‘We’re all you’ve got’ Nikolai Rybakov explains his party’s problem with the Navalny movement and his belief that Yabloko is Russia’s only option for democrats

In the past few days, the leaders of the Russian democratic opposition party Yabloko have deliberately alienated Alexey Navalny’s followers. The party’s founder and chief authority, Grigory Yavlinsky, recently spoke to the independent television network Dozhd and said plainly, “We aren’t going to pursue Navalny’s politics, and we aren’t inviting his supporters onto our party lists. Those who want to vote for Navalny needn’t vote for us.” Not long before these remarks, Yabloko’s party congress blocked an initiative by its Moscow bureau to nominate Oleg Stepanov (Navalny’s former Moscow office coordinator) in the upcoming State Duma elections. The party also rejected a motion to nominate former political prisoner and Lyubov Sobol volunteer Alexey Minyailo. At the same time, Yabloko endorsed the candidacy of Andrey Pivovarov, the jailed former head of the Open Russia movement. “This is a humanitarian step in support of a political prisoner, but we understand that he won’t be waging any kind of campaign from pretrial detention,” clarified the party’s deputy director, Ivan Bolshakov. Meduza special correspondent Andrey Pertsev spoke to Yabloko chairman Nikolai Rybakov about why the party decided to dissociate itself so strongly from Alexey Navalny, whom it considers to be its allies today, and how it expects to do in Russia’s September parliamentary elections.

“There’s no other choice now,” says Nikolai Rybakov when asked about voters’ options in the September elections. Yabloko’s chairman told Meduza multiple times that his party is all that’s left for true democrats in Russia. “It would be absolutely ideal for the authorities,” he warns, if the Putin regime’s critics stay at home this fall and withhold their support from Yabloko. Like it or not, says Rybakov, but a vote for a candidate from any other party (both the groups now with or without seats in the State Duma) amounts to playing the Kremlin’s “game” and surrendering to more of the same.

By positioning itself as democrats’ sole option this fall, Yabloko is directly challenging not just the remnants of Alexey Navalny’s political movement but also its “SmartVote” initiative, where voters pledge their support for the candidates Navalny’s analysts believe have the best chance of defeating United Russia’s nominees. “SmartVote’s influence is highly exaggerated,” says Rybakov, arguing that it asks people to exchange political values for “poker tactics.” “I have absolutely no interest in choosing between a kleptocrat and a Stalinist,” says Yabloko’s chairman.

Rybakov has his doubts about SmartVote’s analytical powers, as well: “They choose their candidates not at the start of the campaigns but just a few days before they’ve ended, when the favorite in a particular race is already obvious to anyone.”

Yabloko’s party congress recently endorsed 400 candidates from a list of 1,600 preliminary nominees, rejecting bids by Oleg Stepanov (Navalny’s former office coordinator in Moscow) and Alexey Minyailo (a former volunteer for Navalny associate Lyubov Sobol). Rybakov dismisses the backlash from Navalny’s supporters. “1,200 people weren’t nominated and each of them got upset in their own way,” he told Meduza. 

Minyailo says Yabloko abandoned him out of fear that election officials might disqualify the entire party list, but Rybakov dismisses this, too. “It’s a bit naive,” he says, suggesting that Yabloko’s strength is less its candidates than its unambiguous platform (like its clear-cut opposition to Russia’s annexation of Crimea). “Voting for Yabloko isn’t just voting for the candidates it nominated. If you vote for Yabloko, you’re voting for a specific political program, for yourself, and your rights,” he says. 

Rybakov also believes that his party endorsed people “even stronger and more dangerous for the authorities” than activists from the Navalny movement like Stepanov, whose support base, he argues, is limited to central Moscow. “Just imagine that [the Kremlin] told us to nominate Marina Litvinovich, Vladimir Ryzhkov, Lev Shlosberg, Boris Vishnevsky, Alena Popova, and others down the list,” he told Meduza, naming candidates Yabloko endorsed in Moscow and St. Petersburg. “I simply don’t get people who think about politics like that.”

At the same time, Rybakov acknowledges that Yabloko’s appeal is still limited to Russia’s urban centers, though he says the party hopes to broaden its base by campaigning more widely and fielding more election observers. Asked about the challenges of monitoring elections now that they stretch across multiple days, Yabloko’s chairman says the party is already busy training as many observers as it can. In the past, he says, Yabloko’s share of the votes at certain precincts has been two-to-eight times higher at polling stations where at least one monitor is present.

Besides Yabloko, what about the other democratic forces and candidates running in Russia’s next elections? Would Yabloko consider a non-aggression pact with any outsiders who share the party’s convictions? The answer here is a hard no. “There’s a non-aggression pact between Yabloko’s own candidates,” Rybakov told Meduza. “I know of no democratic candidates except ours.”

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Interview by Andrey Pertsev

Abridged summary by Kevin Rothrock

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