Grigory Yavlinsky stood against public opinion
on Chechnya. [photo: AP]
To call for a halt to a hugely popular
war in the midst of an election campaign, as liberal
Yabloko leader Grigory Yavlinsky did late last year,
would normally amount to political suicide.
And so it very nearly proved to be.
Yabloko only just breached the 5 percent threshold
requirement for the State Duma (lower house of parliament)
in December's elections, and the poor performance
was sheeted directly back to Yavlinsky's stance on
To most observers, it was yet another example of
Yavlinsky's political ineptness in the high-pressure
environment of an electoral campaign.
Yet now, as Chechnya descends into a bloodbath, it
looks like an act of great foresight. The Yabloko
leader is the only Russian politician who can, with
both credibility and a clear conscience, run for president
as an anti-war candidate, as a leader who stood against
the tide of public opinion in an effort to protect
the lives of young Russian men.
Of course, none of the war's cheer squad among the
Yeltsin hacks, or Union of Right-Wing Forces (SPS)
as they call themselves – Sergei Kiriyenko, Boris
Nemtsov and so forth – will be running for the presidency.
The rank opportunism of the "liberal reformers'"
position on Chechnya during the Duma campaign paid
dividends – allowing them to race past Yabloko in
the parliamentary vote. In the finest Bolshevik tradition
of "the end justifies the means," the young
men dying today in Grozny served their purpose for
SPS in December.
Nemtsov recently cited SPS' patriotic stance as one
of the key reasons for the bloc's success.
In contrast, Yavlinsky, for all his other faults,
took an honorable stance on Chechnya. In doing so,
he sacrificed short-term electoral advantage for the
long-term credibility of his political movement –
and, in a sense, for the maintenance of pluralism
Pluralism, because there have to be opposition voices
in a democracy, and if Russia is ever going to have
a functioning civil society these voices must be raised
and the population given options at elections.
That was the scariest part of the recent Duma campaign.
Almost no other voices of dissent from the Kremlin
line were heard (Yavlinsky, it must be said, was somewhat
halting in his opposition to the war, but it was a
dissenting voice nonetheless). And positions like
those of the Yabloko leader will, in the end, help
Russia really move from being a country where the
majority of the population is treated like subjects
to a situation where they are treated like citizens.
For that reason, Yavlinsky has proved a much greater
Russian patriot than the pro-war chest-thumpers like
Anatoly Chubais and Kiriyenko.
After all, Yavlinsky's call for a halt to the all-out
military campaign was hardly that of a "peacenik."
He supported fighting off Shamil Basayev in Dagestan;
he supported taking the fight to Chechnya in order
to establish a security zone up to the Terek River
inside the republic (to protect neighboring regions).
He then called for special operations against terrorists
inside Chechnya, rather than a full-scale military
assault, in order to minimize civilian casualties.
For that he was branded "a traitor" by
Chubais, who proceeded to attack Yavlinsky for his
stance on Chechnya at every opportunity, riding on
the wave of pro-war hysteria through the course of
the Duma campaign.
But now, the position that hurt Yavlinsky so much
in December could provide the Yabloko leader with
an excellent opportunity in the forthcoming presidential
As public opinion begins to turn against the mincing
machine in Chechnya, Yavlinsky is free to use his
position on the war as a fundamental pillar of his
campaign for the presidency. Young men dying is a
terrible thing to have to use for political purposes
– however, it was not the Yabloko leader who unleashed
the war as an electoral strategy but the pro-Kremlin
Yavlinsky must now harness his principled stand on
Chechnya as a political weapon to fight his opponents.
Doing so will not mean kowtowing to hypocritical Western
leaders – it will mean a platform of standing up for
the Russian people.
He will not win the presidency. He will not even
make it into the second round of the election (if
one is required). But at least it will prevent the
presidential campaign from becoming a procession in
which the acting president will not have to answer
any tough questions on his conduct in government.
In taking such a course, Yavlinsky would be doing
a further service to his country.