Pending Upgrade

There is certain confusion in the heads of Russian liberals.  They seem to make no distinction between two similar, yet not identical things: being a "liberal" and being a "liberal politician."  But there is a difference.  Being a liberal means holding a set of liberal views: respect for individual liberties and private property, personal responsibility and economic self-sufficiency, support of the idea of limited government, etc.  But being a liberal politician means all of the above AND the ability to formulate and implement effective liberal policies at all levels of government.

I trust that the authors of the manifesto "The Power is Us" offered by the Right Cause party as a platform for the upcoming Duma election, are liberals.   Otherwise, how would one explain their claim that "Russia can and should become the freest country in the world?"  And: "The XXI [century] must become the century of Russian freedom."  Beyond that, there are not many liberal views expressed in the manifesto.  For example, I see nothing particularly liberal in the demand of a free universal health care.  Nor do I consider the idea of transforming the Presidential Administration into an "all-state organ for strategic planning"as something outright liberal.  Yes, limiting state ownership in mass media — as suggested in the manifesto — is liberal, but freezing tariffs of state monopolies for 5 years is not — and the manifesto is suspiciously mum on the larger question of whether Russia needs state monopolies in the first place.   Equally stunning is the fact that the word "privatization" hasn't appeared in the text even in passing.

And although the authors of the manifesto still might be liberal, liberal politicians they are not: the manifesto doesn't articulate any single, coherent liberal policy the Right Cause — or anyone, for that matter — would implement to address the country's most pressing needs.  Sure, a two-fold reduction in the number of state bureaucrats, as the manifesto proposes, would be nice.  But before you reduce the headcount you have to reduce the number of specific activities these people perform; yet the manifesto says absolutely nothing about which government functions, which specific roles the state plays in regulating economic and social life must be cut.  Sure, a constitutional limit to the number of seats any political party can hold in the Duma (at 226) could help promote political pluralism.  (Although as a liberal myself, I'd prefer that that the composition of the parliament was determined by the political will of Russian votes expressed in free and fair elections.)  Yet at the same time, the manifesto calls for return to the Duma of 25% deputies elected in single-mandate districts.  Do the Right Cause ideologists not now that the United Russia party usually sweeps single-mandate elections?  Granted, it's a good idea to eliminate taxes on what the manifesto calls the "newly created sectors of new economy."  The question is: which sectors precisely should be tax exempt — and how does one make sure that these tax benefits won't be highjacked by the state-owned behemoths like Gazprom and Rosneft?

There is one thing the manifesto gets right: the need to allocate more power and more money to local governments.  But it says nothing about how one ensures that this power and this money will be properly used by notoriously inefficient and corrupt local bureaucrats.  Perhaps, the Right Cause is planning to actively participate in local elections to make real changes in the regions?  Hardly.  Nothing less than the State Duma seems to be of interest to the newly-minted defenders of municipal rights. 

True, we're told that the current manifesto is only a draft, a version 1.0 of the party's electoral program and that an improved version 2.0 will soon be presented to the public.  It'd better be good: the Duma election is only 3 month away, and there will be no time for a version 3.0.

About Eugene Ivanov

Eugene Ivanov is a PMI-certified Innovation Management Consultant who helps organizations increase the efficiency of their internal and external innovation programs.
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11 Responses to Pending Upgrade

