Yabloko vs. Navalny: Russian Liberals Plot for 2018 Elections


October 10, 2017 – Fort Russ – 

By Eduard Popov, translated by Jafe Arnold – 

“Leave Navalny alone”; “Navalny 2018”

Unsanctioned rallies in support of the arrested opposition figure Alexey Navalny have been held in a number of cities across Russia. Over the course of these actions, more than 290 people have been arrested across 26 cities, but nearly all have been released following interviews at police stations with no charges. The biggest arrests took place in Saint Petersburg, where 68 people were detained. 

October 7th was not chosen as the date for protests. On this day, Vladimir Putin’s birthday, the opposition wanted to demonstrate their total rejection of the course of the Russian state under President Putin, including his both his domestic policies and the return of Crimea. But did they succeed in demonstrating such?

While experts have noted the fact that the rallies were attended by less people than those held on March 26th and June 12th, at the same time, however, it is worth recalling that the liberal pro-Western opposition’s assets have been recently refreshed with the unexpected and almost sensational victory of the Yabloko Party in the Moscow City Duma elections held on September 11th.

Yabloko’s leader is a veteran of Soviet politics and a Jew from Lvov, Grigory Yavlinsky. In the early 1990’s, he gained fame thanks to a populist program entitled “500 days” which claimed a swift plan for introducing capitalism within the title’s specified period. Yavlinsky has been called the “Zhirinovsky for liberals” by virtue of his populism and unrealistic promises. Yabloko subsequently disappeared from the political scene and has not enjoyed any widespread popularity for quite some time, until the party’s sensational triumph in the Moscow elections. This triumph should be understood within the unique context of Moscow and Saint Petersburg, which are the most Westernized and liberal regions in Russia.

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Navalany and Yabloko’s electorates are somewhat different. Navalny’s supporters are more inclined towards street actions, while the core of Yabloko’s electorate is made up by the old Soviet intelligentsia. In recent years, however, an influx of young people born after the collapse of the USSR has energized the party. As a rule, these youngsters are from cities, have grown up with and adopted Western values, and dream of living “like in Europe.” Thus, this group of the population is quick to be convinced that Vladimir Putin’s state course is wrong, a point which the old party leadership has taken advantage of. 

Yabloko’s leaders, however, are fundamentally different from Navalny and his entourage. No matter what one might think of Navalny, he has an undeniable, albeit negative charisma. I even call him the “little Fuhrer” since Navalny, in my opinion, copies the PR methods of the German Nazi leader. On the other hand, Yavlinsky is completely devoid of any shred of charisma and represents a typical, mediocre Soviet intellectual – a conformist at work but an anti-Soviet dissident at heart. Other such people can be found in the ruling circles of the party. 

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Unlike Navalny, Yabloko can’t talk to crowds and will never go the barricades for a revolution. Thus, Navalny and his supporters form the radical street faction of liberalism in Russia, while Yabloko and its supporters are more oriented towards an evolutionary path. The party’s leaders hedge their bets on victories in regional, parliamentary, and presidential elections. Navalny, meanwhile, is barred from ever pursuing this path due to his criminal record for corruption charges.

Yabloko and the liberals have undoubtable potential in Moscow and Saint Petersburg. Nevertheless, I believe that Yavlinsky’s second-place in the Moscow City Duma elections (after United Russia) would have been impossible without state assistance. Part of the Russian establishment is sympathetic to the liberals, and this is no secret. More precisely, one could say that liberals even make up part of the ruling elite. The liberals have the financial and economic wing of government in their hands, and wield partial influence over the spheres of ideology, cultural policy, national policy, and international relations. 

Since the 1990’s a number of representatives of the liberal parties, including both Democratic Choice for Russia (which the American Embassy aided in the State Duma elections in 1993, a scandal which erupted after Russian intelligence intercepted information) and Yabloko, have settled into federal and regional organs. Back in the 1990’s Yabloko even enjoyed wide representation in the country’s ruling elite. 

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Thus, I suppose that Yabloko’s fresh success can only partly be explained as the result of Muscovite liberal sympathies or competent PR work. This success is the result of a conspiracy by the liberal group in power in collusion with the liberal opposition. This symbiosis has existed for some time, including in Navalny’s case as well. It cannot be excluded that Yabloko’s sympathizers in power are trying to convince President Putin to negotiate with Yavlinsky and co as “correct” liberals as opposed to Navalny’s “wrong” supporters. The goal of this conspiracy is to get the party into the State Duma. The Moscow regional elections were a test of strength.

It would be a big mistake if the federal government believed that Yavlinsky and co. have any constructive potential. The party rejects the Crimean consensus and advocates capitulation before the West and Ukraine. 

The West is hoping for precisely such a timely “cleansing” of the Russian ruling elite ahead of new fierce showdowns. The sanctions against Russia recently adopted by the US Congress and approved by President Trump signal a new upswing in American interference in the political and electoral process in Russia. The US’ main agent of influence in Russia is the liberal party in the broad sense of the word, its most radical wing being Navalny and more conformist wing being the Yabloko leadership. The liberal camp is being offered power and potential by the numerous and influential liberal party in power and its situational ally – the oligarch class. 

Navalny’s supporters are the street forces of this influential part of the Russian establishment. Yabloko is the future parliamentary faction for the liberal camp.

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