The liberal movement in Russia is undergoing a serious crisis. There are three reasons for this. First, the Kremlin domestic policies under Putin’s 3rd term in power are designed in such a way that liberals are labelled foreign agents, called enemies of the state, and are being under constant pressure. Second, the annexation of Crimea and the war in Donbass have created a new social landscape in Russia.
Patriotic movements are growing like a fever; one can hardly see now celebration of national public holidays without street “patriotic” military-style marches. Supporters of a “European choice” for Russia’s development, human rights defenders, and all other critics of the authoritarian state are being totally ousted from all forms of social life.
Many Russians now sincerely believe that in order to protect the so-called “traditional values”, more censorship should be introduced and such NGOs as Memorial and the Sakharov center should be shut down as non-patriotic.
These public moods put the liberal moment under double pressure – both from the state and the public opinion. However, there is a third factor that relates to the liberals themselves. The liberal movement of the post-Soviet Russia has faced an evident generational crisis. Veterans of the big politics who played an important role in the destruction of the Soviet system and in shaping of the Russian Government in the 90s, remain unchanged leaders of the domestic liberal movements and parties for many years already.
Ambitious younger generation liberals are not welcome to the top of these organizations. In parallel the Kremlin deliberately blocks any new liberal initiative to set up a new party and restricts their participation in the elections.
Domestic liberal movement doesn’t have any representation in the State Duma (the lower chamber of the Russian parliament) since 2003. The two leading liberal parties -Yabloko and PARNAS- got just less than 1% each at the recent Parliamentary elections in Russia. Alexei Navalny’s political party, who is well known Russian corruption crusader, was not allowed to participate in the elections at all.
The Kremlin is sending a clear message that the liberal movement in Russia is an orange threat (the orange threat is a term used to describe an attempt of a state coup and it refers to the events in Ukraine in 2004) and, thus, should be under control of the intelligence services.
In these new severe conditions most Russian public institutions have adopted the ideology of a corporate state and have joined Putin’s post-Crimea political direction. Despite the political climate in Russia and the state pressure there are still institutions and groups that promote liberal values of freedom and human dignity, praise cultural diversity and warn of the risks of a mono-ideological propaganda.
The examples include:
- Independent editorial offices of Moscow-based and regional media;
- Some educational institutions: the European University in Saint-Petersburg , and the Moscow Higher School of Social and Economic Studies, etc.;
- New urbanists’ groups in Moscow and other big cities;
- NGOs, including Memorial, the Sakharov center, the Liberal Mission foundation, the Committee of Civil Initiatives, etc.;
- Large part of the cultural elite from the theatre, cinema and literature fields;
- Human rights activists including young lawyers;
- Interpreters and book publishers who are integrated in the global communication.
All these groups are not united by any political party or movement but they share common ideas and visions towards the practices of Putinism and represent a huge single readership for such media as Dozhd (TV-Rain), Novaya Gazeta, Slon.ru, Snob.ru, The New Times, InLiberty, Colta.ru, etc.
All this reminds of the Soviet Union at its late stage, after the political thaw. As Andrei Sinyavsky, a Russian writer, was quoted as saying that “differences with the ruling regime are of stylistic character”.
The whole atmosphere of state-sponsored patriotism, newly born cult of heroic history, division of art into two categories – the one that meets national interests and the other that is ideologically alien, aggressive propaganda and political clownery of TV talk-shows – all these things are being rejected by such liberal groups not even politically but rather from the cultural and moral perspective.
As the Kremlin persists with its pressure, these groups are developing a similar agenda as it was in the late 1970s and 1980s of the USSR. You can see heated debates in the social media on the threshold of the compromise with the authorities, which choice is better – to emigrate or to live in internal emigration in Russia; a belief that life after Putin can be even worse than now is gaining popularity.
After the 2016 Parliamentary elections’ outcome there is growing pessimism towards the still functioning liberal institutions: Yabloko and PARNAS, political parties, activities of the so-called “system liberals” like former Minister of Finance Alexei Kudrin who still secures his place in the public debate, media like the Echo of Moscow radio station, etc.
