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Vedomosti, December 29, 2003

In Russia, Everything Is Just Getting Started

Interview with Grigory Yavlinsky

Late in the evening on December 7, President Vladimir Putin called Grigory Yavlinsky to congratulate him on the YABLOKO party’s election to the Duma. The next morning the congratulations turned out to be premature: for the first time in its ten-year history, YABLOKO failed to overcome the 5% barrier. For Yavlinsky, this was the biggest political defeat of his life. Until now, Russian politics has had an iron-clad rule: any party that fails in federal parliamentary elections won't survive the next four-year political cycle. Yavlinsky vows to break that rule. He says he doesn't believe "Putinism" will last, and expects that by the end of the next four years he will be the leader of a liberal-democratic party capable of securing 15-20 million votes.

Question: How can you explain your party's defeat at the parliamentary elections - and why did the democratic parties, including the Union of Right-Wing Forces (SPS), get fewer votes than four years ago?

Grigory Yavlinsky: There are technical election results and political results. In terms of the technical results, the simplest way to put it is as follows: to get 6%, you actually need 20%. If a party actually gets 10%, there's always the risk of failing to get across the threshold. We have submitted a protest to the Central Electoral Commission, and we are doing a manual vote-count. To date, our figures confirm that there is a substantial discrepancy between the official results and the actual results.

Question: If you find your suspicions are justified, what will you do?

Grigory Yavlinsky: We will go to court, challenging the results for specific districts. Placing the results of the federal elections as a whole in doubt is unlikely to be possible under the current circumstances, but it's still possible to punish the culprits behind the fraud.

Question: Do you think the voters themselves have changed somewhat since the last elections? Or has your party's position in society changed?

Grigory Yavlinsky: In terms of figures, our position hasn't changed very much. But it's another matter that there have been substantial changes [in voter attitudes]. Our main objective was to prove to the majority of voters that Russia can have real democracy, not just imitation democracy, and an effective, competitive economy based on private property. That was my main ideological objective - and I have to admit that I failed to achieve it. I couldn't prove all that to the majority of voters. You know, I wasn't joking about actually needing 20% of the vote in order to get 6%. I couldn't do it. There are many reasons for that. The first reason: we ourselves, I myself, the YABLOKO party - but I won't talk about that. The second reason: it turned out to be exceptionally difficult to demonstrate that there is a difference between real democrats and those who only call themselves democrats. For example, people think Boris Yeltsin was the main democrat. And it's been impossible to explain that he wasn't a democrat at all. He was a candidate for the Politburo - he started wars in Chechnya, opened fire on the parliament building, didn't understand what a default was, and so on. Neither did we manage to prove that democracy and a free market are quite different, as shown by the examples of the Baltic states, Poland, the Czech Republic, even Bulgaria and Romania.We didn't manage to prove to the majority of voters that Russia can have a political system with at least relative independence for the judiciary. And such a system should have legislators who are independent of the executive branch. And there should be national, politically significant independent media. Even if only in embryonic form, there should be public oversight for the special services and law enforcement agencies. All this should not be subordinated to the will of one person. And there's at least one more important point: a normal democracy entails real separation between business and government. They shouldn't be completely merged, with every key state official being involved in business, and every business owner seeking to acquire a tame state official.

Question: What's the point in trying to convince voters that all this is possible in Russia when neither the political nor the economic elite believes in it?

Grigory Yavlinsky: There's a big problem with the elites, as our elites have been shaped in that system and have an interest in preserving it. That's why all we can do is appeal to voters. The political outcome of the Duma elections is as follows: the majority of voters have accepted the existing state of affairs in Russia. They've accepted it for various reasons – disillusionment, disbelief, lack of understanding, and so on.

Question: You mentioned that most voters are also confused about what it means to be a democrat. Indeed, most don't see any fundamental differences between YABLOKO and the SPS - they don't understand why there are two parties, and constantly get confused about the party they should vote for.

Grigory Yavlinsky: There are substantial differences between us and the SPS - not only in ideology, but also in political practice. In 1999, we said the war in Chechnya was a criminal war. But Anatoly Chubais declared that "the Russian army was being revived in Chechnya, and anyone who disagreed was a "traitor." We were categorically opposed to the privatization methods implemented by SPS leaders. In 1996, we considered it unacceptable to support Yeltsin; in 2000, we considered it unacceptable to support Putin. Right-wing ideology is different from democratic ideology. The political purpose of the SPS is to uphold the interests of big business, and Russia does have big business. But history shows us that right-wing parties are always tied to the state. Big business in any country has a close relationship with the political authorities; in Russia, it is 100% dependent on the authorities. This is not an accusation; it is simply the nature of right-wing parties. Due to the personal convictions of its leaders, the SPS has as its key thesis: "the end justifies the means". But we reject that principle. Unless the circumstances are extreme, our two parties can cooperate; but they are different - with different ideologies and different methods. And this would be perfectly all right, but the issue of a monopoly for the SPS has been raised: "Only we should remain. No others are necessary. Democracy in Russia is the SPS." That won't work.

