Publication: Prism Volume: 6 Issue: 4

By Elena Chinyaeva

On April 1, the respectable Russian newspaper Kommersant daily came out with an editorial which would have been a sensation on any other day: It said that in the presidential elections, which took place on March 26, Vladimir Putin garnered neither 52,5 percent of the national ballot, as the official results had it, nor 44,8 percent, as his Communist opponents claimed, but a mere 42 percent. The remaining 10 percent, the paper said, were delivered by the notorious “administrative resources.” April 1 was the Fools’ Day–a good time to publish an inconvenient truth without being punished. Such speculation, however, does not change the main lessons of the presidential race: first, that after ten years of reforms, a majority of the Russian voters are non-Communist, and, second, that when it comes to democratic values, people prefer them in what might be called a “national liberal-right” hue.


On March 26, 1989, the first democratic elections–well, semi-democratic, given that the Communist party still held a firm grip on the political life–took place in what was then still Soviet Union. Eleven years later to the day, a new Russia chose her second president–Vladimir Putin. The events of these eleven turbulent years might well have filled a few decades of national history. Having begun after seventy years of one-party dominance as a meek attempt to widen the traditional Soviet “unbreakable bloc of Communists and nonmembers” in elections to the Supreme Soviet, formally the Soviet Union’s highest legislature, the reforms dragged the country through a putsch to the disintegration and complete reconstruction of its political system. Three parliamentary and two presidential elections later, Russia is a different political and socio-economic entity altogether. The main intrigue of the presidential elections has been successively changing: in 1991, a democratic alternative was introduced into Russian political life for the first time; in 1996, the ultimate message was that a Communist alternative had been defeated for good; finally, in 2000, the issue was differentiating between two democratic paradigms–a social-democratic one and that of the liberal-right.

There was almost no ideological struggle in the 2000 presidential elections. The most discussed question was whether there would be a second round of voting. Hardly anybody doubted that Vladimir Putin, the former head of the FSB, Russia’s state security service, whom Boris Yeltsin had propelled to the forefront of the Russian politics by appointing him prime minister and anointing him his successor, would be the favorite of the race. Some hoped though that Grigory Yavlinsky, the self-appointed leader of the democratic opposition to “Yeltsin’s regime,” who had waged an unprecedently aggressive campaign, might push Communist leader Gennady Zyuganov from his traditional second place and thus give the elections a new twist, presenting the nation–for the first time–with a choice between two non-Communist candidates. A miracle did not happen: At two in the morning on March 27, it became clear that there would be no second round, and neither Zyuganov nor Yavlinsky were able to overcame the boundaries of their core electorate–30 percent and 5 percent of the ballot, respectively.


After a few years of reforms, social-democrats came to power in a number of former Communist countries in Europe. Typically, they belonged to revived versions of parties whose activities were terminated during the first post-War years, as the Communists established their dominance. Thus, for instance, the Czech Social-Democratic party, now the governing party in the Czech Republic, is one of the oldest in Europe. Somewhat disappointed by the harsh reality of a transition period, voters in Eastern Europe now tend to see social-democrats, with their slogans of social justice, as a welcome alternative to unreformed Communists and stern liberals.

It would be logical to suppose that in Russia too, social democracy might become a much-needed political alternative. In fact, there are two social-democratic parties in Russia: one established a few years ago by Aleksandr Yakovlev, a former Politburo member of moderate left-wing leanings, and another founded just a month ago by Mikhail Gorbachev, the dissolved Soviet Union’s first and the only president. Both parties are marginal in Russian politics. Neither leftists from among the former Communists nor democratic intellectuals gathered around Grigory Yavlinsky’s Yabloko party have developed a social-democratic program that would win the support of the electorate. In fact, this Yavlinsky’s performance in the March 26 vote–and his base of support has successively shrunk from election to election–indicates that the social-democratic paradigm does not have a future in Russia.

And no wonder: There is almost no social-democratic tradition in this country. The “workers’ party,” from the point of its inception, evolved into a strictly disciplined Bolshevik underground organization which later became the foundation of the Soviet political system. That explains why Gennady Zyuganov’s Communist Party of the Russian Federation (KPRF) is unable to reform itself into a social-democratic party of the European type. Not only does it not have a right “genetic code,” but such a transformation would cause it to lose its supporters, who stand clearly for the “ideals” of the Soviet, even Stalinist, past. Thus the old Soviet intelligentsia took on the role of promoting social-democratic views–meaning social justice and general humanitarian principles in a democratic state with private ownership. Yavlinsky’s Yabloko has been its party.

Western mass media, in particular Great Britain’s The Economist, has long referred to Yavlinsky as a “social-democrat”: in trying to explain Russia’s incomprehensible politics to Western audiences in more familiar terms, Western reporters saw Yavlinsky’s Yabloko as the closest approximation to a Western-type social-democratic party. In Russia, such an image has been less evident. As long as the struggle with the old Communist inheritance constituted the main content of Russian political life, its opponents viewed themselves as “democrats”: Their allegiances lay with the general values of “freedom, democracy, and market economy.” As the Russian political system has become more sophisticated, the process of a political differentiation inside the amorphous democratic camp has intensified.


Unlike the Communists, democrats constantly demonstrated an inability to act as a single political force to support reformist governments. Instead, several democratic parties, with Yabloko having become the best structured among them, fought for the same non-Communist electorate, thereby weakening each other. They were strongly criticized for their lack of unity–but, as it turned out, unfairly so. The so-called “democrats” could not be united, because they have never been a homogeneous social and political group. As last December’s parliamentary elections clearly showed, Russian democrats adhere to two significantly different democratic paradigms–a social-democratic one, represented by Yavlinsky, and a liberal-democratic one, represented by the Union of the Right Forces (SPS), which is headed by ex-prime minister Sergei Kirienko. The latter’s convincing success at the election–the SPS, having started from scratch, gathered almost 8,7 percent, in contrast to Yabloko’s 6,1 percent–was an important sign that liberal-democratic views take precedence over the social-democratic rhetoric.

The recent presidential elections confirmed that. They showed that voters who support democracy and market economics prefer nationally-colored principles of liberalism, like the variety represented by British Tories or American Republicans, to the universalist-humanitarian slogans of European social democrats.

In the Russian political context, this dichotomy has also taken a form of a competition between the older and younger generations of democrats.