Should libertarians look up to Putin's Russia?
Should libertarians look up to Putin's Russia?

There is more freedom in Russia than in the EU. Russia is not perfect, but is EU really better? Running a business is easier in Russia, cause the EU regulations don’t reach there.

As surprising as it might seem, I didn’t take these statements from the website of RT, Sputnik, or any other propaganda outlet of Kremlin. Neither did they come from the facebook page of AfD, National Front, or some other anti-EU, and blatantly pro-Putin, nationalist political party. Such views are apparently held by some members of the liberty movement - people claiming to be for free market, free trade, freedom of speech and business.

Which is precisely the opposite of what Putin’s Russia represents.

Does the problem exist in the first place?

Due to the fact that the libertarian community is not a centralized entity, but rather a conglomerate of numerous bottom-up groups and alliances, it is quite hard to determine how big the issue actually is. Nevertheless, I tried to get at least a some understanding on the scope of the problem. That’s why I created a survey, addressed solely to libertarians and classical liberals, in which I asked them about their attitude to Russia, Putin and Kremlin. Over 350 people participated in the poll so far (which is still available, and I invite you to take part in it if you happen to be a libertarian), and some of the results are as follow (they are rounded off to two decimal points for clarity’s sake):

Russia is not a perfect country, but it's better than European Union.

Yes: 19,14%

No: 54,79%

Not sure: 21,45%

Other: 4,62%

I support Vladimir Putin's international politics.

Yes: 20,46%

No: 57,76%

Not sure: 18,48%

Other: 3,30%

I think Vladimir Putin is a good leader for the regular Russian citizens.

Yes: 33,66%

No: 45,21%

Not sure: 19,14%

Other: 1,98%

There is more freedom in Russia than in European Union.

Yes: 11,55%

No: 54,46%

Not sure: 29,04%

Other: 4,95%

If I could, I would vote for Vladimir Putin.

Yes: 13,86%

No: 67,66%

Not sure: 16,83%

Other: 1,65%

Running a company in Russia is easier than in European Union.

Yes: 13,20%

No: 34,65%

Not sure: 50,50%

Other: 1,65%

We should lift the sanctions on Russia.

Yes: 52,81%

No: 30,36%

Not sure: 15,18%

Other: 1,65%

I would like to move to Russia.

Yes: 5,28%

No: 79,21%

Not sure:13,20%

Other: 2,31%

Now, I realize that my surveying method was a mere Google poll posted in dozens of libertarian facebook groups. I am not running a professional opinion polling centre, so I can’t really claim that the percentage I presented is an actual representation of pro-Russian sentiment in the liberty movement. What can’t be denied, however, is that the problem of pro-Putin confusion among libertarians does exist - Google poll or not, the number of the responses favorable to the Kremlin regime is way over the error margin.

Furthermore, one doesn’t really need to create surveys to find examples of pro-Putin sympathies among advocates of liberty, including Ron Paul, a true libertarian VIP,  frequent guest of Kremlin propaganda outlets Sputnik and RT (Russia Today), and a fierce defender of the Kremlin's false narrative about the Russian aggresion against Ukraine. The largest free-market party in Poland, Partia Wolność (Pol. “The Freedom Party”) is arguably the biggest pro-Kremlin group in the Polish politics, with its top members visiting Russian-occupied Crimea at pro-Kremlin events, or its leader expressing praise for Ramzan Kadyrov, a brutal tyrant and Putin’s satrap in Chechnya. People from outside the movement noticed this phenomenon as well - Julian Borger has published a comprehensive piece titled “Disruption games: why are libertarians lining up with autocrats to undermine democracy?” for the Guardian.

I hesitated quite a bit before writing this article, because its premise seemed quite absurd. It was obvious to me that Russia represents all that libertarians should despise. Russian government's record of infringing upon civil and economic liberties has been well documented by respected sources such as The Economic Freedom Index, Human Freedom Index or Press Freedom Index, and so was the overwhelming level of corruption. There is still military conscription in Russia, and conscripts are being sent to fight in the Russian war against Ukraine, sometimes against their will. Independent media are almost non-existent, and those outlets that managed to remain indepentent are under a constant threat of being banned.

