The Dangers of Populism

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President Vladimir Putin's speech on Wednesday at a rally at Moscow's Luzhniki arena, organized by the "For Putin" movement and the United Russia party, was the second major event that defined his new role as head of United Russia's federal ticket.

The first was his meeting with a group of construction workers in Krasnoyarsk on Nov. 13, where he defended his participation in the State Duma election campaign on the grounds that only a United Russia victory would ensure that his political program would continue after his second presidential term ends. The president's position was based on the principle that his political vision is patently correct and should not be subject to question. Moreover, voters can confirm their support for this course when they vote in the Duma elections, which have essentially turned into a vote of confidence in Putin.

When Putin addressed the 5,000-strong crowd of young supporters at Luzhniki, he urged them to vote for United Russia so that the Duma would not turn into a collection of populists paralyzed by corruption and demagoguery.

In addition, he lashed out at his political opponents: "They want to come back, to return to power, to spheres of influence and gradually restore oligarchic rule based on corruption and lies. ... These are the people who held high government positions in the 1990s and who caused tremendous damage to society when they served the interests of oligarchic groups and plundered the national wealth," referring to liberal parties like the Union of Right Forces, which have been accused of accepting money from oligarchs in the past.

"All of these people remain in the political arena," Putin continued. "They will now come out into the streets. They received a crash course from foreign experts, were trained in neighboring republics and will try it here now," Putin said, referring to the "colored revolutions" that have caused three former Soviet republics to collapse since 2003 -- in Ukraine, Georgia and Kyrgyzstan.

"Those who want to confront us need a weak and ill state. They want to have a divided society so that they can carry on their deeds. ... Unfortunately, inside the country there are those who scrounge at foreign embassies, importune diplomatic missions, count on the support of foreign funds and governments ..."

As expected, Putin's speech was interrupted multiple times by applause, whistles and cries of "We won't allow it to happen!"

This direct appeal to the people, sidestepping political institutions, is a tell-tale sign of populism.

The people must be prepped for events like when people asked Putin questions during his annual call-in event or when young people gathered at the Luzhniki arena on Wednesday.

The people's vote of confidence in its president is not necessarily measured at the election booths. The people's approval of Putin's political program can also be measured by the 5,000-strong rally, which will be shown many times across the country by most television stations. This will only increase the level of trust that the people already have in the president, and the leading pollsters will surely note this fact.

Putin's speech has another defining feature: the policy of identifying who Russia's "enemy" is. The image of the enemy, which never reflects reality, has one main function: to mobilize supporters. When the authorities have a "popular mandate" to vigilantly hound the enemy, this weapon can be used at any moment.

Emil Dabagyan, a prominent researcher in Latin American history, believes that populists always place their self-serving goals above the law. "There is a thin, and at times invisible, line that separates populism from authoritarianism. When a leader is in power for a long time, he begins to believe that he has messianic calling to rule. Encouraged by sycophants around him, he then strives to rise above everything and become the supreme arbiter."

The comment appeared as an editorial in Vedomosti.