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The Yabloko theory, why Russian oppositions parties cannot win

Parts of this piece were originally part of a research paper entitled “The Big Apple,” written for Prof. Michaela Pohl’s history class “Russia and the Soviet Union, 1861-2000” in 2017.

I bet you didn’t know Russia had an election today. Well, they did and–surprise, surprise–Vladimir Putin emerged victorious in a landslide, winning nearly 75% of the vote according to Reuters. His closest rival was Pavel Grudinin who won just 13.3% of the vote. Grudinin is a member of the Russian Communist Party, a diminishing bloc whose voters mostly consist of older Soviet loyalists, but is still the second largest party in the State Duma (parliament). The third place candidate was Vladimir Zhirinovsky, often referred to as the “Russian Trump,” leader of the far right, ultra-nationalist Liberal Democratic Party (a misnomer) which is the third largest party in the Duma. He won 6.5% of the vote. All three of these candidates come from parties for whom authoritarianism is a key tenet.

Only the fourth and fifth placers came from non-authoritarian or “liberal” parties. Ksenia Sobchak, the first democratically elected mayor of St. Petersberg from the center-right Civic Initiative, won just 1.5% of the vote. Grigory Yavlinsky, an economist and former advisor to slain opposition leader Boris Nemtsov, ran as the leader of the center-left Yabloko party. He won a mere 0.8% of the vote. In all, authoritarian parties won over 95% of the vote while liberal parties won less than 5%. Why does it seem Russian voters overwhelmingly rejected the democratic opposition to Vladimir Putin’s government? The history of Yavlinsky’s party Yabloko may give us the answer as to why they have such an uphill battle.

In December 1993, The New York Times wrote that the “strongest rival” to the ruling government party, and the party of Russian President Boris Yeltsin, was “a bloc led by Grigory A. Yavlinsky.” This bloc was named Yabloko, which is Russian for “apple” and an acronym of the names of its three founders, Grigoriy Yavlinsky, Yuri Boldyrev and Vladimir Lukin. Around the article’s date of publication would be one of the last times Yabloko was ever considered a major contender for government control. The bloc has suffered consistent decline, largely at the hands of pro-Kremlin and pro-Putin parties. While Yabloko’s decline is, in part, a result of its own strategic failures, much can be attributed to a broken system that disadvantages and discourages opposition.

To understand Yabloko, one must examine its history and mission, beginning with its founder, Grigoriy Yavlinsky who, “throughout the existence of [Yabloko] . . . has been far and away its highest profile personality.” Yavlinsky was born to a family of modest means and spent his young adulthood working odd jobs, “from a forwarder at the post office to an electrician at a glass factory” while studying to become an economist at night school. He worked his way from an economic scholar to a mid-level government official, and “in 1990 became the vice-chairman of the USSR Council of Ministers,” a capacity in which he introduced, “the 500 Days Program, a series of reforms necessary to introduce private property laws and the market economy into the Soviet Union as soon as possible.” However, he resigned when Mikhail Gorbachev failed to institute many of his reforms. After the fall of the Soviet Union, President Boris Yeltsin brought Yavlinsky back into the government and “even thought about making him Prime Minister,” but after Yeltsin signed the Belaya Vezha Accord which destroyed, “all the political and economic connections between former Soviet Republics,” Yavlinsky resigned once again. During the constitutional crisis between Yeltsin and the members of the former Supreme Soviet in which Yeltsin took military action against the Soviet, “Yavlinsky appeared on TV and appealed to Yeltsin, asking him to suppress the rebellion,” which in turn “boosted Yavlinsky’s approval rating and… helped him to form a political party (Yabloko) which got enough votes to be elected to the Duma.”

Yavlinsky often acted as a primary opponent to the Kremlin, Putin and the dominance of United Russia, particularly during the contested 2011 legislative elections in which there “was too much evidence that pointed to an unfair victory” for United Russia. Yavlinsky took part in protest meetings and eventually filed to run for President in 2012 against Vladimir Putin, but was denied ballot access despite having the proper number of signatures.

