A few thoughts on Sobchak and Gudkov’s new party, and Navalny’s strategy.

From left to right, Ilya Yashin, Aleksey Navalny, unknown, Elizaveta Osetinskaya, Dmitri Gudkov. Photography by Evgeny Feldman

In an earlier post, I commented a bit the presidential elections’ results, and the reactions of the liberal opposition to them. I concluded that ‘The future of Russian liberalism is obscure’. While it certainly hasn’t gotten clearer in the last few days, I will try to analyse a bit further the creation of the strategical perspectives of Russian liberals. I will look into the creation of the ‘Party of changes’ by Ksenya Sobchak and Dmitri Gudkov, and reflect on Navalny’s strategy.

What is at stake here?

The struggle for power. If not to say, the struggle for life. Dmitri Gudkov accurately used a biological metaphor, saying that:

‘this struggle is fiercest of all within a species

Liberals make no exception.

In this case, the struggle is not determined by ideological considerations. In two lengthy interviews, to Znak and Novaya Gazeta, Dmitry Gudkov has elaborated a bit where he believes his new party should stand, and this is clearly to the right of the liberal field: pro-market but not libertarian, peppered with tech enthusiasm and ‘pragmatism’.

But, breaking with the habit of disguising the clash of ambitions under ideological disagreements, Gudkov has barely tried to the argue that the party will fill an ideological void or compete with other liberal parties on ‘issues’. The party is designed to be a vehicle for Gudkov and Sobchak’s ambitions — and hopefully other people from their ‘generation’. It is meant to carry weight against other liberal organizations, and more especially, Yabloko. Sobchak has been less talkative about the party, this is why I will concentrate on what transpires from Gudkov’s declarations.

Gudkov has apparently accumulated a number of grievances against Yabloko and Yavlinsky in particular. These grievances seem to revolve around the perspective of the Moscow mayoral elections — a position he covets, though with a healthy measure of denial. He has listed manifestations of insufficient consideration from the Yavlinsky campaign. He added:

Yavlinsky didn’t want even to meet with me in order to discuss the Yabloko primaries for the Moscow mayoral elections. And he constantly appeared with the slogan “Yavlinsky for president, Mitrokhin for Mayor [of Moscow]”. I received enough signals that Yabloko didn’t need me.

He concluded that what he received from Yavlinsky was:

Total refusal and ghosting [polnyi otkaz i ignor]

In other words, Gudkov believed that Yabloko was leaving him in a position inferior to what he believes to deserve. He is wary that Yavlinsky will support Sergey Mitrokhin’s run in the Moscow mayoral elections. Following the good results of ‘liberal candidates’ in the 2017 municipal elections in Moscow, both Gudkov and Mitrokhin have announced that they plan to be candidates in the next Moscow mayoral elections, scheduled in September 2018. Sergey Mitrokhin had already balloted in 2013, and got rather unimpressive results: with 81 493 votes, 3,51 % he was squarely defeated by Navalny and his 27%. Gudkov also has ideas opinions about how the ‘primaries’ should be organized:

To get results, we need a single candidate. I propose this plan: there must primaries but organized in such way that all players will have an interest in participating. First: presentation of programs, then presentation of teams, strategies, tactics, and then debates. The decision would be taken in two rounds. First, the Moscow independent deputies would vote. It’s logical since we’re electing the mayor of Moscow. Then, second round: a round table where Yabloko, the Party of Changes, Parnas, Navalny [and his team] and Open Russia [the foundation of Mikhail Khodorkovsky] must be represented.

How is this mechanism supposed to work is obscure — even to Gudkov, who admits he hasn’t thought it out yet. But, by giving the first call to ‘independent Moscow deputies’, this system would almost certainly favour Gudkov himself, since they were elected with his support.

Gudkov’s disenchantment with Yabloko is understandable. Mitrokhin is not an extremely convincing candidate. Yavlinsky’s campaign has been an unmitigated disaster — and one in want of an analysis. He doesn’t appear anywhere near retirement. He still seems to command a position of authority in the party apparat — and perhaps, the hearts and minds of the party’s activists. His support to Slabunova allowed her to take the party over Shlosberg who was, on paper, a more popular and attractive figure. Gudkov would certainly not be the first young, ambitious politician to be disillusioned with Yabloko. Interviewed in 2012 by Afisha, Ilya Yashin, once the leader of the youth branch of the party, noted:

The moment you start pretending to actually influence politics in that party, your career is over. You’re either expelled or pressured into leaving.

