The following article was co-written by Daniil Gorbatenko and Irena Schneider.
Last Saturday, we marched in Moscow and Saint Petersburg with tens of thousands of Russian citizens. With frozen fingers and toes, wool caps, banners and triumphant smiles, these men and women came from different convictions, and walks of life to unite under one common phrase on a frigid, sunny afternoon: “Russia without Putin!”
It is a surprising picture for the world, and an important moment for a young Russian generation that has grown up in the shadow of the Soviet collapse to memories of mafia TV shows, police corruption, bribes in school, and the titanic gap between the political-business elites and the middle class. Unwilling to surrender a say in their future through the political process, many young people are now turning their backs on a generation of KGB-grown rulers who have, among many things, insulted their intelligence, dismantled the law, and fantastically defied mathematical reality. Following the fraudulent parliamentary elections on December 4, many students staging ad hoc peaceful protests in large cities were detained en masse, becoming Russia’s newest “political prisoners.”
Caught in the growing pains of its post-Soviet identity and grassroots self-actualization, Russia may be witnessing new political opportunities in which young generations have a greater stake than ever before. Among these opportunities is a window for a concept that most Russians may not know about (or even know how to pronounce)—libertarianism.
Before the “Russian Spring”
A strange concept, indeed! The authoritarian and hierarchical political systems during the Imperial and Soviet eras were, needless to say, not conducive to classical liberalism. It was not until the collapse of the USSR that libertarian and Austrian ideas tiptoed their way into academic literature during the socialist transition. In 1992, a then popular Today newspaper published a classical liberal declaration named “The Liberal Charter,” written by several prominent Russian libertarians. Such a feat, however, became sidelined for nearly twenty years as self-described “liberal” reformers embarked upon highly interventionist policies, sold government enterprises to insiders, left legal reforms undeveloped, and created a hyperinflation that destroyed whatever savings people had left. The 1990s began with a certain wild hope as people traded on the streets with cutouts of the decree on free trade safety-pinned to their clothes. But the decade ended up disappointing the high expectations of those who had stood against communism.
All the shortcomings of the reforms were popularly blamed on the so-called “liberals.” After the economic situation improved following more market reforms and the surge of oil prices in the early 2000s, the populace became increasingly uninterested in politics. Middle class life became more accessible. Gallantly mounting the myth of “stability,” Vladimir Putin quickly consolidated power with dreams of restoring imperial greatness. Waging war and establishing government control over national TV channels, Putin methodically destroyed democracy and created a structure of authority in which elites could engage in whatever arbitrariness they wanted as long as they didn’t challenge his authority. His legacy leaves a broken legal system, a chaotic (and fairly interventionist) economic policy, and sham elections. The famous Mikhail Khodorkovsky is only the most prominent of the tens of thousands of businessmen and white-collar workers who were and continue to be sent to prison for so-called “economic crimes.”
At this time, libertarian ideas were gradually spread on the Internet, mainly through blogs, translations of classical texts and other projects. One of those projects was the Libertarian Party of Russia (the LPR) of which one of the authors of this article is a proud member. The LPR is not an officially registered political party because until now the requirements for organizations willing to become political parties were too burdensome to fulfill for most independent political associations.
The LPR has members of diverse ages, but is mainly driven by young people in their early twenties. Their track record has triumphantly punctured a hole in the standard image of Russian youth who are either politically apathetic or flagrantly nationalist. After the passing of the interventionist Law on Trade in 2010, for instance, these activists arranged several tea parties in Moscow and Saint Petersburg. Although the brand did not gain ground, the tea parties allowed the LPR to establish a reputation among those interested in real-life politics. A fresh and courageous step pushed their boundaries from the blogosphere into the fresh air.
The LPR has hosted Adam Smith forums in Moscow for the past two years, gathering liberty-minded speakers and attendees from Russia and abroad. The core group of young leaders, bound by tight friendships and strong principles, has spearheaded daily activism: making podcasts, arranging libertarian film clubs and discussions, participating in the anti-Putin opposition activities, and hosting debates with other political organizations.
The “Russian Spring” and beyond
What happened after the parliamentary election of December 4, 2011 came as a surprise for almost all those involved in Russian politics. The rigging of the election was expected. But the outrage that it caused among large Russian cities was not. Forces from all over the spectrum from the liberal democratic opposition to the “non-systemic” left and radical nationalists joined by tens of thousands of less politicized urban residents have already staged three rounds of nationwide protest in Moscow and Saint Petersburg on December 10 and 24, and February 4. The LPR has been actively involved in these events, participating in the rallies, meetings of opposition forces, and discussions. Some of their members acted as election monitors, and some were among those detained for attending protests.
Moving forward, three things in particular deserve mentioning. First, twenty year old LPR member and young journalist sensation Vera Kichanova is running for the municipal council in the Moscow district of South Tushino on March 4th (the day of the presidential election). This will be an important experience in communicating face to face with ordinary voters and trying to apply libertarian ideas to practical problems.
Secondly, the ongoing protests may force the regime to make an important concession of relaxing the regulatory requirements for political parties. If the current draft law on political parties is passed, the LPR will only need 500 members in 42 regions of the country to become an officially registered political party and participate in politics at the national level. To this end, the LPR is currently trying to extend presence in regions beyond Moscow and Saint Petersburg.
Last but not least, LPR members are trying to look a bit further than the coming presidential election and influence the potential actions of the opposition should Putin’s regime collapse. Although libertarians are not yet popular or well-known among the general population, they have a good opportunity to influence opinion leaders and experts who will be shaping the future social arrangement, mainly because they have competitive ideas and the ability to formulate them. The majority of other opposition forces, meanwhile, are currently either uninterested in discussing substantive reforms or lacking in substantive ideas. Even a new constitution may soon be at stake — and libertarians could very well influence its content (they can try, for example, to eliminate the explicit reference to Russia as a welfare state in the current Constitution).
Of course, one may easily guess that Russia’s current situation isn’t hazard-free. Some Russian libertarians criticize those who work together with other political forces against Putin’s regime, fearing a worse outcome than the status quo. This is indeed a risk because the populace generally holds left-of-center views on economic policy and illiberal views on certain social issues like gay marriage and especially drug legalization (many citizens lament that a corrupt government can’t stage a more aggressive war on drugs).
Despite these risks, LPR members believe that accepting Putin’s status quo is not an alternative. In a culture of arbitrariness, corruption and brainwashing where no one’s rights are reliably protected by law and where even billionaires may become martyrs, there is no progress or hope for freedom and prosperity. The plutocratic regime has no institutional robustness or stability, and was bound to unravel at some point. Massive institutional reforms in a post-Putin era are therefore necessary and unavoidable. As things stand after a rather chilly and inspiring Saturday demonstration, there is, however, no guarantee that a bright future or libertarianism is imminent in Russia. The opposition has a mountain to climb. In the eyes of a younger generation, what is left is the enticing glimmer of a possibility that things can change. For the first time in the history of the country, libertarians will be able to try to secure it.