Lacking organizational base
Bottom-up liberalization requires some organizational base. At present this is lacking, with the older liberal parties, notably Yabloko, having no realistic prospects of future success. The only semi-liberal group to have significant parliamentary representation is the party New People
, which in 2021 won just over 5% of the national vote. The party’s founder Alexei Nechayev says
that “We aren’t liberals [but] democratic values are close to us”. The decision to eschew the liberal label may reflect an understanding of its unpopularity more than a rejection of liberal values. The party program adopts relatively liberal political and economic policies, calling for the decentralization of power, “political diversity … and competition,” “freeing entrepreneurs” from the pressure of the state, and so on
But the party specifically states that it aims to work within the political system not to overthrow it. It also avoids overt Westernism and emphasizes that its focus is on local affairs. In this way it stays within the boundaries of what the central authorities will tolerate. Given this, it possibly represents a mechanism through which liberalism can regain a small foothold in Russian politics. It remains to be seen, though, what will become of it.
Overall, the prospects of liberalization driven from the bottom up seem slim. Historically, reform in Russia has rarely come that way. Rather it has been driven from the top down. In particular, liberal reforms have largely been the product of what one might call “enlightened bureaucrats.” These have promoted change not so much out of respect for liberal ideas as out of a recognition that the state would benefit from some degree of liberalization. This was the case during the Great Reforms of the 1860s and in the era of perestroika
in the 1980s. In both instances, change came from within the system.
Modern-day equivalents of the enlightened bureaucrats of the past do exist, and a handful still retain relatively high office, particularly in the economic sphere. Their numbers, however, have shrivelled over the past 20 years. At present, it is hard to see them being able to amass the influence required to successfully promote a reform agenda.
Defeat in war could perhaps change this calculus, and provide the necessary impetus for reform, as in the aftermath of the Crimean War in the mid-nineteenth century. If the country’s elites decide that drastic liberalization is the only way of preserving their own privileges, of saving the state from collapse, or of preventing revolution, then change is possible.
There is, however, a crucial difference between the situation today and in previous eras of reform. In the 1860s, Russia was at peace. Similarly, perestroika
coincided with a period of improved international relations – indeed, Gorbachev and his advisors brought the Cold War to an end precisely because they believed that peace was a prerequisite of successful reform. Today, by contrast, Russia is at war. Moreover, there is little to no chance of Russia’s relations with the West improving significantly in the foreseeable future. Among other reasons, the conditions set by the West for the normalization of relations include demands that no Russian government, of whatever political hue, could ever satisfy (the return of Crimea to Ukraine being the most obvious example). It could be that the invasion of Ukraine marked a decisive historical turning point at which Russia and the West separated themselves from each other once and for all. There may be no turning back – or at least not for a very, very long time. The balance of world power is shifting to the East.
In these circumstances, Russia’s elites have little option but to rally around the flag (even in 1917 they defected not because they were opposed to Russia’s war with Germany but because they felt that the Tsar was losing it and that they could fight it better without him).