So what does Yavlinsky’s story tell us about his views? Quite a lot actually. His modest upbringing and rise to prominence help explain his commitment to social and economic justice. His continued resignations and habit of speaking against Yeltsin and Putin explain his fierce support for both market liberalism and political reform, his opposition to tyrannical rule, and its willingness to openly oppose and speak out against the ruling powers. Finally, his continued involvement in Russian politics despite a combination of bad luck and marginalization by the ruling powers shows his commitment to his native Russia and the cause of democracy and liberalization.

Yavlinsky’s views are in lockstep with the ideals of his party, Yabloko, which was originally formed as the Yavlinsky Bloc. According to their website, “[t]he Russian United Democratic Party YABLOKO is in favour of socially-oriented market economy, equality of starting opportunities, inviolability of private property, competition in politics and economy, strengthening of democratic institutions, the rule of law, law-governed state and citizens’ control over the government.” While this ideology challenges the prevailing political, social and economic norms of post-soviet Russia, it also challenges the whole idea of post-soviet parties.

Whereas Yabloko puts out specific ideological proposals to various political issues, parties such as United Russia, “[r]etain a fuzzy ideological focus in order to appeal to as many voters as possible. Party programmes and manifestos tend to contain a great deal of rhetoric or valence issues unlikely to alienate voters.” Unlike with Yabloko or even the Communist Party, “identifying United Russia’s collective or solidarity benefits is a . . . complicated task.” This difference between Yabloko and United Russia might clue the casual observer in on how this strategy has created the significant rift in success between the two. Whereas Yabloko preaches precise ideological solutions to fix Russia’s problems, United Russia takes more big picture stance on politics. Its platform proposes broad measures such as “the need for [economic] modernization and diversification. . . removing all administrative barriers, and eradicating corruption and the negative aspects of Russian bureaucracy. . . [and] reaffirm[ing] Russia’s status as a leading world power.” It could then be argued that United Russia’s appeal to a broader electorate, less specified platform and vague populist ideology has been more conducive to electoral success than Yabloko’s specific platform of democracy and liberalization, which might alienate non-liberal democrats, non-democratic liberals, or those who would benefit more from a stable and united government than a government committed to social equality. Of course, this argument alone could not have caused Yabloko’s electoral misfortunes. Rather, there is a vast tapestry of reasons that Yabloko has failed to reach broader success in the Duma and with the electorate.

To understand the downward trend that Yabloko has faced, it is best to review its history, starting with the 1993 legislative elections. These elections followed the aforementioned 1993 Constitutional Crisis in which Boris Yeltsin dissolved the Congress of People’s Deputies and the Supreme Soviet, and which later led to “the deadliest single event of street fighting in Moscow’s history since the Russian Revolution.” Following the crisis, there was an election for the new State Duma in which several parties were major contenders. The major parties were the far right, ultranationalist Liberal Democratic Party (the eventual winner), the far-left Communist Party, the pro-Government Russia’s Choice and, of course, Yabloko. Other parties such as the Women of Russia and the Agrarian Party had surprisingly strong showings as well. This election was by far the most successful for Yabloko who won 7.9% of the vote, comfortably above the 5% threshold needed to win seats in the Duma, and were allocated who aligned themselves as a pro-democratic party that was “the Kremlin’s most consistent critic on [Chechnya]” and whose leader, Yavlinsky, was “the country’s most trusted politician.” In this era, Yavlinsky and Yabloko created a solid niche in Russian Politics as a moderate, cool-headed center-left party which advocated for democratic and liberal reforms while supporting the unity and leadership of Yeltsin’s government. In fact, Yabloko was so popular within the democratic movement that at a party congress of rival RPR, a right-leaning democratic party, “33 regional organisations of the party voted to join the [Yabloko] bloc.” This was largely because they saw Yabloko as the strongest liberal opposition group, and put aside left-right ideology for the larger causes of liberalism and opposing autocratic government rule.

