Staunton, March 27 -- The tragedy of Russian liberals and hence of Russia as a whole is that the former have made economic issues the primary factor and have not offered “any significant reforms of the political system,” despite its distance from “the standards of liberal democracy,” according to Anastiya Melikh, a student at St. Petersburg State University.
Unlike liberalism in Western Europe and elsewhere, she writes in a commentary for Rufabula.com, Russian liberals have failed to put “personal freedoms, human rights and equality of opportunity” at the center of their programs (rufabula.com/articles/2015/03/26/the-benefits-of-national-betrayal).
Instead, “the Russian variant of liberalism” since the term acquired popularity in the 1990s has based itself “on the dogma of the primacy not of political and personal freedoms but rather on those of a market economy and private property,” a reflection of several factors but something that has especially serious consequences now.
On the one hand, many of Russia’s first liberals had been “former instructors of Marxist political economy,” a background that makes their “economic determinism” at least understandable. And on the other, many in the West who proclaimed the triumph of democracy in 1991 focused their attention and efforts more on the economy than on the political system.
Such a focus has been disastrous in Russia where “not economics, based on the export of raw materials, but “the authoritarian state-legal system” remains the most serious problem. Of course, liberal opposition figures have been upset about corruption, injustice and so on, but they have not addressed the fundamental task of transforming Russia from a prison into a free society.
In the current economic crisis, it is clear that something is not right with the policy of the government and that reforms are needed and needed now, she continues. “It is obvious that the current authorities are already incapable of that, but the liberal opposition is not now in a position to propose any alternatives.”
Some suggest that the lack of this in liberal discourse in Russia today is “only temporary,” a product of the fact that liberal parties have been for so long and are now so far from “the levers of power.” Consequently, what Russian liberals talk about is how to gain power rather than how to transform the authoritarian state.”
That means that most of the time, they are left discussing one of two paths forward: either waiting for the end of the rule of “’the tsar,’” or trying to organize a political revolution, like “the Ukrainian Maidan of 2004. A consideration of both alternatives does not give grounds for optimism that Russian liberals will achieve what liberalism says it wants.
In the case of the first path, given Russia’s authoritarian traditions, “if Putin won’t be around, there another ‘little father tsar’ will appear, prepared by the system and imposed on society,” without much prospect for democratization, Melikh says.
And in the case of the second, there is no guarantee that it will be “a velvet revolution” or that the act of revolution will not lead to a situation of even greater authoritarianism. Consequently, instead of debating which of these will happen to liberals and to Russia, liberals should be talking about the kind of political changes that are needed for Russians to take control of their fate as liberalism requires.