled, ‘Populism and Political development in Hybrid regimes: Russia and Development of Official Populism’ you argue how populist rhetoric in Russia evolved alongside other political frames, such as the emphasis on constitutional order and legality. Could you elaborate on how these competing discourses were strategically employed to stabilize regime hybridity, and how they may have interacted with each other to shape political discourse in Russia?

Neil Robinson: Obviously, Russia exhibits a distinctly different type of populism compared to the forms prevalent in Europe or Latin America, although significant differences exist among those regions as well. In Russia, populism evolved as a response to electoral threats faced by the regime in 2011-2012. It aimed to ensure stability for the regime while simultaneously excluding political rivals to Vladimir Putin. This form of populism allowed the regime to assert a democratic façade while consolidating power. Therefore, while Russia saw the emergence of a more authoritarian and ideological form of politics post-2011-2012, it purported to maintain democratic continuity within the existing constitutional framework, rather than merely serving as a power grab by Putin. 

This narrative of stability and continuity was constructed by amalgamating various discursive frames, including democracy, market economy, and conservative cultural values. This synthesis introduced an ideological shift from the earlier stages of Putin’s presidency. However, it’s essential to recognize that this form of populism does not advocate for radical restructuring of the political system to reflect the will of the people. Instead, it promises continuity to safeguard the popular will and prevent its displacement by foreign values.

In addition, other forms of political discourse utilized by Putin are crucial and should not be overlooked in political analysis. Unfortunately, they are often overshadowed by the focus on the traditional, conservative themes present in his speeches, with many viewing these as the sole elements of significance in his ideology. However, every aspect contributes to the construction of Putinism, and their usage has evolved over time. This adaptability has allowed the regime to address various challenges differently since 2012, particularly with the incorporation of populist tropes into its rhetoric.

Conservative Traditionalism Constituted the Core of Putin’s Populism

You discuss the development of official populism under Vladimir Putin, particularly its acceleration after 2012. Could you elaborate on the factors that contributed to this rapid acceleration, and how did war in Ukraine reinforce the narrative of official populism?

Neil Robinson: In some respects, although one should be cautious not to draw too rigid a line, there exists a distinction between articulating the official populist stance, as Sarah Milne and I described in the article you referenced, and the war in Ukraine. The official populist position was formulated to safeguard the political system and imbue it with purpose, serving as justification for Putin’s return to power. Thus, there was a pragmatic aspect to this articulation; it functioned as a tool in discourse. However, this discourse took on a life of its own as it permeated Russia’s media landscape, particularly the official media structures, fostering a more aggressive, nationalistic, and anti-liberal environment that has persisted over the past decade or so.

On one hand, the ideology of conservative traditionalism, which formed the core of Putin’s populism, seeped into the public consciousness through the media infrastructure. However, it also began to influence other areas of policymaking, albeit much later. Slowly over the course of the 2010s, it started to feature more prominently in foreign policy discourse. Furthermore, it began to shape how Russian democracy was conceptualized and what its purpose was, particularly evident in 2020 when Putin amended the constitution. These ideological themes, expressly embedded in other articles of the Russian Constitution, came to define the essence of the Russian people within the constitutional framework. Gradually, the populist message spread, evolving into a force that was increasingly independent of Putin as its original articulator. It morphed into a structural force in its own right.

Ukraine presented a dilemma within this discourse. It was perceived to be a part of the “Russian world,” sharing the same values as the Russian people and the diverse traditional religions present in Russia. However, this posed an ontological trap in Putin’s ideology. How could one claim authenticity to the “Russian world” when elsewhere within it, different ways of life existed? How could one reconcile the divergence in relationships with the West, with some embracing liberalism, which was deemed a threat, and others embracing a European direction of development, considered a betrayal of organic interests?

