Why Russian Liberals Lose

As Vladimir Putin’s United Russia party sweeps to victory in parliamentary elections, pundits are crying that Russian democracy is dead. But one observer says that exactly the opposite is true.

Now that the results are official and, for the second time in eight years, the liberal opposition parties failed to gain even a single party-list seat in the Russian parliament, perhaps it is time for an honest discussion of why they so consistently fail to attract the

support of the Russian public.

Granted, the country's booming economy does not make their argument for removing Putin an easy one-the latest IMF annual report says that, in terms of purchasing power parity, Russia's contribution to world growth in 2007 will be half as large as that of the entire European Union and much higher than Japan's.

Still, with a potential electorate as high as 40 percent, several well-known cultural and political figures in their corner and plenty of money from business elites to support their cause, it is simply astonishing how badly Putin's opponents have botched their case.

The roots of this latest electoral debacle, in which the liberal opposition lost more than half of their already small electorate, must can be traced back to the fateful decision made four years ago to forge some highly questionable political alliances.

In a misguided effort to gain publicity, moderates like Vladimir Ryzhkov, Irina Khakamada, Grigory Yavlinsky, Mikhail Kasyanov and Boris Nemtsov, embraced two highly controversial figures. The first was entrepreneur and chess champion Gary Kasparov who, as a member of the council of the U.S.-based Center for Security Policy, was known to have close ties to highly influential, as well as vociferously anti-Russian, American neoconservatives. The second is Eduard Limonov, leader of the rabidly ethno-nationalist National Bolshevik Party (NBP).

Limonov, who has called for the use of "Serbian tactics" to regain regions of the former Soviet Union with large Russian populations, is much more than an "accidental ally" of these liberals, as reported in the American press. He approached the group that spawned "Another Russia", the "Committee 2008: Free Choice", soon after it was established in March 2004, to recommend the expertise of his "fighters"-expertise like brandishing a fake grenade to occupy St. Peter's Church in Riga, Latvia, for which several NBP members served jail time. Limonov himself was convicted of illegal arms purchases in April 2001 and served two years in jail, before being released on parole.

So bad is Limonov that even the pugnacious leader of the far left "Working Russia", Viktor Anpilov, himself no stranger to confrontations with authorities, eventually could no longer stomach being part of "Another Russia." Its political agenda, he said, had become "basically to get out into the streets and brawl."

In American politics this sort of coalition would be as unthinkable as Al Gore and Bill Richardson forging an alliance with American chess legend Bobby Fischer and ex-Klansman David Duke. In the bizarre world of Russian opposition politics, however, Limonov, who was once labeled an extremist in the Wall Street Journal, has become a steadfast comrade-in-arms of Kasparov, now a contributing editor to the same newspaper!

While several former allies, including Yavlinksy and Kasyanov, have parted company with Another Russia, others like Kasparov, Ryzhkov and Nemtsov continue to justify this alliance as necessary to circumvent the Kremlin's control of the media.

But it is hard to believe that there are very many people in Russia who don't know what the opposition stands for. For one thing, more than a quarter of the population have regular access to the Internet, whose Russia domain remains totally politically unfiltered and heavily saturated with criticism of President Putin. 13 percent of the populace (twice that many in Moscow and St. Petersburg) even say that the Internet is their main source of information.

Moreover, even before the current election season, media surveys showed that the two leading liberal parties, Union of Right Forces (SPS in Russian) and Yabloko, received significant national television coverage. In 2005 they accounted for 23.8 percent of all times that political parties were mentioned on the country's seven major TV channels, while in 2006 this figure was only 14 percent. If this seems low, consider that it is far more than both parties combined have ever achieved in national elections.

When surveyed last year, by a nearly four to one margin Russians said that opposition parties were able to freely express their views on national television and in national newspapers. Even 56 percent of Communist Party voters agreed! None of this even takes account that during the past month-the official campaign season-each party running for the Duma received three hours of prime national television air time, and that the televised party debates, in which all parties except United Russia chose to take part, were watched by about the same percentage of people that watched the final U.S. presidential debates in 2000.

So while Kasparov contends that the only reason that the Russian people shun the liberal opposition is because of the regime's control over the media, Grigory Yavlinksy is probably much closer to the truth when he told a reporter that his liberal party Yabloko already has 97 percent name recognition. The problem is not that the opposition cannot get its message out to the Russian public. The problem is that the messengers have completely alienated their natural constituency: Russia's rapidly growing middle class.

Pages