However, this doesn’t seem to be so obvious to roughly 40-50% of the people I surveyed (if you count those who answered “not sure” to my questions) and to some of the  influential libertarian personas that I mentioned above. So either they are truly confused, misinformed or manipulated by Russian propaganda, or I am simply deeply wrong in my understanding of the political reality of Russia.

And who better to ask about it, than an actual, Russian libertarian?

If you’re a libertarian Russia, prepare to get arrested

Vera Kichanova is the pioneer of the Russian liberty movement and the first libertarian to be elected to public office in Russia. She now lives in London, which means that she has both a unique perspective on the Western liberty movement, as well as hands-on experience related to living under Putin’s government.

I reached out to Vera to find out if Russia is indeed such a liberty paradise as some deem it to be:

Vera Kichanova: I wouldn’t say something new if I tell you that ever since Vladimir Putin has come to power, the situation with freedom in Russia has been deteriorating. But the pace of sliding into dictatorship was speeded up greatly after the Ukrainian revolution and the annexation of Crimea in 2014. I’ve been arrested a few times for participating in peaceful rallies, which was before 2014, that’s why I can talk to you now. Today, in the post-Crimea Russia, taking part in a peaceful demonstration can get one in prison for several years.

Vera goes as far as to say that “freedom of speech basically doesn’t exist in Russia anymore”.

As a journalist, I have faced censorship myself when my article was removed at the government’s request. Back in 2014, it was more or less an outstanding case but today online resources are being censored on a regular basis. In fact, there are over hundred people in Russia imprisoned for their views. Only last year, over 500 Russians were convicted of “extremism”, mostly for their online activity. You should keep it in mind when asking why so few Russians are actively opposing Putin’s rule.

What about economic freedom? After all, Vera herself mentioned the fact that in the early 2000s Vladimir Putin hired a team of free-market reformers from CATO Institute to liberalise the economy, which, as she stated,  “contributed to economic growth and created lots of possibilities for small and medium-sized businesses to thrive.”

For a while, Putin, who claimed to be an admirer of the Singapore economic miracle, believed it was possible to combine free market economy with tightly controlled politics. In the long run, this strategy was doomed to fail. Economic sanctions imposed on Russia after the annexation of Crimea caused investors to sell off their Russian assets, which led to the rapid collapse of the national currency. Add to this the dramatic fall of the oil price in the same year and you get an impression. Now that the government is bailing out the oligarchs whose companies were affected by the sanctions, we can only talk of crony “capitalism”, not fair market competition. Some of the most prominent business leaders had to leave Russia and give up their assets to Putin’s allies. The case of Pavel Durov, the creator of “Russian Facebook” and the Telegram messenger, was an eye-opening thing for many.

What is the Durov’s case about? First, he was ousted from vKontakte - a company he himself co-founded - according to him, for his refusal to hand over users’ details to the Russian government. He fled Russia “with no plans of coming back” as he deemed the country to be "incompatible with Internet business". He then founded the Telegram messenger, which... was later blocked in Russia for Durov’s refusal to give Kremlin access the users’ conversations. What’s even more telling, Durov is a declared libertarian.

Is the EU any better?

Being a classical liberal myself, I realize that there is much to dislike about the EU. I asked Vera whether Russia presents a good alternative.

EU is not a single country and the levels of political, economic and social liberties vary across the continent. The current constitutional crisis in Poland and the dictatorial conduct of the Hungarian government, for example, are matters of deep concern. But even the least free EU countries are many miles ahead of Russia in terms of liberty, and even the most questionable policies of the EU bureaucrats are incomparable in terms of damage to the atrocities of Putin’s regime. One might like or dislike the EU policies but the legal and factual ability to criticise them in the media or on the streets is something completely absent in today’s Russia.

