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Russia: Liberal Russia Party Faces Uphill Battle For Survival

  • Gregory Feifer

A small group of Russian opposition legislators has kicked out its cofounder and main financial backer, exiled tycoon Boris Berezovskii. The group, Liberal Russia, has suffered a series of setbacks in recent months. Now, having severed ties with its primary financial backer, it faces an uphill battle for survival.

Moscow, 14 October 2002 (RFE/RL) -- When a group of lawmakers split last year from the country's biggest liberal party, the Union of Rightist Forces, they had an ace up their sleeves: the financial backing of one of Russia's best-known businessmen.

Berezovskii -- a one-time Kremlin insider credited with helping mastermind President Vladimir Putin's rise to office -- said he would fund the new group, Liberal Russia, in order to oppose the president, of whom he had become a bitter critic.

Last month, Berezovskii said he would sink $100 million into Liberal Russia, on top of approximately $5 million he had already given.

But the alliance fell apart in early October after Berezovskii, who lives in self-imposed exile in London, appeared to make an ideological about-face. He suggested Russia's liberals should ally themselves with "patriots" -- members of conservative groups, including the Communist Party of the Russian Federation (KPRF).

The move outraged Liberal Russia's other leaders, who voted to oust Berezovskii. Now, without its funding mainstay, the group's future seems open to question.

Sergei Yushenkov is the co-chairman of Liberal Russia. He said Berezovskii's absence will actually help attract other potential backers who otherwise would not have given to the group. But he conceded that the loss of the tycoon's financial support is a blow.

"We turned down $100 million , after all -- not 100,000 rubles. It's clear that that sum would have been fully adequate for us to carry out an effective election campaign," Yushenkov said.

Yushenkov -- who has loosely defined liberalism as the acceptance of various points of view -- said Liberal Russia will not sacrifice its principles. "Don't confuse liberalism with Liberal Russia," he said, adding that the group cannot join those who stand for ideas antithetical to its own.

But Berezovskii said a Communist opposition is better than none at all. The oil and media tycoon also said Liberal Russia is too weak and the views of its leaders too fanciful.

"They [say they] stand for liberals the world over. That's the same kind of utopian idea as the ideas of Vladimir Ilyich [Lenin] and the 'proletariat of the world uniting' and the 'creation of an international communist society' were in their day. Yushenkov, together with his friends, is creating something similar. That's absolutely not realistic. It's a kind of marginal view of liberalism in Russia," Berezovskii said.

In practical terms, Liberal Russia is indeed struggling against great odds. The most immediate of its problems is that authorities will not even formally register it as a party -- a status it needs to run in elections in 2003.

The Justice Ministry denied Liberal Russia's application for what it called "inconsistencies" in the group's charter. Many say the real reason was its ties with Berezovskii.

Another blow came in September, when top member Vladimir Golovlev was assassinated for what observers say were his rivalries with businessmen and politicians in the Chelyabinsk region, where he was privatization chief in the early 1990s. Liberal Russia members said the murder was meant to intimidate political opposition forces.

Members also complain that the pro-Putin United Russia Party and its allies, which control roughly 240 seats in the 450-seat lower house, have turned parliament into a rubber-stamping agency, undermining its role as an independent branch of power.

The group's biggest challenge will come during next year's elections, when it will need to land the required 5 percent of the popular vote to have its members sit in the Duma. Few give the group any chances of even beginning to approach that amount.

The country now has two main parties that have divided the liberal electorate between them. One is the Union of Rightist Forces (SPS), which unites many of Russia's "young reformer" technocrats who carried out the Kremlin's reform programs last decade. The other is the more oppositionist social-democrat Yabloko Party.

The free-market-oriented SPS loudly backed Putin and many of his policies at the beginning of his presidency in 2000 but has steadily moved toward greater opposition in an effort to boost its liberal credentials and shore up flagging ratings.

Yabloko, in turn, has bitterly criticized Putin's domestic policies but began to strongly support the president's foreign policy after the 11 September 2001 attacks on the United States.

SPS leader Boris Nemtsov has been pushing for the two parties to unite in putting forward a single candidate in presidential elections in 2004, a move Yabloko leader Grigorii Yavlinskii has steadfastly rejected.

Andrei Ryabov, a political analyst at the Moscow Carnegie Center, said there is little room for Liberal Russia to maneuver: "The positions of the Union of Rightist Forces and Yabloko parties -- notwithstanding what political scientists and analysts close to the Kremlin are saying -- are strong enough in the democratic part of the spectrum to block the appearance of someone else in the group of parties able to cross the 5 percent barrier. I think [Liberal Russia] has practically no chances."

Ryabov said the group will be able to continue as it is until the elections, after which there may be "new changes in the configuration."

But Vladimir Pribylovskii, president of Moscow's Panorama think tank, said a political party -- even an unregistered one -- can essentially exist as long as at least one person calls himself a member.

Pribylovskii added that Yushenkov -- who has said that "every third person is a latent liberal" -- will likely keep the torch alive by running as a single-mandate candidate, although he will likely lose.

"When Putin's ratings disintegrate, the time for such politicians as Yushenkov -- who are here to stay -- will arrive. That's why he has to run, even knowing he'll lose," Pribylovskii said.

Pribylovskii said that by being able to say they ran for office, and standing up for their principles when even the staunch oppositionists in Yabloko gave in on some issues, politicians such as Yushenkov will live to fight another day.