What’s wrong with the messenger? There are two well-known “liberal”, “democratic” parties in Russia: the URF and Yabloko. Judging by its official program, the URF is both politically and economically neo-liberal, and socially/culturally liberal. Yabloko pays more attention to safety net issues, which get rather acute in transition economies, and is not as fetishistic about free markets. Russia, it seems, is a socially conservative country, but contentuous issues such as abortion, gay rights, or feministic excesses are not nearly as prominent in Russian political debate. The death penalty and sex/violence in entertainment draw more attention (most Russians are pro-DP), but hardly dominate campaigns. Culturally, the “liberals'” problem is similar to their American same-names’: being seen as “unpatriotic”.
Lack of patriotism, however, is obviously not what paralyzed the two parties this time. Speaking of the URF, it is hard to support rule of law and be funded by corrupt “oligarchs”. It doesn’t help to have lightweight leaders who give an impression they don’t really care that much about their voters’ needs. It is not the brightest idea to include on your electoral list a politician whose disapproval rating is close to 70% (Anatoly Chubais, that is). It is advisable to clearly state whether you support the president or are in opposition to his policies, and on what issues. It is also a good idea not to get hysterical and avoid shouting, “If you don’t vote for us, national socialists will dominate the Duma!” It is bad manners to consistently attack the only other “liberal” party while publicly calling for a union with it. And so on.
As for Yabloko, the party was, I think, on fertile ground on some sensitive issues–e.g., they billed themselves as the (only?) faction that had voted against the importation of nuclear waste. Overall, Yabloko stands for a capitalism with a human face, which makes them attractive especially to a group of educated voters to whom the new economy has been unkind. The “human face” qualification may have cost them broader support, though–Russia’s politically young electorate likes radicals. Yabloko has wisely, if with not enough success, tried to win grassroot support among the young through an affiliated student movement. (Alas, the young are natural radicals.) Somehow it didn’t help much this time. Perhaps because Yabloko’s leader, Grigory Yavlinsky (the Ya), admitted on TV that he had agreed to add certain businessmen to its electoral list when they made it a precondition for financial support. If anybody took heed, it must have been ruinous to Yavlinsky’s long-nurtured squeaky-clean image. Perhaps it was that Yavlinsky’s stubborn insistence on staying clean meant staying away from positions of responsibility and led people to impute to him impotence and fear of action. Indeed, since once serving in the Russian government in 1991, Yavlinsky has been offered a government position quite a few times, and has always declined. This way or that, Yavlinsky failed to show the maturity required to lead, not only criticize.
What’s wrong with the way the message was sent? I will leave this to experts in election techology. I am rather more interested in the future: who is going to defend the common Russian’s interests in the new Duma?