Is there populism in Russia? by Marianna Muravyeva

Russian populism is something nobody denies, not critics of the current regime, not its supporters. Political leaders openly appeal to the ‘people’ as the group in whose interest they are acting. However, what is important to remember that a) it has been the case for quite some time; b) Russia did not truly engage into neoliberal ideology of any kind; and c) every political party in Russia, including the opposition, use populism as a viable ideology.

However, some scholars think that Putinism is an imperfect fit to populist ideologies as Vladimir Putin did not come into power thanks to his populist platform. He was ‘an ‘annointed’ successor to President Yeltsin who stepped down leaving him to rule the country. Putinism represents a platonic model of autocracy, in which populism an inherent part of the official discourse (Oliker 2017). At the same time, despite the circumstances of his coming to the office, Putin had to go through the elections, for which he came up with a populist program. Populism also became the ideology for his newly founded United Russia party.

What is populism a-la-Rus?

There are three components of the official populist discourse: 1) sovereign (democracy)/sovereignty to account for current relationships with others; 2) traditional values to deal with social problems; and 3) patriotism to provide for national unity.

Phillip Casula identifies several characteristics of Russian populism as main features of political discourse. Firstly, the populism comes ‘from above’ but not ‘from below’, it is not oppositional but systemic. Secondly, it relies heavily on being structured around a name (Putin or Navalny), which acts as a nodal point, sort of an empty signifier. Therefore, populism works as an attempt to split the political space into two camps ‘with us’ and ‘against us’ both in domestic and foreign policy fronts (Casula 2013, p. 7). The concept of sovereignty comes very handy here; it is interpreted not a positive creative concept for better territorial and political development, but as a negative concept of defence against all types of corruption. Traditional values and patriotism work along the same lines.

Depoliticization is a flip side of populism. In the Russian case, it introduces management as the key procedure in politics (Makarychev 2008). The leadership attempts to declare objective (national) interests such as economic efficiency (anti-sanctions) or demographic revival (anti-LGBTQI and pro-heterosexual family) as a rebuttal of any ideology. Political conflicts are presented as economic, technical questions. Thus, Russian obvious support for Trump has been often portrayed as a wish to have a ‘businessman’ not a ‘politician’ (such as Clinton or Obama) to deal with.

Parapolitics is another key feature of Russian populism. It aims at deantagonization of politics. At the inscription of oppositional demands and the cooption of dissidents. The United Russia party (and political leadership) use the following strategy: they take some pragmatic elements form the liberals (especially in economy), some from the left (wages, strong employee protection etc.), some from the nationalists (patriotic discourse), and some from conservators (traditional values and preservation of stability). It makes opposition parties redundant or pushes them to be even more populist as official leadership as in case of Navalny, who organised his campaign around the fight with corruption and exposing how corrupt Russian leaders are.

To conclude, current Russian populism is a ‘catch-all’ ideology. It is rather effective and resilient. It does work miracles both in within the country and abroad as Putin’s name figures in the speeches of both far-right and far-left populist parties. Answering the panel’s questions, though, in the Russian case, populism is not a reaction to neoliberal ideology but rather an effective management strategy that came about in the dire situation of economic, political and ideological transformation, which means that as far as works as a stabilising discourse it will continue to be employed by the political leadership. As to what happens next, much depends on the ability of neoliberal ideologies to self-reform and address those issues that ‘the masses’ see as a failure.


Casula, P. (2013). Sovereign Democracy, Populism, and Depoliticization in Russia: Power and Discourse during Putin’s First Presidency. Problems of Post-Communism60(3), 3-15.

Makarychev, Andrey S. (2008). Politics, the State, and De-Politization. Problems of Post-Communism 55(5), 62–71.

Oliker, O. (2017). Putinism, Populism and the Defence of Liberal Democracy. Survival59(1), 7-24.


Marianna Muravyeva is a Senior Research fellow of the Institute for Advanced Social Research at the University of Tampere and Professor of Law at the National Research University Higher School of Economics, Moscow, Russia. Her research focuses on gender, criminology, family violence and human rights.


Neoliberalism and Populism in Turkey by Mahmut Mutman

The Turkish case shows that the universally accepted model of “neoliberal rule-populist response” is more complicated than it seems. The story of neoliberalism in Turkey goes as far back as 1980 military coup. The simple reason behind the coup was the impossibility of implementing the neoliberal economic program and austerity measures accepted in the same year under democratic rule. The military junta government repressed the left opposition and immediately put into implementation the neoliberal economic program by appointing a famous economist who was the behind the neoliberal economic program, Turgut Özal, as the minister responsible for economic affairs. The same neoliberal program was maintained by the democratically elected Motherland Party government, which was indeed established and led by Özal, following the end of military rule. It must be said that by the end of the 1980s neoliberalism became the doxa in Turkey. In its first phase, neoliberalism managed the transformation of “import substitutionism” into “export oriented” economy, liberalized finances and gave a green light to privatization. It was mainly already powerful Istanbul-based industrial bourgeoisie who benefitted from privatization, deregulation and export-oriented growth. It is important to underline that Özal’s Motherland Party which governed the initial process came to power by anti-elite, anti-bureaucratic populist themes—indeed populist themes which run well with the anti-state, pro-privatization discourse of neoliberalism.

