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9 March 2016

The national idea by Grigory Yavlinsky

Yabloko is ready to unite, based on its own party

Negotiations between Russian democratic opposition parties PARNAS (the People’s Freedom Party) and Yabloko are expected to be completed in March. The preliminary result is already more or less clear: PARNAS is offering some sort of a pre-election alliance, complete rejection of the competition, and even a merger with Yabloko into one party. But this latter option can hardly be realized before the elections – the risk of a united party which stands a chance of gaining representation in the State Duma being removed from the elections altogether is too high.

Moreover, Yabloko considers PARNAS a competitor rather than a partner. According to its spin doctors, the parties will be competing for the same electorate. There have been such precedents already – for example, the regional elections in the Kostroma Oblast. The party, founded in the 1990s by Grigory Yavlinsky, is nevertheless ready for the allocation of single-member constituencies in order to avoid unnecessary competition among democrats. It is also ready for the nomination from its own ballot ticket of opposition members from other parties, including PARNAS, to the elections to the State Duma. In return, one key condition has to be fulfilled – support Grigory Yavlinsky as a candidate during the presidential elections.

It is clear that PARNAS will agree to such a scenario only if its own ticket is not admitted, which has not been ruled out so far. The attempt by Yabloko to declare its ambitions for the Duma and presidential campaigns in advance can be explained in a simple way: the party is showing that it has a figurehead that can consolidate the Russian opposition. Grigory Yavlinsky, a “heavyweight” in Russian politics, is being offered to society and democrats as just such a figure.

From the point of view of political strategies, Yavlinsky’s endorsement to run for both the presidency and head the party ballot ticket represents an attempt to boost his popularity in the run-up to the elections. Let’s say that here is a pre-election program and a real candidate – and what do you propose?

On the one hand, this immediately cuts out some of the liberals ready to unite behind more compromise conditions. On the other hand, this allows Yabloko to say: “You don’t want to be united – this is your choice, it is your fault. We did give you the opportunity”. Yabloko’s status is objectively stronger compared to the other democratic parties, which enables it to use the language of monologue. The party enjoys state funding and has a developed network of regional offices – something PARNAS cannot boast at the moment. Be reminded, in accordance with Russian legislation, the party that wins 3% of the votes in the Duma elections receives 110 rubles per vote from the state budget. We’re talking about a total of around 250 million rubles per year in Yabloko’s case. Other Russian democratic parties are either unregistered or are extremely weak politically.

Yabloko also has its deputies in the municipalities and legislative assemblies. Its members occupy public posts, including Igor Artemyev as the head of the Federal Antimonopoly Service, and Alexander Shishlov as the Human Rights Commissioner for Saint Petersburg.

But PARNAS still has some trump cards up its sleeve – it is regarded by default as the only party registered and admitted to the Duma elections process, which is by no means controlled by the Kremlin. Although Yabloko is not directly controlled by the Kremlin, there is some influence on the leadership of the party from the presidential administration – for example, there exists the constant threat of the loss of state funding.

A consolidation of democratic forces should follow Yavlinsky’s nomination for presidency and to the State Duma. So far, it is not clear which party has the upper hand in this regard. Leading Russian liberal politicians declared their support for Grigory Yavlinsky during the recent party congress. These were Vladimir Ryzhkov and acting deputy of the State Duma Dmitry Gudkov, which means that they will also be running for parliament in single-member constituencies representing Yabloko. 

A wedding metaphor would be appropriate here: just as the bride’s dowry swells before the wedding, so the political parties swell with known politicians before the elections. Representing Yabloko in the elections to the Duma are Grigory Yavlinsky, Dmitry Gudkov, Vladimir Ryzhkov, former deputy chairman of Yabloko Sergey Mitrokhin, as well as leader of the Pskov branch of the party Lev Shlosberg, who received federal recognition after exposing the involvement and death of Russian soldiers in the events in south-east Ukraine, are all relatively well known in the Russian protest milieu and also partially across the country.

Mikhail Kasyanov, the chair of PARNAS and former Russian prime minister is going to lead the party to the State Duma, having created a Democratic coalition comprising four other political forces. Well-known Russian politician Alexey Navalny, also a member of the Democratic coalition, enjoys nationwide recognition. Although he has previously placed second in Moscow’s mayoral elections, he cannot directly participate in the Duma elections due to an outstanding conviction, although he can still take part in the election campaign. Opposition member Ylya Yashin, Kasyanov’s deputy, as well as Vladimir Milov, the former chairman of the “Democratic Choice” party, also enjoy popularity amongst protest circles.

It is difficult to answer the question of what chances a given party ticket has. The same goes for Yabloko, since both parties have been absent on TV for a long time because of censorship, which means that they have dropped out of the social lives of the majority of Russians. Undoubtedly, this has reduced their electoral rating.

Therefore, in terms of electoral prospects, only the united Yabloko-PARNAS party ticket has a real chance of passing to the State Duma, regardless of the party it is based upon. The fact of the matter is that ordinary Russian voters do not really care which brand of democrats are on the ballot. What matters is that they prove to be real opposition to the government on a number of key issues. Furthermore, there are no serious ideological differences between “Yabloko’s” and PARNAS’s current agendas. The parties are consistent critics of the Putin regime and of laws aimed at suppressing citizens’ rights, are in favor of cooperation with the West and against the war in Ukraine. And neither party recognizes the legitimacy of the annexation of Crimea.

Both Mikhail Kasyanov and Grigory Yavlinsky, as well as the former chair of Yabloko, Sergei Mitrokhin, have previously unequivocally stated that Crimea is not ours and should be returned to Ukraine. This stance reflects the view of the majority of the liberal electorate. However, it is definitely not shared by the Russian majority. Hence, reasonable fears have arisen: will it be the democrat’s own principles, or the number of votes that prevail?

These fears were intensified after a change of chairmanship at Yabloko in December, when Mitrokhin was replaced by the leader of the Karelian branch of the party, Emilia Slabunova. The new chairwoman has made statements on Crimea twice and the party has been accused of having betrayed its old principles. First, Slabunova denied the fact that Crimea would be part of their election campaign at all. More recently, she informed journalists that Yabloko knows how to solve the problem of Crimea without having to give it back. At any rate, the party disavowed her statements immediately. Yavlinsky still believes that the “accession” of the peninsula was illegitimate and a new referendum should be held in Crimea, with the consent of Ukraine and with international monitoring.

Opposition member Mikhail Khodorkovsky, currently residing in Europe, has also become a stumbling block. Yabloko repudiated any connection with him after declaring that he allegedly financed the party at the behest of Vladimir Putin in 2003. This stance caused yet another rupture and further misunderstanding in the democratic camp.

Given the fact that the entire Russian protest electorate in the larger cities is assessed by spin doctors as having reached about 30% and 20% of the electorate across the country, and that the radical opposition electorate comprises just 12%, the pool of voters is not as large, as constantly repeated by the experts. And if one subtracts those who are not going to vote, or who would vote for someone other than “United Russia”, it turns out that the democrats – given the current political regime – can only count on one party having made it to the State Duma.

Therefore, the key question for Russian democrats in the run-up to the elections is, which will gain the most traction: their ambitions, or their desire to be elected to the State Duma with a willingness to reach for the widest possible compromise? So far, the circumstances do not favor the latter option. 

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