“Enemy of your enemy is not necessarily your friend”

The results of almost 20 years of Putin’s rule are economic recession, the suffocation of the civil society and independent media, dozens of new political prisoners, Russia’s international isolation and the new spike in brain drain. Nothing of it can be supported by people who cherish liberty above all.

- replied Vera, when asked whether some libertarians have a point in claiming that Russia is a good country for a liberty-mined person to live. However, as shown above, many Western libertarians seem to sympathize with Putin nonetheless. What is the reason for that?

For many, Putin has an image of an anti-establishment political leader who is able the challenge the status quo. Often their interest in Putin is the flip side of their discontent with their own rulers, which is understandable. But one thing they miss is that the enemy of your enemy is not necessarily your friend. As you might have noticed, Russia’s current regime is supporting anyone who is critical of the so-called “liberal world order”, from the radical left-wing parties like Die Linke in Germany and Syriza in Greece to the far-right movements like Northern League in Italy and UKIP in Britain.

Unlike during the Cold War when the Soviet Union was clearly advancing the ideas of socialism, the aim of the Kremlin’s propaganda today is not to promote any particular ideology, it is to destabilise the Western democracies by filling the news flow with conspiracy theories, irrational fears, crazy rumors. The Russian “troll factory” activity around the Catalonia crisis is a very vivid example — in fact, they were backing both sides in this debate. After all, Putin’s ideology is an eclectic mix of neo-Stalinism and Orthodoxy, what is there for a freedom advocate to solidarise with? I’m glad that more and more freedom advocates realise it.

One thing in Russia libertarians should look up to

Corruption, lack of free media, political arrests and even political killings place Russia at the opposite end of the libertarian vision of a country. That being said, there is one thing that libertarians should look up to in Russia - and it’s the Russian liberty movement.

Surprisingly enough, Russian Libertarian Party is the oldest, continuously operating opposition party in Russia, and has members all around the country, from Kaliningrad in the West to Vladivostok in the East. A famous libertarian vlogger Mikhail Svetov regularly hosts lectures attended not by tens, but sometimes by hundreds of people. When Telegram was about to be blocked by the government back in April 2018, it was the Libertarian Party of Russia that motivated 12 thousand of people to attend the protest for Internet freedom in Moscow.

The Russian Libertarian Party, which I’m a member of, has turned 10 this year ago — our first big anniversary. We started as a bunch of nerds gathering in the basement (literally!) to discuss Hayek’s writings. Since then, we’ve grown significantly, inaugurated regional chapters across the whole country, became weekly newsmakers in the country-wide media outlets. The rally in support of free speech we organised few months ago was attended by over 12 thousand people. The Adam Smith Forum, our major educational project, is getting insanely popular — the event is one week ahead and we’ve already received over 2,000 registrations!

How did we achieve it all? Libertarians traditionally pay much attention to spreading ideas but, being the first libertarian elected into public office in Russia, I would still recommend being politically active. In a country where the media are tightly controlled, going from door to door while campaigning might be the only way of breaking through iron curtain. If you talk to your neighbours about the non-aggression principle or the Hayekian spontaneous order, I bet they won’t listen. But if you tell them how libertarian policies can address their real daily concerns, you get supporters, voters and activists. In Western democracies many are disappointed — and for a reason — in traditional parties. Unfortunately, in many places the gap is now being filled with anti-liberal populists but I see no reason why libertarians cannot make it instead.

Of course, all this comes at a price. The liberty movement in Russia might boast its numerous successes, but it must be noted that they also face one of the most brutal regimes in the world, and for sure in Europe. Vera has been arrested several times, and Mikheil Svetov, whom I interviewed some time ago for a Polish portal Onet, has told me that he got used to having his door burned by his opponents. That, however, doesn’t weaken their spirit - quite the contrary.

So, you might not find much liberty in Russia, but you'll for sure find many great libertarians.

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