Construction Literary Magazine

June 2019

Libertarianism in Russia

Libertarianism in Russia

Photograph via Flickr by eviltomthai

As a political scientist living and working in Russia, one of the most interesting things I come across is the number of die-hard Russian libertarians. Maybe missing my spirited debates with Ron Paul supporters back home, I rarely miss an opportunity to dig into the peculiarity of an especially American{{1}} ideology penetrating the fringe of the Russian intelligentsia.

I couldn’t find credible polling data on the political leanings of Russians beyond a left-right scale, but I suspect that a non-negligible proportion of urban Russians would ultimately find something to like in the libertarian ideology{{2}}. The Russian libertarian party, founded in 2007 and quickly increasing its public profile, though has yet to win over the masses at elections of any level. Estimates of Americans with libertarian sympathies are equally hard to come by, and most certainly not fully represented by the success of national-level presidential candidates.

Where does this political movement find its strength in Russia? Part can definitely be traced to the persistent and even recalculated appeal of the country’s experiment with liberal economic reforms in the 1990s. Raging against popular narratives that “shock therapy”—transformational economic reforms like privatization and price liberalization—led to the 1998 economic crisis, modern-day libertarians in Russia argue instead that these reforms laid the foundation for the last decade of growth. Whatever failures of that decade are more the result of reformers being handcuffed by politics and not completing the planned transformation, and not the substance of the ideology itself.

Vladimir Putin has also contributed his own share indirectly toward the proselytization of the movement. Twelve years of Putin rule have overseen a remarkable return of the state into the economy, from buying up shares in major industries to ever increasing budget expenditures (especially on pensions). This governmental expansion into the economic and social life of the average citizen is accompanied by the stories of rampant corruption, byzantine bureaucratization, and high-handed paternalism that we’re all too familiar through Western media. And so, as the state’s role enlarges, its blaring and public failures fuel the fire of libertarianism in Russia, reinvigorating the call for the return of completely pro-market policies. For generations reared on an all-providing Soviet welfare state, libertarianism can thus almost come across heretical, hence its disproportionate growth among the youthful, international, and educated classes.

Most interesting about the strand of libertarianism in Russia is the ideological deviations from its Western progenitors. Granted, the fiscally conservative fundamentals are still apparent: support for tax cuts, privatization, pro-business policies, and reduced state spending. However, whereas the political savvy of Ron Paul apostles lies in their ability to cut into traditionally progressive mainstays (see legalizing same-sex marriage and drug decriminalization), Russian libertarians have sometimes strayed from these tenets of the socially oriented corpus. Perhaps a product of a generally more conservative environment, libertarian believers here seem at times not to have fully made the jump into accepting the inalienability of rights for all people, regardless of sexual preferences, gender, or race. Though the Russian Orthodox Church frequently evokes the ire of libertarians and liberals of all colors, its aura within society still constrains even the most progressive.

Interestingly, libertarian reformers found their most concrete political foothold in the post-Soviet space not in Russia, but in the small neighboring republic of Georgia after that country’s 2003 Rose Revolution. Enjoying a strong popular mandate, the post-revolutionary Georgian government quickly acted to institute a swath of liberal economic and social reforms with some tangible successes. Within five years, the bureaucracy was modernized and slashed, low-level corruption stamped out, education reform passed, and foreign investment welcomed with open arms. However, that “beacon of democracy” (as George W. Bush once awkwardly declared it) soon succumbed to more autocratic tendencies, in turn undercutting the popularity of many of the government’s most successful reforms and creating large constituencies enraged by the wholesale privatization of the state. The hyper-accelerated gutting of the state may be one of the first casualties now that the libertarians have been voted out of power.

In the end, the struggles of libertarianism in Russia mirror those in the States in the past: a lack of identifiable leaders, weak party structure, difficulties educating potential followers, and often a radical, unsubstantiated vision of society that conflicts with the more moderate tendencies of the average Russian voter. Young high-profile activists like Vera Kichanova have assumed leadership positions in the nascent Libertarian Party described above, but confusion still remains about how these ideological adherents will mesh with the rest of the growing Russian opposition (the “‘liberals,” the “nationalists,” and the “leftists”). In addition, even with the Internet, ideas do not diffuse autonomously; they need to be propagated by the resource-rich and powerful. The Cato Institute and Atlas Network have been somewhat active in this vein, setting up the comprehensive InLiberty.ru site full of all the necessary indoctrination and “liberty camps” to work the youth angle. With so many remaining problems in Russian society needing immediate attention, it is ultimately difficult to imagine that unequivocally less government would be superior to better government.

[[1]]Not solely by origin, but plausibly in terms of recent prominence and overall popularity.[[1]]

[[2]]Back of the envelope calculations from a public opinion survey score roughly 20% of the Russian population as “very far right” (a 9 or 10) on a 1-10 scale measuring political and economic attitudes.[[2]]