The hopes and prospects of Russia’s liberals

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“The Candy Congress” – that is how Nezavisimaya Gazeta described the Union of Right Forces (URF) congress held this week at the Izmailovo Complex in Moscow. The congress discussed the party’s new program, and each delegate received, along with a folder of documents, a box of chocolates “with an inscription noting the 15th anniversary of democracy in Russia.”

Nezavisimaya Gazeta quotes URF leader Nikita Belykh as saying: “The party has finally awakened from its sleep. The level of interest in the URF is higher than it’s been for a long time.”

Sergei Ivanenko, first deputy chairman of the Yabloko party and congress guest, added that he considers “the existence of a party which is not in power at present, and continues to uphold unpopular slogans,” to be an act of civic courage.

Belykh said that a great many corrections have been made to the draft policy program, and this “proves that there is demand in Russian society for a liberal answer to the challenges of our time.”

Indeed, notes Nezavisimaya Gazeta, the program certainly does contain “some novel interpretations of the current political process.” For example, it makes no mention of the need to unite pro-democracy parties.

However, as Nezavisimaya Gazeta reports, at the post-congress press conference Belykh declared optimistically that he considers unification with Yabloko to be quite realistic – at some unspecified point in the future: “I won’t tell you that it is certain to happen, but the chances of it are greater than ever before.” That’s because the parties “have a constructive negotiation process under way.”

Speaking at the congress, Ivanenko found it necessary to point out yet again that Yabloko and the URF have different attitudes to the reforms of the 1990s.

As the Vremya Novostei newspaper reports, Ivanenko’s speech included a stern reprimand to those who consider Yabloko incapable of reaching agreement: “It’s a lie to say that we have some sort of special political ambitions. We want there to be freedom and democracy in Russia, and we’re prepared to work with our allies.”

But during a break at the congress, as the Kommersant newspaper notes, Ivanenko admitted frankly that he really does consider unification to be “a risky venture” in the current political conditions, since “everyone knows” what the attitude to opposition is like. Ivanenko told Kommersant: “Our maximal goal is to minimize the number of pro-democracy forces in the Duma election. Our minimal goal is an agreement to behave properly with regard to each other.”

In short, it looks like there will be at least two pro-democracy forces in the next election.

Most of the URF congress participants seemed to share this view. Konstantin Borovoi, leader of the Economic Freedom Party, stated directly that “unification with Yabloko will never happen.” He was supported by Public Chamber member Grigory Tomchin, who said that Yabloko’s policy program is “largely leftist” – precisely because its views on the 1990s reforms differ from the views of the URF.

Meanwhile, Nikita Belykh promised delegates that the party’s next congress in November will be a unification congress. This is likely to involve unification with the Republican Party of Russia and the Enterprise Development Party. As Vedomosti reports, the leaders of these parties – Vladimir Ryzhkov and Ivan Grachev, respectively – expressed complete satisfaction with the URF’s new program.

Grachev even said that he approves of the URF program without having read it.

Ryzhkov said that he has thoroughly studied the program of his “fellows in liberalism” (a description provided by Valeria Novodvorskaya, also present at the congress) and considers it “talented and constructive.”

Ryzhkov was critical of Russia’s party system: “We have two parties of bosses – one left-bellied, the other right-bellied. They’re shoving at each other with their fat stomachs and scratching at each other with their gold cuff-links. And there are two revanchist parties – the Communist Party and the LDPR. One is nostalgic for the Soviet Union, and the other is nostalgic for boots in the Indian Ocean. But there’s no strong reform-oriented party.” (Quoted in the Vremya Novostei newspaper.)

Consequently, Ryzhkov maintains that a pro-democracy coalition is essential. This is what will be formed in late November, at the next URF congress. As Belykh said, it is there that the final decisions will be made regarding “in what form, with what name, in what composition, with what leaders, and with what program we intend to win the parliamentary election.” Obviously, as the Gazeta newspaper points out, Ryzhkov has a great interest in such an alliance; despite all its court appeals, his own party still hasn’t managed to get registered.

The URF’s rebranding will also take place in November. As the Novye Izvestia newspaper reports, the need for this was questioned at the congress by Democratic Union leader Valeria Novodvorskaya, who told the URF: “Your brands are Anatoly Chubais, who carried out privatization, and Nikita Belykh, who openly describes the present-day authorities as fascist.” Novodvorskaya then called on congress delegates to “study the science of dissidence” more closely.

