An interview with Yabloko party leader Grigori Yavlinsky

Grigori Yavlinsky: “We can’t have a strong state and strong governance without powerful, independent state institutions which are subordinate only to the law and the Constitution: the courts, the parliament, the electoral system, the government. Where are we heading? Toward another Time of Troubles.”

Question: The impression of late is that politics in Russia is becoming more lively: new parties being formed, the Duma and Federation Council speakers criticizing each other, more street protests happening. So is politics really coming back?

Grigori Yavlinsky: That’s not the impression I’m getting. Politics as a public process, in the positive sense, doesn’t exist in Russia. What we have instead is a multitude of behind-the-scenes intrigues. How can public politics exist when we lack any politically significant media outlets which are open to expression of alternative views? The political situation, political climate, and political attitudes are shaped by Channel One ORT network and Channel Two Rossiya network, and their broadcasts don’t include any alternative points of view unless it’s all part of a scripted performance. The authorities have sensed that the lack of alternatives is a problem, so they are now creating a special puppet “opposition” to United Russia, in the form of the Just Russia party.

Question: Who is creating them? Political analysts take it as a given that the operation aimed at expanding Sergei Mironov’s Party of Life involves the semi-mythical “siloviki” security and law enforcement faction, competing with the equally mythical “liberal” faction in the Kremlin.

Grigori Yavlinsky: President Putin is creating them. Who else could do it? Establishing a second party that supports the president while also appearing to be “in opposition” – this may be effective as yet another technique of fooling some of the people, but it’s dangerous for the nation and the state, which haven’t existed for very long and could be torn apart entirely.

Question: Why are you so certain of that?

Grigori Yavlinsky: If all this is nothing more than game-playing, it will further reduce the credibility of the authorities and respect for the entire political system, including the president. And if these Siamese twins United Russia and Just Russia get carried away by administrative-bureaucratic fervor and start fighting each other for real, the system will rapidly start to crumble. Defectors, informers, lickspittles – they’re the ones who will prevail. The regime needs to be replaced, but the machinery of state must not be torn apart. I learned this lesson back in 1990 when I broke away from Yeltsin. I left because I didn’t agree with what he was doing and how he was doing it. If you disagree, walk out and create a new party – that’s what I did; criticize, fight, propose alternatives. The people who have thought up this new maneuver with two Kremlin-backed parties are people who live for today – they’re so worried about the upcoming elections that they don’t see the big picture. For them, politics is nothing more than PR. But it’s very bad for our country when they seriously establish a second structure for the bureaucracy, so that anyone with a grievance can switch parties and pick fights – under the apparent cover of Putin’s own brother, who has joined Mironov’s party. That’s why I say that what we have is only an imitation of politics, not real politics. All this is so childish: renaming parties, enlarging some, splitting others. Why does our country need artificially-invented parties? Are our people really that bad, or that dangerous? I don’t think so.

Question: The authorities seem to be trying to avoid creating the kind of alternative that could tear everything apart.

Grigori Yavlinsky: It’s understandable that the authorities are afraid. But that’s exactly where they’re making a mistake. It’s as if you’re raising a child and you suddenly decide to do something to prevent the child from growing – because you’re afraid that he’ll start drinking and smoking, and might even want to get married. The authorities ought to be managing the process by constitutional means. But if they do nothing but restrict and forbid, duping and lying to the people – then nothing will come of it. Sooner or later, everything will be expressed in different ways, producing an even worse situation.

Question: What kind of parties might exist naturally, without support from above? Besides Yabloko?

