Publication: Prism Volume: 5 Issue: 2

By Vladimir Mironov

During the relatively short history of the sovereign Russian Federation the democratic forces have already managed to become a byword for disunity. Many democratic politicians see this disunity as the main reason for their failure at the ballot box. Because of discord among the democrats, they believe, the federal and regional legislatures are dominated by communist and nationalist deputies, the task of creating legislation which meets the requirements of a modernizing Russia is being held up, and the powers of the president and the government to reform the country’s political and economic system are being curtailed. During election campaigns, most democratic leaders are obsessed with overcoming the disagreements and achieving unity. In the heat of the political struggle, however, the reasons for the democrats’ disunity and their inability to unite get blurred.


First, Russian society, which is in transition, is, to a great extent, sui generis. Life’s familiar landmarks have disappeared; traditions which existed are no longer required. As a result, most of the population is in a permanent state of stress in trying to deal with daily problems which used to resolve themselves automatically by tradition and habit. At the same time, a significant portion of the Russian population concentrate most of its attention on physical survival. Political assessments are generally based on emotion and appeal not to knowledge, but to faith.

At the same time, certain democratic principles have taken root in Russian society–principles which Russians will not want to relinquish. The majority of the population–despite the economic hardships and their clear understanding that the ongoing crisis will be long and drawn out–continues to support the economic reforms, the development of market relations, and a mixed economy in which state control of the primary industries is combined with private ownership. When they say they are in favor of increasing the role of the state in the economy, most Russians see no point in banning the free circulation of foreign currency in the country or in nationalizing the commercial banks. Political scientists’ warnings of future catastrophes, the threat of civil war and the likelihood of dictatorship run up against the firm resolve of Russian citizens to hold onto the democratic rights and freedoms which were won in the late 1980s and early 1990s. More than 71 percent of poll respondents do not support the idea of even a temporary ban on the activities of political parties, slightly more than 88 percent stand up for freedom of speech and reject the closure of newspapers which criticize the authorities, and only 20 percent support even the possibility of postponing any elections for any period.

Third, 50 percent of the Russian population are firm in their political allegiances, while the other 50 percent either do not like any of the current political parties or are not planning to take part in the elections. The politically active half is divided into four large sectors–communists and their allies, liberal conservatives, social democrats, and nationalists. Yet the degree of mobility and loyalty among party supporters varies. Only the communist electorate will dutifully go out and vote for their candidates come rain or shine. The core supporters of the liberals, social democrats and nationalists are surrounded by a large periphery of floating voters with poorly defined political views. Within one sector, votes may move from one organization to another, but between sectors there is little exchange. The only exception to this, perhaps, are those who support radical market reforms. Their numbers have fallen more than fivefold in the last few years. They now represent just over than 5 percent of the population, while the ranks of the nationalists and centrists have swelled.

But while electoral preferences are manifested in familiar socioeconomic cliches, most Russians rarely think in ideological categories. They define their attitude either by more general symbols and values or by their preferences for particular political leaders or parties. There are many reasons for this. Most Russians, tired of the tribulations of the last decade, have become nostalgic and anxious, and try to avoid danger and unpleasantness. People are afraid of poverty, war and crime, and vote for those who promise to protect them from these woes. In addition, the collapse of life’s familiar landmarks, a result of the ideological battle in the late 1980s and early 1990s, created what is termed a ragged consciousness, wary of abstract categories.


One feature of the Russian political scene is that within the four large political sectors there are hundreds of political parties and movements. The fragmentation of Russia’s political forces, including the democratic forces, is due, first, to the immaturity of political relations, and to the desire of various political forces to secure a legal foothold from which to fight for their programs. Second, it is due to the uncritical self-appraisal and ambition of most leaders. Third, it is due to romanticism left over from the days of perestroika or to the hope of improving one’s own material position. Fourth, there is the belief, entrenched in society and in some circles of the political and administrative elite, in the all-defining power of politics. Many of those involved in politics are convinced that the main obstacle to successfully implementing economic reforms–which are understood differently by different politicians and ordinary citizens–is the existing political system.

However, the fragmentation of electoral blocks and alliances, above all, seems to be the way a society in transition establishes a system of self-regulation and self-preservation. Society loses its bearings, is deprived of its basic support structures, and impulsively and emotionally puts forward various options for solving the problems which have arisen in the reform process. These options are represented on a political level by parties and movements. Eventually, unfeasible ideas and their political mouthpieces are gradually marginalized and disappear from the political scene. Only those ideas which correspond to a particular level of economic, political and cultural development for transitional society survive.

A second feature of the Russian political scene is that the leaders of many parties and movements persist in trying to monopolize the democratic political niche, denying the right of their political rivals to call themselves democrats. It would seem that the word “democrat” may be attributed to those political forces which are in favor of preserving a secular, peace-loving, legal, federate state; which support human rights and democratic procedures in political life, enshrined in the constitution and legislation; which support a mixed economy and the coexistence of different forms of ownership, including private ownership of the means of production; and which favor integration into international political organizations and economic structures.