Novye Izvestia reports that after Novodvorskaya finished, Belykh said he’d counted seven breaches of the law on extremism in her speech. Leonid Gozman, deputy chairman of the URF federal council, added that since it’s impossible to arrest Novodvorskaya seven times, “we should be prepared to see them arrest the six people sitting next to her.”

But the main topic at the congress was the URF’s new policy program, entitled “Horizon 2007-2027: Giving Russia Back Its Future.”

According to the party’s official plans, says the Vedomosti newspaper, it has been decided that the goal for 2007 is to get the URF back into the Duma and form an opposition faction there. In 2011, this faction should regain its erstwhile political influence and the ability to “block the Kremlin’s decisions.” In 2015, the goal is to become the parliamentary majority party and form a government, with the aim of providing support for the party’s own candidate in the presidential election of 2016.

“For the first time, we’re making plans for a decade ahead,” said Belykh enthusiastically. “It’s not enough to form an opposition party in the Duma – we should become the ruling party! We’re the party of the future!” (Quoted in Kommersant.)

“The URF is taking a realistic view of its capacities,” InDem Foundation analyst Yuri Korguniuk told Vedomosti. According to Korguniuk, the URF is “putting a good face on things: reassuring its small group of supporters with a new strategic program, and promising the voters a rebranding campaign.”

Boris Makarenko, deputy head of the Political Techniques Center, was even more categorical. In his view, “the people working in the URF are pragmatists, who honestly admit that they have no confident chance of making a political comeback in the next Duma” – given the party’s pitiful level of voter support at present.

According to a Levada Center poll in August, only 1% of respondents said they would vote for the URF if an election were held right now – although 14% admitted to having a preference for the pro-democracy forces.

But other researchers have given higher figures for the liberals’ potential voter support: up to 30% of the electorate.

As Boris Makarenko explains in Vremya Novostei, the democrats do still have a chance of making a political comeback – but they might miss the opportunity: “Obviously, if the liberals go into the next election in two columns, neither will make it into parliament. They need unification – or something else that would rally all liberally-inclined voters behind one party. In other words, either a merger or a takeover.”

According to Makarenko, Russia “doesn’t have a problem with demand for liberal parties. The problem is supply, not demand. The market’s offering several brands of flavorless soda – and they should be replaced by one Coca-Cola.”

Vremya Novostei also requested comments from Iosif Diskin, co-chairman of the National Strategy Council. In his view, the right-wing parties will never manage to turn themselves into Coca-Cola – in the present circumstances, what lies ahead of them is “marginalization and extinction.” This should be followed by the emergence of parties “which have liberal values, but are democratic at the same time.” And they would also adopt patriotic values: “This model cannot be applied to the existing political parties.” This is because the present-day political system bears the imprint of the views of “the Soviet intelligentsia, which was a religious trend, not a societal layer.”

At any rate, according to Diskin, the URF is not a democratic party: “The URF and the current leadership of United Russia have this much in common: they both promote authoritarian modernization. What we need are parties that support democratic modernizatization and the opinion of the majority.”

And that is the title of the Vremya Novostei article: “Demand Without Supply.”

Meanwhile, the URF’s new program includes a whole chapter detailing the differences between the URF and United Russia. Fourteen differences are identified.

The most important of these, as Kommersant reports, is disagreement with the Kremlin’s policy course.

The reasons for this disagreement are listed in the program: the destruction of YUKOS, the election of a Duma without an opposition, the absence of a competitive economy and democratic freedoms in Russia, ineffective military reforms, the growing activity of pro-fascist forces, the centralization and monopolization of governance, and control over the media.

As Kommersant reports, Leonid Gozman told the congress that the URF isn’t a “class-based party” at all – it’s an “ideology-based party.” Gozman said: “Opinion polls show that there are URF supporters in all layers of society. That’s why our program is ideological. We used to be focused on constructive cooperation with the authorities, but we are now forced to describe ourselves as being in opposition.”

As Vremya Novostei reports, Valeria Novodvorskaya commented on the situation as follows: “It’s good that (the program) includes a passage setting out the differences between the URF and United Russia. Many uninformed people confuse the two. But you should also state that you are in opposition to President Putin. Or people will confuse you with the Motherland-Life-Pensioners alliance, which claims to be in opposition to United Russia, but not to the president.”

