Much ink has been spilled in the last month, castigating the defects in Russia’s December 2003 parliamentary elections. Most of the blame has been assigned to the Putin administration, highlighting in particular the use of “administrative resources” (including state control over the broadcast media) to promote pro-government political forces and hinder the campaigns of opposition parties such as the Communists and the liberals (Yabloko and the Union of Right Forces).
Conveniently overlooked has been the failure of “democratic alternatives” to capture the hearts and minds of Russian voters. But the decisive defeat last month is leading some liberal Russian politicians to move beyond blaming Putin to identifying what needs to be done to advance a liberal-democratic agenda in contemporary Russia.
Independent presidential candidate Irina Khakamada, a member of the political council of the Union of Right Forces, is not sparing in her criticisms. Speaking at the Nixon Center in Washington, D.C., she lamented that many liberal-leaning politicians were not “professional” and chided what she termed “liberal infantilism” in Russian politics, whereby pro-Western politicians expended more effort and energy battling each other than on creating a unified, viable democratic alternative.
Her analysis is correct. In the 1999 Duma elections, had the liberal movements run as a single slate, they would have doubled their representation in the parliament. In the 2003 poll, by staying separate, both the Union of Right Forces and Yabloko failed to cross the five-percent threshold for party-list representation. So, the leftist-nationalist orientation that coalesced into the Rodina bloc contested the elections as a single bloc and will have a guaranteed number of committee deputy chairs in the new parliament. The liberal-democratic orientation, which polled in toto the same percentage as Rodina, has nothing to show for it, proving the old adage that if you don’t hang together, you will hang separately.
The liberal-democratic forces have also failed to convince most Russian voters that they can govern effectively. Khakamada, who held a cabinet position in the Russian government dealing with small-business creation, noted that most small-business owners in Russia, who might be expected to support pro-market parties, have preferred Putin and United Russia, believing that the current leadership can offer stability and protection.
Above all, the “democrats” so lionized in the West have had real difficulty in connecting with ordinary voters. At the Union of Right Forces Congress this past weekend, Khakamada was adamant that the party needed to “end the dialog with authorities and start a dialog with the people.” In Washington, she acknowledged that support for jailed oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky had grist for the mills of the populist parties that scored big with Russian voters, casting the liberal parties as “defenders” of the rich in an impoverished country. Many of those who in the West would be natural supporters of a pro-market party–small- and medium-business owners, patriots, supporters of traditional values–have thrown their lot in with Putin, whom Khakamada labeled as “conservative number one” in Russia.
And with his strong ratings, he is the likely victor in this summer’s presidential elections. Khakamada concedes that she has no chance of winning the presidency in 2004 and slim chance of even forcing the contest into a second round, but hopes that her candidacy can energize democratic forces in the provinces. The Union of Right Forces has also pledged to shift its focus away from the elite cities of Moscow and St. Petersburg in favor of building up the party in Russia’s regions. Boris Nemtsov, another party leader who like Khakamada tended his resignation as one of the party’s co-chairs after the December defeat, wants to see regional leaders play a more active role in the party.
There are encouraging signs that the liberal forces may finally be learning the value of unity–Yabloko and the Union of Right Forces have agreed to run single candidates in regional elections this March, to avoid splitting the vote. And while conceding the inevitability of a Putin victory in 2004, Nemtsov and other prominent liberal voices have formed “Committee 2008: Free Choice,” designed to lay the groundwork for a more democratic transition to new political leaders when Putin’s second term is up.
There are no shortcuts to democracy.
Nikolas K. Gvosdev is editor of In the National Interest.