If freedom-loving France expels ethnic minorities and open-minded Sweden elects a quasi-fascist party to its parliament, is it really so surprising that the far right movement is alive and well in Russia, a country that has reclaimed its nationalism so effectively in recent years? For many, the December riots by ultranationalists in Moscow are simply an affirmation that Russia is, like the rest of Europe, flirting with xenophobia. This view has merit but ignores the fact that Russia's closed political landscape makes the far right a bigger threat there than anywhere else on the continent.
The ultranationalist Sweden Democrats and the knife-wielding soccer hooligans of Moscow are fringe elements in their countries' politics. Whatever one thinks of Russia's soft authoritarianism, far right sentiments have never been part of the "modern Russia" narrative that has been spun by the authorities over the last decade.
Vladimir Putin's record on Russian-Jewish issues alone illustrates this. During his presidency, Mikhail Fradkov, a Jew, was nominated to the post of prime minister and extremism laws were passed to target and disband hate groups. Putin himself attended the opening of a Jewish community center as well as the 60th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz. In 2005, Putin visited Israel, making him the first leader of either Russia or the Soviet Union to have done so.
What makes the Russian ultranationalists different is not their aspirations or their methods, but the political environment that they operate in. All over Europe, far right groups rail against foreigners, with splintering extremists even committing heinous acts of violence. But for such groups the avenue of political action is wide open; in Russia it is not. Through the democratic process, European ultranationalists are relegated to a small corner of the political field.
In Russia, they become martyrs, attracting unwarranted interest for their persecution at the hands of the ruling regime. How else does one explain how the notorious National Bolsheviks - a far right organization whose ideology is at the nexus of the 20th century's dangerous "-isms" - have been able to align themselves with respectable opposition groups?
Being a victim does not grant an individual or group special powers by default. Just ask the Russian parties with platforms most resembling those of mainstream parties in the U.S. or Europe. Ask also the freshly re-convicted oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky, whose internationally reported trial was reportedly followed by a little more more than a third of all Russians. Yet it is important to remember that liberals and oligarchs have never been well-liked in Russia.
That is why the persecution of the National Bolsheviks and similar organizations could actually pose a threat: The ultranationalists are ideologically closer to the broadly popular Communist Party and Liberal Democratic Party, the highest represented parties in the country's parliament after Putin and Medvedev's hegemonic United Russia.
To be sure, few Russia watchers would say that the peripheral ultranationalist groups, victims or not, could achieve political power anytime soon. But consider that a century ago Lenin's Bolsheviks - who would come to rule over a communist empire for over 80 years - were but a small faction of the Russian Social Democratic Labor Party, itself barely represented in the legislative assemblies of the late Tsarist Russia.
Nevertheless, the potent mix of able leadership and the skillful use of violence quickly elevated them to ultimate power in a time of national crisis. Should circumstances change, something comparable could happen in Russia today.
It is easy to understand the predicament facing Russian authorities, because repression of political groups with unsavory views is always a gamble: Subdue too little and their beliefs get an audience, stifle too much and their cause gets consideration. Thus far, the authorities have tried to address the dilemma by sanctioning token opposition parties which have nationalist elements, but such a strategy is likely to fail in the face of genuine discontent.
While the focus on preventing and prosecuting actual hate-crimes should be strengthened, the Russian leadership needs to realize that opening the political system to competition from the ultranationalists may actually be the best way to prevent their grievances from getting unjustified attention, and traction.