Putin, Salazar, and Lusotropicalism

Putin, Salazar, and Lusotropicalism July 19, 2016

As democracy has withered in Russia, the Kremlin has increasingly sought alternatives to a mandate at the ballot box to legitimize the government. In the early years of the regime, the relative stability and prosperity that were experienced (granted, a low bar when placed in the context of the chaos and economic collapse of the Yeltsin era) seemed to do the job. More recently, with the price of oil far below the level necessary to sustain the Russian government’s annual budget, new approaches have been attempted: closer ties to the Russian Orthodox Church, depicting the regime as an “alternative” to Western style liberalism, and the philosophy of “Eurasianism” have all had their moments in the sun. In trying to conceptualize the current Russian regime – one figure, nowadays all but forgotten, increasingly comes galloping into view: Antonio de Oliveira Salazar, prime minister (read: dictator) of Portugal. The parallels are numerous

Salazar came to power in the 1930s following years of political chaos in Lisbon, marked by social disorganization and a weak state that was unable to resolve the country’s myriad problems. He was seen a serious, competent career bureaucrat who would do what was needed to get the country back on track. The initial years of his Estado Novo – much like those of Putin – saw a restoration of social order and the revival of economic growth. Economic policies were grounded in state capitalism, with governmental support for a set of large, integrated conglomerates with close ties to the regime. Adhering to a liberal macroeconomic policy, a dirigiste energy policy, and a welfarist social policy – Salazar’s government was executive centered and often referred to by contemporary observers as a “court-based system,” with all interests represented, but only one individual in control. (Sound familiar yet?)

Salazar, a former seminarian who never married, sought to frame his government as adhering to the social doctrine of the Church, regularly citing Leo XIII’s Rerum Novarum and Pius XI’s Quadregisimo Anno as sources of inspiration for his policies. In reality, only in 1956 were rules established for the various corporations and the regime essentially maintained only a thin facade of adhering to Catholic social teachings in order to gain legitimacy. However, the Church did maintain a great deal of power, significant privileges, and by and large supported Salazar and the Estado Novo. When we fast forward to contemporary Russia we see a similar relationship between the Kremlin and the Russian Orthodox Church. Putin has consistently referred to the fact that he was secretly baptized by his grandmother as a child and is regularly seen at Orthodox services. In 2012, Patriarch Kirill referred to him as a “miracle of God” – quite understandable in light of the rights that the Kremlin has granted to the Russian Orthodox Church in recent years ranging from restrictions on all other Christian denominations to the right of “first look” at legislation before the Duma. The old Byzantine term of a “symphonia” between church and state has even been brought back into regular conversation with Orthodoxy understand as being a central aspect of Russian national identity.

Ideologically, the two regimes were both forced to confront the realities of their diminished (in the case of Russia) or diminishing (Portugal) global positions. For Salazar, the ideology of “Lusotropicalism” was placed front and center. This now all but forgotten worldview was the creation of Gilberto Freyre and based on the idea that the Portuguese people had a particular inclination towards “adaptation.” The Portuguese empire at that time remained large, including such far-flung colonies as Macau, Goa, East Timor, Mozambique, Angola, Guinea-Bissau, etc. Portuguese colonialism was framed as egalitarian rather than exploitative; integration of all under Lisbon’s rule into a shared Portuguese identity was heralded as an alternative to the imperial systems of the British and French empires and was utilized in attempt to provide a moral basis for the empire. It didn’t work but Portugal was the last to divest itself of its colonies, only doing so in the mid-1970s.

In Russia we see today a strong parallel to Lusotropicalism in the philosophy of Eurasianism. Developed by Alexander Dugin as a rejection of liberalism, it argues that at its core – Russia is different, “not like the others.” This ideology supports the unification of the Eurasian landmass through the creation of a Russian-led Eurasian Union and seems to provide an alternative to “techno-economic globalization.” In the same way that Portugal confronted larger powers while trying to maintain its sphere of influence, Russia has attempted to protect its “near abroad” from the encroaching influences of China and the United States. Putin has gone so far as to say that Russia is a “civilizational state” and that the Eurasian Union is “a project of the preservation of the identity of peoples, of historical Eurasian in the new century and the new world.” Rephrase it a bit and it could have come from the lips of Salazar.

Are there other lessons to draw from these parallels? I’ll leave that to the reader – but for now, let’s just remember that Salazar was in power for 36 years. Today, Putin is in the midst of his 16th. Longevity of regime is, unfortunately, likely to be an additional similarity.



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