Grigori Yavlinsky: In other words, if we had political competition, freedom of speech, independent courts, independent funding sources, separation of powers, free and fair elections – in general, everything described in the Constitution. What kind of parties would we have then? There would be some pro-democracy parties with European slogans – not hysterical, impoverished, thieving parties, but normal parties holding 20-25% of Duma seats. There would also be some leftists – probably not Gennadi Zyuganov’s Communist Party. These parties would cooperate with the Kremlin’s party on some particular issues, proposing alternatives, preventing many miscalculations and mistakes. Under certain circumstances, some of their members might be government ministers. And there would be some sort of nationalist parties, certainly, within constitutional limits. They should be treated with great caution. Nationalism is dangerous, and contagious. It’s always present, everywhere, in all countries. And the danger is that like any disease, it can flare up suddenly. In Russia it could flare up easily, like an epidemic – especially since the public mood in Russia isn’t good these days. It’s very aggressive and reactionary.

Question: How would you account for this rise in aggression?

Grigori Yavlinsky: It’s because people can’t get justice – the courts are corrupt and everyone knows it. Just try resolving any problem in court. Disrespect for the individual and conscience, amorality, lies, a great many murders, the unrestricted power of money…

Question: Yet there is overwhelming support for the president’s policies.

Grigori Yavlinsky: Not his policies. It’s support for the president, because there are no alternatives. The people’s reasoning is very simple: there’s the president, and everything seems to be concentrated on him. True, everything isn’t working very well, and many things are going badly. All right then, that’s how things always are, in Russia. But there’s the president, and let him be there. Let there be at least some sort of reference point: something, anything at all. No one can see any alternatives. What do you expect? If we’d had popular elections in 1960, Khrushchev would have been elected – and Brezhnev in 1970.

Question: There’s a lot of talk about the president’s “successors.” Apart from the two almost-official successor candidates – Dmitri Medvedev and Sergei Ivanov – there are also several others in the shadows. Isn’t that an alternative?

Grigori Yavlinsky: So far, all these people are just Putin himself – only different sides of him. And he’s creating them. They’re different people of course. They’ll behave differently if he brings them to power. But none of them are actual alternatives at present – with different policy programs, approaches, principles. Putin is the president, after all, and his position makes him stand a head or two taller than those around him. He has made it so, and he makes all the principal decisions himself. The picture created for the public looks something like this: we’re in a political desert, with one hill rising above it. The hill is Vladimir Putin. That’s all. Around him there is only sand, and nothing can be built from sand, since it crumbles. History tells us that this is a very unsuccessful system: only the president, nothing else. I fear that this system has no future – especially since it’s in a difficult position right now, because there needs to be a change of administration but there’s no natural, normal way of doing that.

Question: Do you believe that Putin will step down in 2008?

Grigori Yavlinsky: That’s a good question. A very characteristic question, in itself. He might step down, or he might not. The situation is such that it wouldn’t take more than a week to bring Russia to the point of hysteria, with people kneeling before Putin and begging him not to go. But this would have dreadful consequences, since the Putin administration would lose a substantial part of its legitimacy and become thoroughly decayed as a result of not being replaced.

Yet this is exactly where the property question is pushing us. Every time a state official is promoted or demoted, it means a change in who controls the revenue streams. All officials and magnates are aware of this, and they’re not at all optimistic. Many are openly fearful, knowing what a wretched and dangerous authoritarian system they have created. In this system, no one has any indisputable rights to anything, and there are no guarantees of a secure future.

Question: The impression is that the Yabloko party doesn’t exist at all in the political system – the legal political system. Artificially or not, your party has been reduced to the level of Eduard Limonov’s National Bolshevik Party.

Grigori Yavlinsky: We were represented in parliament until the end of 2003 – but then the authorities decided to create an essentially one-party system, and did so. Since then, all decisions have been made by one party and one president. But Yabloko’s objective is very serious, and its place is understandable. Yabloko is aiming to shape an alternative vision for Russia’s development over the next 30 years. Yabloko is capable of proposing this alternative to citizens, it can provide some of the personnel required, it can take responsibility for this, and make it a reality. Actually, a hiatus will happen at some time in the existence of any political force. The most important thing is to be strong enough to endure the hiatus. Yabloko isn’t anyone’s servant. Yabloko values its independence more than anything. It doesn’t serve anyone other than the people and its own convictions. These days, everyone else is forced to serve.

