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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

This Economist Keeps on Swinging

MTYavlinsky speaking at a congress called Dec. 22, 2001 to transform Yabloko from a movement to a political party after a law was passed allowing only parties in the Duma and regional legislatures.
It was a stump speech in what was very much a local election. But when Grigory Yavlinsky took the stage in the small Moscow region town of Pushchino, he wanted to talk big ideas.

"Our program is built on idealism," Yavlinsky told the crowd of 200 voters before launching into an hour-long analysis of how misguided economic reforms in the 1990s had produced the systemic corruption Russia has today.

Hours after the speech, aimed at capturing votes for his Yabloko party in regional legislature elections, Yavlinsky briefly let down his mask. Riding in the backseat of his BMW, he tried with childlike exuberance to get a read on how voters had viewed his performance.

"Was it OK?" he asked his spokeswoman, Yevgenia Dillendorf, over his cell phone.

Dillendorf duly delivered the good news: People were excited that he showed up and hung around afterward to sign autographs and discuss local issues.

"Excellent," he said, and tucked the phone into his coat pocket.

The obvious pleasure Yavlinsky takes in jazzing up a small town crowd is due in no small part to the fact that his visibility -- and relevance -- in politics has steadily declined since he finished fourth in the 1996 presidential election, garnering 7.3 percent, or 5.5 million votes. Yavlinsky, a former junior boxing champion who has been known to physically intimidate political opponents, is fighting to the bitter end.

"If they want to destroy me, they know they can," Yavlinsky said in the back of the BMW. "But as long as I am around and I have voters, then it will be illegal. I am not going to lie down and die. If they want me gone, they have to destroy me in front of everybody."

Yavlinsky, a shunned economic reformer who wrote a manual for operating coal mines that is still used today, plans to run for president in March. But nobody -- Yavlinsky included -- has any illusions that he will win in a race more akin to a scripted professional wrestling bout than a clean fight.

But what frustrates many liberals, including his own supporters, is that Yavlinsky is still trying to land jabs -- criticizing human rights abuses in Chechnya, corruption and selective prosecution -- while the Kremlin and its allies are essentially smashing steel chairs over the heads of their opponents. Yabloko, for example, was stricken from the ballot in March elections in St. Petersburg on a technicality, though the party said it was banned because of its vocal opposition to the construction of a Gazprom skyscraper in the city.

"I'm moving my way," Yavlinsky said in a recent interview at Yabloko's headquarters, across the river from the Kremlin. "I'm consistent. I'm not going to self-destruct."

Fractured Opposition

Since the 1996 election, Yavlinsky has been under pressure to team up with like-minded parties, primarily from the pro-business Union of Right Forces party, or SPS, which has chastised Yavlinsky for his obstinacy.

"Yavlinsky recognizes only one way of merging: Everybody joins Yabloko," SPS leader Nikita Belykh said. "We have always been in favor of merging democratic forces."

The two parties have been negotiating for 10 years but with little results. Yavlinsky considers SPS a Kremlin project because of its big-business links, including Unified Energy System head Anatoly Chubais, architect of the 1990s privatizations that Yavlinsky was denouncing to Pushchino voters in March. Chubais is an SPS founder but is not a member of the party.

Grigory Alexeyevich Yavlinsky

Born: April 10, 1952

Place of Birth: Lviv, Ukraine

Education: Plekhanov Institute of National Economy, 1969-76; undergraduate degree in labor economics; doctoral thesis titled "Development of the Division of Labor in the Chemicals Industry," 1978.

Advantages: Reputation as incorruptible; expert on market economics; speaks good English; good relations with the West.

Disadvantages: Low public profile; associated with economic turbulence in early 1990s; shrinking Yabloko voter base; seen by some as a puppet of the West.

Notable Quotes: "If the politics of Soviet times were characterized by Gosplan, then today's politics are more like Gosclan." Interview with The Moscow Times, 2007.

"The political elite in this country acts like a 13-year-old child, with all the associated complexes: Give me money and leave me alone." Interview with Kommersant, 2002.
Yavlinsky at Lenin's Tomb in 1970.
"Time has run out for people like Yavlinsky," said SPS co-founder Boris Nemtsov, who implemented Yavlinsky-authored economic reforms as the governor of the Nizhny Novgorod region in the 1990s.

As for other opposition figures -- such as 2003 presidential candidate Irina Khakamada, former world chess champion Garry Kasparov and former Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov -- "they are welcome to join Yabloko," Yavlinsky said, speaking in the fluent English -- albeit with an American twang -- that he learned while studying labor economics at the Plekhanov Institute of National Economy.

Yavlinsky has refused to associate with The Other Russia, an opposition coalition led by Kasparov and writer Eduard Limonov, a founder of the banned National Bolshevik Party. The coalition has staged several Dissenters' Marches across the country that have been violently quashed by riot police.

