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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

EDITORIAL: Democrats Split After St. Pete Poll




There is something unteachable about Russian liberals," a historian of the late tsarist era wrote, and sometimes it seems not much has changed. Sunday's elections to the Legislative Assembly in St. Petersburg provided more testimony that today's liberals, like their early 20th-century forebears, don't know a good break when they get one.


On the face of it, the results were a breathtaking success for the good guys. Liberal candidates independent of City Hall won 29 of 50 seats: 14 for the bloc associated with Yury Boldyrev, 8 for Grigory Yavlinsky's Yabloko party, plus seven others. In theory, the City Charter - which mandates a strong legislature - should enable the liberal majority to push forward with its agenda.


But the votes had scarcely been counted before the squabbling started. Boldyrev, one of the original Yabloko leaders, fell out with Yavlinsky in 1995 and now declares that "there can be no discussion of a strategic alliance with Yabloko. We are antagonists."


Yabloko officials, while a little more restrained, have been busy saying grumpy things about their former comrade in arms as well.


Fortunately, Boldyrev, though the leader of the electoral bloc, wasn't on the ballot himself because he is a federal official - the deputy director of the parliament's auditing arm. Another member of his bloc, Leonid Romankov, who will actually have the responsibility of sitting in the assembly, made more sense. "We have a historic chance and we must use it," he said.


That's for certain. The gangland-style murder of State Duma Deputy Galina Starovoitova, one of the country's leading liberals, during the election campaign is evidence enough that all is not right in St. Petersburg. After warning that criminals were trying to use the election to sneak into power, and after decrying all the dirty tricks used against them, the democrats look mighty silly declaring that they now can't work together and exploit their electoral gains.


The liberal divisions threaten to make Governor Vladimir Yakovlev's position much stronger than it ought to be. Yakovlev, who has consistently tried to hamstring the legislative branch, can now manipulate divisions in the liberal camp. As a result, while the new Legislative Assembly is more liberal than its predecessor, one gets the feeling it will be no more effective a force for democratic reform than the crony-filled chamber it is replacing.


If advocates of free markets and democratic principles have a chance to wield effective power anywhere in Russia, it is in liberal St. Petersburg. The voters have spoken; whether those votes will be translated into action is a question only the liberals themselves can answer.