  1. Mark says:

    For my part, I cannot understand the feverish desire on the part of some Russians – and by no stretch are they very many – to remove a government that is working about as well as could be expected, in favour of a government endorsed by disaffected intellectuals and expats safely ensconced in other countries which is untried and merely depends upon the western golden rule that if you say “freedom” about every 5 seconds you are more likely to get elected.
    You could argue that another government should be given the chance to show it could do as well as United Russia in prudent running of the economy and foreign policy, but the potential for such a government to make quick decisions with far-reaching consequences for the world’s largest energy producer cannot be set aside lightly. A government bent on ensuring the former model could not fix things even if it were to regain power can effect dramatic changes in a very short time; remember how Yeltsin more or less deliberately sold off state assets to the oligarchs for giveaway prices – just coincidentally wrecking the Russian economy – to ensure Communism could never come back? Putin dragged that country back from the brink, for which the west will never forgive him, but now some Russians and most of the exiles think liberal reformers should be given control again.
    I’d argue that the damage they could do in a very short time suggests caution. I also note there’s a great deal of high-toned rhetoric about freedom and being the new freedom benchmark for the world, but simple freedom to do as you please must always be attended by responsibility and accountability. I haven’t seen any ideas for how those are going to be factored in. Anybody who thinks freedom means you’re free to not work, for example, but dinner is somehow magically going to appear on the table, is in for a disappointment.
    I don’t know who was first to say, “Freedom’s just another word for nothin’ left to lose” (Joplin, perhaps), but she or he articulated a basic truth that an appalling number of people seem incapable of grasping.

  2. Eugene Ivanov says:

    Thanks Mark,
    I think there is no reason to argue that freedom is generally good, and as one person in Russia said recently, “freedom is better than non-freedom”:)
    Liberalism is a different topic. I do believe that there is a place for a bona-fide liberal party in Russia. I was initially enthusiastic about Prokhorov who represented a new face as opposed to the bunch of old losers like Nemtsov & Co. I was then unpleasantly surprised with the dictatorial ways Prokhorov began “re-building” the Right Cause. But this manifesto — an eclectic mixture of populist BS — sounds to me like the final nail in the coffin.
    With liberals like that, who needs conservatives?

  3. Sergey says:

    I don’t understand why you were surprised by dictatorial ways of Prokhorov. The way he treated his workers in Norilsk and the coach of the biathlon team (who was fired before the end of relay, and before the season was over, causing one team member to explode and declare she was ending her career) just shows that he’s a rich and arrogant brat believing that his money demonstrate his smartness.
    I’d say that if Russia needed a politician like him, inviting Berlusconi would have been preferable – very similar overall but an old dog whose tricks are already known. Why suffer through a couple of decades of Prokhorov?

  4. Eugene Ivanov says:

    Great comments, thanks. No, I didn’t know how he treated his workers and yes, I heard about this biathlon story. Yet I do consider him smart and I hoped that he had enough ability to learn — at least to the extent to be able to understand that you can’t treat members of your political party like workers at your plant.
    There is one more problem with Prokhorov. Having no political experience, he nevertheless believes that he’s capable to lead a party to the Duma and even become Prime Minister. They should have started in the regions and try to learn Politics 101 there — hopefully, the regional politics still has some room for novices. No, only Duma and only PM — nothing less. Reminds me of certain US politicians who show up once in 4 years to run for president and then disappear until the next election.
    Best Regards,

  5. Sergey says:

    Well, if at some point one owns a plant that is producing 2% of Russian value added, one starts asking – why Chernomyrdin but not me?
    It’s rather hard to expect people who got very lucky very fast to be capable of learning – they never assign part of their success to luck.

  6. Eugene Ivanov says:

    OK, I take your explanation. Still, it’s too bad that there seem to be a good number of “liberals” in Russia — even “liberal voters” perhaps — but no single “liberal politician” capable of transforming their views into something actionable.
    Prokhorov was (still is?) a decent shot. If he doesn’t succeed, then who will?

  7. Sergey says:

    what do you mean by “success”? He could get to 5% – eventually, probably if only his money remains in the party. FDP in Germany could dip below 5% from time to time, and no one complains. 5-10% seems to be a normal range for a “liberal” party in Europe.
    Of course, head of a liberal party (which is supposed to promote level playing field) who headed a monopoly, and clearly took advantage of a lot of asymmetric information, is an oxymoron. This dissonance is felt by population in Russia too, but our “liberals” just can’t get their mind around this concept.
    And finally, why does anyone need to make a “liberal” a prime minister? Russian liberalism very often means in practice getting the state out of health care, education, and infrastructure – in other words, out of accumulating physical, human, and social capital. Who needs this disaster at the top?

