Irina Khakamada, the sole woman candidate in this month's Russian presidential elections, has announced her departure from her longtime party, the Union of Rightist Forces (SPS) and the creation of her own party, to be called Free Russia. Her move comes at a time when Russia's opposition parties are seeing their influence on the wane.
Prague, 26 March 2004 (RFE/RL) -- Several days ahead of Russian presidential elections on 14 March, Irina Khakamada announced her decision to launch a new party.
The decision was not meant to lend a boost to her presidential bid. She, like the other challengers, had virtually no hope of defeating Putin's re-election run.
Instead, Khakamada said she was creating her new party in order to lay the foundation for an opposition force that someday in the future will have the strength to challenge the ruling establishment.
"By voting for me you are supporting the alternative program that shows the protest of free people [against official policies]. And then, after these votes are collected, we can start working on a political movement that is oppositional, clear, and democratic, and join other groups which have already emerged or will emerge," Khakamada said.
Khakamada did not receive support from her longtime party, the Union of Rightist Forces (SPS), during the presidential campaign, and had to run as an independent liberal candidate. Explaining her split with SPS, she says she and her fellow co-chair Anatolii Chubais disagreed on the party's stance toward the Kremlin.
"I am sure that SPS, led by Anatolii Borisovich [Chubais], will never go toward a normal, clear and plain opposition to the Kremlin. That is why my way is different. As a socially oriented liberal, I will finally take care of people's problems. I am sure that the SPS have made a mistake. They paid too much attention to business and completely forgot about the compatibility of the market [economy] with liberties and democracy, with good salaries for officers, soldiers, teachers, doctors, and pensions for the retired and child support allowances. The public somehow decided that in order to obtain a normal life, they have to trade in their liberty," Khakamada said.
The 48-year-old politician took the final step toward forming a separate party after her fourth-place finish in the 14 March poll, in which she took just 4 percent of the vote.
Khakamada's campaign manager told the press that the candidate's split with SPS went smoothly, and that Free Russia aims to avoid conflict with other opposition forces as it builds a coalition of like-minded parties.
One of the main strategic aims of Khakamada and her supporters is to create a political grouping that will be able to compete and win seats at the next parliamentary elections in 2007. Russian election laws require a party to win at least 7 percent of the vote in order to send deputies to the State Duma.
Free Russia organizers say their first priority is to create a basic party structure of 45 grassroots organizations and eventually build up a membership of 10,000 or more.
Khakamada's idea of sparking cooperation across the opposition's wide political spectrum has found some support -- even among politicians who do not share her political views.
Sergei Baburin, leader of left-wing national All-Russian Popular Union, says that to in order to remain a part of the political arena, diverse opposition groups will have to form alliances ahead of the 2007 Duma vote.
"In view of the 7 percent barrier in the next parliamentary elections, the results of the recent presidential elections support the notion of creating a coalition of left-wing and right-wing forces -- all who do not want to find themselves on the sidelines. Everyone should benefit from the lesson of SPS," Baburin said.
Nikolai Petrov is a political analyst at the Moscow Carnegie Center. He says Khakamada's decision to form a new opposition party is a logical result of her relative success during the election -- and desire among members of the right-wing electorate to form a united group working in clear opposition to the Kremlin.
"There is some sort of a crisis among the leadership of right-wing liberal forces. It is connected to a dilemma of cooperation versus opposition to the authorities. A so-called position of conditional cooperation took the upper hand and that was evident during the parliamentary elections. By formulating her opposition platform quite strictly and clearly, Khakamada has a possibility to find a point of growth and consolidate the part of right-wing electorate who are dissatisfied with what's happening," Petrov said.
Petrov says there is nothing unusual in Khakamada's stated tactic of courting closer ties with different ideological groups.
"We have seen that sort of thing during the recent presidential elections, when a number of candidates with very different ideological positions joined efforts and created an alternative election campaign center. At the same time as they were achieving joint goals [both on campaign issues and non-campaign issues], they are able to take opposite positions [on some questions] and remain opponents," Petrov said.
Petrov says Free Russia is likely to face a dilemma similar to those faced by past opposition groups. With no parliamentary representation, parties like Free Russia are almost completely unable to impact major political decisions in the country and are often incapable of gaining large voter recognition.
At the same time, he says, by 2007, Russian voters may be looking for a way to express their dissatisfaction with the government -- and may turn to opposition groups as a result.