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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Teaching Nationalists a New Trick

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The demand for nationalism, chauvinism and indeed racism is very high on the Russian political market these days. But will these sentiments forever hinder the country's progress toward democracy and its rapprochement with the West? No, and in fact one day they may become the engine that drives Russia into political modernity.

The current Kremlin administration is very good at playing the nationalist card. Symbolic gestures like restoring the Soviet anthem or stating that the collapse of the Soviet Union was the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century play a huge role in sending President Vladimir Putin's ratings soaring above all potential competitors.

The nationalism in Russia is anti-Western since it is nourished by the bitterness that still remains from the defeat in the Cold War.

The logic of chauvinism dictates that the Kremlin should resist pro-Western revolutions in former Soviet republics and seek alliances with pretty much anybody who opposes American hegemony, be it China, Iran or Uzbekistan.

Moscow is busy rallying all former Soviet regimes that have so far escaped an orange revolution. Security chiefs from these countries meet to exchange thoughts on how to counter youth movements and NGOs.

Together with China, Russia is building the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, which it portrays as the world's largest regional alliance – even a potential counterweight to NATO in the new "multipolar" world.

Russia also aspires to becoming a full member of the Association of South East Asian Nations, or ASEAN. Putin traveled to Malaysia in December to speak at the first ASEAN summit.

Russia has been invited to attend meetings of the Organization of the Islamic Conference as an observer, and Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Thursday that Russia intended to strengthen relations with Islamic countries.

In the Middle East, Russia defends Iran and Syria in much the same way as it defended Iraq when Saddam Hussein was still in charge.

But the kind of nationalism that requires forging ties with China and Middle Eastern regimes may sound a bit too postmodernist for the average Russian xenophobic nationalist. Because one day a new nationalist and indeed racist leader will come out and say: "Wait a minute, aren't we white European Christians? Then why seek allies in the East, while our brethren are in the West?

"Perhaps it is better to abide by European rules (or pretend to) than to get swallowed up by Asia?"

A Russian nationalist hates the West as a countryside lad hates a privileged city kid. Russians often speak about their "higher spirituality" or "better education," they accuse the West of invasions and betrayals, they proclaim that they are "Scythians and Asians with greedy slanting eyes" as Alexander Blok wrote in his famous poem, but all that is a bluff in order to hide the deep inferiority complex of a younger brother who can't stand the success -- as well as the arrogance and cynicism -- of the older one.

For the West is the only point of reference for all Russians, nationalist or liberal.Their understanding of modern Western society might be distorted, but they simply know nothing about their eastern or southern neighbors. A very small percentage of Russians has ever tried Chinese food or had Arab schoolmates and colleagues at work. And a large number of them would not like to have any such experiences for purely xenophobic reasons.

At the same time, a West-friendly nationalism can do wonders in Eastern Europe. It was the driving force in the anti-communist movement that brought about velvet revolutions in the late 1980s. In Poland, Hungary and the Baltic states, anti-Russian, essentially xenophobic rhetoric helped to unite the liberal minority with the apolitical majority -- something that Russian liberals have so far failed to achieve.

Nationalism, with its anti-Russian sentiment, rallies the masses behind the liberal leaders of Ukraine and Georgia. Pure liberalism in these countries is still confined to the urban intelligentsia and is extremely weak. It appears weaker than nationalism even in the countries that have gone a long way down the democratic path, as shown by last year's presidential election in Poland.

And the West is often quick to forgive its nationalist allies. The most notorious example is Franjo Tudjman's regime, which conducted ethnic cleansings in Serb-populated areas of Croatia. But there is also the example of Latvia and Estonia, where up to a third of the population is still deprived of basic political rights because of their ethnic origin.

Xenophobia derives from an inferiority complex. It gives someone a chance to say: "OK, I am a hopeless idiot, but you are a Jew (a Muslim, a Croat, a Chechen, a Hutu, etc.)." When this inferiority complex exists, xenophobia will always find an object, even if the choice is completely irrational. Eliminating xenophobia is an extremely difficult endeavor, and none of the Western countries can claim to have completely succeeded in doing this.

The West could help Russia become a better country by working with nationalist Russians and gradually transforming their xenophobia into a loathing of the world's real evils, such as terrorism, poverty and inequality.

But there must be a real incentive. East European nationalists had it in the form of the prospect of joining the European Union and NATO. Perhaps while rightly using the whip, the West should think of a really significant carrot for Russia.

Leonid Ragozin is a producer for BBCRussian.com, the web site of the BBC Russian Service. The views expressed are his own.