Flag-waving, chest beating, anthem singing and myth excavating is underway in Russia. It is all part of Vladimir Putin's nation building project. Dmitry Medvedev, almost certain to be the next Russian president, will inherit the project from Putin. And as in many other policy areas, Medvedev will favour continuity.
Power and recognition
The notions of stability, unity and Russia's great power status, the cornerstones of Putin's project, are likely to creep into Medvedev's rhetoric. Putin publicly boasts of Russia's re-emergence as one of the world's top ten economies; Medvedev aspires to make it the fifth largest. Economic growth is accompanied by demands for greater political recognition internationally -- this trend will also continue, even though Medvedev may prove more tactful in this undertaking. He can afford to do so because the Putin presidency has already set a framework for Russia's national identity discourse.
Putin has put an end to the era of a weak, humiliated Russia. Putin's Russia has behaved confidently, even arrogantly, but it has also appealed to the people's sense of patriotism and 'Russian-ness'. This is not something to be feared; accepting Russia as a great power will be more propitious for Russian-Western relations than attempting to build ties with a country suffering under the burden of its own inferiority complexes.
The idea that a strong sovereign Russia must have a strong military is deeply engrained in Russian national thinking and has been given a new momentum by Putin's nation-building initiatives. Last year, Russia unveiled a rearmament programme that is expected to cost some 190 billion dollars. This will comprise new strategic nuclear weapons, naval expansion, and the replacement of 45% of Russia's weapons and vehicles by 2015. Medvedev is yet to pronounce his stance on such issues as military reform, but it is clear that the Kremlin is and will remain highly sensitive to real and potential threats to Russia's national security.
No Russian president will be able to ignore the issue of potential NATO enlargement or US missile shield in Eastern Europe. Indeed, Medvedev's task -- given his 'liberal' credentials -- will be complicated by the need to assuage the military-industrial lobby, which will be keen to ensure that its interests are upheld.
Eurasia or Europe?
In his narrative, the Putin team has cherry-picked elements of Russia's Tsarist and Soviet past, but avoided appearing reactionary. Putin's vision of Russia as a great power does not imply a return to the Soviet Union, which he sees as both unviable and undesirable. His choice of successor is yet another proof of a forward-looking vision: the formative adult years of Medvedev were in the post-Soviet period, and he is also unlikely to glorify or romanticise the Soviet past. His emphasis will instead be on promoting the rule of law and Russia's openness to the world.
Unlike Putin, who has been highly receptive to the idea of Russia's 'Eurasian' identity and its unique developmental path, Medvedev is likely to emphasise the European aspects of Russia's social and political culture, which may herald a more traditional European approach in its foreign policy.
The Russian Orthodox Church will continue to play an important role in appealing to national consciousness of the Russian people. Symbolically, Medvedev stood next to Patriarch Alexy II at a Christmas service at Christ the Savior Cathedral in central Moscow. Putin has traditionally attended the mass at this church, which was dynamited under Stalin but reconstructed in the post-Soviet era. The service, as has become usual, was broadcast live across the country.
New symbols of national identity -- such as new public holidays -- need time to take root. Medvedev's administration will persevere in trying to encourage people to embrace post-Soviet symbols and to harmonise the narrative of Russian history with government policies.
This process is likely to take decades as government propaganda trickles into the popular mindset. Some analysts have argued that what inspires an average Russian citizen is not pomp and circumstance but more mundane issues such as personal income, private property and freedom of movement.
That in part helps explain the prevailing -- and frequently criticised -- political apathy of the Russian masses. Yet this apathy may reassure the West: the people's desire to distance themselves from high politics and focus on the acquisition of material goods acts as a societal safeguard against a return to the past and helps create lasting relationships with the West. More simply put, Russians are just like us.