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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Yavlinsky Readies for Battle

Grigory Yavlinsky kicked off his electoral campaign this week, and Russia's most media-friendly politician met a big group of journalists to talk about campaign plans, tactics and policies.

Yavlinsky occupies a curious niche in the Russian political scene. Opinion polls consistently show him to be the country's most popular and trusted politician. If they are to be believed, he will be Russia's next president. He is feted by Western embassies and German Chancellor Helmut Kohl recently chose to break free from his cozy relationship with Boris Yeltsin to receive Yavlinsky in Bonn.

But seek the opinion of any political analyst and Yavlinsky gets a poor rating. "Russia will never elect a long-haired man," an intellectual, one observer said to me succinctly. Come election day the people of Penza and Perm will go for a tough Slavic man of the people sooner than for fast-talking English-speaking economic whiz-kid Grigory Yavlinsky.

Mind you, Yavlinsky is 42 and he may have the long view in mind. While others have fallen by the wayside, he has proved far-sighted on a number of issues, which have discredited other demokraty in the eyes of the population at large.

The author of the 500 Days Plan was a key promoter of economic union of the Soviet republics in late 1991, when the idea was unfashionable. He was neutral on the conflict between President Boris Yeltsin and the White House rebels in the fall of 1993. He has taken a strong stand against the war in Chechnya.

In the Duma his Yabloko group has turned out to be a strong quiet force. They are practically invisible at the knockabout plenary sessions, but in the peace of the committee rooms people like Mikhail Zadornov, Vyacheslav Igrunov and Viktor Sheinis have been busy trying to make the Duma into a more or less professional legislature.

Meanwhile Yabloko has gone national. They launched a national party in January to fight the December elections and lay plans for the presidential elections thereafter.

But where does a pleasant looking liberal opposition party go from here? The very name Yabloko, formed out of the surnames of its three main leaders, Grigory Yavlinsky, Yury Boldyrev and Vladimir Lukin, hints at its own impermanence. At their friendly meet-the-press event, almost in self-parody, there were no leaflets, posters or symbols, only bowls of apples placed down the table for the hungry reporter to munch on as he chuckled at the wit of Grigory Yavlinsky.

At the core of Yabloko there is a paradox: The electorate it needs to win elections has not yet formed in Russia and if the old-style opposition carries on doing well in elections, it probably never will be.

Yavlinsky said his social base, his typical voter is an "entrepreneur fed up with pressure from above, a small or middle-sized businessman."

His bible is the idea of "de-monopolization," a program to break up Russia's big corporate monopolies. His main quarrel with Yegor Gaidar is that he changed the economic ground rules, but let economic power stay with the same old group of managers and bureaucrats. According to Stanislav Fyodorov, another preacher on the same theme, Russia has only 400,000 businesses, while Italy has 4.5 million.

There is simply no small entrepreneurial class in the country and that is the natural Yabloko electorate.

That is borne out by the last elections, when Yavlinsky managed to get only 8 percent of the vote. No doubt he can do a little better than that next time, but in the current economic situation a Western-oriented party of liberal reformers is not going to sweep to power.

In this situation, Yabloko's best tactic is to stress a few themes that will touch the ordinary voter, to say "We promise honesty, a crackdown on corruption, more economic power to the small man."

Their other strong card is to play as much as possible on the character and charisma of Yavlinsky himself. On a good day, when his tongue is let loose, he would have no problem slaying any other Russian politician in mortal television combat.

That is why the party will launch an advertising campaign with Yavlinsky at its center as Russia's crown prince in waiting. It is an intelligent strategy, but it also threatens to turn Russia's potentially most democratic party into a leadership cult before it has even got off the ground.