I haven’t been writing for a while partly because of a lack of writing inspiration, partly because of a busy schedule. Hope you, my reader, are doing well. I have something to say today.
Before we go to a problem I have with Russian liberals let me briefly explain the word ‘liberal’. Unfortunately, there is a lot of misconception about what does liberal mean. People assume a different meaning when they say ‘liberal’. There are two major ways liberalism is understood:
Liberalism is Europe is about freedom. Initially it was an opposite to conservative political philosophy that represented monarchy, despotism and imperialism. These guys were all about civil liberties, limited government and economic freedom. Conservatives in Europe were actually trying to conserve the status quo of 19th century and they are currently almost non-existent in modern Europe as well as monarchies and empires. The modern opposition to liberal ideas in Europe is group of people calling themselves literally socialists. They are not against civil liberties, but are in favor of big government and wider economic regulation, higher taxes and more involvement in economy. They approach freedom from a standpoint that is basically the following: how can you be free if you are poor? The government should take care of poor, so we need you to pay your higher taxes for this. Liberals basically oppose big government with the following mantra: “If you are free and poor, that means it is your personal choice. You are free and if you wish — go and earn your way to prosperity”.
The United States of America was born as a country of liberty. It had a tiny federal government, small local and state governments and of course there were almost no people in favor of monarchy in the U.S.. So the U.S. conservatives are now the people who ideologically want to preserve this limited government, civil liberties and economic freedoms. Yet after some time, as the country has risen to an unprecedented level of affluence, a new group of people emerged. They also approached freedom in such a way as European socialists do. “How can you be free if you have nothing to eat?” they wondered. Yes, it was a time when the U.S. was the richest country in the world. There were some poor people though, so they appealed to them. And these guys are calling themselves as ‘social liberals’ or simply liberals.
So, how to quickly make sense out of this?
- European liberal = American conservative = civil liberties, small government, less taxes and regulation.
- American liberal = European socialist = civil liberties, big government, higher taxes and regulation.
This is a rough generalization, but it is correct if you don’t assume ‘=’ to mean absolute equality.
Liberals in Russia are ideologically close to European liberals. They are pro civil liberty, pro economic freedom and oppose big government regulating everything under the sun (sadly enough it is exactly the type of government we currently have in Russia combined with lack of civil liberties and economic unfreedom). Many people are wondering, why there is no strong liberal political party in Russia these days? After all, liberals were a new type of people who got a chance to change the country after collapse of the Soviet system, so why they are now so marginalized and pushed totally underground?
I think I have an answer for this.
Yesterday I took a listen to an interview with Mikhail Kasyanov on the Echo of Moscow radio station, who was a prime-minister of Russia (2000-2004) and he now represents a little liberal party with a very poor electoral support in the country. I listened to what he has to say and basically I agree with most of his political assessments. I agree with what he has to say about propaganda in mass-media, I agree with his understanding of economy, I agree with his understanding of Crimea conflict, I agree with many things, but there was one problem. Let me explain carefully.
At the very beginning of the interview, he was asked about his unofficial trip to Brussels where European politicians cracked down on official Russian delegates for Crimea mess and revoked their vote power for the rest of the year 2014. Kasyanov basically told that he was all in favor of this development and he basically suggested and pushed Europeans to put this decision on official delegates of Russia. Then he was explicitly asked “Do you think it is fine to go abroad and suggest sanctions for your own country?”. He replied that “these are not sanctions against the country and the people, it is against the Russian government and president Putin”.
Putin doesn’t need any brutality to fight those liberal opponents, he just needs to give them microphones and put them on air. First of all, with all these ‘sanctions’ Putin is doing fine. He is not harmed by this in any way. If anything, he benefits from international crackdown on Russia. This crackdown boosts his political rating among his constituency that is not the most progressive fraction of Russian society, that doesn’t care much about the EU or the US visas and bank accounts in the western banks or having property in Miami. Remember, there will always be enough oil and gas sales to put food on Putin’s table. There will always be enough taxes to buy fuel for Putin’s jet airplane. He and the government are not at the bottom of the budget, so whatever sanctions you put, president Putin will be the last one to get hurt. So, the notion of harming Putin this way, not Russia is kind of ridiculous. This however, not the biggest problem with this interview.
Second problem is much deeper. Russian liberalism has its roots in late 20th century. It started as a philosophy of a certain group of dissidents and had its peak at the collapse of Soviet Russia. At that time, liberals who made their way to the government were very interested in international support. The government of newly created country of Russia was weak. Post-Soviet economic conditions were poor and they felt like they absolutely need international support and assistance. What they also wanted is to get allowed into western political cloud. They wanted to be welcomed and appraised in Europe and in the U.S. And that really played a bad role with Russian liberals. They got used to appeal to external audience, not to Russian population. They feel that it is much simpler to establish themselves abroad with their political views than explain to average Russian why freedom is good to him or her. And even after more than 30 years foreign political cloud and foreign audience and some times foreign funding is what they rely on. That simple fact is the most problematic with Russian people. They clearly see the conflict of interests even without calling it this way.
Russians are no fools, you can explain them your truly liberal political platform, but you have to invest in education. The main political tool of liberals in Russia should be education. It should be a political party from the ground up. It should be initiative on local level. Liberal political activists should explain to ordinary people how the government is screwing up the economy, why higher taxes lead to less opportunities for average people etc. This is not a rocket science, it could be efficiently communicated to even a person of below average intellectual capacity. So the focus should be on the constituency within the country, not foreign media, not foreign political buddies.
And of course you will never ever see any U.S. politician who zips around the globe cheerleading for sanctions against the U.S. government. No matter how badly he disagrees with current course of the U.S. (many of the U.S. politicians are not happy with Barack Obama, BTW), he will never ever applaud any aggressive rhetoric from abroad. He knows that he is on bench. You can be in a disagreement with captain, but you can’t sabotage in a name of political ideas. The best way to hurt the status quo is educating people. Expose corruption in the government, explain benefits of freedom and liberties to people who overwatch TV propaganda. Yes, it is a plant of slow growth. Yes, it is hard. Yes, you don’t only need a few TV/radio appearances where hosts will mock you down. But if you really want to change, you have to educate.