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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

A Tale of 2 Liberal Parties and 2 Contests

VedomostiGaidar, third from left, and other participants in the Union of Right Forces' contest Monday discussing who has a normal life.
It was a coincidence, but a telling one. This week two leading liberal parties -- Yabloko and the Union of Right Forces, or SPS -- gave out prizes to writers.

Both competitions were organized by professional groups, and politicians were there for the sake of prominence and funding. Both shared the stated goal of fostering the rise of a civil society. Yet the difference between their prizes and mottoes gave an indication of the different mindsets on the liberal flank of Russian politics -- who sees the glass as half empty, who sees it as half full.

Yabloko leader Grigory Yavlinsky presented electric tea kettles and cameras, along with bouquets and diplomas, to provincial journalists chosen as winners of a competition called Vopreki, or Against All Odds.

The annual contest, held for the fourth year, is named in honor of Larisa Yudina -- the editor of Sovietskaya Kalmykia newspaper and a Yabloko activist who was killed in 1998, allegedly for exposing corruption in Kalmykia's regional government. The competition is meant for journalists from regional publications who write courageous reports "against all odds" -- whether the odds be pressure from local authorities or personal dramas such as debilitating disease.

The stories of 14 reporters and four newspapers selected from among some 400 applications -- including some articles that went unpublished, ostensibly due to censorship -- covered such topics as chemical weapons dumping, the Chechnya war, corruption and local governments' attempts to control media, organizers said.

In his remarks, Yavlinsky stressed the role of the press as a voice of the people and not as an "imitation of free speech," which, he said, the Kremlin is trying to create.

"The more disintegrated society is, the more people are encouraged to think only about petty tasks in their personal lives, and the less people are concerned about what is happening in their town, the easier it gets to manipulate society," Yavlinsky told the small, poorly dressed group of winners, for whom a two-day paid trip to Moscow was the main part of the prize.

The event, held Monday afternoon at the House of Journalists, was co-sponsored by press freedom watchdog the Glasnost Defense Foundation, Yabloko and the Novaya Gazeta newspaper.

That evening, a second ceremony took place at the House of Cinematography. On behalf of SPS, former acting Prime Minister Yegor Gaidar and State Duma Deputy Eduard Vorobyov presented Alfa Bank checks of $5,000 to $10,000 to 14 screenwriters. The winners were picked from about 500 proposals for movies and television series under the motto "Normal Life in a Normal Country."

Organizers said the cash prizes increased the chances of getting the winning film ideas to the production phase, adding that the more important goal was to replace the crime-ridden, catastrophic picture of Russian life depicted over the past decade with the constructive approach of self-reliant, "normal" people -- in other words, to promote middle-class values to the broader public.

SPS was not after "political dividends" from the contest, Gaidar said, but was interested in promoting a more positive approach to Russian life.

"We have selected scripts about a difficult life, real life, but not about total and ultimate catastrophe," Gaidar said. "This is not what we have seen ... from 1988 to 1996, when the vast majority of films were about a perverted life in a perverted country."

"I hope that in our country every other man doesn't work as a security guard, one out of three women is not a prostitute and two-thirds of the nation is not sitting at home waiting for miracles from the government," said Daniil Dondurei, editor of the Iskusstvo Kino cinema journal and the contest's key organizer.

"We believe we have [in Russia] educated people of substance, who rely on themselves and are able to cope with challenges. Such things exist, but we don't see it in movies or, especially, in television series, where bandits in uniforms pursue bandits without uniforms and all businessmen are idiots or vampires."

Yavlinsky denied that there was any fundamental difference between Yabloko and SPS' prizes. "In essence, we do the same thing," he said. "Only we support print press and SPS is interested in film."

But Sergei Kolmakov, vice president of the Foundation for Parliamentary Development in Russia, agreed in a telephone interview that the difference in mottoes -- Against All Odds vs. Normal Life -- was indicative of the two parties' different stances.

Although both political groups see themselves as liberal standard-bearers, they appeal to different electorates and thus emphasize different aspects of the liberal agenda -- one negative, the other positive.

"Yabloko appeals to a less [socially] adapted, less successful segment of intellectuals and has a stronger human rights emphasis," Kolmakov said. SPS, on the other hand, seeks to expand its middle-class base by going after "progressive" youth and self-reliant people who can eventually become middle class.

"Yabloko gives a negative, human-rights and anti-bureaucracy spin to liberal values," Kolmakov said. "SPS stresses that liberal values should be achieved not through endless opposition to the government, but by offering an alternative."