Time Ripe for Yabloko

By Michael McFaul

The 1996 presidential election marked the end of polarized politics in Russia. If between 1990 and 1996 electoral politics have been contests between "communists" and "democrats," the next national elections will have a different logic. The threat of communist restoration died in the ballot box in 1996, but so, too, did anti-communism.

Divisions within the anti-communist coalition already are apparent. Prime Minister Vlktor Chernomyrdin has fought a   protracted   battle against first deputy prime ministers      Anatoly Chubais   and   Boris Nemtsov for government control. The economic elites who united behind President Boris Yeltsin's candidacy are now bitterly divided. In the parliament, the departure of Sergei Belyayev and Lev Rokhim from Our Home Is Russia suggests that this party of power may crumble before the end of the Duma's four year term. At the regional level, the divide between communists and anti-communists played virtually no role in dozens of recent gubernatorial elections.

A benefactor of the end of polarized politics and the divides within the current party of power may be Yabloko. More than any political organization in Russia today, Yabloko resembles a genuine, post-Soviet political party. Of course, the Communist Party boasts more members and greater organization, but these assets were inherited, not created in the post-Soviet era. Vladimir Zhirinovsky has created party cells throughout the country, but it is unlikely that his extreme right Liberal Democratic Party would survive without him. Yegor Gaidars Russia's Choice still maintains a skeletal national party structure and operates internally like a Western-style party, but its poor showing in the last parliamentary election makes future growth difficult.

In contrast to all of these groups, Yabloko has several advantages. First, it is the only reformist party not connected to the government that won seats through the proportional system in both the 1993 and 1995 parliamentary elections. The historical experience in other democratic transitions suggests that maintaining a presence in parliament is a key condition for party survival in the long run.

Second, the party boasts a well-organized and effective parliamentary faction. Yabloko has more intellectual firepower than any other faction in the Duma. Its deputies are among the most active in drafting and proposing legislation.

Third, Yabloko has a distinct national identity that has helped the party establish grassroots regional organizations around the country. Yabloko is firmly identified with democratic principles.

Fourth, Yabloko is not a one-man show. Grigory Yavlinsky is the unquestioned leader of the party, but Yabloko has a political identity that is independent of its leader and would survive without him.

Fifth, Yabloko bears no responsibility for the policies of the current government. Yabloko's refusal to cooperate with Our Home or Russia s Choice earlier will pay dividends among Russia's in intelligentsia and emerging middle class. Remember, these people went into the streets in the late 1980s to support the democratic ideals of human rights activist Andrei Sakharov, not the economic interests of Uneximbank head Vladimir Potanin.

These attributes will help Yabloko grow as a parliamentary party after the next Duma elections. Paradoxically, these same factors also may impede Yabloko from competing effectively in the next presidential election.

In the last parliamen lary vote, Russian polling experts estimated that the  "democratic" electorate was roughly 25 to 30 percent ot the total population. In the next vote, Yabloko can expect to capture most ol this vote, since the several smaller parties that won small portions of this vote in 1995 are unlikely to be on the ballot again. This part ot the electorate alone, however, cannot elect a president since these voteis do not constitute a majority.

How Yabloko and Yavlinsky reach beyond this electoral base has been a source ol controversy within the party. The party remains ideologically divided between liberals and social democrats. Yavlinsky himself has more closely identified with liberal ideas while his deputy chairman for party organization, Vyacheslav lgrunov, has advocated more social democratic positions and even cooperation with the communists. Moreover, Yabloko affiliates in big cities tend to be more liberal than Yabloko branches in less populated areas. A sharp turn in either direction may divide the party, but no turn at all limits the party's electoral potential.

Another constraint has to do with leadership. Yabloko and Yavlinsky do not strike the authoritative pose that voters like to see in their executives.

A final problem for Yabloko and Yavlinsky is Nemtsov. If Nemtsov succeeds in his current post, voters will have little reason to vote tor Yavlinsky in the next presidential election. Nemtsov's failure, however, would also hurt Yavlinsky since voters might believe that it is time to support someone else besides another young-reformer type.

Given these factors, Yavlinsky is a long shot candidate in the next presidential election. Nevertheless, Yabloko is playing a far greater role in Russia's democratic transition than simply backing Yavlinsky's next presidential campaign. No democracy in the world exists today without political parties. Yabloko may be relegated to the role of the parliamentary opposition for some time to come, but the very existence of a loyal opposition may be more important to the long-term consolidation of Russia's nascent democracy than winning the next presidential election.

Michael McFaul is an assistant professor and Hoover fellow at Stanford University and a senior associate at the Moscow Carnegie Center He contributed this comment to The Moscow times
"The Moscow Times", 18.09.97, p.8