Though there wasn’t a straightforward trajectory from the articulation of the official populist stance in 2012 onwards, particularly during the period spanning 2012 to 2014, the war in Ukraine reflects the biases and concerns of Putin’s official populism. It can be seen as a response to the most imminent and significant threat to that discourse: the existence of individuals within the “Russian world” living in divergent ways. The onset of the war served to entrench and intensify this discourse, also engendering a necessity for mobilization around it. Initially exclusionary, the discourse aimed to undermine the political agency of liberals and ethno-nationalists in Russia, providing Putin and the Kremlin with a means to regulate political participation and discredit alternative forms of engagement as futile. However, with the advent of the war, this discourse evolved into a foundation for mobilization in its own right. This shift has led to the utilization of symbols and an increased emphasis on patriotic education, as well as the incorporation of the educational sector—encompassing both school-age children and higher education—into the ideological state apparatus. These developments have both deepened and broadened in conjunction with the war, altering the relationship with populism in Russia. While complex, this dynamic has also transformed the activation and enactment of populism within the country.

Russia Will Need to Confront Its Persisting Development Challenges

A beggar spotted begging in Red Square in Moscow, Russia. Photo: Elena Rostunova.

You argue that official populism in Russia is primarily centered around cultural themes, lacking a significant focus on socio-economic or political issues. How does this cultural-centric approach impact the regime’s ability to address the material needs of different social groups within Russia? Are there potential conflicts between the cultural narrative of official populism and the economic realities faced by the populace? 

Neil Robinson:  Yes, the focus was on politics, values rather than on economic and social development for Russia, and this was a deliberate choice. The regime adopted a populist approach that could be touted as successful regardless of economic circumstances. After the global economic crisis of 2008, Russia failed to address the structural causes of its own economic downturn. Uncertainty loomed over how these issues would be tackled. Thus, a political narrative of success was constructed, detached from any substantial economic changes. This populist rhetoric did not advocate for specific economic policies or structural reforms; instead, it narrowly focused on maintaining political legitimacy.

Economics, meanwhile, was relegated to other discourses, continuing ineffective attempts to blend patronage politics with marketization. These efforts had previously failed to stimulate economic growth in Russia beyond its energy sectors. The populist success that can be declared and demonstrated through speeches, as well as aggressive actions against Western hegemony, is often portrayed as something tangible and real. The regime struggled to find a solution to this dilemma, only stumbling upon a resurgence in economic growth around 2012, largely due to the accidental uptick in energy prices. This rediscovery marked a return to economic growth, albeit without a deliberate strategy in place.

Following the declaration of war in Ukraine, there has been a form of military Keynesianism, essentially injecting funds into the military economy and observing some spill-over effects into the broader economy. However, these measures do not lay the groundwork for Russia’s long-term development. Sooner or later, the war will end—hopefully sooner—and Russia will need to address its ongoing development challenges, including issues such as depletion horizons in the oil industry. The focus on cultural values has come at a cost to Russia. While this cost hasn’t been immediately detrimental to the regime due to fortunate circumstances, luck is not a sustainable strategy in the long term.

Putinism Cannot Simply Be Disregarded as Irrelevant

The head of the Russian Orthodox Church, Patriarch Kirill and Russian President Vladimir Putin as they attended a ceremony celebrating the 1025 anniversary of the Baptism of Kievan Rus in Kiev, Ukraine on July, 27, 2013. Photo: Shutterstock.

In your article titled “Putin and the Incompleteness of Putinism” you argue against both the notion that Putinism resembles Soviet ideology and the idea that ideology plays a negligible role in Putin’s regime. Could you elaborate on why neither of these extremes accurately characterizes Putinism, and what implications this has for understanding contemporary Russian politics?

Neil Robinson: This question delves into a vast territory. Within the realm of Russian studies, there’s a prevalent inclination to seek parallels with the Soviet era. Much of the analysis concerning Putin and ideology is filtered through this Soviet prism. Historically, two perspectives have dominated the discussion of Soviet ideology. One perspective regards the Soviet system as fundamentally flawed and absurd—a relic of totalitarianism. Consequently, there’s a strong temptation to interpret Russia’s increasing authoritarian tendencies as a regression into Soviet-style governance. On the flip side, another viewpoint questions whether Soviet leaders genuinely adhered to Marxist-Leninist ideology. Many argue that these leaders lacked philosophical depth, especially post-Lenin, viewing their ideological pronouncements as mere lip service. So, instead of fixating on ideological roots, it’s more prudent for us to scrutinize the material interests at play in politics and prioritize our analysis accordingly.

