June 15, 2009 (the date of publication in Russian)

Alexander Sotnichenko


The crisis and the oppositionist movements: liberals, leftists, nationalists

Part 1:

Part 2:

In Russian history, power has never been conveyed from one political elite to another peacefully. That is one of the reasons of the weak shape and mostly semi-legal status of today's opposition. In new Russia, the state leadership hasn't got any consolidated legal opposition since the 1993 revolt of the Parliament's majority was squashed with tanks, and the counter-elite, forming around it, factionalized and eventually dispersed. Since that time, political parties and movements, as well as popular individuals, have been unable to seriously challenge Kremlin.

Still, the opposition exists, and is ready to respond to the crisis. The real oppositionist substrate is not represented in the State Duma (Russia's Parliament), as none of the minority parliamentary parties intends to take power or has elaborated an articulate political program. This is also true for the Communist Party that hasn't proven able to construct a concept expected from her in the period of crisis, despite severity of mounting social problems, especially in remote provinces of Russia. Surprisingly, the active ferment of protest is concentrating in the liberal and nationalist underground.



The new generation of Russian liberal opposition was catalyzed by a series of "color revolutions" in post-Soviet nations. Several movements, emerging at that time, tried to reproduce the symbols and style of youth groups that played a key role in mass rallies that preceded collapse of the regimes of Eduard Shevardnadze in Georgia and Leonid Kuchma in Ukraine. However, none of them could develop into a political party, partly due to the strict conditions of the legislation that requires representation in most of the 89 regions. Besides, the "mother" movements in Georgia and Ukraine rapidly lost their own base of active support, while aggravation of economic problems in both countries undermined the popularity of the "colored" leaders and eroded their symbols. Moreover, the term "new revolution of roses" is now exploited by the newly-emerged Georgian opposition. It is also significant that months after the referred events in Kiev and Tbilisi, the Russian Government severed the legislation on NGOs, efficiently depriving them from foreign financial support.

At the same time, many persons who once personified the Russian liberal camp have conveniently integrated into the establishment in the role of directors of research centers, political thinktanks, and academic institutions. Some of them, like Alexei Kudrin, Anatoly Chubais and Sergey Kiriyenko, have been inherited by Vladimir Putin's "vertical of power" from ancestor governments and parliaments, continuing their career and to a significant extent implementing their views in legislative and executive practice.

Moreover, the circle of liberal economists represented by the abovementioned figures is convinced that their management capabilities, as well as their theoretical findings, are quite appropriate for anti-crisis strategy, while their old and well-established foreign connections are in high demand of incumbent authorities. Government officials admit that in case of a protracted decline of oil prices, Russia will have to apply to Western financial institutions. Russian observers already hint that the IMF would rather strike an agreement on loans with Gaidar or Chubais than with top government officials.

At the same time, the liberal agenda is tremendously unpopular in the population, especially in the times of crisis. An ordinary Russian unambiguously associates liberals with the murky and scanty era of the 1990s when privatization was followed with an outburst of banditism, and inflation coincided with wage arrears. Therefore, the population will never accept the idea of entrusting anti-crisis strategy to the team that had implemented "shock therapy" and followed IMF conditionalities for expense of the poor. Even the crisis as such is associated in the population's minds with the 1990s, as the problems of banks are interpreted with globalization – of which "Harvard boys" like Anatoly Chubais, as well as 1992 Prime Minister Yegor Gaidar, are viewed as a synonym of. Their ascent to power will hardly be approved even by the 15% supporters of the European choice of Russia, while the rest will view this as a pretext for a more severe criticism of Kremlin.

At the same time, liberal ideas are associated with the agenda of "colored revolutions" in adjacent countries where lots of Russians have got relatives and friends. For this and other reasons, liberals have never defined themselves as "liberals", using shields like "Rightist Cause" that sounds equally to "Right Cause". During recent years, liberals more and more commonly addressed social issues, participating in regional cities in protest rallies side by side with Eduard Limonov's National-Bolsheviks and even Communists.