Boris Nemtsov, former URF leader and now a policy council member, also welcomed the URF’s resolve to “finally move into opposition, and stop wavering at the crossroads.” All the same, Nemtsov maintains that the URF should not focus entirely on long-range planning. Vedomosti quotes him as saying: “We must not give up on the presidential campaign of 2008. To do so would doom the party. There must be a common candidate representing the pro-democracy forces – the most popular democrat.”

A point to that effect – participating in the 2008 election – was added to the program at the congress, but Nemtsov’s proposal that the “most popular” leader should be identified by polling voters was dismissed as too simplistic. So the candidate question was also postponed until the November congress.

Meanwhile, the Kommersant newspaper has provided its own answer to the question of the URF’s prospects and whether its new program is realistic.

Kommersant says the liberals are wasting their time when they tell their voters that the Kremlin’s policy course has no future, that state administration is inefficient, and that the petroleum-based development trajectory is a dead-end street for Russia.

“Citizens already know what the present-day state apparatus is worth.” In a recent Levada Center poll, says Kommersant, 39% of respondents said that our state’s leaders are motivated entirely by the desire to hold on to power at any cost. Neither do citizens have any illusions about the practical results of Putin’s period in office: 49% of respondents say that real reforms in state administration haven’t even started, and 22% say that state administration reforms have only produced negative results so far. Besides, 47% of respondents say they haven’t noticed any results from the party-building campaign, 31% say the same for reforms in the selection of regional leaders, and 45% say the same for military reforms. Thirty-nine percent of respondents describe education reforms as “mostly harmful,” 43% say the same for healthcare reforms, and 59% say the same for reforms in housing and utilities.

Moreover – without any campaigning from the liberal opposition – all of President Putin’s major steps in state administration are already regarded by the public as failures.

According to Kommersant, it’s been assumed that economic growth will lead to the emergence of a middle class in Russia. It’s this middle class which the URF is addressing with its new program. Market research shows that a middle class has indeed emerged – but no demand for modernization should be expected from it.

According to the Federal State Statistics Service (RosStat), the monthly incomes of those employed in natural resources production, petroleum products, pipeline transport, and the finance sector are 2.2-2.7 times higher than the national average. “These people are Russia’s middle class.” Civil servants should be included as well – their incomes are rising faster than wages in most sectors of the economy.

“And let’s not forget the vast corruption potential in the social sphere and state administration,” Kommersant notes. “According to the InDem Foundation, the volume of business corruption in Russia reached $300 billion last year.” Even if this figure is an overestimate, it’s clear that the sums involved are very substantial.

Consequently, the URF probably shouldn’t expect support from the people it thinks of as its potential voters: “the majority of Russia’s better-educated citizens and high income earners are beneficiaries of natural resources or administrative rent.” These people can hardly be expected to respond to the URF’s calls for cuts to the bloated and inefficient bureaucracy, anti-corruption efforts, and less state intervention in the economy. “Most of these voters have a vital interest in preserving the existing system.”

There isn’t much hope of support from the youth either. In an article for the Russkii Kurier newspaper, Yuri Levada, head of the Levada Center, says: “Today’s 25-year-olds are earning good incomes – better than the older generation.” Overall, “young people are happy with their lives: they travel to Europe, they own cars. And that’s all they’re interested in.” This is a polemical exaggeration, of course, but it’s true that support for President Putin’s policy course is highest among young respondents: 63%. According to Levada, “they’re not interested in politics or Russia’s future. They’re incapable of evaluating events independently.”

As opinion polls indicate, it’s mostly the over-fifties who are interested in politics: “but they can’t perceive reality in an unbiased way either, since they were raised in the Soviet system” – so they’re certainly not the URF’s electorate.

All the same, it has to be acknowledged that opinion polls often produce the same result: namely, that Russia is the land of the unexpected.

Here’s a recent example, reported by the Vedomosti newspaper this week. The All-Russian Public Opinion Research Center (VTsIOM), a Kremlin-loyalist polling agency, has noted a sudden increase in support for monarchy – now equalling support for the Soviet system. Each of these options scored 22% in a recent poll.

Moreover, VTsIOM maintains that the convinced monarchists are loyal supporters of President Putin.

VTsIOM analysts explain that today’s voters “perceive Putin as a monarch.” So declaring support for monarchy is a way of showing one’s loyalty the present head of state. And such loyalists are concentrated in the younger age groups – where the pro-democracy forces hope to find support.

Indeed, there are problems in Russian politics – with demand as well as supply.

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