Vitali Shkliarov advised the campaign of Bernie Sanders during the 2016 US Democratic Party primaries, now he’s supporting first-time candidates campaign in Moscow’s local council elections. At the forefront of Russia’s growing oppositional movement, he’s not only made himself friends.
Save Liberal Democracy: You worked with Bernie Sanders in the last US-presidential election campaign. Why did Trump end up winning, despite the enthusiastic campaign of Bernie Sanders in the democratic primaries?
Shkliarov: There is a huge institutional problem. It lies within the two-party system itself. Originally, the idea was that competition between only two parties would increase party discipline and decrease extremism. However, it currently seems to have the opposite effect as parties polarize each political issue to retain a moral high ground. The second institutional problem is campaign financing. Super-PACs, which finance political campaigns, have grown hugely powerful and partly dictate the content of campaigns. That’s what should have been looked to before the election.
SLD: So what’s the plan until 2020?
And that’s what both the Republican and Democratic Party need to do: put special interests second and campaign for ordinary folks across the country. Like we did in Moscow.
Shkliarov: Obama made politics cool and sexy, Bernie turned into a movement. Now we need to find more ways to empower normal people, especially the coming generation. That extends beyond the immediate pre- and post-election phase. We need to foster a politically active generation that engages with its politics beyond the ‘hot phase’. And we’ll have to approach this like a big company does, by head-hunting good people and providing them with the necessary tools and education to effect change. Both in Russia and the US, the public consensus is that politicians are self-serving. To make politicians less self-serving, we need more engagement.
SLD: But how do you foster successful engagement?
Shkliarov: Like we did in Moscow lately, by campaigning for thousands of first-time candidates with no political experience whatsoever. And that’s what both the Republican and Democratic Party need to do: put special interests second and campaign for ordinary folks across the country. These people know the problems of a much larger part of the society and they experience these problems first-hand. Parties can provide them with expertise and campaigning tools.
SLD: You are of Belorussian descent and returned to work in political activism in this country: how is the situation in Russia, in regard to civil rights and liberties?
Russian oppositional parties and movements are only making first steps. But in consideration of the political situation in the country, this is a really impressive development, especially in the large cities.
Shkliarov: I was born in the Soviet Union and have since lived in Germany, Ukraine, Brazil and currently the United States. That gives me both an external and internal perspective. Russia has no experience of the civil liberties and rights that are so familiar to, for example, German and Brazilian citizens. And if we look at the trend in the last couple of years, I believe the Russians have made notable progress – despite persisting repression. While personal and political liberties are very clearly limited in Russia, I believe the Russian people have been given considerable scope for many types of initiatives and even self-criticism in the public space. It is, however, still really far away from what we’re accustomed to in the West.
SLD: Has this had a noticeable effect on the Russian political landscape?
Shkliarov: Political activism, especially at the grassroots level, has increased. Even though the Russian culture in comparison to the American culture is completely different. In Russia you don’t have the long history of participation and grassroots empowerment, Russian oppositional parties and movements are only making first steps. But in consideration of the political situation in the country, this is a really impressive development, especially in the large cities. That’s why we’re creating tools to help activists mobilize around particular issues and get elected.
From the outside it seems a move by the regime to scapegoats minorities such as homosexuals in order to distract from the real problems the country has. What is your perception from the inside?
Yes, the regime comes up with different scapegoats to distract from the real problems of the country. But this is definitely not unique to Russia; the Democratic Party demonizes the Republicans, just as the Republicans demonize the Democrats. For the Kremlin, different domestic and foreign groups are granted this role. Across the globe, this is a dangerous tendency.
Are there signs of hope, a flourishing civil society that forms slowly but steadily a resistance against oppressions?
Certainly there are. The last election, about two weeks ago, was a prime example of this. We ran about 1000 independent candidates and 267 seats were won, which means these independent grassroots candidates are now the second largest group in the city of Moscow. That is symbolic, because every political change in Russia began in Moscow. I have rarely witnessed such a quick progress in such short a time. Alexei Navalny running as president is another example of good political change.
Populists and autocrats of our time seem to all follow the same pattern in their operations: you create a strong antagonism, a trench, between “us”, your own group, and “them”, as in “the other” that you demonize. Can you enlighten us a bit more in detail how the government operates on that in Russia?
There is a pact between the government and its elites on the one side, and the ordinary people on the other side. While the first were allowed to pursue their own interests, they offered stability and prosperity in return. It seemed as if everyone was happy, especially after the 1998 crash and the partly chaotic Yeltsin era. There was no demand for political participation. But that pact became weaker and eventually shifted. Now the public doesn’t receive goods and stability, but a sense of national pride. The Russian people are willing to relinquish a lot just to be able to understand themselves as the ‘chosen’ people. Putin’s high approval ratings are a sign that this pact has been accepted.
What role play social media in your work in Russia?
Social media plays a huge role not only in the political life, but in the daily life of an increasing number of Russians. In the political sphere, it remains the only tool that ‘normal’ Russians can use to organize and run campaigns. The access to media and television is restricted, fundraising is complicated and also partly forbidden. For oppositional candidates, social media is the only way to connect to supporters. That’s why the political social media apparatus in Russia is partly better developed than in the US.
What are your own values that lead you to engage in the work you do?
Primarily it is a sense of fairness, which I’ve had since my childhood. One third of my life so far I spent in the Soviet Union, the second third in Europe and the third in the United States. At each step I began to appreciate the values of each cultural space. This eclectic mix of values enabled me to appreciate how much potential citizens across the world have to change the conditions of their lives for the better.