Yavlinsky calls Limonov a "typical Russian nationalist."

"Yabloko can't join nationalists. It's not acceptable for us in principle. Nationalism in Russia is a very dangerous thing and contagious thing. Is that clear?" a visibly annoyed Yavlinsky said, slipping into Russian.

Limonov, in turn, accused Yabloko of collaborating with the Kremlin and called Yavlinsky an "authoritarian leader."

"He just doesn't want to share his power," Limonov said in a telephone interview. "Yabloko is pretending to be a democratic organization, but it is not. Yavlinsky, of all people, should know that only a broad alliance can save democracy. But he is not prepared to sacrifice his own power for that."

Yavlinsky's rejection of The Other Russia is to curry favor with the Kremlin ahead of State Duma elections, Limonov said. "What Yavlinsky says and what he does are two different things," he said.

Economics vs. Boxing

Yavlinsky was born into a relatively well-off Jewish family in Lviv, western Ukraine, in 1952 and enjoyed a happy childhood. "The war brought people together. You never betrayed your friends," he said.

Alexei Yavlinsky, his father, was an orphan whose younger brother died of hunger in his arms. He lived with an adopted family in Kharkov and later moved to Lviv. He was stationed in Central Asia during World War II.

Yavlinsky's mother, Vera, was evacuated from Tashkent to Lviv after World War I. She taught chemistry in the city and married Alexei there in 1947.

A childhood dream to buy a football led Yavlinsky to his first love: economics.

The football cost 6 rubles, and it took months for Grisha -- the diminutive used by family, friends and political enemies -- to save up the necessary cash. He even pocketed his lunch money.

When the great day came, Yavlinsky, then 8, was cheered off to the store by a crowd of friends who had already split up sides to play with the football he was about to buy. "I was so proud," Yavlinsky said.

He returned an hour later, empty-handed: The price of the ball had been bumped up to 7 rubles.

The episode still seems to irk him. "I was so angry," he said. "I thought, 'Who decided to raise the price? Why did they make such a decision?'" banging his fist on the table on the "who" and the "why," one his favorite ways of showing emphasis.

No one could explain to him the arbitrary price mechanisms of a closed economy, but Yavlinsky had unknowingly touched upon a fundamental principle of a market economy. What drives prices?

Yavlinsky's second love, a girl, led him to take up boxing to protect her. By the time he was 18, he was an upstart from the Dynamo boxing club, in central Lviv, who had twice been crowned national junior boxing champion.

One of his former coaches, Pyotr Vasilyuk, called Yavlinsky "a clever fighter." "He worked so hard and had a focus one rarely sees," Vasilyuk, who still trains young boxers at Dynamo, said by telephone from Lviv.

As a young adult, Yavlinsky realized that he had to make a decision: continue boxing and aim for the top of the sport or indulge his love for economics. "My coach said he thought my future was in learning and studying," Yavlinsky said.

In 1969, Yavlinsky moved to Moscow and studied labor economics at the Plekhanov institute. One of his professors there, Alexei Tarkhanov, remembers Yavlinsky fondly.

"He was very talented," said Tarkhanov, head of the labor economics department at the institute. "He loved to speak in front of an audience. He loved to give presentations and spent considerable amounts of time and energy trying to persuade people that his point of view should be considered."

The studious Yavlinsky liked to sit close to the window, never in the front row, and never too far from the girls, Tarkhanov said.

"He always did his homework, although we tried not to give him too much because he worked enough on his own in the library," he said. "He was really independent. You wouldn't call him one of the regular students. It's obvious that his position in society today is no accident."

Yavlinsky met his wife, Yelena, at the institute, and the couple has two children. Their son Mikhail was born in 1971 and currently works for the BBC Russian Service in London. Their other son, Alexei, was born in 1981 and works as a computer programmer in Moscow.

Yavlinsky submitted his doctoral thesis, titled "The Development of the Division of Labor in the Chemicals Industry," in 1976, the same year he began traveling the country as a senior engineer at the All-Union Coal Industry Scientific-Research Institute. "I came to the conclusion that the main problem is that people simply didn't want to work," said Yavlinsky, whose research centered on the coal mining cities of Kemerovo and Ulyanovsk.

"Where are the incentives? Good workers and bad workers are paid the same. That wouldn't work. Then, it hit me. This is not just an inefficient payment system, it is a symptom of a much wider, deeper, more philosophical problem," he said.

Yavlinsky developed a work distribution manual aimed at maximizing labor resources within safety guidelines. He said the manual is still in use today in coal mines across the country.

In 1980, Yavlinsky became head of the heavy industry department of the State Committee for Labor and Social Problems, but four years later he was put on forced leave -- officially for tuberculosis -- after writing a paper called "Problems With Improving the Economic Mechanism in the U.S.S.R."

