oDR: Interview

‘We consider Alexey Navalny’s ideas destructive and dangerous for Russia’

Nikolay Rybakov, the leader of Russia’s Yabloko opposition party, talks to openDemocracy about imprisoned opposition leader Navalny, smart voting and corruption

Natalia Shkurenok
8 July 2021, 11.07am
"Freedom to political prisoners", Nikolay Rybakov at recent Yabloko party conference
Source: Yabloko

Today, the Yabloko party is the only officially registered political force that actually opposes the Russian government. While police violence against protesters has raised the stakes against participants of opposition protests, criminal prosecutions of potential participants in this year’s parliamentary elections have severely reduced the ranks of the Russian opposition - including, of course, Alexey Navalny.

Most recently, opposition figures such as Dmitry Gudkov, Ivan Pivovarov and Maxim Reznik have either been arrested or have been forced to leave the country. Meanwhile, a debate continues over Navalny’s ‘smart voting’ strategy, which plans to run single opposition candidates in election districts in order to deprive the ruling United Russia party of votes.

Not all opposition forces support this strategy or its leader. Founded in the early 1990s, Yabloko, a stalwart of Russian liberalism, is one of them. And the party has come under fire since its former chairman Grigory Yavlinsky severely criticised Navalny after the opposition figure’s returned to Russia in January.

In an extended article titled ‘Without Putinism and Populism’, Yavlinsky, 69, stated that Navalny’s anti-corruption investigations had changed – and would change – little in Russian society. Instead, he claimed, the investigations had only “whipped up primitive social hate”, and that “promoting class populism in Russia, provoking a confrontation between the poor and rich will not lead to anything good”.

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For Yavlinsky, Navalny’s politics are a mix of “nationalism” and “populism” – and on 7 July, he advised supporters of the imprisoned politician not to vote for Yabloko in September.

For some, this raised questions about Yablokov’s role in the tightly controlled arena of Russia’s ‘official politics’. Yet many, it seems, still look to the party, which is running in the September 2021 elections, with hope.

openDemocracy spoke to Nikolay Rybakov, who has led Yabloko since December 2019, and asked: how will Yabloko support the Russian opposition?

The Yabloko party has in effect, become a funnel for those who support change, and opposition deputies, can enter politics. You wanted to support Dmitry Gudkov, right?

We discussed nominating Gudkov for the parliamentary election from Yabloko, and when he was arrested, I personally signed a guarantee for him. But now, when he had to leave, the situation has changed. It is almost impossible to register your candidacy while abroad. And it is similarly impossible to conduct an election campaign without meeting voters.

Dmitry himself has already announced his refusal to participate in the elections, but he is sure that he will support those who support him and will try to do everything to make them take part in the elections. Yes, some politicians have left Russia, but many active people have remained here. And most importantly, millions of voters, for whom these elections are elections of the future. We are currently negotiating with various candidates.

Will you support Maxim Reznik and Yulia Galyamina?

Unfortunately, Yulia Galyamina cannot put forward her candidacy, since she has a criminal record related to organising protest actions. But she became the head of the team for Marina Litvinovich, who turned to Yabloko for support. Maxim Reznik also contacted us, but you see what has now happened in St Petersburg – Reznik was put under house arrest, he is prohibited from all external communication. We will proceed according to the real situation.

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Despite Russian politics’ lack of diversity, Maxim Reznik remains hopeful that the opposition-supporting youth can free Russia from Putin’s grip

How do you feel about the words of journalist Ilya Azar, who wrote on social media that Yabloko’s only chance to prove its independence from the Kremlin is to nominate Andrei Pivovarov, the recently arrested former director of Open Russia, and Lyubov Sobol, a Navalny ally, as its candidates?

We take these kinds of statements into account, but do not act on calls from social networks. Lyubov Sobol herself contacted us, but recently announced that she was refusing to participate in the elections, because she understood that she would be removed. There was also an appeal from Andrei Pivovarov, we discussed this topic, but I can’t imagine how you can conduct an election campaign from a pre-trial detention center. In any case, we support all of them as political prisoners. This is one of the main demands of Yabloko – the release of all political prisoners! It is impossible to build and develop a modern economy in a state when there are political prisoners.

That’s a respected position, but it exists quietly and almost behind the scenes you publish articles on your pages and websites, but there is practically no response in the country!

That is why we are fighting for a place in Parliament, where this topic will no longer be silenced. Our party congress was also held under the slogan “Freedom for political prisoners!” There is not a single party that would declare in Parliament that there can be no political prisoners in the country, that people cannot be persecuted for their beliefs.

"Millions of people want change, I am sure of that, but it turns out that their lives are not important, whether we're talking about the Russian president, or the opposition that calls them to face police batons"

So maybe, in order to get this place in Parliament, you should now speak louder, brighter about your position? Use more expressive means than publishing on your personal web pages?

This is why we’re going to the polls. And during the election campaign, we will certainly demand the release of all political prisoners. While participating in television talk shows, I constantly talk about this, although it is not easy to do it on our television. I look forward to parliamentary debates during the election campaign.

How do you feel about the ‘smart voting’ programme?

Strongly negative. In our opinion, this is a tool for bringing to power people with the wrong views – communists, followers of [Vladimir] Zhirinovsky, many of these people will get into parliaments precisely through the smart voting campaign.

But in Moscow, thanks to clever voting, many opposition politicians got into power...

