The end of an epoch

His declarations echoed those of June 2008, when at another Congress of the Party, Yavlinsky announced he was stepping down after nearly 15 years at the head of Yabloko, after losing parliamentary elections twice in a row. Then too he had referred to the need for “new ideas, new people and new proposals” and named the successor he was supporting. Nobody knows at the moment what the rejuvenated party will do with a man who, sometimes unfairly, is associated with the failures of the liberal camp. In his first presidential speech, Rybakov emphasised the new face of the party, while adequately remembering his own role in the electoral victory of Yabloko in Saint Petersburg in December 1995, when he was a 17-year-old student and worked as a volunteer for Yabloko campaign. A subtle message in direction of the members and the media that you can be an ancient activist and still a young man, who wants to give hope to a new generation.


In his opinion, there are only two alternatives in the 2021 elections: the team of the past (the four factions supporting Vladimir Putin in the Duma), and the team of the future – the Yabloko team. But new Yabloko under Rybakov is left with only 2 months to distance itself from old Yavlinsky’s Yabloko without feeding further divisions. This is the only way to preserve the attractivity of the one Russian party, apart from the communists, which has a distinct “brand” and the experience of parliamentary opposition. Hence the importance of its programme.  

In 1993, Yabloko was launched as a left of the centre party, a beacon for all adversaries of the Communists but also with attention to social problems and potential effects of too free markets. What Rybakov developed at the Congress is more right of the centre, standing for everything that Vladimir Putin’s parties are not: for freedom of speech, change of government, the complete abolition of the death penalty, the development of competition and the transformation of state corporations into joint stock companies, the abolishment of building nuclear power plant, development of green energy and refusal to incinerate, and even for a ban on hunting. This looks more like a politically correct listing addressed to diverse groups and lobbies, far distant from the focused and realistic action plan millions of Russian voters are looking for in times of economic hardship and Covid pandemic.

By putting such an accent on human rights and modern causes, Rybakov wanted to look different, but also to be blessed by the West as the Russian liberal democrat great hope. Yabloko website made much of videos sent at the end of the Congress by members of the ALDE (the liberal European) to back a party that they described as part of the “European liberal family”,  “the Russia that we love” and other platitudes. But to enter the Duma, Yabloko will need more than foreign supports, which proved in the past to be inefficient, even counterproductive. It will need to attract, and fully integrate, outsiders, independent candidates or representatives of other liberal-minded movements.

Old rivalries

The logic pointed to the formation of an anti-Putin democratic front, in which Alexeï Navalny would call his supporters to vote for Yabloko candidates as his party has been banned, its offices closed down, deprived of central figures – some in jail, some refugees abroad, others having simply stepped aside as personal risks seemed to them out of proportions compared to the chances of success. But what Rybakov proposed is more than moving to the right of the centre; it also positioning itself as a party supporting changes through the ballots, not by revolutionary means and the destruction of the regime from outside. This is a division as old as post-Soviet Russia, notably the source of the tensions and divisions that plagued Yabloko since the 1990s, opposing those who are ready to take part in the government and those rejecting any participation as ‘collaboration’.

But Rybakov has no choice but to distance his party from both Yavlinsky and Navalny. Nobody knows what future Yavlinsky sees for himself, but Navalny’s supporters, and radical members of Yabloko, denounced what they see as Rybakov’s readiness to blur the lines between systemic and non-systemic opposition. Navalny himself has been firing big artillery, highlighting a personal enmity that goes back to Navalny’s first steps in politics, inside Yabloko, with the blessing of Yavlinsky– up to the moment one began to eclipse the other. Navalny gained supporters inside the party, won popularity outside, and support from abroad, agitating against Yavlinky while being a member, an attitude that won him the lasting enmity of many former colleagues. It led to his expulsion from Yabloko in 2007, after he attended an ultranationalist and anti-immigration demonstration. This was a serious motive, but it freed Navalny to mobilise supporters on his own and offered him the opportunity to attach his name to a new force. He was helped by his image of young charismatic man, with this “uncompromising” approach many Russians appreciate – without translating this feeling into the ballots.

Putin’s laugh

For years, Yabloko has accused Navalny of populism and antidemocratic tendencies; Navalny camp branded Yabloko an agent of the Kremlin. Earlier this year, as supporters of Navalny were calling for large-scale demonstrations against his imprisonment, Yavlinsky wrote an open letter denouncing the jailed opposition leader as a “populist” and warning against protesting in his support. When Navalny’s party was banned and his candidates prevented to take part in September elections, Yabloko refused to nominate former organisers of Navalny’s party to register on its lists. Navalny allies denounced Yabloko as a Kremlin front and “a party whose leaders are cowards and traitors”.

Putin can now feel vindicated in his frontal and brutal assault against Navalny’s forces. He does not care much about the credibility of United Russia, as long as he can demonstrate to millions of Russians wanting to change the regime that “so-called democratic forces” are a conglomerate of people who even cannot agree between themselves on plans or joint action, spending their energy to dirty each other in futile personal vendettas.

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