“We are not revolutionaries”: Russia’s last liberal party has no illusions

It’s an overcast Sunday morning in July, and on the fortieth floor of a sumptuous Moscow skyscraper, Russia’s last liberal party is meeting for its annual convention.

Beside the stage, a string quartet plays, but the Yabloko party delegates – some aging and well-heeled, some younger and more daring – have one thing in mind: September’s high-stakes Duma elections in State, the Russian national parliament.

“These elections will determine the course of Russia’s future for decades,” said Kirill Gontcharov, 26, deputy head of Yabloko’s Moscow branch and candidate for an opposition-leaning district in the Russian capital.

For the pillars of Yabloko, a perennial presence on the Russian political scene, the elections are a chance for the country’s long-marginalized liberals to convert discontent with an unpopular ruling party into a return to the Duma.

But with the Kremlin’s net widening, in the midst of a crackdown on political opposition from all sides, few have any illusions about their prospects of victory at the polls.

“This could be the very last chance we have,” Goncharov said. “At any time, they could decide to shut us down. “

Yabloko – which means apple in Russian – has been at the center of the country’s political scene for a long time.

Founded in 1993 and an influential political actor of the Yeltsin years, the party was virtually wiped out in the 2003 State Duma elections, as its urban middle-class electorate rewarded Russian President Vladimir Putin’s United Russia Party for a growing economy. boom and political stability.

These days, Yabloko rarely fits in national polls. In the 2018 presidential election, the candidacy of party founder Grigory Yavlinsky attracted only one percent of the national vote.

Despite its two decades of drought, Yabloko retains one key advantage: its legal status.

It is very difficult to register a new political party in Russia without the consent of the Kremlin, and potential opposition formations are regularly denied legal recognition.

Likewise, the bar for running without party support is extremely high. Budding independent candidates must collect thousands of signatures and are often disqualified for technical reasons.

All of this means that Yabloko – the only officially registered party in Russia committed to liberal democracy – has enjoyed exaggerated prominence as one of the last avenues to politics for otherwise marginalized Kremlin critics.

At times this translated into protest votes for the party, with Yabloko converting anti-Kremlin sentiment into strong results in Moscow’s local elections in 2017 and 2019.

This has seen the party become the first port of call for opposition activists who are not party members but who are otherwise excluded from Russia’s carefully choreographed electoral politics.

“I decided to run for Yabloko because there was no way I would be allowed to run as an independent,” said Alyona Popova, prominent feminist and domestic violence activist, candidate for Yabloko for a Duma district in northern Moscow in September.

“The authorities would not have let me collect the signatures at all.

A strictly prohibited opposition figure in Yabloko, however, is Alexei Navalny.

The imprisoned critic of the Kremlin has a long and complicated relationship with the party in which he made his political debut in the late 1990s.

Expelled from Yabloko in 2007 for taking part in an ultra-nationalist anti-immigration protest and fighting against party founder and informal leader Grigory Yavlinsky, Navalny won the lasting enmity of his former colleagues.

Earlier this year, amid large-scale protests against Navalny’s imprisonment, Yavlinsky wrote an open letter denouncing the imprisoned opposition leader as a “populist” and warning his supporters against any demonstration in his favor.

In turn, the more radical Navalny-centered opposition has traditionally viewed Yabloko as a compromised party loyal to the Kremlin, similar to the nominally independent but Putin-aligned Communist and Liberal Democratic parties represented in the Duma.

With Navalny’s organizations now banned as “extremists” and heavy legal penalties for anyone cooperating with them, tensions between the two camps have increased in the run-up to the fall parliamentary elections.

After Yabloko refuses to name a series of former organizers of the now closed regional headquarters of Navalny as candidates in the September election, Navalny allies took to twitter to denounce the party as a facade of the Kremlin.

“A party whose leaders are cowards and traitors,” said Ruslan Shaveddinov, assistant to Navalny in exile. wrote by Yabloko.

“Shame on them.”

But for Yabloko’s loyalists, excessive proximity to Navalny is too far a bridge for a party that has always had to trace a perilous course between opposition values ​​and the authorities’ demands for ideological solidity.

Last month, Dmitry Gudkov, a former Duma deputy turned opposition figure, fled Russia. Gudkov, who came to the Russian parliament with a ticket for Yabloko, said he was told he would be jailed if he stayed in Russia.

“We already know that we have crossed some of the Kremlin’s red lines,” said Deputy Moscow Party leader Goncharov.

“There are limits to what is possible.

Yabloko candidate and feminist activist Alyona Popova.
Felix Light / MT

For many Yabloko members, the Navalny issue strikes at the heart of the party’s identity as a “systemic” political actor, dedicated to bringing about any change that remains possible within the authoritarian, dominated political arena. by Putin – but still theoretically democratic -.

It is an identity that contrasts with the “non-systemic” Navalny movement, which rejects the regime in place as illegitimate and demands its overthrow.

“We are not revolutionaries,” said Lev Schlossberg, a regional deputy for the western city of Pskov known as a relative pro-Navalny radical within Yabloko.

“Russia still has elections and a constitution, albeit tainted, and we can still use them to change the country. “

For Schlossberg, the elections in Russia – which critics see as increasingly unfair – are no obstacle to Yabloko’s mission to bring democracy to the country through the ballot box.

“Our job is to get so many votes that they can’t steal the victory from us,” he said.

But for many Yabloko candidates, the party’s outlook is less optimistic.

As the Kremlin’s crackdown on all opposition intensifies as ruling party polls the wells at historic lows, many doubt that even the tame “systemic” opposition will be allowed to participate in a political arena increasingly closed to criticism from the official line.

“It is very possible that the Kremlin will prevent me from running at the end. But you cannot not participate, ”said feminist activist Alyona Popova.

“Otherwise, people would lose hope. “

Thelma J. Longworth

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