Russian nineteenth-century literature famously had a string of leading characters, the best known being Alexander Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin, who were called superfluous men. This literary superfluous man was a brilliant free-thinking individual whose gifts were unwanted by the Russian state and by a rigid imperial bureaucracy that valued only obedience and patriotism. Onegin and his peers showed off their talents to their own small circle and amused the reader but generally met a tragic end. Yet these men were superfluous only to a specific time and nation: had they lived in a different period or a different country, they might have achieved great things.
Eastern European politics currently seems to have a lot of superfluous men. Like Pushkin’s tragic hero, they still have much to offer but find themselves living in the wrong historical moment.
The thought is prompted first of all by the October 8 parliamentary election in Georgia and the crushing defeat of probably the country’s two most impressive politicians, Irakli Alasania and David Usupashvili.
Georgia’s smaller parties had made a stronger showing earlier in the election campaign. But on voting day, the ruling Georgian Dream party ended up scoring a big victory. Runoff votes in several seats on October 30 could hand Georgian Dream—a coalition of centrists, pro-Europeans, businessmen, and social conservatives—a majority large enough for the party to vote through changes to the constitution, creating de facto one-party rule.
The critical moment was probably a late and disastrous intervention by former president Mikheil Saakashvili, who proclaimed that he would return from his exile in Ukraine to Georgia on election day—even swimming across the Black Sea if necessary—to take his place once more at the helm of the country. Until that point, the United National Movement, Saakashvili’s former ruling party, had run a professional campaign and succeeded somewhat in rebranding itself and moving beyond its founder. But the ex-president’s late plunge into the election seemed to frighten many voters with the prospect of his tempestuous return and a new round of civil strife. That probably drove many away from the smaller parties to what could be called an anti-Misha vote represented by Georgian Dream.
All this hurt Alasania and his Free Democrats party. After the party’s share of the vote fell just below the 5 percent threshold needed for representation in the parliament, Alasania announced he was quitting politics. His party is now basically dissolved.
Alasania ran a weak campaign. But he has been an exemplary public servant for Georgia in various positions, mostly recently as minister of defense from 2012 to 2014.
Georgia can ill afford to do without someone of his talents. The outgoing speaker of parliament, David Usupashvili, and his Republican Party of Georgia fared even worse, winning less than 2 percent of the vote. In the turbulent year of 2012–2013, Usupashvili more or less held Georgia together with quiet but principled diplomacy. His party, which dates back to being a dissident movement in Georgia in the 1970s, had a good, coherent program. Several party colleagues distinguished themselves as ministers, including Usupashvili’s wife Tinatin Khidasheli, who served as minister of defense after Alasania.
Yet Georgian voters punished both Alasania and Usupashvili for being elite figures with nuanced views who were ready to work with political rivals. Neither man performed well on Georgia’s rough-and-tumble television talk shows. They did not connect with the voters—which is another way of saying that they made no concessions to populism.
In a recent essay in Foreign Affairs, political scientist Cas Mudde defined populism as “an ideology that separates society into two homogeneous and antagonistic groups, ‘the pure people’ and ‘the corrupt elite.’” In Georgia, this populism is at least less harmful than in Hungary or Russia, where populist authoritarianism is in the ascendant. Look across Central and Eastern Europe, and you see the casualties of this zeitgeist and a long line of superfluous liberals. Parliaments that were full of professionals and intellectuals twenty years ago are now likely to be stacked with businessmen with parochial interests. It is hard to imagine a younger version of the leader of Czechoslovakia’s Velvet Revolution, Václav Havel, preaching tolerance toward minorities, being elected to the Czech presidency nowadays.
In Russia, the superfluous man par excellence is Grigory Yavlinsky, founder of the Yabloko party, which scored respectable results in the elections of the 1990s. In the era of then Russian president Boris Yeltsin, Yavlinsky made the right call on almost every policy from the war in Chechnya to the abuse of privatization. In a Latvia or a Poland, his talents would have been recognized and he would have served as prime minister. Now, Yabloko’s humiliation in Russia’s September 18 parliamentary election seems to signal the party’s complete demise.
The best hope for classic European liberals—naturally antipopulist—is if they are able to ride a popular wave challenging an unpopular regime. That is what propelled Alasania and Usupashvili to high office in Georgia in 2012. More generally, it was what brought a generation of dissidents and visionaries to power in Central and Eastern Europe in 1989–1991.
This has lessons for Ukraine. The country experienced such a popular movement in 2013–2014 with the Euromaidan, whose spirit has been dampened by the events of the last two years but is still alive. The trio of leading Euromaidan activists now in the parliament, Serhiy Leshchenko, Mustafa Nayyem, and Svitlana Zalishchuk, are seeking to establish a new liberal party. All of them have their faults, but they still represent the best that Ukraine’s political system has to offer.
In his essay on populism, Mudde concluded that populist leaders begin to lose mainly when they take power and their promises are shown to be bogus. That is an eventuality that is hard to wish on most countries. Besides, much of Eastern Europe—notably Russia—is not sufficiently democratic for populists to give up power. Ukraine and Georgia at least have the habit of electoral politics, such that no regime can keep power forever. There, the wheel of history will turn and the superfluous liberals who still have much to offer will one day get another chance to prove themselves.