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Yavlinskii's Ratings Rise As Perception of Yabloko Changes
The Russia Journal Vol.2, No.12
April 19-25, 1999,

Those keeping track of Russia's leading Russian political parties and politicians' ratings over the past two weeks noticed the sharp growth in popularity of the liberal-leaning Grigorii Yavlinskii and his Yabloko movement.

A number of recent polls show that both the movement and its leader have entered the rank of top three, and that most supporters of Yavlinskii are between 18 and 30 years of age.

Until recently, the ratings of Yabloko and its leader have remained stable at about 10 percent of the electorate for several years, and though that number was increasing, its growth rate was moderate. That makes the recent sharp change in the electorate's sympathies surprising. Many observers approached it with skepticism, saying they had little faith in the accuracy of the polls. The agencies that conduct the polls, however, are not only independent from one another but in competition, and have shown similar changes in Yabloko's popularity.

Russia has witnessed the birth of a vast number of parties and movements since 1991. Of this large variety, Yabloko is presently the only movement bearing the name of a politically neutral fruit. Russian political observers are currently claiming the movement's name was selected after a careful analysis of the average voter's psychological preferences. In reality, the choice of name was purely accidental.

In 1993, when the movement was forming in order to participate in the upcoming State Duma lower house of parliament elections, it was registered under the names of its three leaders: Yavlinskii, Yuri Boldyrev and Vladimir Lukin. Foreign journalists shortened these names to the abbreviation YaBL, but this was too close to the sound of a naughty word in Russian. So the movement's founders began looking for a nice word that began with YaBL, and came up with Yabloko.

Boldyrev soon left the movement to became its uncompromising political opponent. But the name Yabloko remained, and people began looking for some deeply hidden political meaning in it. That is difficult to find, however, because it is difficult to connect the movement and its main leader with anything in Russia's political reality.

In the past few years, all of the Russian reformist movements have experienced a spring of popularity followed by a steeper decline in the past few years. This includes moderate reformers like Vladimir Volskii's Civil Union and Viktor Chernomyrdin's Our Home Is Russia, as well as extreme liberals such as Egor Gaidar, head of Russia's Democratic Choice.

It might seem that common Russians have been growing increasingly disappointed with the reformers. But this does not concern Yabloko.

Famous for their pro-western sympathies, the movement and its leader have been slowly but surely gaining popularity. This year, Yavlinskii managed to win - for the first time - over 10 percent in the polls. But recent surveys show he enjoys from 12 to 14 percent support.

One of the keys of this success is the movement's consistent and unequivocal political attitude. Yavlinskii demonstrated this through his reluctance to join the government without a team and program of his own (despite numerous offers).

The rejection of compromise is demonstrated in Yabloko's remarkable solidarity on any Duma vote, in its rejection of federal budgets on an annual basis regardless of what Cabinet the particular draft budget comes from, and in the movement's strong condemnation of Russia's military debacle in Chechnya.

This firmness stands out against Vldaimir Zhirinovskii's undisguised vote trading and the left-wing factions' complicated and often obscure maneuvering. The public seems to have recently noticed principal differences between Yavlinskii and liberal democrats like Gaidar, differences that earlier seemed minor.

Politicians such as Gaidar have always leaned to the West, particularly the United States, seeing it as an example to be followed. But Yabloko has avoided finding idols outside the country and simply advocated western civilization's basic values, such as a civil society, the supremacy of law and a free market economy.

As long as enthusiasm for the West gripped Russian society and the country celebrated its growing political and economic relations with the West, this principle difference in positions went unnoticed. The euphoria passed when Russians began feeling resentment for the discrepancy between economic and political conditions between Russia and the West. The dislike reached its peak with NATO bombings in Yugoslavia.

Gaidar and other right-wing leaders may have condemn NATO's bombings out loud and flied to Belgrade on peace missions, but the public saw former Foreign Minister Andrei Kozyrev's statements as a more explicit manifestation of Russian liberal democrats' attitude. Kozyrev claimed a decision taken by the world's 17 richest and most civilized countries cannot be wrong and needs to be supported.

Just as Yavlinskii condemned Yeltsin's violation of Russian law during the Chechen War, he also disparaged western states for violating international treaties the very states introduced at the end of World War II. But he was also among the very few to criticize Russian historical revisionism that protestors used to justify their new-found dislike for the West.

Along with all of the above-mentioned reasons for Yabloko's growing popularity, there are also some significant psychological factors. Until recently, Yavlinskii's adversaries' strongest argument was his lack of actual experience in state management.

But as the Duma began to gain a greater role in the state governing system and Yabloko contributed actively to this process, the argument became irrelevant.

Another powerful factor had been Russia's traditional lack of confidence in any politician younger than 50. 

But the general tendency of Russian management to get younger (former Prime Minister Sergei Kirienko's youth earned him the nickname "Kinder-Surprise" when he was appointed prime minister last year) have made the Yabloko leader look almost like a patriarch in politics.

It is not that Yavlinskii has become some sort of an ideal. He is known to be referred to as "Our Duce" by his own party colleagues behind his back.

His intolerance toward other opinions as well as his lack of political flexibility will surely cause him more than a few problems.

But one thing remains certain: Grigorii Yavlinskii and his Yabloko have become significant players in Russian politics and are likely to stay that way for a long time.


ei Stepashin on Grigory Yavlinsky's proposals