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Russia's Evolving Liberalism

Since the failure of either of Russia's liberal parties -- Yabloko and the Union of Rightist Forces (SPS) -- to enter the Duma in the 7 December elections and the failure of the liberal wing's least-sullied figure, former SPS co-leader Irina Khakamada, to pick up even 4 percent of the vote in the 14 March presidential election, analysts have been avidly discussing the demise and even death of Russian liberalism.

Advocates of the resurgent "national-patriotic" ideologies -- who are getting ever more space in the national press -- have lauded the country's rejection of liberal ideals, which they say have led to great divides within society and to the collapse of Russia as a respected world power.

Jailed former Yukos head Mikhail Khodorkovskii, still Russia's richest person and for many the embodiment of the injustices of the liberal policies of the 1990s, published in "Vedomosti" on 29 March a long, soul-searching commentary titled "The Crisis Of Liberalism In Russia." In his article, Khodorkovskii rejects the notion that liberalism is somehow inherently unsuitable for Russia or that there is something fundamentally wrong with liberal precepts. Instead, he admits ruefully, "those who fate and history entrusted to be the preservers of liberal values in our country could not cope with that task." To his credit, Khodorkovskii includes himself among this number, among those who betrayed liberal values for their own selfish interests and who smugly decided that in Russia it is not necessary to take into consideration the interests or views of the masses.

Khodorkovskii's article blames the liberals for failing when they had power in the 1990s under former President Boris Yeltsin to care for the "90 percent" of the population that was not prepared to do without state paternalism. He lambastes big business for fostering and propping up a weak state system in order to pursue its own interests. He labels the governments that presided over the 1998 financial crisis and its consequences "irresponsible and incompetent" and regrets that those liberals who might have been able to prevent the crisis did not insist more strongly that something can and should be done.

He castigates the liberal elite for betraying their values and "doing everything possible to establish financial and administrative control over the media" in order to control public opinion. Likewise, he criticizes their manipulation of the election process. "How can I -- one of the biggest sponsors of the 1996 presidential campaign -- forget what truly monstrous efforts were required in order to force the Russia people 'to vote with their hearts'?" Khodorkovskii asks.

Clearly, Khodorkovskii argues, Russian liberalism has dug itself into a deep hole, and it will take considerable effort to return the country to a path of liberal development. He offers several suggestions for beginning that process, including developing "a new strategy" for interacting with the government after asking oneself, "What have you done for Russia?" He calls on Russian liberals to eschew popularity in the West for the esteem of their countrymen. He urges them to recognize the legitimacy of President Vladimir Putin and of the institution of the presidency as "the institution that guarantees the integrity and stability of the country." According to Khodorkovskii, the development of civil society is impossible without the government playing a leading role.

Business, he argues, must renounce the shortsighted benefits of a weak and unstable state and an underdeveloped civil society. It must seek to legitimize the 1990s-era privatizations in the eyes of the public by endorsing tax reform that "will force business to share with the people" and other steps "that will not be very pleasant for major owners."

Much of what Khodorkovskii advocates can be boiled down to overcoming the "complexes and phobias" that have characterized the entire history of Russian liberalism, including the last decade. Civil society, he notes, is formed over generations "and not in an instant by the wave of a magic wand."

In an article on on 29 March, Center for Political Technologies Deputy Director Aleksei Makarkin, analyzing the data from a recent survey of Russian attitudes by the Ekspertiza foundation, argues that, despite the mistakes of the liberals and contrary to the crowing of the "national-patriotic" ideologues, the public at large is slowly, but inexorably, becoming more liberal.

Makarkin, for instance, notes that, although xenophobia remains high in Russia, negative attitudes toward the Soviet-era official "enemy" -- Jews -- are declining, despite the concerted efforts of nationalists to enflame anti-Semitism with references to the hated oligarchs or Unified Energy Systems head Anatolii Chubais. He argues that much of the increase in xenophobia is a reaction to real social problems like poverty, crime, and terrorism rather than an irrational phobia or the result of a state policy.

Likewise, Makarkin noted that 37 percent of respondents agreed with the statement that "relations between Russia and the West can be genuinely amicable," despite recent events such as the complete discrediting of Russia's pro-Western reformers, the NATO bombing of Yugoslavia, the U.S.-led military action against former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, the U.S. abrogation of the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, and the current eastward expansion of NATO.

Khodorkovskii's article blames the liberals for failing when they had power in the 1990s under former President Boris Yeltsin to care for the "90 percent" of the population that was not prepared to do without state paternalism.
He also drew attention to the fact that an ever-decreasing percentage of Russians agrees with statements such as "it is immoral to be rich in a poor country." In the Ekspertiza poll, 39 percent of respondents agreed with this proposition, while 47 percent disagreed. He also notes that, compared to Soviet times, support for the death penalty is much weaker now, with only 29 percent of respondents agreeing that "enemies of the people should be executed." Twenty percent agreed that bribe-taking officials should be executed. Forty-eight percent of respondents agreed that it is worse to condemn an innocent person than to let a guilty person go free, while just 28 percent felt the opposite.

In short, Makarkin argues that, despite the fact that in the Soviet era "the pluralistic political tradition was almost entirely lost in Russia" and despite the peculiarities of the Soviet-era dissident movement -- such as the role played by Jewish refusniks who were fighting largely for their individual rights rather than for a liberal restructuring of the country or the prominence in the movement of right-wing nationalists -- liberal ideals are making steady inroads in the public consciousness.

Makarkin concludes that these shifts in attitude are making it steadily more difficult for the government to act in heavy-handed, authoritarian ways. He notes for example that that Federal Security Service (FSB) has been forced to launch a publicity campaign to garner support for the idea that juries should not hear cases involving state secrets. In the past, he implies, the FSB could simply have manipulated the courts or the political system to achieve its ends. Such tendencies could be more fundamental and lasting than the current "crisis" in the upper echelons of liberalism.

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