Yabloko’s political fortunes in the early to mid-nineties were entirely due to political savvy. Elections during this era were greatly influenced by the President. In October 1993, “Yeltsin personally pledged . . . to guarantee freedom of speech in the campaign for the December parliamentary elections.” This period was marked by relative leniency for conflicting ideas to exist and be spread without fear of suppression or systematic opposition, despite accusations of Yeltsin’s tendency towards autocracy. That said, “Yeltsin . . . shut down a number of opposition parties and newspapers, while his administration [took] firm control of state-owned television and radio.” So even during this time of relative political freedom, there was still suppression. The shutting down of parties might account for some of the failures of the liberal movement to chip off more support from the pro-government Russia’s choice, arguably a direct competitor to center-left and center-right parties like Yabloko, while also explaining why the fringe Liberal Democratic Party was able to galvanize the support of a plurality of voters. Had there been more of a selection of parties, the Liberal Democratic Party may not have had such a strong showing amongst anti-constitutionalists as it did. In addition, it can also be assumed that the seizure of television and radio slightly disadvantaged Yabloko and other opposition parties in favor of Russia’s choice by allowing them to control the media narrative. In general, however, “Although major imbalances between the parties in campaign funding and access to the media marked the parliamentary campaigns of 1993 and 1995. Yabloko was nevertheless able to campaign in the manner it felt was appropriate.” In fact, Yabloko’s worse showing in the 1995 election, which saw a 1% drop to around 6.9% of the vote, is better attributed to “a combination of elitist campaign literature and an uninspiring, if not obtuse, media campaign [by Yabloko] failed to inspire the voters,” than to systematic suppression. In addition to this, Yavlinsky made many political decisions which hurt Yabloko such as deciding that “he would not ally himself with Gaidar’s [Democratic Choice for Russia] Party,” which had gone from pro-government to opposition between 1993 and 1995. This move put ideology over electoral viability, with Yavlinsky refusing to reconcile his center-left views with Gaidar’s center-right views, and while Yavlinsky can be commended for his principles he can definitely be blamed for Yabloko’s poor 1995 showing.

One early example of systematic suppression actually hindering Yabloko’s electoral success is the Presidential election of 1996 in which Yavlinsky opted to run against the incumbent Yeltsin. In January, Yavlinsky was polling with 13% of the vote, second only to Zyuganov who had 20% and ahead of Yeltsin’s 8%. In this election “Yeltsin’s strategy involved running as the candidate of reform rather than as a communist or nationalist . . . [and to] be perceived as the only reformist candidate capable of defeating the Communist candidate, Gennady Zyuganov. . . This involved marginalizing of Yavlinsky’s candidacy, leaving the Yabloko leader’s team powerless to effectively get his message across to a mass audience.” While this is a fair and legitimate strategy, Yeltsin’s means as the Russian head of state gave him an unfair advantage which he utilized to win the election. “Yeltsin controlled the airwaves. The three nationwide television channels, ORT, RTR, and NTV gave the incumbent 53 percent of the prime-time television coverage between May 6 and July 3. . . nine times that of Yavlinsky.” In addition to this direct control of public information, Yeltsin also used his position as the incumbent and front-runner to neutralize electoral threats as well. “Yeltsin held talks with both Yavlinsky and Lebed in May in an attempt to forge an alliance with one or the other, offering both men positions in a future Yeltsin administration in return for support in the second round of the election,” creating an incentive for either man to support Yeltsin over a United opposition bid. In fact, in addition to having control of the media, outside forces were at work to help Yeltsin win as well. “Thomas Pickering, then ambassador to Russia . . . pressured Grigory Yavlinsky . . . to drop out of the election’s first round to help Yeltsin’s chances” because President Clinton saw Yeltsin as crucial to both the stability of Russia and the stability of US-Russian relations. The effect of these manipulations were clear. By June, however, Yeltsin rocketed up to 36% and Yavlinsky dropped to 8%.

