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Putin makes civilisationalism fashionable, Dugin puts flesh on its skeleton

Russian President Vladimir Putin has inspired civilisationalist leaders to emerge from the woodwork and publicly define their states as civilisational rather than national entities.

These leaders speak of civilisational or ethnic worlds with borders that transcend national frontiers, not nation-states. How far they may wish to push claims that challenge the nation-state-based international order is likely to be heavily influenced by whether Mr. Putin achieves his civilisationalist goals in Ukraine.

Last month, Hungarian Prime Minister Victor Orban became the latest leader to redefine the nation-state he governs.

Speaking on Romanian territory in the predominantly ethnic Hungarian town of Baile Tusnad in Transylvania, a onetime Austro-Hungarian possession that is home to a Hungarian minority, Mr.Orban left no doubt that his definition of the Hungarian motherland included Transylvania and other regions in the Carpathian Basin beyond Hungary’s borders populated by ethnic Hungarians.

Serbian Interior Minister Aleksandar Vulin articulated a similar view of Serbia’s borders a year earlier.

“The task for this generation of politicians is to form a Serb world, that is to unite Serbs wherever they live,” Mr. Vulin told a political gathering in Belgrade in 2021 attended by President Aleksander Vucic.

Widely viewed as ‘Moscow’s man in Belgrade,’ Mr. Vulin said, “for the ‘Serb world’ to jell, Serbia needs to be economically successful, well-led and have an army that is able to protect Serbia and Serbs, wherever they live.”

Speaking the same day on television, Mr. Vulin went further by insisting that all Serbs should be united in one state. However, he later modified his statements by saying that unification would have to occur peacefully as it happened in post-Cold War Germany.

Even so, the thinking of far-right ideologue Alexander Dugin reverberates in positions adopted by Mr. Vulin as it does in the civilisationalist framing of geopolitics by Messrs. Orban and Putin.

“This is a war of ideas. We are not part of the global civilisation. We are a civilisation by ourselves. … We had no other possibility to prove that Huntington was right without attacking Ukraine,” Mr. Dugin asserts.

He was referring to the late Harvard University political scientist Samuel P. Huntington who controversially predicted a post-Cold War clash of civilisations that would be fought not between countries but between cultures.

The degree of Mr. Dugin’s influence on Mr. Putin is a matter of debate. Often dubbed in the media as ‘Putin’s brain’ and a Rasputin-like character, Mr. Dugin appears to be in and out of favour in the Kremlin’s innermost circles. Similarly, Mr. Dugin has influenced Central European, but to what degree may be debatable.

Nevertheless, even those sceptical describe the far-right ideologue as one of Russia’s foremost political theorists.

Mr. Dugin wrote a hugely influential ultra-nationalist tome, The Foundations of Geopolitics: The Geopolitical Future of Russia, which Russian military academies use as a textbook. The book envisions a clash of civilisation between the West and a Eurasian bloc supported by Russia. It also insists that “Serbia is Russia.”

“There is no doubt that especially that 1990s work on global geopolitics with its various distinctions profoundly influenced the Russian military and set the stage for a lot of the country’s geopolitical ambitions going forward,” said political theorist Matt McManus.

While there is no or, at best circumstantial evidence of direct contact between Mr. Dugin and Messrs. Vucic and Orban, it is clear that their political environments interact with one of civilisationalism’s leading ideologues.

For example, Mr, Vulin hosted Mr. Dugin on his visit to Belgrade in 2019 at a moment when the Serb capital was rife with reports about Russian spying.

Going back in history, journalist Predrag Popovic recalls meeting Mr. Dugin twice in Belgrade in the 1990s with the help of Mr. Vucic at the headquarters of the far-right Serbian Radical Party of which he was a member at the time.

Mr. Popovic quotes Mr. Vucic as describing Mr. Dugin as “the most important thinker and political strategist of modern Russia” and “Serbia’s greatest friend.”

Mr. Popovic notes that recently Mr. Vucic refrained from sending Mr. Dugin his condolences when the ideologue’s daughter, Darya Dugina, was killed in a car bombing in Moscow in August.

Mr. Vucic has often used Mr. Vulin as his frontman in relations with Russia in an effort not to provoke US and European ire.

Ironically, Mr. Orban, in his more liberal days, banned a 2014 far-right gathering in Budapest organized by the Montana-based National Policy Institute at which Mr. Dugin was scheduled to keynote.

However, the Hungarian capital has since become a hub for the European and American far-right. Akrtos Media, a key node in the far-right Budapest-based network, published the first full-text English translations of Mr. Dugin’s books.

The threat posed by the civilisationalist ambitions of men like Messrs. Putin, Orban, and Vulin, goes beyond the challenge to the rule of law and the notion of territorial integrity enshrined in the United Nations charter.

It has fuelled racism and bolstered exclusionist ideologies like Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s anti-Muslim Hindutava Hindu nationalism. It has also emboldened the Myanmar junta that, according to human rights group Fortify Rights, is waging “genocide by attrition” against the beleaguered Rohingya communities of Rakhine State.

Mr. Orban recently took a leaf out of Mr. Dugin’s book on geopolitics when he declared in his widely denounced speech in Romania that he doesn’t want Europeans mixing with non-Europeans.

“This is why we have always fought: We are willing to mix with one another, but we do not want to become peoples of mixed race,” Mr. Orban said.

Speaking days later at a news conference, Mr. Orban insisted that “this is not a racial issue for us. This is a question of culture. Quite simply, our civilization should be preserved as it is now.”

In his book, Mr. Dugin argued that “it is especially important to introduce geopolitical disorder…encouraging all kinds of separatism and ethnic, social and racial conflicts, actively supporting all dissident movements – extremist, racist, and sectarian groups.”

Mr. Orban and Mr. Vulin’s civilizational worlds apply the bill to countries that increasingly only nominally fall within the orbit of the United States and the European Union.

Dr. James M. Dorsey is an award-winning journalist and scholar, an Adjunct Senior Fellow at Nanyang Technological University’s S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, and the author of the syndicated column and blog, The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer.

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