Question: You've called the SPS the party of big business – but what kind of business is YABLOKO relying on?

Grigory Yavlinsky: We do rely on the business community for support, but we are not a business party. We uphold democracy in itself, protecting the interests of all citizens; but the SPS only values democracy as a means of defending the interests of big business.

Question: But the SPS 's funding sources are more diversified than those of your party.

Grigory Yavlinsky: For a very long time, the SPS 's main source of funding was a state company - which is unlawful. We were sponsored by a private company. Actually, in Russia political parties have no funding sources other than major oligarchic groups - and even those groups can only donate with the presidential administration's permission. Seeking financial support from small business and medium-sized business is utopian. Small business simply has nothing to give, while medium-sized companies are either affiliated with big business or helpless.

Question: What about membership dues?

Grigory Yavlinsky: That won't be enough. This is a poor country. Even though we have 75,000 members, it won't be enough.

Question: Russia has several million people who make a decent living capable of investing some money in their future.

Grigory Yavlinsky: Can you imagine the level of political awareness that would require? We can't even manage to persuade people to vote rationally - and you're suggesting that they would give us money every month.

Question: For your voters, it's important to hear where you intend to find independent funding.

Grigory Yavlinsky: It's impossible to find independent funding these days. In the wake of the YUKOS affair, who would venture to contribute a single coin to political activities? And they'd be right to refuse. For the time being I don't know how to solve this problem. But it's not the first time we have faced problems.

Question: Have contributions to YABLOKO from YUKOS shareholders ceased?

Grigory Yavlinsky: They ceased midway through the election campaign. We have no complaints; we only value their contribution, and extend our thanks. They did all they could, even taking risks to do so.

Question: Will you do a deal with the Kremlin?

Grigory Yavlinsky: I will not. That's why I have refused to take part in the presidential race. In order to run a normal presidential campaign, even regardless of the outcome, three conditions are required: independent media, independent courts, and independent funding. In the 2000 election, I had one-and-a-half out of three; in the 1996 election, I had two out of three. By 2000, it had become impossible to obtain television coverage in news programs; but at least we had access to talk shows and similar programs. So we tried that strategy: I started talking about myself. I didn't say a word about politics, but we gained quite a few points from that. But in these latest Duma elections, even this move couldn't be done; if you wanted 15 seconds of television coverage, you had to call the Kremlin.

Question: But did you hold talks with the Kremlin?

Grigory Yavlinsky: I did not discuss these issues in the Kremlin; but there were some consultations, and I stated immediately that my decision is not to run. Real competition is impossible now. It would be the height of hypocrisy for me to say I stand for liberal economic policies and democracy, while participating in a profanation of them.

Question: But did you receive any offers from the administration?

Grigory Yavlinsky: There was some discussion. But the political situation is such that the administration has no good solution. All it can do is appoint somebody [as a presidential candidate]. The question is who would consent to take part in such games. I will not. My party will not.

Question: It would appear that the present system will last for decades.

Grigory Yavlinsky: These days, events are developing so rapidly that this whole system will be shown up as completely ineffective within 18 months. It has very substantial limitations in terms of its political and economic efficiency. It can only address the economic needs of 25% of the population; it can't do that for the remaining 75%.

Question: And which way will the system swing once it is provedineffective - towards liberalization, or towards a tightening of the screws?

Grigory Yavlinsky: I'm not Hitchcock, to make such predictions. But if the oil market situation changes, the economic difficulties will be very great. A country which lacks stable private property rights, a country with practically no money market or effective banking system - such a country cannot achieve anything in the modern economic world. Russia will face yet another crisis, and then it will once again be faced with a choice.The question is how strong Russia's political and intellectual forces will be, and whether they will be able to change the situation. In that sense, the fate of our party and your newspaper is roughly similar: we are addressing the same audience. And in this sense, it's important to understand that business and economics are not identical. Business is the ability to make money without going to jail. That is the nature of business worldwide. But economics is being able to increase the prosperity of the people and the nation - and, incidentally, to pass the kind of laws that make it possible for business to make money without going to jail. The government ought to be concerned with economics; but our government is essentially a collective businessman. Not only in the sense that it primarily addresses the interests of business groups - but it also behaves like a businessman towards the citizenry. It thinks the main objective is to get as much money out of the citizenry as possible.