  8. Eugene Ivanov says:

    By success I mean — first and foremost — the ability to FINALLY create a “normal” liberal party. The most important aspect of this is formulating a coherent, actionable and, ideally, realistic program. It’s here where so far, Prokhorov has failed miserably, IMHO.
    Now, I understand the realities of political business in Russia: there is almost nothing a party can do if it’s not in the Duma (as if it can do much when it is:)). Sure, with Prokhorov’s money and a piece of “affirmative action” by the Kremlin, the RC may get into Duma. This will open a venue for the large, not state-owned business to be represented there — and Prokhorov is almost perfect choice for the head of such a party.
    Yet, call me naive, but without strong program, RC won’t be able to consolidate these 5-10% of the voters who happen to hold “liberal” views. Does Russia need another “Just-Russia-on-the-right” party with a leader who only represents himself and a bunch of party apparatchiks?
    Finally, about “liberal” PM. The last liberal PM that Russia had was Kasyanov. All Putin’s PMs after Kasyanov were “technical,” and although Putin himself evades easy classification:), a liberal PM he is not. However, the next government will have to undertake a number of VERY UNPOPULAR reformes, “liberal” in their essence. The next PM therefore should have a mindset of a kamikaze, whether liberal or not, and there are not many people in the front row of Russian politics who could sacrifice their political careers for doing “right.” Prokhorov might be one of them, because should he be sacrificed by the next president, he’ll quit politics and get back in business. Kudrin might be another: he’s so popular among professionals that after leaving government he’ll go in business (in Russia or abroad) and become multimillionaire instantaneously. Remember Gref?

  9. Sergey says:

    I think I understand where are you coming from, but taken together, you are describing a situation where creating a liberal party is futile. The economic policy is to a large extent driven by liberal Kudrin who’s popular among businessmen (not professionals – it’s not professionals who would give him a lucrative job, but owners). And the policy will be liberal, come rain or hail. It’s not a big surprise the manifesto was rather thin economically and definitely more centrist than liberal – why create another party of more of the same?
    So, “liberalism by stealth” is what killing any potential liberal party, at least if you consider mainstays of liberalism to be respect for property rights and individual freedom of entrepreneurship. It definitely cannot come from a leader who benefits from non-level playing field.
    To imagine a scenario when such party would be feasible, think about two presidential terms with a different economic policy team – roughly speaking, Faddeev/INOP/Expert crowd. Plus Polterovich, Auzan, and some other institutionalists. Who would increase the country’s investment into health and education to OECD averages. Then, there would be a clear niche for liberals to emerge and agitate for rolling back the “welfare state”.
    So, the only way of getting a proper liberal party is for liberals to stop determining economic policy to a large extent. Then, they’ll get 10% which belong to them (see the latest here and be as influential as LDPR, but everything will be as it should be.

  10. Eugene Ivanov says:

    I largely agree with you, but let me make a couple of more general points.
    First, in the country where parliament by the constitutional design has so little influence — as compared to the executive branch — it’s not clear at all what political parties are needed for in the first place. So you can have no liberal party and still have some liberals in the government and some liberal policies implemented. (BTW, I don’t consider Kudrin liberal — and what I meant was that he’s very respected in “professional” (financial and economic) circles making him attractive to “owners.”)
    Second, there are real liberals in Russia: the so-called United Russia liberals such as Reznik, Pligin, Makarov and others. The problem is that they are the best brains of UR, Reznik and Pligin being the most productive Duma deputies in 2010. No one would let them leave UR; otherwise, who will write bills? Isaev? Markov? Khorkina? A viable (i.e. represented in the Duma) liberal party could at some point allow a “civilized” divorce of UR liberal from the rest of the party.
    Sure, no one needs liberals to roll back the “welfare state” — because such simply doesn’t exist in Russia. This is not to say that there is no room for liberal economic policies: any move to reduce state regulations in the economy will be liberal by definition. The same Reznik did a good job in liberalizing Russia’s financial markets, IMHO.

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