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Russian Spring? Don't Hold Your Breath


Liberals' awful political history leaves them ill-prepared to seize the day.

Western media have been understandably jubilant over the black eye Russian voters gave Vladimir Putin's United Russia Party in parliamentary elections last weekend. Despite heavy TV propaganda and barely-hidden ballot manipulations, the "party of power's" national vote fell to 50% from 64% four years ago, and its majority in the Duma cratered from 70% to 53% (convenient figure, that last one).

Thousands of protestors, incensed by perceived electoral fraud, have turned out on the streets of Moscow and St. Petersburg every night this week, with a larger rally promised in the capital on Saturday. Foreign editorialists have been quick to declare the Kremlin "desperate" in the face of this limited unrest, and start tentatively casting the latest people power drama, with Facebook and the unquenchable spirit of freedom taking on one more odious authoritarian regime. A Bloomberg News editorial announced one day after the vote that "a Russian Spring is not unthinkable."

Of course it is spiritually refreshing to see the Russian leader and his arrogant coterie taken down a peg. Ilya Yashin, a young leader of the ad hoc protest movement Solidarity described the moral victory succinctly in a jail house interview after a 15-day detention earned at one of the Moscow rallies: "It suddenly turns out that we are a people, not a herd." Putin, as he tends to do, quickly dug his public relations hole deeper by blaming the street manifestations on Hillary Clinton.

Yet the picture of righteous democratic rage boiling over onto the squares of Russia has at least one thing very wrong with it: completely ignoring who actually gained from United Russia's losses. The Communist Party of the Russian Federation was the big winner, picking up 35 Duma seats at the Putinistas' expense. A Just Russia, a United Russia spin-off that is a bit more tilted toward big state social spending, gained 24. The spectacularly misnamed Liberal-Democratic Party, which ran on a platform of "Russia for the Russians," added 18 deputies.

None of these parties will prove big favorites with Western think-tankers. The one more or less free-market Westernizing party on the ballot, known as Yabloko, inched up to 3% of the popular vote from 2% in 2007. That still missed the threshold for getting any seats in the legislature.

This dismal performance caps a 20-year history of liberal ideas, or at least liberal organizations, failing to gain any popular traction in Russia. That is understandable. Communism and the Liberal-Democrats' brand of xenophobic nationalism were well known ideologies in the Soviet Union. Market liberalism was an exotic import, which was promptly tarnished by the buccaneering capitalism and widespread suffering of the 1990s. Nationalism is the real dry tinder of Russian politics, as even educated urban voters cling to crude stereotypes of ethnic minorities from the Caucasus mountain region, and are easily stirred to resentment at their perceived economic success in Moscow and other cities.

But liberal politicians in Russia have also made an awful mess of things. The most visible Westernizing figures throughout the post-Soviet period have been economists like Yabloko leader Grigory Yavlinsky, or Anatoly Chubais and the late Yegor Gaidar, who organized a party called the Union of Right Forces. All of them, though great darlings of Western well-wishers, utterly lacked a common touch, as if Timothy Geitner and Larry Summers formed a new party in the U.S. and then wondered why they got no votes.

Nonetheless, the liberals remained a potent faction in parliament throughout the 1990s, and could still be there today if they had mustered the common sense to unite after Putin's rise last decade. But merger talks between Yabloko and the Right Forces floundered before the 2003 Duma elections and again in the run-up to 2007, mostly thanks to personal animosities. The feuding led them both into near-extinction.

The irony is that an electorate suited to the liberal parties has quietly developed as younger people come of age without a Soviet education, and the perception of private enterprise gradually transcends its demi-criminal oligarch roots. This should be a Westernizer's moment right now, as a broad swathe of Russian society clearly wants to express its revulsion with the oppressive Putin kleptocracy. But the mechanisms for seizing the moment do not exist, except maybe in the hands of people we would like still less than Putin. One need only look to the real Arab Spring in Egypt, where allegedly moderate and avowedly radical Islamists are duking it out for power, to see that sometimes its worth dealing with the devil you know.

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