There were no surprises in Russia’s September 18 parliamentary elections. As predicted, the ruling party United Russia won a resounding victory. At the same time, Russia’s small liberal parties, which had great authority twenty years ago, suffered a crushing defeat.

The reasons for this have mainly to do with the tight control the authorities have over the media, but they also reflect a gradual decline in support for Russian liberals over two decades.

While United Russia looked on course to get more than half of the votes counted, the two main liberal parties, Yabloko and PARNAS, received less than 2 percent and less than 1 percent, respectively, of votes cast.

What explains this dramatic fall in support? Who still votes for the liberal parties? Polls conducted by the Levada Center over several years allow us to dig deeper into these questions.

Post-Soviet history tells the story of a long, slow decline for these parties. Yabloko, for example, steadily lost supporters throughout the 1990s and 2000s: the party received 7.86 percent of the vote in the 1993 elections.

Then, from 2011 to 2013, support for liberals spiked as a result of growing disenchantment with the government. More and more people believed that the country was stagnating and felt uneasy about their future. Vladimir Putin lost one-third of his support base.

But public opinion changed drastically in 2014. The annexation of Crimea, imperialist rhetoric fueled by nostalgia for Soviet military might, and confrontation with the West caused a wave of euphoria that led the majority of Russians to identify more closely with their government. All of this seriously undermined liberal politicians.

The current situation is indeed bleak for Russian liberal parties. Only one-third of self-proclaimed liberal party supporters in the 1990s and 2000s still support liberals. Two-thirds have grown disillusioned with liberals and tend to cast their votes for United Russia or the Communist Party.

So, who still votes for liberals? Most of their supporters are educated and affluent residents of Moscow. This segment is doing better economically than most Russians. They are more confident in their future and satisfied with their present. They are, on the whole, much happier than the average Russian.

Despite these differences, they approve of Putin’s performance as much as the general population and like Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev more than most Russians. Thus, these voters won’t be swayed by attacks on the government and references to an ailing economy.

What do potential liberal voters want to hear? When Yabloko was at the peak of its popularity in the mid-1990s, the party wasn’t popular because it constantly criticized Boris Yeltsin. Being the party of “real democrats” also didn’t score Yabloko many political points. It was more important to voters that party leader Grigory Yavlinsky and his supporters were “young and energetic.” Twenty-seven percent of Yabloko’s supporters voted for the party for that reason.

Fifty-seven percent of those polled said they preferred Yabloko over other parties because of Yabloko’s “team of professionals capable of overcoming the economic crisis.” At the time, liberals were able to latch onto issues that most concerned Russians, offer the most attractive solutions, and convince voters that they were capable of implementing them.

The main reason for liberal parties’ electoral failures is the public’s lack of information about them. While 55 percent of Russians have heard of Yabloko, only 25 percent of the population know about PARNAS.
Even this knowledge is superficial, however. In focus groups, liberal sympathizers are hard-pressed to name even a few liberal politicians beyond Yavlinsky and former prime minister Mikhail Kasyanov. The overwhelming majority of people know very little about liberal parties or their platforms.

In the early 2000s, Yabloko could still claim to represent the intelligentsia, middle class, and cultural elite, but by the middle of 2016, only 6 to 7 percent of Levada Center poll respondents believed that Yabloko represented these groups. The truth is, most Russians don’t know whose interests liberal parties represent.

Of course, state-run media are largely responsible for withholding information about the work of liberal politicians. But more than half of Moscow residents regularly read, watch, or listen to at least one or two independent media outlets; 50 percent have access to social networks (that number is close to 100 percent among young people). These people can be reached by means other than television, as Alexey Navalny’s 2013 Moscow mayoral campaign demonstrated.

Liberal parties made a serious mistake by not actively campaigning on the streets (only a handful of independent candidates did so) this election cycle. Recognizable liberals have been unable to find new ways to reach their voters after losing access to state television channels in the mid-2000s. One respondent to a Levada Center poll suggested that liberals are “stuck in the 1990s.”

This year’s parliamentary election campaigns again demonstrated that liberal parties still believe the key to their success is appearing on television, whether in commercials or in debates. This is a losing strategy; liberals must learn to listen to the Russian people’s needs to garner support.

Only constant interaction between liberal parties, their supporters, and ordinary citizens can help liberals shed their image as losers and empty talkers. This needs to become their long-term strategy, though only a few independent candidates are currently pursuing it. The future of Russia’s liberal parties to a large extent depends on whether this strategy takes hold.

  • Denis Volkov