You can hear quite often that there is no sense in using the term “political opposition” to describe those who confront the regime, a proper word to call these people is dissidents. After the rise of pro-reform movement in 2011-2012 in Russia and its subsequent decline, the tradition of personal dissent rather than organized protests is widespread. Andrei Sakharov, Vazlav Gavel and the period of normalization in Chekhoslavakia are the examples.
It is evident that there is a shift of the liberal agenda from the fight for fair elections to the fight for cultural diversity and resistance to the new official ideology.
We are witnessing a rising number of political emigrants from Russia. Until quite recently there were Kremlin-controlled groups of Russian emigrants and few old Russian emigrant institutions beyond Russia. In the last three years there was a surge of independent Russian initiatives in Europe: the annual festival KULTURUS in Prague, art-residence in Montenegro of Marat Guelman, a Russian gallery and art-director, the Garry Kasparov Forum in Vilnius, the Open Russia platform in London sponsored by Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the Boris Nemtsov Foundation (BNF) for Freedom in Germany, and Open Gallery of Dmitry Vrubel and Voktoria Timofeeva (Vrubel + Timofeeva Open Atelier) in Berlin.
New media projects pop-up across Europe that are free from Putin’s indoctrination – Novaya gazeta in the Baltic region, the radio station led by Artemiy Trotsky, a music critic, in Estonia, the editorial of Current Time in Prague. This creates a new framework for communication of liberals outside Russia.
We still can enjoy open borders with Russia but the situation is deteriorating. The most vivid example of how it works is Alexey Navally’s travel ban. He cannot leave Russia and Khodorkovsky cannot travel to Russia due to the risk of imprisonment. Russia activists have fewer opportunities to cooperate with foreign NGOs. After the enforcement of the legislation on foreign agents Russia is referred to as a close space by lots of international organizations.
But as long as there are windows for crossborder cooperation we have to go on with it through having partnership projects relying on those politicians and NGOs in Europe that have sincere hope that Russia will one day become a democracy with political competition, transition of power, public control over bureaucracy, political representation, that reflects true preferences of citizens and fair election.
Though the role of political opposition in Russia is diminishing this doesn’t mean that a public dissent is shrinking. The current political regime is accumulating internal contradictions. There are topics that continue to provoke a broad public dissent with the current policies and practices.
The large income gap and subsequent social inequality, ostentatious wealth of the Putin’s elite, systematic corruption, failure of the pension system reform, disastrous infrastructure after the 16-year rule of Putin’s elite, widening disproportion between big cities and the regions – all these factors create a new basis for the next phase of mass protests.
The Kremlin understands this. And they strive to re-focus people’s attention on confrontation with the West, search of internal enemies (liberals, independent NGOs), distract people to problems that have little to do with their daily life. To some extent this effort proves to be successful, at least the opinion polls show this.
At the same time debate in the social media shows the so-called ironic double-thinking, an inherited feature of the late Soviet Union. Even Putin’s supporters understand that all these official rhetoric is lies, but they treat it with a wink. This manipulative model has no future. It is a bomb that is deemed to explode at some stage.
Future of the Liberal Movement in Russia
Boris Nemtsov was a liberal political in a broad sense of this term. His mission was to create a liberal political party, to enforce constitutional liberalism. He wanted Russia to develop in line with the spirit of the Constitution, not just with its word.
Every student in Russia learns the 2nd chapter of the Russian Constitution but unfortunately there is no one to protect it, neither the Constitutional court nor the judicial system at large. These mechanisms have significantly degraded in Putin’s corporate state.
Modernization of Russia cannot be achieved without political reforms – that was Boris Nemtsov’s conviction. Nowadays many in Russia raise a question: What will come after Putin? There is only one answer to this question – there will be political reforms. And this in turn means that it is of utmost importance to preserve the liberal environment.
Political reforms require lots of specialists in many fields- from lawyers and economists to humanitarians – those who are able to lead important institutions to ensure that in the post-Putin period we will not witness once again any deviations from the constitutional understanding of freedoms and individual dignity. We should focus our efforts on search of such people and to train them.
This is what all truly independent and still functioning organizations are working on right now, including the BNF.
The article was originally written for the Liberte! magazine as a result of cooperation with Boris Nemtsov Foundation for Freedom
Translated by Zhanna Nemtsova