Question: You’re going even further than United Russia – its policy program only covers ten years.

Grigori Yavlinsky: Don’t make me laugh. If there’s no Putin, there won’t be a United Russia party either. What are they saying – a promise to raise the average monthly wage to 25,000 rubles within three years? But that means they need to increase labor productivity by 250% within three years, with the size of the workforce remaining constant and inflation being at least what it is now. Excuse me, but how do they propose to achieve this?

That’s another mistake. They have no strategic vision, no orientation values. In politics, this can lead to big trouble. Look, seven years ago it was clear that a number of steps should be taken to strengthen governance, strengthen the state system, and restore order with regard to a few citizens who had gone too far. Clearly, we had to show that there was a master in the house. No one really objected to that. But how should it be done, how far should it be taken, and what should be done next? No answers were found. And from 2003, it became clear that we were building a “strong state” in the same way as we had been building “democracy” in the 1990s. Exactly the same. This is very bad – because we tried the latter, and it didn’t work. Now we’re trying the former, and it’s not working again, and it will never work.

Question: Strong words. Can you back them up?

Grigori Yavlinsky: We can’t have a strong state and strong governance without powerful, independent state institutions which are subordinate only to the law and the Constitution: the courts, the parliament, the electoral system, the government. And where are we heading? Toward another Time of Troubles. I was recently asked a question about the new public holiday on November 4. I said that it’s a celebration of civil society. It’s not about us defeating the Poles. Let’s not forget that the Poles didn’t conquer us. We first invited them to rule us, then drove them out. And this happened because until Ivan the Terrible came along, Russia’s tsars involved the people in their decision-making, one way or another, via a great many truly independent boyars nobles. Ivan the Terrible eliminated all that – he dispersed the princes, centralized government, established a hierarchy, and then died. No public politics, all strong figures crushed by Ivan the Terrible. And then the Time of Troubles began, in the course of which the Poles ended up in the Kremlin. All this lasted 15 years.

That’s where a hierarchy of governance leads. You’ll look back on this period and remember the poisonings, and Politkovskaya, and high-profile murders happening almost every day, and that unfortunate priest burned to death along with his family – these are the symptoms of a Time of Troubles. One’s impulse is to say: comrades, what have you done, yet again? Let’s take some urgent measures to fix it. Because you have created a state which is disloyal to its own citizenry. Whenever ordinary people have any contact with the state, they have huge problems. Believe me – I receive many letters, I travel around Russia all the time, I talk to people: God forbid that you should find yourself needing to interact with state agencies in order to resolve some routine problem. You’ll end up having to appeal practically as far as Putin himself in order to solve your problem. Well, people can’t tolerate this kind of life.

Question: And what should we do about all this?

Grigori Yavlinsky: We should start by saying who we are. Saying that we are the heirs of February 1917. Russia had a monarchy that collapsed non-violently, because it couldn’t adapt to new realities. All this needs to be said, and then everything will fall into place. We can’t avoid sorting out our past. We can’t be the heirs of tsarist autocracy, a democratic republic, and Soviet communism simultaneously. This kind of political post-modernism destroys our understanding of time and space, so that we lose awareness of our identity – with very grave consequences for our society. It’s like forgetting your own name and who your parents were.

We are the heirs of the Russia which has been moving steadily toward democracy for a long time, since the era of Pushkin, Dr. Fedor Petrovich Haas, and Metropolitan Filaret – a European country enslaved for many years by orthodox communism. We have an answer to the question of where we have come from and where we should go. We understand the outlook. Russia’s national-state idea for the 21st Century entails maintaining our country within its present borders as a European, modern, competitive country. This is our economic, political, and cultural objective.

And once we answer these questions, it becomes entirely clear what our economic and social policies should be, how we should approach state-building, how we should remedy the demographic situation, how we should fight crime and corruption, and how we should improve the quality of life for our country’s citizens. All this won’t be easy at all, and it won’t happen quickly – but we are starting to understand exactly what we should do, and how.