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Wednesday, December 5, 2007

Why Russian Liberals Lose

From the press play these groups and their demonstrations get in the western mainstream media one would get the impression that they are a significant opposition. Actually they get a very small percentage of the vote in elections. The second party after Putin is actually the communists. While Russian Liberals elicit sympathy and support in the west in Russia they are bit players with no chance of election.


Why Russian liberals lose
By Nicolai N. Petro

Tuesday, December 4, 2007
KINGSTON, Rhode Island:

Several attempts by the alliance known as "Another Russia" to organize protest rallies in Russia's most populous cities, including the recent fiascoes in Moscow and St. Petersburg, have revealed an indisputable truth - those who call themselves the liberal opposition in Russia are neither competent nor popular.

Their most respectable showing last summer garnered at most 5,000 participants. Since then, these numbers have dwindled into the hundreds, with local police officers and foreign journalists usually far outnumbering the actual demonstrators.

Why have Russia's self-proclaimed "liberals" done so badly at attracting popular support?

Granted, the country's booming economy hasn't made their arguments for removing Vladimir Putin an easy one. Still, with potential support of up to 40 percent, well known cultural and political figures in their corner and plenty of money from business elites, it is astonishing how badly the liberals have performed.

Part of the reason goes back to an early decision to enter into alliances that severely tarnished the reputation of many of Russia's leading liberal politicians.

In a misguided effort to gain more visibility, several moderate politicians - including Vladimir Ryzhkov, Irina Khakamada, Grigory Yavlinsky, Mikhail Kasyanov and Boris Nemtsov - embraced two highly questionable figures: the entrepreneur/chess champion Garry Kasparov, who, as a former member of the advisory council of the U.S.-based Center for Security Policy has longstanding ties to a number of vociferously anti-Russian American neo-conservatives, and Eduard Limonov, the leader of the 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 the liberals (as the Washington Post has reported).

He approached the group that spawned Another Russia soon after it was established in March 2004 and suggested that the committee might be able to put the expertise of his "fighters" to good use. Expertise like brandishing a fake grenade to occupy St. Peter's Church in Riga, Latvia, for which several NBP members served prison time. Limonov himself was convicted of illegal arms purchases in April 2001 and served two years in prison.

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

But it is hard to believe that there are many people in Russia who have no inkling of what this opposition stands for. More than a quarter of the population has regular access to the Internet, which remains totally unfiltered in Russia, and that 13 percent deem it their main source of information - double that in Moscow and St. Petersburg.

Even before the current election season began, media surveys showed that in 2005, the two leading liberal parties - the Union of Right Forces and Yabloko - accounted for 23.8 percent of all times that political parties were mentioned on the country's seven major TV channels. In 2006 this figure was only 14 percent.

Too low? Perhaps, but still much higher than the total percentage of the electorate that ever voted for either of these two parties. This does not take into account that during the past month, the 11 political parties running for the Duma each received at least three hours of prime national television air time.

While Kasparov avers that, but for the regime's censorship, the Russian people would flock to his cause, Yavlinksy is probably closer to the truth when he told a reporter that his party has a 97-percent name recognition.

The problem, it seems, is not that the opposition cannot get its message to the Russian public - nor even the message itself. The problem is with the messengers, who have managed to alienate their natural constituency - Russia's growing middle class.

What you would do if faced with the following choice:

One, a political movement that unites a former chess champion whose family resides overseas, a former prime minister popularly nicknamed "Misha 2 percent" because of alleged kickbacks for authorizing government-backed loans to private firms, and an ex-punk rocker released from prison a few years ago who vows to restore the Russian empire by any means necessary.

Two, the party of Vladimir Putin, which has pledged to continue the policies that have increased average salaries from $81 a month to $550 a month, which has dramatically increased social spending and reduced the poverty level from 27 percent to 15 percent.

Some Russian liberals simply seem unaware of how much the country has changed. Yavlinsky, for example, recently remarked that he hardly reads the news ("I have aides to do that") and hasn't watched Russian television in four or five years.

Then there's the damage done by the opposition's apparent contempt for the very people whose support they seek. Boris Berezovsky, who claims to be financing the opposition from his exile in London, has said: "The problem is that, for centuries, the Russian authorities have been violating the Russian people, turning them into cattle." This bovine image of the Russian electorate is a favorite of the country's liberal elite. Their cynical assumption seems to be that politics doesn't need to appeal to the people at all, that it is really about replacing bad people-herders with good people-herders.

What does it matter how people vote, or even if they vote at all if - as Limonov vowed at the last Moscow rally before the elections - Another Russia does not intend to accept any results as legitimate?

Is it any wonder that most Russians view the opposition as simply wanting to take away the prosperity they have worked so hard to obtain?

Is it any wonder that the Western media's uncritical adulation of this opposition, and of Another Russia in particular, is regarded by many Russians with deep suspicion?

Far from indicating a retreat from democracy, the Russian electorate's rejection of the current opposition may be a sign of the country's progress toward a mature democracy.

Nicolai N. Petro teaches international politics at the University of Rhode Island. He served as the U.S. State Department's special assistant for policy on the Soviet Union under President George H. W. Bush.


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