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Russian Liberals

Within Vladimir Putin's administration there were three main factions vying for power: the technocrats, the liberals, and the siloviki. The Russian president, Dmitry Medvedev, as of June 2008 was the de facto leader of the technocratic party. Of the three groups the siloviki was the most powerful during the Putin administration. Russia did not have a strong liberal tradition, and while this political tendency appeared to flourish in the 1990s, gaining some access to the levers of power, by the election of 2007 it seemed in complete eclipse.

The term "liberal" was applied in the 19th Century to those claiming to be the originators and champions of political reform and progressive legislation. The term became current coin, as a political appellation, through a natural association with the use of such phrases as "liberal ideas," in the sense of "favorable to change," or "in support of political freedom and democracy." J. S. Mill in 1865 wrote (from his own Liberal point of view), "A Liberal is he who looks forward for his principles of government; a Tory looks backward."

Throughout the nineteenth century, Russia was governed by autocratic rulers who suppressed revolutionary ideals imported from the West. Alexander I (1801-1825) began his reign as a reformer, but after defeating Napoleon's 1812 attempt to conquer Russia, he became much more conservative and rolled back many of his early reforms. Major social and economic reform programs in the 1860s and at the turn of the century failed to address Russia's most acute problems. Alexander II (1855-1881), a relatively liberal tsar, emancipated the serfs. His 1881 assassination, however, prompted the reactionary rule of Alexander III (1881-1894).

Liberal and liberalism in its pre-revolutionary meaning carried a notion of moderate reform and westernization. Russian liberals sought to build a civic society under law and were hardly radical democrats. The Russo-Japanese War accelerated the rise of political movements among all classes and the major nationalities, including propertied Russians. By early 1904, Russian liberal activists from the zemstva and from the professions had formed an organization called the Union of Liberation. In late 1905, Witte pressured Nicholas to issue the so-called October Manifesto, which gave Russia a constitution and proclaimed basic civil liberties for all citizens. In an effort to stop the activity of liberal factions, the constitution included most of their demands, including a ministerial government responsible to the tsar, and a national Duma.

The upheaval of 1905 seemed to confirm that Russia's development would be similar to central and western Europe's. The reformists were split between constitutional monarchists who urged timely reforms from above as the best antidote to revolution, and republicans, both liberal and socialist, who advocated a bourgeois revolution which would short-circuit a Jacobin onset. The Bolsheviks and Socialist Revolutionaries also embraced this Europeanist vision, except that they stressed two peculiarities of contemporary Russia's potentially explosive condition: the former looked to the new if still sparse industrial proletariat to become the chief political carrier and beneficiary of revolution; the latter meant to rally and serve the timeless and weighty peasantry.

The stress of the war effort allowed the radical Bolshevik Party, led by Vladimir I. Lenin, to overthrow the provisional government that had displaced the tsar in 1917. At the conclusion of a bloody, four-year civil war, Russia began a 70-year period of one-party rule as the major constituent part of a new entity, the Soviet Union.

Russian liberal's rejection of the Soviet Union in no way constituted a rejection of the Russian empire. Much as their predecessors in the 19th century, Russian liberals, while bitterly opposed to the autocratic nature of the empire, never really questioned the validity of the empire as such. And the Russian intelligentsia's persistent un-democratic self-image is that it is an elite called upon by history to save the masses from their ignorance and savagery.

The 1993 Foreign Policy concept disclosed a dispute between liberals and conservatives over the nature of Russian foreign policy toward the CIS. Liberals warned of the great human and material costs Russia would be forced to shoulder if it reabsorbed the former Soviet republics, a step the conservatives increasingly advocated in the 1990s. Liberals argued that Russia could be a great power without pursuing that policy. Both liberals and conservatives agreed, however, that Russia should play an active role in safeguarding the human rights of the 25 million ethnic Russians who found themselves in a foreign country for the first time after the breakup of the Soviet Union. Some Western observers suggested that the characteristic positions of Russian conservatives and liberals regarding the near abroad differed only in the degree of hegemony they demanded that Russia have over the CIS states.

The Communist/Nationalist-dominated Duma has one vision of Russia’s future (heavily statist) while the veneer-deep government elite under Yel’tsin has sought, though episodically, to build a market economy. That is, the Yel’tsin government has talked about commitment to market, but by its actions, e.g., granting and withdrawing of favors, has impeded, though not stopped, its development.

By 2007 there were three camps within the democratic opposition: those who despise Putin and "argue for war crimes tribunals" (Committee 2008's Kasparov, former Prime Minister Kasyanov), who have scant public traction; those who are prepared to seek some degree of accommodation with the Kremlin (SPS' Belykh and Yabloko's Yavlinskiy) and in return allegedly receive party registration, under the table support, some access to the media, and occasional meetings with Presidential Administration Deputy Head Vladislav Surkov; and those, like Ryzhkov, who oppose Putin, but continue to play within a "managed" system and are denied party registration, as well as access to the media and Kremlin leadership.

The December 2007 Duma elections were contested by United Russia, the Communist Party (KPRF), the Liberal Democratic Party (LDPR), For a Just Russia, the Union of Right Forces (SPS), Yabloko, and four other minor parties. SPS and Yabloko, parties favoring liberal reforms, failed to clear the 7% threshold to enter the Duma as a party. The right-wing Souyz Pravykh Sil (SPS or «Union of Right Forces») unites the supporters of liberal choice for Russia. SPS was founded in 2001. SPS is the heir of Democratic Choice for Russia party, which was founded in 1994 and merged SPS along with other smaller parties of democratic orientation.

Yabloko emerged in 1993 as a public organization with a social-democratic and liberal-democratic ideology. Its name, which means "apple" in Russian, came from the first initials of three founders: Yavlinsky, who was an economic advisor to President Boris Yeltsin in the early 1990s, Yuri Boldyrev, and Vladimir Lukin. Yabloko faired relatively well as a parliamentary force in the early 1990s, winning 27 seats in the Duma in 1993 and 45 seats in 1995. But by 2003, it gained just four seats, and failed to pass the 7 percent threshold in the parliamentary elections in December 2007.

On 27 February 2015 opposition leader Boris Nemtsov was gunned down just steps from the Kremlin by assailants alleged to be members of the Chechen security services. Nemtsov was a former Russian first deputy prime minister and an outspoken critic of Russian President Vladimir Putin.

In 2016 the Russian Government stepped up efforts to suppress political opposition, suffocate civil society, silence independent voices, and stigmatize members of minority groups. The list of non-governmental organizations that were designated as so-called "foreign agents" has risen to over 120, including the Committee of Soldiers' Mothers, the election monitoring group Golos, and human rights organization, Memorial.

The "undesirable” foreign organizations law introduced last May has already led to the banning of four significant foreign donor organizations and a decision by two foundations that were major funders of Russian civil society to cease their operations there. Pressure also continues on independent media outlets, the national blacklist of blocked websites is growing, and state propaganda is becoming more virulent.




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