How many more years will post-Soviet politics be haunted by the Yavlinsky Syndrome?

The political marginality of Russia’s post-Soviet liberal democrats – not to be confused with Zhirinovskii’s ultra-nationalist, so-called LDPR – is, above all, a result of the ruthlessness of neo-Soviet anti-liberalism. Especially, since the rise of Vladimir Putin, the Kremlin has purposefully obstructed the activities of liberal parties, politicians, circles and movements. In doing so, the various anti-Western factions in Russia’s state apparatus have used both, sophisticated political technologies or finely tuned negative campaigning, as well as crude administrative repression or callous defamation campaigns. Whether in party politics, intellectual life, journalism or academia – pro-Western activists, publicists and scholars have been encountering a multitude of effective restrictions or “active measures” aimed to prevent their organizational development, political consolidation, and outreach to society.

Yet, another reason for the relative social insignificance of Russian liberalism has to do with the post-Soviet liberal leaders themselves – if not with decades-old pathologies of Russian intelligentsia culture. Reminding the idealism of late Tsarist constitutional democratism, Russia’s post-Soviet liberals have yet to start engaging with politics proper. Posing as politicians, many activists of the Russian liberal movement have mentally never left the remnants of intellectual life and civil society. Instead of facing the realities of post-Soviet Russian party competition and coalition building, many Russian liberal activists have chosen to remain political moralists, high-flying humanists, busy civic activists, and theory-savvy analysts. In order to become effective participants in political rather than merely intellectual or civic processes, Russia’s liberals yet need to embrace the notion of strategy and tactics of fighting for power. They need to overcome the Yavlinsky Syndrome, i.e. the pattern of behavior shown in the 1990s by the leading democratic politician Grigory Yavlinsky who has, over years, managed to avoid both, making significant political alliances and taking real responsibility in government.

To be sure, many Russian liberals are traveled and erudite individuals intimately familiar with the functioning of Western societies. In principal, they thus understand that real-life contemporary democratic politics consists of, often, awkward alliance, self-denying compromises, and disgusting opportunism by politicians acting in pluralistic settings and interested in the acquisition of executive positions, in their states. Being aware of this situation in the West, Russia’s Westernizers, nevertheless, tend to see their own practical politics as an existential or/and altruistic exercise the quality of which is defined by the consistency and principledness of their public positions and everyday behavior. At first glance, this is a sympathetic attitude speaking in favor rather than against the quality of post-Soviet Russian liberalism. On second thought, however, Russia’s liberals are, by doing so, pseudo- rather than real politicians. Their social insignificance is thus, to some degree, a result of their own choice – and, sometimes one even suspects, of some (sub-)conscious decision. The liberals’ moral maximalism, excessive pride, and permanent infighting sometimes borders on sectarianism. It is an apolitical, if not ultimately anti-political behavior.

Paradoxically, the liberals’ engagement with their Western colleagues often serves to strengthen rather than weaken these pathologies. Instead of facing the challenges of building a nation-wide political movement throughout Russia’s provinces, a number of liberal party leaders have been occupied with frequent visits to various venues in Europe and North America. Some of them are sought after guests at Western political meetings, frequent columnists in major international newspapers, and seasoned speakers at prestigious conferences. There is now, moreover, an impressive new cohort of Russian liberal politicians including; for instance, Garri Kasparov or Vladimir Milov who are distinct from the earlier, late Soviet or immediately post-Soviet liberals of the 1990s. These new Russian liberals are often excellent English speakers with a good sense of humor, tasteful wardrobe, and considerable oration skills. For most readers of this article, these Russians would be pleasant and interesting, if not rather charming or even fascinating interlocutors.

One suspects, however, that the liberals’ intellectual, rhetorical, and linguistic eloquence, as well as, sometimes, high academic qualification could also be the reason why their reach into Russian society is not particularly deep. Though Western politics also features intellectuals, the majority of the electorally effective Western politicians seem to be monolingual down-to earth types. Occasionally, they may, like Germany’s longest serving Chancellor, Dr. Helmuth Kohl, have high academic qualifications. Yet often, they are nonetheless perceived as being average nationals who are mentally and physically representative of their countries. Often, these politicians make the initial steps of their political careers locally, in a provincial region, and not in their countries’ capitals. Sometimes they have – like, perhaps most infamously, George Bush, Jr. – surprisingly little knowledge of international affairs and other countries. Some of the most successful Western politicians are the exact opposite of the intellectuals that have been dominating Russia’s post-Soviet democratic movement, since 1991.

To be sure, there is now, in Russia, a new cohort of democratic leaders emerging, including Alexei Navalnyi, Mikhail Prokhorov and Ilya Yashin whose habitus is different from their predecessors. They were not active in the 1990s and seem to have a more pragmatic attitude towards politics than their older colleagues. Yet so far, the rise of these new leaders has only further fragmented the already patchy pro-democratic spectrum. Like many of their older colleagues, most of the younger leaders come from Moscow or St. Petersburg, belong to the upper middle class (or even the upper class), and may still be too highbrow for the average Russian voter.

For Russian liberalism to finally succeed, it will a need a leader who is different from the current ones. Preferably, this person should not come from the Moscow or St. Petersburg intelligentsia, or/and not be perceived, by ordinary Russians, as an aloof bonehead with little empathy for the worries and needs of ordinary Russians, outside the metropoles. Ideally, this new leader would have an acute understanding of the need for coalition building and compromise finding. He/she should be person who actually wants to reach, and work in, a high position in the Russian executive – rather than impressively perform in scholarly debates or at international symposia. Russian liberalism, in short, needs a real politician and not yet another intelligent, at its helm.

An earlier version of this text was published by The Globalist.