Yavlinsky traveled to Lviv as he was finalizing the report and heard a story from his father that convinced him that the entire Soviet economic system "was wrong." Yavlinsky repeated the story: Once upon a time there was a man with yellow skin. All his life, the doctors were trying to cure him. Everybody thought it was jaundice caused by too much alcohol. But when he died, they realized he was Chinese.

Yavlinsky's report had one guiding thesis: The Soviet economy was based on fear. It was an assertion, Yavlinsky said, that caused him "huge problems." He declined to elaborate.

Despite the setback, his skills were in demand as Mikhail Gorbachev's glasnost era approached.

The Reformer

In 1989, Yavlinsky was made department head of the Soviet government's State Commission on Economic Reform, and the following year he and two fellow economists proposed market reforms called "The 400 Days Plan."

It was around this time, Yavlinsky said, that he had a physical altercation with Soviet Finance Minister Valentin Pavlov, who stopped by Yavlinsky's office to convince him to scrap the plan.

"Pavlov was drunk, and he was trying to blackmail me," Yavlinsky said. "I don't want to talk about this, out of respect. But yes, I punched him."

Pavlov, who later became the last Soviet prime minister and was one of the leaders of the August 1991 coup attempt, died in 2003.

Yavlinsky has a reputation of not being afraid to use physical intimidation when needed.

"This is Yavlinsky. He knows how to handle himself," Limonov said. Limonov, whose writings about his childhood in Kharkov are filled with street fights and general mayhem, conceded, however, that he had never seen Yavlinsky resort to violence or physical intimidation.

Yavlinsky said his 400-day program was refashioned by Mikhail Bocharov, then a deputy in the Supreme Soviet, into the "500 Days" program, which gained subsequent support from Gorbachev and Russian President Boris Yeltsin but later was rejected.

Yavlinsky resigned after his plans for economic reforms went nowhere. "I believe in economics, and I believed in the reforms," he said.

He continued to work as an adviser to government economists, and after the Soviet Union was dissolved in December 1991 he went on to introduce successful reforms in Nizhny Novgorod under Nemtsov.

Yavlinsky's presidential ambitions surfaced in October 1993, when he formed an electoral bloc in Moscow called Yabloko, or Apple, whose name is based on the last names of its founding members. The first two letters came from Yavlinsky; the "B" from former Yeltsin aide Yury Boldyrev; and the "L" from Vladimir Lukin, now the country's ombudsman.

The bloc became a political party in 1995, finishing fourth in Duma elections, and Yavlinsky, as its head, ran the following year for president against Yeltsin and Communist Party leader Gennady Zyuganov.

Always a Bridesmaid

The 1996 election is still a sensitive topic for Yavlinsky. After building up a solid voter base on promises of battling corruption and ending the first Chechen war, he feels he was cheated out of third, or possibly even second, place.

He complains he was hurt by his reputation as a "super dove" out to cleanse the corridors of power during a time when the country's billionaires were being born in controversial privatizations.

Seven bankers -- Boris Berezovsky, Vladimir Potanin, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, Vladimir Gusinsky, Alexander Smolensky, Mikhail Fridman and Pyotr Aven -- threw their media and financial support behind Yeltsin, paying for a campaign that won him a second term. Their winning bet on Yeltsin contributed greatly to their subsequent influence.

"Yeltsin offered me a position to support him in the 1996 election, as long as I withdrew from election race," Yavlinsky said. "I said to him, 'I have a list of things you should do: If you stop the corruption, stop the bureaucrats from stealing from the people, then we can talk.' He said: 'What can I do? These people are my friends. I'm not going to do that.' I said: 'Then there is nothing to talk about.'"

The current sources of Yabloko's financing are unclear. Yavlinsky said he had agreements with certain people whose identities would be announced after Yabloko is registered for the upcoming Duma elections.

He denied reports that George Soros, a U.S. billionaire known to be partial to West-leaning democratic movements in Eastern Europe, had ever contributed money to the party. Soros declined to comment, his spokesman Michael Vachon said by e-mail.

Khodorkovsky, the former Yukos head currently serving out a prison sentence on fraud and tax evasion charges linked by some to his financing of opposition parties, contributed "several million dollars" in 2003 and 2004, Yavlinsky said.

Yavlinsky said his chances of becoming president this time around were even less realistic than a decade ago. But he has a list of priorities for what he would do as president, including the introduction of an independent judicial system and the creation of a parliament that reflects all elected political parties.

"Thirdly, I would implement real private property rights, which, together with real competition, would be the basis for the real market economy," he said.

What can be done to get an opposition figure into the Kremlin? Telling the public the truth about what is going on day by day and formulating an alternative, Yavlinsky said. "Criticisms without alternatives have no substance. Simply saying that this is a bad government means nothing," he said. 'We must say, 'I'm ready to make a good government, and I can do that.'

"The problem is that no one would ever believe that they could create something."

Editor's note: This is the fourth in a series of profiles of possible presidential candidates.