The issue with both of these explanations is twofold. Firstly, they set an excessively high bar for defining something as ideological. By insisting that an ideology must adhere to a structured worldview like Marxism-Leninism, we inadvertently limit the scope of what can be considered ideological. This leads to a strained analysis when trying to fit Putinism into predefined ideological categories. Conversely, dismissing Putinism as non-ideological overlooks its significant impact. The articulated discourse within the Kremlin shapes media environments and political participation, extending beyond mere pragmatism.

To dismiss these factors as inconsequential would be a mistake. Putinism cannot simply be disregarded as irrelevant after over a decade of shaping policies and narratives. Assertions likening Putin to Stalin or portraying him as merely pragmatic miss the mark. The reality lies somewhere in between these extremes.

A more nuanced approach is to view Putinism not as a traditional ideology in the vein of Marxism, but rather as a complex discourse. This discourse encompasses elements of cultural conservatism alongside discussions of constitutionality, democracy, and economic development. These facets often conflict with one another, creating a dynamic and multifaceted system. Putinism cannot be neatly categorized as a continuation of the Soviet Union nor reduced to a purely pragmatic authoritarian regime serving the interests of a small elite. While the elite undoubtedly benefits, the system encompasses broader complexities that defy simplistic characterization.

There are pitfalls in veering too far in either direction. Currently, there’s a risk of leaning towards a totalitarian characterization due to the ongoing war. The heightened mobilization may indeed resemble aspects of totalitarianism, particularly in its outreach to the populace, which previous forms of populism lacked. However, it’s overly simplistic to entirely categorize these developments as totalitarian without considering their broader implications.

In my article, I aimed to caution against such extreme categorizations and advocate for a more balanced perspective. It’s essential to remain open-minded and not dismiss statements outright simply because they may seem intellectually lacking. While much of the discourse may indeed lack coherence or deep philosophical grounding, we must still examine its effects and implications. It’s a call to engage critically with ideas, even if we don’t view them as inherently profound or coherent philosophical positions.

The Indiscriminate Application of the Label “Russophobia” by Putin

You argue that Putinism has ideological layers rather than a cohesive ideology. Could you elaborate on how these layers interact and how they contribute to the overall political discourse in contemporary Russia?

Neil Robinson: This question presents a significant challenge for me, not because I lack belief in it, but rather because I perceive shifts occurring within the relationships among these layers. What I originally posited was the existence of a regime-supporting discourse emerging after 2012, characterized by conservative ideologies. This discourse was instrumental in facilitating Putin’s return to the presidency that year and in legitimizing the system. However, its scope was rather limited, focusing on specific topics. Subsequently, ideological entrepreneurs, including individuals in the media and certain political factions aligned with Putin’s regime, seized upon and expanded these ideas, forming what I term a regime-supporting discourse. They took Putin’s concepts and intertwined them with other prevailing notions in Russian politics, thereby enriching the discourse surrounding the regime. Their objective was not only to secure positions for themselves within Russia’s media infrastructure but also to extend the reach of the regime’s own narrative. Thus, we can discern multiple layers: Putin’s original discourse, augmented by additional elements, propagated by secondary political figures and media personalities associated with Putin-aligned parties, whether officially part of the opposition or not.

The demarcation between these layers remained relatively clear until around 2020. However, with the constitutional changes, Putin began incorporating ideas from the broader regime supporting discourse into the official narrative, blurring the lines between the two. This interaction marked a significant shift, epitomized by the constitutional amendments of 2020, where the regime’s discourse expanded to include elements from below, integrating them into the official rhetoric. This evolution underscores a crucial change in the landscape of ideas, challenging the notion that everything is purely pragmatic. As ideas flow from below into the official discourse and are adopted by Putin and others, disentangling from this discourse becomes increasingly challenging.

Now, one significant method to discern these shifts is by examining the language employed. For instance, within the regime-supporting discourse, arguments about Russophobia were prevalent, portraying the West as inherently anti-Russian. Initially, such rhetoric wasn’t commonly used by top political figures like Putin. They acknowledged Russophobia but were more discerning in attributing it. It wasn’t a blanket accusation against all who criticized Russia. Rather, it was a narrative cultivated within the regime-supporting discourse, emphasizing a sense of victimhood: “Look at the way the world hates us.” However, this has now undergone a reversal. Putin and others at the apex of the political system regularly utilize this rhetoric. The label of Russophobia is indiscriminately applied to almost anyone critical of Russia. This shift highlights how certain ideas migrate between layers of discourse over time.