This was followed by a long period of hegemonic crisis and fragmentation of power. By the beginning of 2000s however, a new, younger generation of Islamists (R. T. Erdogan and A. Gul) established the Justice and Development Party (AKP) and came to power in the 2003 elections. Islamism emerged as a directly populist movement, which characteristically divided the political space into two, declaring an enemy camp in antagonism to “the true people.” Islamist populism is thus characterized by a strong version of “nativism,” i.e. a coding of native difference as Islamic vis a vis the authoritarian secularism followed by the Republican elite. But one should further keep in mind that, like in all populist movements, Islamism is also the expression of a class difference, given that the economically dominant class, i.e. Istanbul-based industrial bourgeoisie was actually created by the statist Republican elite by a program of capitalism from above. Islamist populism is therefore a construction of class difference as religious difference, indeed as a consolidated religious difference. Therefore it would be quite reasonable to consider Islamism as a populist response to a neoliberal program implemented from above. Indeed this “class” and “anti-elite” dimension gave Islamism a strong argument of victimization. But this is only part of the story, because Turkish Islamism has also very strictly and successfully followed the neoliberal economic program already re-formulated by the previous government following a short period of economic downfall in 2001. This brings us to a significant dimension of neoliberalism in peripheral spaces such as Turkey: its promotion of “small and medium size enterprises,” the SMEs. These are often critized for providing cheap (often family and informal) labor for the multinationals (such as Gap, Nike or Mac). Although this is true, they might also be part of a process of capital accumulation. Indeed it so happened in Turkey that a new group of Islamist large conglomerates emerged out of the immense support given to the SMEs especially by the AKP government (but already by previous governments as well). Known as “Anatolian Tigers,” this new group of Islamist businessmen was represented by AKP. Turkish Islamism can therefore be described as a new hegemonic bloc formed by the Anatolian Tigers with the poor working mass, which they lead ideologically and politically. Put in loosely Gramscian terms, it is the persuasion of the working mass by the new bosses into a new hegemonic system organized in and by Islamist ideology. But this populist version of neoliberal populism led by a “conservative democratic” politics gradually turned into an authoritarian, proto-fascist populism.

As soon as it came to power in 2003, the AKP government actually followed a series of democratic reforms, apart from its strictly neoliberal stand. It thus appeared, in its initial phase, as a pro-EU, reformist, conservative or Muslim democrat party, which had support from the liberal sections of the society as well as from EU (the number of awards Erdogan had from prestigious Western and European institutions would shock anyone now). Turkey was a model country until about 2010, a laboratory in which the so-called “compatibility of Islam with democracy” was successfully experimented. AKP made a qualitative jump in the relations with EU, reformed the banking sector and gave the central bank a leading role, and battled the corruption. It also made peace with the dissident Kurdish leadership and started a process of negotiation, however slow and problematic. It also made peace with the dissident Kurdish leadership and started a negotiation process, however slow and problematic. But these successful double syntheses of neoliberalism and populism, and of democracy and Islam, did not last long. Indeed it repeated the same pattern observed in other cases of neoliberal populism such as Argentine’s Menem and Peru’s Fujimori. AKP’s reformist line has never been entirely consistent. It battled corruption and favoritism insofar as the old elite is concerned but it also developed its own favoritism and its own version of “crony capitalism”, and it constantly avoided auditing institutions and mechanisms. On the political level, AKP was successful to the extent that it was capable of governing various freedoms emerged in parallel with the rapid development of capitalism, but it seemed to reach a point where it became impossible for it to govern freedoms any longer for both politico-economic (its own corrupt practices) and ideological (its conservative, authoritarian and nationalist roots) reasons. Hence we witnessed, in the case of Turkey, a swift turn into a violent, repressive form of authoritarian populism and crony capitalism.


Mahmut Mutman teaches critical theory, media and cultural studies in the Department of Cinema and Television and is the coordinator of the M.A. Program in Cultural Studies at Istanbul Sehir University. He is the author of The Politics of Writing Islam: Voicing Difference; he has co-edited a special issue of Inscriptions titled “Orientalism and Cultural Differences” and a collection on Orientalism, Hegemony and Cultural Difference (in Turkish) as well as several articles on orientalism, nationalism, postmodernism, and film and media in Cultural Critique, Postmodern Culture, New Formations, Rethinking Marxism, Anthropological Theory, Radical Philosophy, Third Text and Toplum ve Bilim.