Question: What kind of relationship do you have with Putin?

Grigory Yavlinsky: A working relationship. We discuss various substantial issues. For example, what should be done about the oligarchic system. I think that's the big issue right now.

Question: What are the essential points of your plan?

Grigory Yavlinsky: The oligarchic system isn't even capable of extensively modernizing Russia. But in dismantling that system, we need to take two limitations into account. In my view, a review of privatization using state administration and police methods is unacceptable; that includes using the judicial system in its present form. Secondly, repressive measures are unacceptable, since they are counter-productive and dangerous. If these two restrictions are observed, the subsequent plan of action is as follows. We need more than an agreement between the oligarchs and the president; we need a package of laws that would comprise a social contract between the state, business at all levels, and society. The first group of laws would cover an amnesty for the deals of the mid-1990s, including economic crimes, with the exception of crimes against individuals. The second group would include laws about transparent lobbying in the Duma, transparent financing for political parties, and a complex of anti-corruption laws protecting the Duma, the Cabinet, and the presidential administration. The same bloc of laws would contain a law establishing a public television network funded by a protected item in the federal budget, with its editorial policy set by a public council. The third group of laws would be anti-monopoly legislation, creating a competitive environment. Everyone needs to understand that from now on nobody will be able to break off such large chunks of property as people did in the 1990s. These are the three major blocs of laws which should be passed as a package simultaneously. I am currently working on calculations for a one-time tax to be levied on everyone who took part in the privatization deals. It boils down to the following: take net profits for the past nine years, subtract the sum paid to the state during privatization, and levy a one-time tax of 25% on the remainder.

Question: Does it mean those who declare the biggest profits will be punished?

Grigory Yavlinsky: Or those who had seized the biggest chunks almost for free. In general, the tax is not a punishment. We won't manage to avoid this story, so that society can recognize this decision. The key problem is that in 1992, through hyperinflation and privatization the citizens were deprived of all property and told later that this was the only possible path for reform. Subconsciously, the people tend to think that if this could be applied to them, it could be applied to anybody else. Therefore, nobody will protect other's property.

Question: What was the president's response to your plan?

Grigory Yavlinsky: We discussed that several times and he listened carefully, but no practical steps are being taken. Apparently, we have different points of view on this essential issue. He said the opposite at the meeting of the Chamber of Commerce and Industry the other day. He said that the laws could have been observed. I'm ready to object via your newspaper. It should then be confessed that officials had been the main infringers of the law. The state had been violating all laws. No laws had envisaged the mortgage auctions. The officials to set up the auctions are unknown; the people who formed this environment for business are known: unless one violates the laws, one gets nothing or is given the backyard. The first person to ask must be the prime minister at the time, the Cabinet at the time and, possibly, Russia’s president at that time. The question concerning the number of businessmen-violators comes second. The president said there had been six or seven people, but everybody has been in suspense actually.

Question: How feasible is the project of a new democratic party formed from the SPS and YABLOKO?

Grigory Yavlinsky: I cannot tell you what will happen now. We'll see whom they will support in the presidential elections. We'll do our best to ensure the existence of a large democratic party containing various factions within the framework of the democratic, liberal sector, by the next elections. If the SPS decides to support Putin, this would undoubtedly be a turning point. What is the sense of politics then? It is then possible to merge with Unity.

Question: What is the meaning of YABLOKO's decision to abstain from the presidential elections?

Grigory Yavlinsky: The congress passed two decisions: we are not nominating our candidate; we neither support Vladimir Putin. We'll decide in February how our electorate should be called to take part in the voting.

Question: How many votes could a party propagandizing liberal ideas actually collect?

Grigory Yavlinsky: The democratic party could have the support of some 15-20 million voters. In general, a story could be formed in the history of Russia where the majority would be with a party similar to YABLOKO. Therefore, we need to retain this party. You see, big politics is only partially dependent on the leader and on what the party is saying and doing. It depends on the moods inside the country. Nobody has promised everything would be quick. Everything is only about to start in Russia. Russia hasn't yet faced a democratic revolution, this has been to a great extent the first illusion only...


See also:

State Duma elections 2003

Presidential elections 2004

Vedomosti, December 29, 2003

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