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Russia’s Liberal Pseudo-Politicians

Can Russia’s liberal movement find a leader who can connect with ordinary Russians?

June 18, 2012

Can Russia's liberal movement find a leader who can connect with ordinary Russians?

A key reason for the relative social and political insignificance of Russian liberalism has to do less with President Vladimir Putin’s authoritarianism than with post-Soviet liberal leaders themselves, if not with decades-old pathologies of Russian intelligentsia culture. Russian liberals have yet to start engaging with politics proper.

Russia’s democratic movement has to contend with a significant internal problem. Instead of facing the realities of inter-party competition and coalition building in post-Soviet Russia, many of Russia’s liberal activists act like political moralists, high-flying humanists, busy civic activists and theory-savvy analysts. Posing as politicians, they have mentally never left the remnants of intellectual life and civil society.

In order to become effective participants in the rough-and-tumble of political life, Russia’s liberals need to embrace the notion of strategy and the tactics of fighting for power. Currently, their fledgling political activities merely play into the hands of President Putin and his ilk in the Kremlin, who are known to be ruthless power realists.

Two decades after independence, Russia’s democratic opposition forces still need to overcome the Yavlinsky Syndrome — the pattern of behavior shown in the 1990s by the then-leading democratic politician Grigory Yavlinsky. Yavlinsky was famous for his avoidance of making political alliances and shying away from taking responsibility in government — hardly the way to bring about the political change the country so desperately needs.

To be sure, many of Russia’s liberals are well traveled and well informed. They are intimately familiar with the functioning of Western societies. They understand that real-life, contemporary democratic politics often necessitates awkward alliances, self-denying compromises and disgusting opportunism. That is the nature of politics in pluralistic settings — and it is the price that often has to be paid to obtain executive positions.

However, Russia’s reformers continue to see their own practical politics as a purist and/or altruistic exercise. They view the quality of their political engagement in terms of the consistency and principledness of their public positions and everyday behavior.

At first glance, this is a laudable attitude, speaking in favor of the quality of post-Soviet Russian liberalism. On second thought, though, Russia’s liberals are acting in a manner that makes them seem more like pseudo politicians than real politicians.

Thus, their continuing political insignificance is, to some degree, a result of their own choice. The liberals’ excessive pride and permanent infighting sometimes borders on sectarianism. It is apolitical, if not ultimately anti-political, behavior.

Paradoxically, the liberals’ engagement with their Western colleagues often serves to strengthen rather than weaken these pathologies. Instead of facing the challenges of building a nationwide political movement throughout Russia’s provinces, a number of liberal party leaders are occupied with frequent visits to Europe and North America.

Some of them are happy to be sought-after guests at Western political meetings, columnists in major international newspapers and speakers at prestigious foreign conferences. But the more they connect abroad, playing the role of Russian opposition politician there, the less they count at home.

To be sure, there is now a new cohort of democratic leaders emerging, including Alexei Navalnyi, Mikhail Prokhorov and Ilya Yashin. They were not active in the 1990s and seem to have a more pragmatic attitude towards politics. Yet so far, the rise of these new leaders has only further fragmented the pro-democratic spectrum.

Like most of their older colleagues, many of the new leaders come from Moscow or St. Petersburg, belong to the upper middle class (or even the upper class), and are too highbrow for the average Russian voter.

For Russian liberalism to ever succeed, it will need a leader who is different from the current ones. Preferably, this person would not come from the Moscow or St. Petersburg intelligentsia, or not be perceived as an aloof egghead with little empathy for the worries and needs of ordinary Russians outside the country’s two major metropolitan cities.

Ideally, the new leader would have a natural understanding of the need for coalition-building and reaching compromises. He or she should be a person who actually wants to obtain, and work in, a high position in the Russian executive rather than merely perform in scholarly debates or international symposia. Russian liberalism, in short, needs a real politician — and not yet another “intelligent” at its helm.

More on this topic


Russia's liberals are acting in a manner that makes them seem more like "pseudo" politicians than real politicians.

The more Russia's liberals connect abroad, playing the role of Russian opposition politician there, the less they count at home.

The rise of a new generation of leaders who were not active in the 1990s has further fragmented the pro-democratic spectrum.