Populism in the shadow of neoliberalism – the Finnish case by Jorma Sipilä

As for populism, we speak of mass movements of adults, who feel severe dissatisfaction. They have lost jobs, money, security and undergone unfairness and insults by public and private institutions. All this has led to pessimism towards the mainstream culture and politics.

It is a historical norm that low paid workers do not love immigrants, be they domestic or foreign. The increase in the number of poor people pushes wages down and rents up. Immigration also tends to weaken the hard fight for better labour conditions.

Of course, all this has happened may times before – only the context is new, favouring the growth of populism. One reason for that is that the process takes place in urban and international environment and is escalated by social media. Another change is that the experience of exclusion is more collective than before: a growing proportion of people is being defined to be mentally, physically, culturally or educationally incompetent, unskilled, or unreliable.

There are always politicians ready to mobilize unhappy people. For the participants, populism is rewarding, giving hope and promising revenge.


The core of True Finns belongs to a generation that grew up in a nation, which had found new solidarity during the Second World War and the construction of the welfare state.

Politics of inclusion was in many ways particularly strong in Finland until the 1990s when the frame of the national project became too narrow for business elite.

True Finns, however, are only mildly critical towards the financial elite. Why are they attacking the left? First, they have to recruit among people who because of their social status have previously given their support to the left. Second, they get backing from the failure of leftist poverty politics.

The socialist alternative has not attracted older people after the failure of communism, whereas social democrats look toothless for them. This view has gained strength since the end of 1990s when social democrats were still the strongest political party. Its right wing leaders together with the conservatives turned their back to the people, who needed basic services and basic income security. The decline of poverty policies led to losses especially among people who were dependent on universal benefits – small entrepreneurs, long-term unemployed, housewives.

Social democrats stuck to cooperate with the labour unions. Downgrading the tax rate was preferred, although this happened at the expense of the financial transfers to municipalities, which provide the basic services for education, health, and social care. This has remained the penetrating logic in public expenditure: Because of the ageing and the maturation of the pension system the employment pensions must grow. Their growth is politically well protected and so is the freezing of the tax rate, as well. When pension contributions have been decided to be counted as taxes, there is no alternative to the retrenchment of public services.

Thus, the supporters of True Finns have reasons to be angry with the comrades, who do not show solidarity. As well known, they also show contempt towards the young red-greens, whose worldview is far away from that of the True Finns.

What will happen next?

Will we return to the era of mass parties and democratic politics?  I do not think it could happen without an international cultural revolution like that in the 1960s. Of course, such a return is possible in principle: the global financial power system is not a military fortress but a political creation that may be politically shaken.

If we really wanted to solve the underclass problem, we would fade out the boundary between the middle class and the underclass. Nordic countries have shown that it is possible, to some extent. Some of them are still doing it – Finland and Sweden do not.

The major problem is that in welfare capitalism underclass alone is a small political force. To improve the position of underclass, another political force has to join and promote inclusiveness. The position of middle class is however labile; in the eyes of the middle class the existence of underclass is both useful and problematic. It produces personal services at low cost, but it also is a source of social problems and malfunctioning in the society.

Sometimes the middle class needs political allies. In some Western countries (e.g. Greece, U.S.) the situation of middle class has worsened so much that a coalition between the middle class and underclass is more plausible than before.


I’d also like to play with an unlikely alternative. Is it possible that equality generating public policies might be accepted under neoliberalism? This sounds crazy: neoliberalism was born as an ideology of inequality. On the other hand, the powerful driver of neoliberalism is international capital.

We have an enormous amount of empirical research proving that social equality promotes economic growth and the growth of the capital. This suggests the radical conclusion that the capital should not identify itself with the personal interests of the finance folk but, for its own benefit, to demand as equal development of human resources as possible. Capital income is not maximized in the conditions of extreme inequality and lack of social investments. On the other hand, only the state can take response of universal development of human resources.

At least, it is theoretically possible that in the long run the capital and the state find common interests in promoting equality. State and capital are not strange bedfellows – if they have ever been. The state monopoly of taxation is such an attractive means to increase capital income that capital cannot stuck with an ordo-liberal anti-state position. In the present welfare capitalism neoliberalism as an ideology strives to infiltrate the public sector in order to cash money into financial institutions. Does this mean that the money escapes from the citizens? Not completely, a remarkable share of capital income returns in the form employment pensions…


Jorma Sipilä is a permanent fellow of the Institute for Advanced Social Research at the University of Tampere. He specialises in welfare state, social policy, services for the elderly and children, and cash-for-care arrangements.