Ksenya Sobchak doesn’t seem extremely disappointed by her score and is keen to build on the ‘momentum’ of her campaign — for lack of a better word. She’s rich, well-know — though with very high negative ratings — and has the appropriate connections that allowed her to be a candidate in the first place. Her personal history allows her to be a bridge between different generations of liberals.

These connections or ‘administrative resources’ can allow her and Gudkov to occupy a niche in electoral politics. Since it is unclear whether Navalny — or anyone associated with him — will be allowed again on the ballot, it’s rational for them to think that some political space is up for grabs. The party in the name of which she has been candidate, the ‘Civic initiative’ has a party license — a precious thing in Russian liberalism today, one thing that was constantly denied to Navalny. Only two other noticeable liberal parties have that license: Yabloko and RPR-PARNAS. I have covered the subject of the former. The latter is in limbo, since its former and extremely unpopular leader Mikhail Kasyanov has stepped down the brutal revelations of a sex-scandal by state television.

As I was writing earlier, Navalny has clearly refused to join Sobchak and Gudkov. He believes that they’re only part of a ‘Kremlin project’ to legitimize the presidential elections. While we do not know whether this was the case, Sobchak’s participation in the presidential elections is unthinkable without, at the very least, a nod from the presidential administration. Besides, Navalny’s brother still sits in jail, he and his associates are subject to constant harassment by the authorities, so it is understandable he does not rejoice at the perspective of joining such an alliance.

In a recent and terribly biting post, Navalny has given a thorough analysis of the performance of liberal candidates in the last elections. This analysis helps to explain why he is not ready for any such alliance. It also sheds light on the disaster. I translated it in full and enjoin you to read it. I will only concentrate on the most interesting points.

First, of course, the scale of the disaster is unprecedented — even for notoriously unsuccessful liberals:

Because, however lazy, cowardly, and useless these three candidates may be, they still had to manage to get 3,49% together. Less than Khakamada alone in 2004 [Irina Khakamada balloted as an independent and was the only liberal on the ballot.] She received 3,84%. By the way, Yabloko then called for the boycott of the elections.

The funniest and most ridiculous presidential candidate ever, Zhirinovsky’s bodyguard, Malyshkin got once 2,02% [in 2004].

Second, liberal campaigns are still as bad as they were ever:

I thought Yavlinsky would mobilize the liberal electorate with some sharp statements. I thought that Sobchak would tap into the provincial electorate with her notoriety and the stars she would invite at the last moment. And I thought that Titov would come up with some oligarchs/businessmen, and would get one and half percent from blockheads hypnotized by the opinion of ‘successful people from the Forbes list’.

That was the most obvious. They couldn’t do more — that’s what I thought. They got teams, money. Of course, some of that money would be stolen by crooks from their teams, but they couldn’t fail to get that bare minimum.

It turns out, they could. Yavlinsky released an ad, whose substance was distinctly abstract.

[This very cute ad has the following message: ‘10% of angora wool in your sweater won’t unleash economic growth. 10% for Yavlinsky will’.]

Even though people who know anything about politics know perfectly well that neither Yavlinsky, nor Yabloko NEVER got 10% in their whole existence. And those who don’t know much about politics didn’t understand what’s this and what is it about.

The ‘last trick’ of the Yabloko campaign was that whole, wild business with the distribution of 30 million newspapers in the last three weeks of the campaign. Or 80 million. That is: a huge quantity of pulp literature [or recycling paper?] in the last days of the campaign, when each and every mail box in the country is crammed with precisely that same literature. I was just amazed at how people who believe themselves to be very intelligent can turn into idiots.

We have distributed 10 million newspapers.

We have distributed 20 million newspapers. Hurray, results are near.

In other words, the number of distributed newspapers became the goal of the campaign. In the newspaper it was written that Yavlinsky could have saved the Soviet Union. At the ‘Avtozavodskaya’ metro station, you could see hefty bundles of these newspapers in every bin. No doubt were they included in these triumphant statistics.

