‘Democracy in Russia Has Failed,’ Says Prominent Russian Liberal Political Leader Grigory Yavlinsky
“I don’t want to frighten anyone,” stated the prominent Russian liberal politician Grigory Yavlinsky, “but in fact, the question on the agenda in the next four years should not be whether Russian—American relations will deteriorate, but how to avoid a nuclear war.”
Yavlinsky’s reputation as a reformer was cemented during the twilight years of the Soviet Union under Mikhail Gorbachev. Yet his vision for Russia — a healthy market economy, transparent political institutions, politicians and executives who are beholden to the rule of law — has slipped further from view as President Vladimir Putin has consolidated power over the last 20 years. Yavlinsky has now reached the conclusion that — as he expressed it in an extensive interview with The Algemeiner on Monday — “we can confidently say that democracy in Russia has failed.”
On Monday, Yavlinsky will expand on these views when he delivers the keynote lecture to the winter program of YIVO — the New York City-based educational institute dedicated to the history and culture of Jews in Eastern Europe. Titled “Modern Russia and the Putin System,” Yavlinsky’s lecture will provide a rare opportunity to dissect Russia’s restored autocracy through the lens of a major player in the drama.
Yavlinsky has himself run for Russia’s presidency on four separate occasions, two of them during the Putin era. In 2012, his bid was controversially disqualified by Russia’s Central Election Commission, but in 2018, his name was on the ballot as the candidate of the liberal Yabloko Party. That election resulted in a fourth term for Putin, who won 76 percent of the vote in a contest that was marked by a ban on the candidacy of Russia’s main opposition leader, Alexei Navalny.
Anyone hoping for a new era of détente in US-Russia relations will find scant comfort in Yavlinsky’s summary of Putin’s worldview.
The former KGB spymaster “has always believed that Russia is surrounded by opponents and enemies,” Yavlinsky told The Algemeiner. “Therefore, [Putin] recently said that Russia is a separate civilization. What this means, he has not yet explained, but he has been talking for many years about a multipolar world in which there should be no ‘hegemony of the West.'”
For Putin, the definition of a multipolar international system “is when state lies and torture, hybrid wars and annexations, dictating to neighbors and seizing foreign territories, using chemical weapons and beating peaceful protesters are acceptable in and around Russia,” Yavlinsky continued. “And the imperious Corporation, which has not changed for decades, imposes all this on the people as the only possible way of life.”
As a result, in Putin’s system, said Yavlinsky, “the value is only personal power — its preservation and retention.”
The outlook for bilateral ties as US President-elect Joe Biden’s administration takes office later in January is consequently bleak, Yavlinsky argued.
“The Kremlin has made it absolutely clear that Democrat Biden is not welcome in Moscow,” he said. “This was expressed defiantly by belated congratulations to the president-elect of the United States, Putin said quite bluntly at a recent press conference. And in general, today Russia is moving in the opposite direction from rapprochement with the West, isolation is growing, and anti-Russian sanctions also do not contribute to warming relations.”
Yavlinsky is also alert to Russia’s vulnerabilities, particularly on the economic front, asserting that its dependency on traditional sources of energy could be the source of its eventual undoing.
“Of course, Europe’s dependence on Russian [natural] gas is great,” said Yavlinsky, who is an economist and a professor at the National Research University in Moscow. “But with an increase in the market share of alternative energy sources, as well as with the inevitable fall in energy prices in the world, the factor of Russian capital in the Western economy will play an increasingly smaller role.”
There then followed a more damning analogy.
“The Russian authorities resemble a drug addict who has a gas pipe in one hand, oil in the other, and economic hallucinations in his head,” Yavlinsky said. “In the foreseeable future, oil will no longer be able to serve as the main source of Russia’s well-being. In the short term, this is due to falling demand for oil and overstocking of reserves. And even now it is obvious that the previous volumes of oil will not be in demand for a long time against the background of the global economic downturn, and by the time they are needed, there will be a lot of cheap Saudi oil, solar panels, wind turbines and other ‘green’ energy sources on the market.”
In that regard, Yavlinsky said, “we should not forget about the geopolitical vulnerability of Russia. The United States, for example, can easily push Russia out of the world market if it wants, by imposing an embargo on Russian oil exports, as it did with Venezuela.”
In Yavlinsky’s view, Russia has to undergo an elemental transformation if the country’s economy is to be sustainable. “This will require fundamental changes in the concept of the entire budget and financial system of Russia — the rejection of the decisive dependence of the budget on the export of natural resources,” he said. “The key requirement is a real diversification of the Russian economy and the creation of a modern competitive system to replace today’s monopoly state capitalism. This is possible only if the raw material model and the corporate mafia political system are abandoned.”
According to the American Jewish advocacy organization NCSEJ, about 500,000 Jews presently live in Russia, where they are served by “numerous Jewish institutions … including community centers, synagogues, schools, aliyah and emigration bureaus, youth groups, charity organizations, and mass media.”
Yavlinsky — who was born in Ukraine to a Jewish mother and a Russian father — did not dispute the contention that Putin is visibly well-disposed to a community that was brutally persecuted by both the tsars and the Communist Party, but he was hesitant to label this evolution as permanent.
Putin’s positive view of his country’s Jews is “unfortunately, a rare phenomenon in Russian politics,” said Yavlinsky. “It is no secret that Soviet leaders never had much sympathy for Jews. I think that the current Russian government, which inherited a lot from the Soviet government, would also hardly have suffered any favor to the Jews, if not for Putin.”
Only time “will tell whether this is a long-term phenomenon,” Yavlinsky said. “Like other positive phenomena in the modern Russian vertical of power, the absence of state antisemitism also depends on what is at the top.”
To illustrate his point, he related a story about Sergei Sobyanin, who was elected as mayor of Moscow in 2010. When Sobyanin denied the Jewish community permission to erect a Hanukkah menorah near the Kremlin, Putin reportedly gave him a dressing down in front of Jewish leaders.
“And that’s it, the issue was resolved,” said Yavlinsky. “Since then, the Jewish community has staged Hanukkah every year in the center of Moscow, just behind the monument to Karl Marx. Very symbolic, I think.”
Another critical factor behind Putin’s much-heralded “philosemitism” was his friendship with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Yavlinsky added.
“The two leaders have a lot in common,” he remarked. “Netanyahu, like Putin, cannot part with power for many years — for more than 10 years he has headed the Israeli government. Netanyahu is also no stranger to populist actions in politics. In addition, Netanyahu has a glorious military past, which can only generate respect from Putin.”
Here too, however, Yavlinsky counseled against an overly rosy view of Russia-Israel relations. “Sometimes it seems that Hamas militants and Iranian ayatollahs are traditionally closer to the Russian foreign policy establishment,” he said. “And this, most likely, will still make itself felt — even under Putin or after him.”
For political reformers in Russia, Yavlinsky said that their reality was painfully clear. “We must start all over again,” he said. “The formation of constitutional statehood in Russia is the main task of Russian society, and the goal is to build a modern democratic state of freedom, creativity and respect for the individual, a state that is accountable and controlled by the people and governed by law and justice, instead of the corporate Putin system.”
Yavlinsky is in no doubt where his own priorities lie.
“My task, as an economist, as a politician with 30 years of experience, as a citizen of my country, is to return real politics to Russia and build a state of freedom and human dignity,” he declared. “This is what I am doing and will continue to do, no matter what.”