Duterte pivots to Putin’s Russia
I can’t blame President Duterte’s fascination with Russia. Though I have yet to visit the place, Russia’s civilizational grandeur echoes in my heart through the works of Turgenev, Chekhov, Pushkin, Gogol, Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, etc.
My father hails from the Caspian Sea region, an ancient place, with its melancholy beaches and lush forests, that has repeatedly come under Russian occupation in modern times. Starting from centuries of Czarist adventurism up until the end of the Cold War, Russia expanded as far south as West Asia. In fact, Stalin, one of Russia’s most revered leaders, hails from the Caspian nation of Georgia. Just as Napoleon was once a marginal Corsican nationalist, Stalin began as a sentimental Georgian poet-nationalist. Over time, however, both men wed their identities to the world-historical mission of emancipatory-imperial expansion.
Perhaps there is no “grander” nation than Russia, marking as it does the nexus of the world’s greatest and oldest civilizations. Spread across 11 time zones, Russia’s double-headed eagle has gazed as far West as Scandinavia, the Baltic Sea and the Atlantic, and as far East as Japan’s northern borders. At the height of its imperium, Russia stretched far into North America, once even knocking on the doors of California. And after defeating Nazi Germany with unparalleled collective sacrifice, the Soviet Union ended up controlling parts of Berlin, the heart of Western Europe.
The country is so unique that strategic thinkers such as Aleksandr Dugin have conceptualized a whole new geo-civilizational space for Russia: “Eurasia.” Of Viking-Caucasian-Aryan breed, Russians don’t really pass as “Asian,” while their subjugation under the Mongolian Golden Horde deprived them of the path to European renaissance. In this sense, Russia is the ultimate universal “other”—a distinct and grand civilization unto its own. For the East, however, Russia is a pioneering nation that feels more familiar than any other Western nation. After all, it was the first non-Western civilization to embrace modernity at a breakneck pace.
Beginning with the gigantic ambitions of Peter the Great in early 18th century, Russia has managed to beat the West in its own game at several intervals. It was Russia that effectively vanquished the West’s leading megalomaniacs, Napoleon and Hitler. And throughout the Cold War period, the Soviet Union was the world’s second most powerful techno-industrial power, rising from the ashes of revolutionary upheavals and global conflicts with titanic determination.
Contemporary Russia, thus, is heir to one of the most remarkable and tortured civilizational projects, in one of the most exacting topographies and climactic conditions on earth.
While now a shadow of its imperial past, Russia has been transformed by Vladimir Putin into a potent geopolitical force following the “decade of humiliation” and “shock therapy” economics of the 1990s. More crucially, Putin has also been an ideological progenitor. His regime has been built on two key principles that have resonated with leaders across the world, from Viktor Orbán (Hungary) in Europe and Recep Tayyip Erdogan (Turkey) in West Asia, to Rodrigo Duterte in the Far East.
The first is Vladislav Surkov’s “Sovereign Democracy” (suverennaya demokratiya), which places primacy on the insulation of polity from Western interference.
The second is Ivan Ilyin’s emphasis on “Patriotic arbitrariness,” which extols the virtues of a decisive savior-leader. This is why Putin has been hailed as the founder of 21st-century authoritarian populism, or what Fareed Zakaria has called “illiberal democracy.”
No wonder, then, that President Duterte has called Putin his “favorite hero.” Donald Trump, incensed at constitutional limits on his executive power, has openly gushed over the Russian leader. Putin’s Russia is the gold standard for authoritarian populists who defy the West and its liberal values with gusto.
Yet, Russia can offer the Philippines far more than ideology and personal fascination. Despite its own profound economic troubles, it is still a formidable military power, which can provide us affordable advanced technology. Russia also has world-class energy companies that can help us develop untapped resources in the West Philippine Sea.
In fact, we can learn from truly “independent” Vietnam, which has consciously courted Russian assistance to ward off Chinese expansionism in the South China Sea without being dependent on the United States. The potentials for the future of bilateral relations between Manila and Moscow are as vast as the Russian nation.
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