MOSCOW — Vitali Shkliarov, a 41-year-old political operative born in Belarus, speaks the gospel of Bernie Sanders in the style of a Silicon Valley executive. Technology, he says, is a key to access, and his dream is a "political Uber" designed to pick up potential candidates and get them around the barriers keeping them from office.
The idea got a test drive in Moscow’s recent municipal elections, but the veteran of the Sanders and Barack Obama campaigns sees it as part of a worldwide movement.
“Obama made politics in America — but also worldwide — cool and sexy,” Shkliarov said in energetic, accented English during a recent interview at a Moscow cocktail bar. “Next, and I was part of it, was Sanders making politics like a Woodstock festival. It was about education, not partisanship.”
The next step, he said, is to ensure that anyone can become a candidate.
“This is the new era of politics, not just in Russia but in America, too,” he said.
Last month, a coalition of liberal opposition candidates under the banner United Democrats won majorities on 30 of Moscow's 125 municipal councils, a rare show of strength for a group used to being crushed at the polls and hounded off the streets.
Alongside Max Katz, the coalition’s campaign manager, Shkliarov helped develop a political clearinghouse to usher prospective candidates through the onerous Russian registration process, providing training and financial, logistical and legal support.
The effort helped register close to 1,000 opposition candidates, many of them political novices. Even more surprising, 267 were elected, including to 11 of the 12 seats in the central Moscow district where Russian President Vladimir Putin votes. They are still in the minority, Shkliarov said, but a sign that change in Russia can come from the bottom up.
“What happened in Russia is not just at a municipal level — it’s a message to Putin,” he said, adding that he is looking forward to campaigns in cities such as St. Petersburg or even the 2018 Russian presidential race. “I hope this will be a big shock, and that’s going to give people hope and energy for the future.”
The Moscow elections were a highlight in an unlikely career in politics for Shkliarov, who was born in Gomel, Belarus, but developed an interest in the German language after a childhood visit to Hamburg following the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear accident. A German military veteran who befriended his grandfather later invited him to stay, and Shkliarov found his way into a university in the Lower Saxony town of Vechta, where he lived for some time at a monastery to save on room and board.
Shkliarov studied linguistics and politics, then built a career as a consultant helping companies navigate the gulf between Europe and the former Soviet Union.
But his taste for politics caught up with him. In 2008, he was at the Brandenburg Gate when Obama, then a presidential candidate, gave a speech to hundreds of thousands of Germans repudiating the unilateralist politics that prevailed under President George W. Bush.
“People of the world, look at Berlin, where a wall came down, a continent came together, and history proved that there is no challenge too great for a world that stands as one,” Obama said.
Shkliarov was electrified.
“I was born in a system where there was just one party, in a country where literally nobody I knew wanted to be a politician because it was the crappiest thing ever,” he recalled. “And I thought: Why don’t we have presidents like that?”
He moved to the United States with his American fiancee, and in 2011 found himself, not yet a U.S. citizen, volunteering to work for the Obama reelection campaign at the Democratic National Committee in Washington.
His first job was making cold calls. For an immigrant with poor English, it was “the hardest job ever.”
But sometimes his accent helped.
“People didn’t know about Belarus, so I would say I am Russian, and I would tell my story: I’m Russian, and I came here to help your president get elected,” he said. He made quick progress, working his way onto the payroll and eventually planning outreach efforts in Green Bay, Wis., and Milwaukee.
Shkliarov said his background has become more controversial since allegations arose of Russian hacking in the 2016 presidential election. Sometimes portrayed as a spy or “Washington slut” by pro-Kremlin media in Russia, he also has sensed less trust in the United States.
“There’s so much interest in Russia on TV that you think it would be helpful, but it’s become so toxic to be Russian or on the Russian topic that many people don’t want to deal with you,” he said.
As a foreign national in the United States, he often worked campaign to campaign, he said, and was not given the steady jobs routinely handed out to political supporters after election victories.
By 2015, he was drawn to Sanders, whose message about universal health care struck a chord with Shkliarov, who had lost his medical insurance when he left Germany.
Shkliarov’s wife urged him to volunteer, but he said he doubted he would be taken on. Then, “like in a movie,” he said, he received an email from a former colleague from the Obama campaign.
“I’m with the Bernie campaign,” the colleague wrote. “Get on a plane ASAP.” Soon he was in Nevada, first working as a director for mobilization and eventually moving on to Sanders’s advance team before the candidate lost the Democratic nomination to Hillary Clinton.
Meanwhile, United Democrats was calling. Shkliarov had previously campaigned for Dmitry Gudkov, the opposition member of parliament who founded the coalition, and Gudkov’s deputy, Katz, was insistent.
“Max called me and said, ‘Your campaign is over, so you can come to Moscow now,’ ” Shkliarov said.
He went, helping to identify 3,500 potential candidates for the municipal elections, building a voter database and hatching ideas such as “gamifying” campaigns, in which financial rewards were given to candidates “willing to put in the work day after day, knocking on doors.”
But the biggest change, Shkliarov said, is to the mentality that change is impossible. He said that the Sanders revolution promoted grass-roots activism but that the model could be taken even further.
“You have to create something from the bottom to the top,” he said. “Nobody wants to think about little campaigns — everybody wants to be cool. But that’s where the change is.”