And at the same time many people who do not belong there. Moscow is generally an exception. In Tambov, for example, representatives of the United Russia party entered the local Parliament en masse through smart voting, when they changed their affiliation from United Russia to Homeland before the elections. You should be encouraged to vote for candidates who represent your interests. I don’t want to choose other crooks and thieves instead of the usual crooks and thieves. I don’t want to choose between a Stalinist and a nationalist, between a corrupt official, right and wrong. In addition, the smart voting programme teaches you that in politics you can make decisions based not on your values, but guided by momentary considerations. This corrupts voters, deprives them of principles and values.

Yabloko party founder Grigory Yavlinsky
(c) REUTERS / Alamy Stock Photo. All rights reserved

Grigory Yavlinsky's article, published two weeks after the arrest of Navalny, alienated many who sympathised with him. Yavlinsky actually had to apologise later, saying that politics is a serious, tough thing. These are, of course, nice words, but what has Yabloko done that could be called serious and tough? Your party gains at best from 1-3% of the vote at every election.

Navalny doesn’t even have 1%! Now – yes, after he and his supporters were literally destroyed. Although at the Moscow mayoral elections, he showed very decent results, these are already old achievements.

But you have already had a quarter of a century 1%, maximum 3%. Maybe something needs to be changed?

First, almost a million voters voted for Yavlinsky even in the difficult presidential elections in 2018. I think it’s worth a lot. Navalny conducted a census of his supporters, and there were only 400,000 of them. Secondly, Navalny is not just a person in prison. This is a whole team that still publishes posts online on his behalf and which called for protests at the beginning of the year. It was his team who later said – yes, we threw people “into the furnace” [a reference to Navalny’s team calling for people to attend unauthorised protests]!

Alexey Navalny
(c) (c) ITAR-TASS News Agency/Alamy Live News. All rights reserved

Yabloko’s principled position is that changes for a better future cannot come by sacrificing people. Navalny’s irresponsible appeals have already led to the fact that 12 people, according to court decisions, were sent to colonies with sentences longer than his own, and a total of 116 criminal cases are being investigated.

Yes, millions of people want change, I am sure of that, but it turns out that their lives are not important, whether we're talking about the Russian president, or the opposition that calls them to face police batons. And after the arrests of thousands of people, politicians who have gone abroad come out and tell how important it is for them to stay free in order to continue their activities? I strongly disagree with that! I am convinced that Yavlinsky’s article was written on time and that he was right, and we consider Navalny’s ideas disastrous and dangerous for Russia.

He is in jail and is clearly in a vulnerable position.

But he has not ceased to be a politician, he continues to act as a politician, and we continue to engage in polemics with him as a politician.

Yabloko can file a lawsuit in defence of Navalny, or appear in court in his defence? That is, not only write texts and speak, but do something?

Prisoners themselves can file their own court cases, and Yabloko is running in elections to change policy in the country. We give people the opportunity and the chance to vote for an alternative to power.

Is your party fundamentally opposed to any mass actions?

No, we organised protest marches ourselves. As one of the organisers, I believe that the organisers of protests should be responsible for the people who are invited to the actions, especially considering the current regime of the police state in the country.

When you talk about responsibility for others, does it not seem to you that you are actually acting as an official authority e.g. you are trying to take responsibility for everyone and for everything. Although people ask neither the authorities, nor you to do this. How else, without mass demonstrations, will the Russian government understand that citizens are extremely unhappy with it?

Mass actions are undoubtedly necessary, but it is necessary – and this is the role of the leader – to provide people with as much protection as possible. And if it turns out later that you intentionally “threw people into the furnace” [as said by Navalny ally Leonid Volkov], in order to make as much noise in the media as possible, this is a conscious rejection of the value of human life. And this is called politics? Yes, we, Yabloko, are against Putin, but we are also against the completely irresponsible policy of Navalny.

What concrete plans does Yabloko plan to do to attract modern, technically advanced, mobile youth?

You know, I recently spoke on TikTok and saw that there really is an audience that wants a meaningful discussion. A fragment of my interview, which I gave to Team 29, got one and a half million views and about 5,000 comments. I speak with this audience without any flirting, in general I try not to change for the audience, I try to always be who I am, and the youth understands everything perfectly.

"It is impossible to defeat corruption by fighting against corrupt officials as individuals, by revealing that “Mr so-and so” has a palace, and so does Putin... This is the work of the media"

Today Yabloko is the only party that wants to change the future so that young people stay in Russia and not seek life abroad. Now young people do not understand what their future is in Russia. For example, Moscow, as a city, has one of the largest budgets in the world after New York. But people in Moscow are also being beaten and arrested. And if you deal with the country as a whole – there are no budgets, no prospects, only riot sticks and riot vans.

If Yabloko gets into the State Duma this September, what are the first changes you will seek and what tactics will you adhere to?

First of all, we will seek the release of political prisoners, the abolition of a number of repressive laws, and the abolition of amendments to the Russian constitution. We have a whole package of decisions that should bring Russia to a normal international level of cooperation with other countries of the world. Because in the 21st century it is impossible to live in conflict with almost the whole world, and there can be no economic development in a country without freedoms. Another important topic that Yabloko will undoubtedly deal with in the State Duma is the solution of environmental problems. Unfortunately, the actions taken by our government to solve these problems are imitative rather than essential.

You did not mention the topic of the dominance of power structures in power and corruption is this not relevant for you?

Very relevant! But it is impossible to defeat corruption by fighting against corrupt officials as individuals, by revealing that “Mr so-and so” has a palace, and so does Putin... This is the work of the media.

The political challenge is to create conditions that make corruption impossible as a phenomenon. And this requires fair elections, a parliament independent of the executive branch, an independent judiciary and independent media.

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