In addition, the Russian political liberal community is greatly factionalized since the struggle for administrative positions back in 1990s. In 1999, one more division happened over the military campaign in Chechnya which was greeted by Anatoly Chubais and condemned by Grigory Yavlinsky. Both of them, as well as chess champion and WSJ correspondent Garry Kasparov, have displayed more talent in splitting political associations (starting from CPSU) than in building up new associations. Their electorate is divided rather on the issue of attitude to Kremlin, the minority clinging to Kudrin and his kin, and the majority being "naturally anti-bureaucratic" or "anti-Chekist". Thus, the liberal faction of the political spectrum has not concentrated a consolidated potential, also lacking individuals able to reach out to masses of people, which is essential during the crisis.



In early 1990s, it was seriously believed that a newly-established social-democratic party would be able to garner massive support in Russia due to historical background of the late XIX century. Contenders for the role of social-democratic leaders referred to that period of time in abbreviation of party titles, like RSDP. However, this promising niche was promptly occupied by an unpopular Mikhail Gorbachov, and subsequently also factionalized even into weaker entities than the liberal spectrum. Meanwhile, the Communist Party (CPRF), under the leadership of Gennady Zyuganov, originally assembled under moderate anti-Western and partly Eurasianist slogans, but as soon as terms like "national interests" have become common in the official political lexicon, the demand for an etatist opposition melted; besides, some of this agenda was utilized by the populist Liberal-Democratic Party of Vladimir Zhirinovsky.

By the time when the global crisis broke out, CPRF's ranks had significantly shrunk and senesced, while its top figures displayed lack of capability for political maneuver, even when a new agenda was obviously required.

The problem of Russian Communists largely emerges from the definition of Communism in the mass of population, which is quite different from that in the West. The Russian Communist idea is rather associated with the idea of empire, and conservative values in everyday life. Issues raised by Western leftist parties, like female and minority rights, are viewed by the population as foreign, "imported", and therefore liberal.

At the same time, the reality of crisis raises the demand for a new generation of leftist leaders, whose political biographies would rather emerge not from old patterns of views but from practical struggle for civil rights in regions most affected with economic decline and unemployment. Unlike CPRF, this movement is likely to spread rather from provinces to metropolises. It will most probably integrate the already existing leftist groups, linked to European leftists, due to crisis-related changes in their own agenda.



The nationalist opposition has emerged in new Russia yet in the end of Mikhail Gorbachov's perestroika period. Nationalists frequently teamed up with liberals in 1991, but swung to the Communists, due to common hatred of the pro-Western Gaidar's government, in 1993. As CPRF de facto almost wholly occupied the conservative niche, the nationalist movement was marginalized for over a decade, and attempt to overcome mutual contradictions repeatedly failed. In the new century, the nationalist trend started developing into a particular political force.

Reasons for the rise of the nationalist sentiment are analyzed in this author's article "European nationalism, globalization, and Russia". To a significant extent, its emergence was associated with self-discredit of the traditional patriotic opposition. At the same time, the younger generation of nationalists was sparked with increase of labor immigration primarily resulting from pauperization of adjacent post-Soviet states.

The recent outbreak of ethnic tensions in Kondopoga, a district town of Karelia, remarkably emerged not from tensions between Russians and the Karelian-Finnish minority but between both and the "occupants" from Caucasus republics who had taken control over local trade. This typical example indicates that anti-Semitism is not as typical for Russian popular xenophobia as the anti-Caucasus sentiment.

The intellectual part of Russian nationalists share the liberal perception of Russia as a part of the European "race", while incomers from the Caucasus and Central Asia are viewed as civilizationally hostile. For that reason, some nationalist authors insist that Russia deliberately secede the Caucasus and a number of other regions with predominantly Muslim population. At the same time, nationalists perceive Ukrainians and Belarusians as Slavonic ("white") brothers.

The demand for this kind of ideology may rise in the conditions of crisis, as it precisely identifies the enemy image. At the same time, it is not associated with negative sides of socialism and liberalism. It is also acceptable for the Slavonic faction of the business official and shadowy business community in competition with minority clans. Relevant patrons of business, especially among regional authorities, may instrumentalize it as well: why not get rid of the troublesome Caucasus under the guise of national revival?

A public debate emerging between representatives of this and other ethnic-based approaches efficiently distract the national agenda from such issues as the origin of the crisis and responsibility of executive officials for social decline. Rise of nationalist ideology is restricted only with the commitment of the majority of the political establishment to maintain the territorial integrity of the Russian Federation.

(To be continued)

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