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In a year when Russian politics have been characterized more by public ritual than open struggle, the Agrarian Party congress held this week presented a sharp contrast: Party leader Mikhail Lapshin was actually unseated after more than a decade at the helm. The Communist Party's congress scheduled for June promises to be equally stormy, as leader Gennadii Zyuganov might well be unseated.

The future for the Agrarian Party is likely to offer less drama, as it is now expected to toe a line more congenial to the Kremlin.

Lapshin's ouster had been predicted for some weeks before the 28 April congress, but Lapshin, 69, promised not go without a fight. Prior to the congress, he publicly accused party Deputy Chairman and chief financial sponsor Aleksei Chepa of responsibility for the party's dire financial state (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 8 April 2004).

Lapshin took full responsibility for the party's poor performance in the 7 December State Duma elections
In his address to the congress, Lapshin took full responsibility for the party's poor performance in the 7 December State Duma elections, in which the party got only 3.6 percent of the vote, "Vremya novostei" reported on 29 April. But he swept aside accusations that the party had run through vast sums of money -- some $20 million -- during the campaign. "If we had had such money, we would not only have entered the Duma, but would have flown to outer space," Lapshin said. He argued that his successor should be selected from among worthy people, not from "those who have no relationship to the party other than financial" -- an obvious slap at Chepa. He offered to remain in the post until December so that the candidates to succeed him could be exhaustively vetted.

Lapshin's arguments failed to win the day. Two hundred twenty-six delegates voted to elect State Duma Deputy Vladimir Plotnikov (Unified Russia) as their new leader, while only 185 supported Lapshin. Plotnikov is deputy chairman of the Duma's Agriculture Committee, and he managed to win because both Chepa and State Duma Deputy Nikolai Kharitonov (Communist), a long-time rival of Lapshin's, refrained from entering the race and endorsed Plotnikov, according to "Kommersant-Daily" on 29 April. Plotnikov was also supported by Agriculture Minister Aleksei Gordeev, who was a member of the Agrarian Party's Central Committee until May 2003.

The conflict between Lapshin and Kharitonov first flared openly in 1999, when the party's Central Committee voted to join an election bloc with Moscow Mayor Yurii Luzhkov's Fatherland-All Russia, instead of with its traditional partner, the Communist Party (see "RFE/RL Russian Political Weekly," 27 November 2003). In May 2003, Kharitonov, who was then party co-chairman, was ousted, and Gordeev was removed from the party's leadership. At that time, Gordeev was already a member of Unified Russia's Supreme Council, and in December 2003, Kharitonov ran in the No. 3 slot on the Communist Party's party list in the Duma race.

At a 29 April press conference on 29 April, newly installed Agrarian Party leader Plotnikov pledged to cooperate with other agrarian movements, such as the Agro-Industrial Union, headed by Communist Governor of Tula Oblast Vasilii Starodubtsev, and the Russian Agrarian Movement, headed by Gordeev. The Russian Agrarian Movement is considered moderate and pro-Kremlin. Chepa expressed the opinion that Plotnikov's election is the first step along the path of "consolidating Russia's agrarian movements."

While consolidation might help mend the divisions in the movement that contributed to the decline in the party's influence since its peak in the early 1990s, the party also has some work to do to persuade the public that it represents the interests of farmers. A survey of 800 rural households conducted during 2001 in five regions of Russia -- Belgorod, Krasnodar, Volgograd, and Novgorod oblasts, and the Chuvash Republic -- asked, "Which party best represents your interests?" The overwhelming response was no party (see "RFE/RL Russian Political Weekly," 27 November 2003).

Meanwhile, the party's competitors can capitalize on the impression that the party represents the interests of new, large landowners rather than that of farmers. In an interview with "Kommersant-Daily" on 27 April, Aleksandr Prokhanov, editor in chief of "Zavtra" and a leading leftist ideologist, told the daily that the Agrarians "do not defend the interests of farmers, whose situation is worsening." "Some farmers are located outside of the social [hierarchy]," Prokhanov said, "but others have been turned into slaves of the new latinfundistas. The new latifundistas are [part of] the elite of the party, and such a party should simply die."

Former Duma Deputy and Republican Party co-Chairman Republican Party Vladimir Lysenko echoed Prokhanov's assessment. "A peasants' party will always exist in Russia, and I believe that the Agrarian Party has a right to exist," Lysenko said. "And their credo, in my opinion, should be 'land for the peasants.' But this party now cannot [uphold] such a credo, because it expresses the interests not of farmers, but of latinfundistas."
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