Russia's Limousine Liberals

Russia's Limousine Liberals

Russian liberals, through their relentless criticism of Moscow’s domestic and foreign policies in the Western press, are actively offending ordinary Russians—and thus undermining any hope of the democratic reforms they want coming to pass.

The other aspect of Eastern Europe that cannot be replicated for Russia - or indeed, anywhere else in the world - is the pull, and the discipline, provided to the East Europeans and Baltics by the genuine offer of membership in the EU and NATO. The need to conform to the EU accession process in turn greatly limited opportunities for the kind of outright kleptocracy seen in Russia.

The failure to date to generate mass support for Westernizing reform in Russia has been a key factor in the extremely hesitant pace of such reforms compared to the central European countries and the Baltic states. This is due simply to the obvious fact that among Russians, anti-Russian nationalism cannot be a force of reform; and that, indeed, the whole drive to escape from the Soviet past has a completely different meaning.

If nationalism is to play a part in Russian development, then it will inevitably be along very different lines, and linked in some form to the restoration of Russia's position as a great power (not of course a superpower) in the world. A key problem for Russia, however, is that given the geopolitical ambitions of both Russia and Western powers, such a course of development inevitably brings with it a strong measure of rivalry with the West.

That pro-Western Russian liberals like Lilia Shevtsova have the greatest difficulty confronting or even recognizing this dilemma stems from the tragic nature of their situation. They genuinely believe not only that their program is in Russia's national interest, but that reform in Russia requires the closest possible relations with the West. This necessarily means that Russia has to sacrifice a range of lesser interests for the sake of their higher, indeed all-encompassing goal of "integration into the Western community" (a virtual leitmotif of her 2005 book Putin's Russia).

But integration into the Western community, whether it be NATO or the EU, is not on offer at least for the foreseeable future. From the point of view therefore not only of Russian nationalists, but of ordinary nonideological Russians, there just are not enough benefits on offer in return for the concessions that Shevtsova and her allies are willing to make to the West in international affairs: like agreement to NATO membership for Ukraine and Georgia, reincorporation of Abkhazia and South Ossetia into Georgia, acquiescence in a U.S. missile shield in central Europe and so on. And indeed, even for a non-Russian, there is something a bit nauseating about Shevtsova's determination in her published writings to agree with the United States and condemn her own country on every single issue on which they have disagreed.


This goes not only for issues where America was in the right, for example over past Russian interference in Ukraine's presidential election campaign; but for issues where by far the greater part of the world supported Russia's position, as over Bush's abrogation of the anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty in 2002. The Putin administration's efforts to maintain the treaty were, however, attributed by Shevtsova in her book to Soviet-style "complexes" and "neuroses."

Nausea aside, the point once again is that such sentiments on the part of these sorts of liberals contribute to making them unelectable in Russia. And this of course is not the result of some form of unique Russian chauvinism or hatred of the West. Any American political grouping which openly and repeatedly identified with foreign interests over those of the United States would not, I think, be very likely to do well in an American election.


But then, Shevtsova and her allies do not really give a damn what ordinary Russians think or feel, and certainly take no interest in minor issues such as their incomes or living standards. The radical decline in the real value of state pensions in the 1990s, accompanied by long arrears in payments and the destruction of savings through devaluation, condemned many elderly Russians to hunger, despair and a premature death. Every reliable opinion poll on Putin's popularity in his first years gave as one of the chief reasons the fact that under his rule pensions were paid on time, and their value had risen. The same was true of state wages.

By ignoring these issues, Shevtsova is able to write in her book that "For the intelligentsia, people who lived in large cities, and the politicized section of society, 2000 was much harder than 1999." Statements of this kind consign the mass of the Russian population-including the elderly and the state-employed workers of the big cities-to non-existence. They implicitly state that the only sections of society whose opinions and interests should be of concern to the government are educated, young and dynamic urbanites. This was the approach of brash elite globalizers everywhere. They should not be surprised however if populations disagree, sometimes violently.

Gary Kasparov, treated by much of the Western media as the political face of Russian liberalism, has a very different approach. It has been to plan for Russian economic collapse, and with this in mind, to forge an alliance with savagely chauvinist neo-fascist groups, which will provide the tough street fighters who will exploit mass economic discontent. Shevtsova and her colleagues should take a close look at this repulsive but insightful strategy and ask themselves whether they really understand the country, and the world, that they are living in.


Anatol Lieven, a senior editor at The National Interest, is a professor in the War Studies Department of King's College London and a senior research fellow at the New America Foundation.