This relay of ideas has been further bolstered by recent war as mentioned earlier. These developments contribute to the reinforcement of authoritarian tendencies and provide new justifications for repression. As these dynamics evolve, they create fertile ground for authoritarian practices in novel ways.

Efforts to Transform ‘Collective Putin’ into More Than Just a Hegemonic Identity

Vladimir Putin’s portrait. Illustration: Tpyxa_Illustartion.

In light of Vladimir Putin’s landslide victory in the recent election just weeks after murder of Alexei Navalny, what strategies do you anticipate him employing to further consolidate his power domestically, particularly considering the heightened repression of dissent and independent voices witnessed in the lead-up to the election?

Neil Robinson: More of the same: more repression, more control, more doubling down on labeling domestic opponents as foreign agents, traitors, or individuals lacking the correct patriotic spirit. There will be increased mobilization around these narratives, along with heightened efforts to embed them into people’s minds through the education and media systems.

In essence, there’s been much discussion about what’s sometimes referred to as the “collective Putin.” Putin doesn’t operate in isolation at the top; rather, he is supported by a circle of allies. While this has always been true, there’s now an effort to transform this “collective Putin” into more than just a hegemonic identity that Russians are expected to adhere to; it’s becoming a true collective, an unquestionable identity. Thus, the expansion of these dynamics may lead us to reconsider Putinism as something distinct from official populism. However, this transformation is a gradual process, and the extent and pace of its progression remain uncertain. Only time will reveal the full extent of these developments.

Election Victory Spurs Putin to Further Marginalize Dissident Voices

Mass protests in Russia demanded the release of Alexei Navalny. Police detained protesters in Moscow, Russia, on January 31, 2021. A girl holds a sign saying “Freedom for Putin from office!” Photo: Elena Rostunova.

Given the international condemnation of the election as a sham and the concerns raised about its legitimacy, how do you envision Putin leveraging his victory to advance Russia’s interests on the global stage, particularly concerning the ongoing occupation in Ukraine?

Neil Robinson: It’s evident that the election results will likely be used to justify the annexation of territories claimed as part of the Russian Federation, where purportedly overwhelming support for Putin was reported. Regions like Sevastopol, Crimea, Donetsk, Luhansk, etc., supposedly showed significant support for Putin, though the legitimacy of these figures is questionable. This tactic mirrors previous attempts, such as the 2014 referendum in Crimea, aimed at legitimizing annexation efforts. While such assertions may not hold sway with much of mainstream political opinion in the West, they find traction elsewhere, even among certain European politicians who congratulate Putin, citing the “will of the people.” Supporters of Putin’s populist, authoritarian, and international agenda are likely to echo the Kremlin’s narrative regarding the elections and support for Putin.

In terms of expectations, I anticipate more of the same: a reinforcement of existing narratives, further marginalization of dissident voices within Russia—evident during the election and the aftermath of Navalny’s death—and continued crackdowns on protestors. These actions perpetuate the ongoing tragedy unfolding in Russia today.

Professor Robinson, considering the recent terror attack in Moscow claimed by the Islamic State group, how do you anticipate President Putin will leverage this event to strengthen his regime’s position domestically and internationally?

Neil Robinson: I think we’ve seen it, haven’t we? There’s been this weak attempt to tie events to Ukraine, perpetuating a narrative that terrorist attacks in Russia are part of a broader global conspiracy encouraged by the West, particularly the United States. Despite repeated instances where Western intelligence agencies, including those in the US, warned against such attacks, these claims persist. It all contributes to the conspiratorial narrative integral to Putinism—a worldview characterized by an “us against the world” mentality, where individuals are either allies or adversaries. This narrative is clearly the one Russian authorities seek to propagate. They even acknowledge that some responsibility lies with Islamist terrorists like Islamic State Khorasan (ISK), but they argue that ISK itself is a byproduct of Western actions: destabilization and arrogance. According to their perspective, Russia unfairly bears the brunt of these consequences.