Sobchak’s team was of course the most disastrous. It was clear that Malashenko [her campaign manager] had been side-lined. The campaign was led by somebody else — and it’s interesting even the daily Vedomosti with its powerful politics staff couldn’t find who it was.

The main campaign events were organized by the Presidential administration and Sobyanin [the Mayor of Moscow] . . .

Not a single more or less famous person has supported Sobchak publicly. I can only remember Ulitskaya [a famous writer, associated with ‘liberals], but she’s not the kind of celebrity Sobchak needed. No business figure, no musician, no socialite, no sport star. Apparently, it was shameful to participate in this. Even at a concert organized at the height of the campaign only the Surganova band showed up.

I understand that much hope was placed on the surprising move of Dmitry Gudkov who supported Yavlinsky all the way . . . only to say three days before the vote, that he supports Sobchak, and to talk at her concert. It’s possible that this really took some votes from Yavlinsky and added some for Sobchak, but only a handful. Even those who are critical of Yavlinsky could simply not like that move. As to Titov, the only thing that can be said is the joke ‘What’s Titov?’ [one of his campaign ads asked precisely that question, and that question only]. Stupid spin doctors and political advisors came up with a stupid idea, and where happy that people are laughing at it on the internet. See, the notoriety of Titov’s name is on the rise!

I hoped that there would be an original sequel to the ad. “That’s Titov!” But there wasn’t enough creativity around to do that.

This analysis speaks for itself, but I will add one point. Liberals still display the same inability to communicate what they stand for. The case of Sobchak is telling. When she announced her candidacy, she promised to run as a fire-brand ‘populist’ under the slogan ‘Sobchak against all’. Whatever one thinks of the slogan, it is at least well-known since it used to be possible to vote ‘against all’ candidates in Russian elections. Unexpectedly, she ended up running on a rather tame and mainstream liberal ‘For truth, for freedom, for Sobchak’ platform.

Yavlinsky’s campaign was equally undetermined, unclear, and unfocused. I could not help but think about this analysis of his 1995 presidential campaign:

Steven Fish, The Predicament of Russian Liberalism: Evidence from the December 1995 Parliamentary Elections. Europe-Asia Studies, Vol. 49, №2 (Mar., 1997)

By the way, all those interested in Russian liberalism or Russian politics as a whole should read this fascinating take on so many clichés obscuring the study of Russian politics.

Navalny concluded his piece by calling for the ‘creation of an opposition’.

Political scientists scribble op-eds, discuss perspectives. The possibility of coalitions, common action and the ‘unification of the opposition’ are endlessly discussed. Three percent forty-nine for all, my friends. There’s no future for this in 2018, in 2012, in 2024 or in 2666. There are some administrative resources (party licenses), but it’s not worth a penny, if there’s no support from people.

We should not discuss the ‘unification of the opposition’ but the creation of an opposition.

First, ideologically, and then in terms of organization. In 2018, we can’t consider ‘opposition’ something that dates back from 1996. We’re once again stuck with Yabloko and SPS. We shouldn’t, it’s not interesting, it’s not viable, and voters can’t understand this.The task of democratic- and opposition-minded voters is to help the creation of an opposition, and not to convince themselves that it’s necessary to revive something that was born dead.We must discuss the fight for 60%, and not for 10% or 5,5% or 3,49%.

Democratically oriented Russians are given a stark choice. Either they follow Sobchak or Gudkov (or, of course, Yabloko) in trying to work their way through the small cracks of the system. This strategy, dubbed the ‘liberal ghetto’ by Russian political scientist Alexander Kynev, can perhaps wield some results in terms of seats and a sense of marginal representation — at least in big cities. Or they can choose to follow Navalny in his attempts to create a ‘new majority’ that will perhaps, some day, overthrow the whole system. His position can have the appeal of the ‘moral high ground’ — but one can ask whether many will find it appealing. They can choose to fight some skirmishes, or to prepare for a great battle. For the moment, none of these options has yielded results, and it remains to be seen whether they will in the future. In Russia, you must live long, as they say.

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