Later election campaigns saw the continuation and escalation of Yabloko’s marginalization at the hands of the government. In the election of 1999, in which Yabloko lost more than half their seats, “media bias . . . reached new levels, being marked by ‘techniques of media manipulation and the merciless denigration of opponents,’” and in fact, “a report by the European Institute for the Media (EIM) found that impartiality was a larger problem . . . than in 1995.” In the 2000 Presidential election, “ORT refused to broadcast Yavlinsky’s campaign video on the grounds that its content was ‘unreasonable,’” and then, “ORT launched an unprecedented attack on Yavlinsky, accusing him of having spent about ten times as much money on his campaign as was officially allowed.” Moreover, Yabloko was affected by the Yukos affair, in which one of their primary backers, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, was jailed and accused of fraud and tax evasion. This “wave of anti-oligarch sentiment” that led to this “was skillfully exploited, if not actually fuelled, by political parties, notably YeR, the LDPR, and the new Motherland (Rodina) bloc.” In addition, while it is unclear if Putin wanted Yabloko to fail or succeed (some analysts believe that Putin may have wanted Yabloko to rejoin the Duma), “United Russia enjoyed a distinct advantage because of “verified instances of the use of administrative resources” which may have “distorted the electoral process and jeopardized the integrity of the democratic election system.” As a result, Yabloko failed to win any seats in 2003.

In 2007, when the threshold to win seats in the Duma was raised from 5 percent to 7 percent, it effectively ensured only four parties were viable enough to win seats, effectively shutting out Yabloko. Yavlinsky also challenged the integrity of the elections, saying, “The results of this election were not counted, were not analyzed, were not gathered.” Yavlinsky was not alone in his accusations. Heads of state from world powers, including France, Germany, the United Kingdom, and the United States all expressed concern and skepticism about the veracity of Russia’s elections. Yabloko and other opposition groups filed a lawsuit alleging that United Russia artificially increased its vote share from 54.4 percent to 82.4 percent. Amongst various injustices towards Yabloko, including violence and arrests, since 2007, the greatest by far came in 2012. In January 2012, “The Central Election Commission . . . barred Grigory A. Yavlinsky. . . from competing in the . . . presidential election.” They charged that over a quarter of the 600,000 signatures submitted by Yavlinsky for ballot access, “were invalid,” a charge which Yavlisnky challenged and accused of being “politically motivated.” Not only did this reduce competition for Putin in what was seen as a relatively vulnerable time for United Russia, but Yabloko was also unable to “send thousands of observers to polling stations” in order to have solid evidence against United Russia in the case of electoral fraud. This was yet another clear attempt by the Kremlin to suppress substantial opposition and protect itself from the threat of multi-party democracy.

Perhaps ironically, Yabloko’s downfall was due in large part to vast autocratic and government control, empowered by the Russian constitution that Yabloko largely opposed. Yabloko’s opposition to the constitution, and the powers it granted Yeltsin and Putin, was not due to its danger towards smaller opposition parties but rather its firmly held belief that Russia should be a true democracy with a competitive party system and decentralized government control. Yet, one might ponder [against all odds], if Yabloko were to come into power, would the liberal bloc welcome opposition parties such as the Communists and the Liberal Democrats as the symptoms of a true democracy, or rather as obstacles to its vision of a more democratic Russia. If given the monumental task of governing all of Russia, would Yabloko be able to stay true to its ideology? Or would it be forced to abandon its pure and specific ideology in order to unite and provide security for the Russian people? Unfortunately, the world will likely never know the answer to these questions.

Learn more:

Time – Vladimir Putin Wins 4th Term Amid Reports of Rampant Voter Fraud

Open Democracy -Harassment, detention and torture: Russia’s presidential election is marred by repression

NBC News – Russian election: Navalny rallies army of observers to counter Putin

Andrew Solender ’20 is a political science major, the Editor-in-Chief of the VPR, a former columnist for the Miscellany News, a writer for Chronogram Magazine and a contributor to the Poughkeepsie Journal and Psychology Today.

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