In this case, the Russian Communist Party and the Agrarian Party may be considered democratic, as may the enfant terrible of Russian politics–the Liberal Democratic Party–as well as Russia is Our Home (ROH). and Yuri Luzhkov’s Fatherland. However, given the fact that Russia’s Democratic Choice, Yabloko and other parties traditionally considered democratic reject the possibility of a coalition with Gennady Zyuganov or Mikhail Lapshin, who refuse to disown the 70 years of the Soviet Union, or with the liberal conservatives or Vladimir Zhirinovsky’s traditionalists, the only possible alliance would be between Russia’s Democratic Choice and its allies, Yabloko, ROH and Fatherland.


Russia’s democratic parties and the democratic electorate can be divided into three groups: “state” democrats–supporters of the “party of power”, who unite around the federal movements of Viktor Chernomyrdin (ROH). and Yuri Luzhkov (Fatherland).; social democrats, who oppose the current regime and are centered around Grigory Yavlinsky’s Yabloko; and the more fragmented radical liberal democrats whose best-known leaders are Yegor Gaidar, Anatoly Chubais, Boris Nemtsov and Sergei Kirienko. Creating a single coalition out of such a varied group of ideological and political forces is extremely difficult for various reasons.

First, the “personalization” of the political preferences of Russian voters practically precludes the possibility of “delegating” their vote to some other political alliance which includes other high-profile politicians alongside their idol. Russian voters will not let themselves be manipulated by party leaders who have reached agreements on forming electoral coalitions, and cannot automatically be numbered among the electorate of a freshly created union of political parties.

Second, those involved in politics actively try to discredit their opponents. According to Yabloko, Russia is Our Home is a “bureaucratic organization,” Russia’s Democratic Choice and other small democratic organizations nothing more than “pitiful remnants” whose leaders botched the reforms. Radical liberal democrats never tire of pointing out the “pink” hue which colors the views and politics of Yavlinsky’s social democrats. Yuri Luzhkov, the leader of Fatherland, lays the blame for the excesses in the social, economic and political reforms carried out in Russia since 1991 squarely at the door of the “young reformers.”

Third, there is an ideological and psychological incompatibility between the state democrats and the liberals. Anatoly Chubais and Yegor Gaidar, despite long periods in power, were never able to win support from the administrative elites in either the center or the regions. Fourth, the electorate of the social and liberal democrats concentrated mainly in Moscow, St. Petersburg, Samara, Nizhny Novgorod and Novosibirsk–with a tradition of mustering few votes in the provinces. However, the leaders of these towns and regions have recently been focusing on the Fatherland leader Yuri Luzhkov, while the degree of influence of regional elites on the electorate has increased. If Luzhkov’s movement takes part in the parliamentary elections the competition for the democratic vote will be even keener.

In other words, unification can only take place within each of the three groups–the state democrats, the social democrats and the liberal democrats. The fate of Russia Is Our Home–whether Viktor Chernomyrdin’s movement will collapse or Vladimir Ryzhkov, the favorite of the movement’s parliamentary faction, will breathe new life into it–should soon be clear. Yuri Luzhkov is publicly talking about Fatherland’s independent participation in all possible electoral campaigns. The social democrats are united around Grigory Yavlinsky. In this political niche there is no other figure with the authority or stature of this Yabloko leader.

The liberal democrats have the greatest need to unite. Movement toward this began to appear about four years ago. Most of the liberal organizations united three-and-a-half years ago into Russia’s Democratic Choice/United Democrats. The remainder entered the Center-Right Block. However, these coalitions were unable to consolidate the liberal vote. It seems that the liberal democrats’ main problem was the absence of an authoritative and influential leader. This was not a one-off problem; when forming the new movement “Pravoe Delo”–Right Cause–they again encountered difficulties in choosing a leader of nationwide stature.

A social and political consensus seems to have been reached in Russia on, first, the necessity of setting clear, lasting political rules; second, the need to confirm the legitimacy of the political system on the basis of defined democratic procedures enshrined in the constitution and the law; and, third, the unacceptability of the use of force in achieving political gain. This is one of the most important prerequisites for stability and predictability in the political system taking shape in Russia. The main political players do not see any real threat to democracy, and in such circumstances there is little chance of uniting the democrats under one banner.

But this does not mean that politicians will stop discussing the possibility of democratic coalitions. The realities of life in Russia make it possible–by focusing people’s attention on the problem of unity among the democrats–to discipline and mobilize the parties’ electorates and to keep a constant check on the degree of loyalty to the party leaders. This is, in fact, an important element in building a party system and ensuring that a party infrastructure appropriate for the current state of Russian society is created.

Vladimir Alekseevich Mironov is a senior fellow of the Institute of International Economic and Political Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences in Moscow.