Opinion: The poor political lexicon of Russia's liberals

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MOSCOW, September 26 (RIA Novosti political commentator Peter Lavelle) - Nikita Belykh, the leader of the liberal party Union of Right Forces (SPS), has again politically compromised himself and Russia's struggling liberal agenda.

Belykh claims the liberal opposition should offer the electorate a "right turn" as an alternative to the Kremlin's current "left turn." What "left" or "right" means in Russian politics is irrelevant, but Belykh's belief that this is important will continue the irrelevance of a liberal message.

At a recent SPS party conference, Belykh said the party would offer the electorate a "right turn" agenda in the upcoming election season. The same Belykh has suggested that jailed ex-oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky and former Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov, desperately and unconvincingly portraying himself as some kind of godhead of the liberal cause, might be asked to head his party's list in the upcoming 2007 parliamentary elections.

Belykh summed up the rationale for such an agenda as, "when the president is leftist, opposition may be only rightist." Belykh's reference to a "right turn" appears to be a reaction to the amateurish political diatribe titled "Left turn" and written by the liberals' unnamed messiah Khodorkovsky, claiming that President Vladimir Putin and his entourage have turned "left" to appease voters.

Unpacking Belykh's statement shows the SPS - and Russia's liberals in general - is out of touch with reality and pursuing an agenda that is misguided and as well as immature. Sadly, the SPS is far more concerned with importing Western ideas about liberal society and politics than dealing with the nuts and bolts reality confronting Russian voters. Like American neo-cons, the SPS has an ideological agenda that puts "what should be" ahead of dealing with the "politics of the possible."

What does Belykh mean by saying "the president is leftist" and the "opposition may be only rightist?" Putin is many things to many people, but there is little doubt that just about everything he has done in office has been driven by a steely sense of pragmatism, rather than some discernable "rightist" or "leftist" agenda. Was Putin "rightist" at one time to only turn later "leftist?" What do "right" and "left" mean in the context of Russian politics? The SPS claims to know, but is probably alone and wrong in its assessment. Cold War designations of "left" and "right" have very little meaning in Russia or the West.

The differentiation Belykh makes between the liberal opposition and the current political elite is a false dichotomy, as well as a clear indication that he misunderstands the political lexicon of contemporary Russian politics. Belykh knows only to well that Putin is liberal by his own definition of the term. His assessment, paraphrased by American NGO-supported Mosnews.com, "the 'right turn' is needed to return the country to a free market economy and civil democratic society from political and economical stagnation" is foolish and even hypocritical. Putin's free market credentials are part of the public record, parties - like his own - are as active as ever. How Belykh can speak of economic stagnation is hardly worth commenting on.

Belykh and Russia's liberals remain politically illiterate. The liberal opposition is lost if it cannot challenge and distance itself from the dominant political discourse of the governing authorities. Its inability to do so appears to stem from an interest in attaining political power at the expense of genuine popular representation.

The liberal opposition cannot win a debate in which the terrain has been prepared and mastered by the current political elite, as it is a discourse that legitimizes one concept of politics and makes the message of Russian liberals redundant. It is an embarrassing concept of politics that confuses the liberals' not so new message and calls into question their relevance.

Belykh, Irina Khakamada, Yabloko's Georgy Yavlinsky, the West's new darling Vladimir Ryzhkov, of the Republican Party of Russia, and the eccentric Garry Kasparov have to start over or simply leave the political field. All are lost in some kind of ideological dead end and practice some kind of discursive fetish that has no meaning in today's Russia. If they don't recast themselves, they will be the ones to blame for the tragic end of Russian liberalism. Russia can survive the departure of some of its liberals from the political scene, but not the loss of a meaningful liberal agenda.

The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the opinions of the editorial board.

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