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Russia: Where Did The Motherland Bloc Come From -- And Where Is It Going?

  • Sophie Lambroschini

The Motherland bloc -- or "Rodina," as it is called in Russian -- is the sensation of the new Russian Duma. Elected on a platform combining leftist economics and nationalist rhetoric, Motherland is believed to be a Kremlin creation meant to siphon protest votes away from the Communists. RFE/RL looks at Motherland's roots and what its two strong political leaders may hope to achieve once the new Duma begins work.

Moscow 11 December 2003 (RFE/RL) -- "Let's reclaim Russia for ourselves" was the motto for the fledgling Motherland-Patriotic Union bloc during the campaign season leading up to last weekend's (7 December) parliamentary elections.

The motto evidently found its audience. Some 5.5 million Russians voted for the four-month-old bloc, which promised to work for an end to the oligarch era and fight for a more equal distribution of Russia's wealth.

The campaign was led by a pair of political veterans in their early 40s -- economist Sergei Glazev and Dmitrii Rogozin, a foreign affairs expert and the Kremlin's special representative on Kaliningrad.

Motherland landed 37 seats in Russia's 450-seat lower house of parliament, or Duma -- much to the consternation of many liberal-minded Russians, who see in Motherland an attempt to legitimize a growing nationalistic streak in the country's politics.

Motherland's sharpest criticism came from democrats in the Union of Rightist Forces (SPS). One of the party's leader, Anatolii Chubais, likened Motherland to the National Socialists of Nazi Germany just days before the vote, as his own ratings were crashing.

Rogozin wrote off the comments as "muck." "My advice to those who lost these elections -- don't leave your muck behind," he said. "Clean up after yourselves. All their statements to the media are a sign of weakness and hysteria."

Officially, Motherland -- which calls itself the "people's patriots" -- has positioned itself as an opposition party, an alternative for protest voters who don't want to back the Kremlin but who have grown disenchanted with the Communists. The strategy appears to have worked -- Motherland's 9 percent showing allowed it to enter parliament and took a painful bite out of the Communists' standing.

So how will Motherland spend the next four years? Glazev says the bloc will stick to its campaign promises -- even if means being in the opposition. "Of course it won't be easy to work in the new Duma, since it is clear that the balance of power is tipping in favor of the party of power," he said. "So we will proceed by convincing [others], by proving that the bills we propose reflect Russia's national interests, and that all our projects should be supported. Who can be opposed to the fair redistribution of extra revenue from natural resources, where the state has to get its share as the owner of the natural resources? Who can be against a way to raise salaries?"

But Glazev's claims to the role of Duma underdog may be exaggerated. His Motherland partner Rogozin has repeatedly aligned his ideals with those of the Russian president, referring to Russian President Vladimir Putin as "Russia's No. 1 patriot."

For a sense of Motherland's true political agenda, many analysts have looked at its roots. Glazev first came to fame as an economics wunderkind and was considered one of the brightest members of former President Boris Yeltsin's cabinet until 1993, when he resigned in protest over the storming of Russia's White House, or legislature.

Glazev first teamed up with Rogozin in 1996, when they made their first attempt to split the Communist protest vote by supporting the candidacy of General Aleksandr Lebed, a charismatic veteran of the conflicts in Afghanistan and Transdniester.

Glazev eventually became the favorite of Russia's new left, rejecting a collective enemy comprising oligarchs, privatization, globalization, and the World Trade Organization -- a mindset bearing marked similarities to his partner's calls for Russia to find its "own path."

For his part, Rogozin -- a Duma member since 1995 -- has made a name for himself as a so-called "derzhavnik," a believer in Russia's superpower status. He has long argued that Russia must stop listening to and comparing itself to the West. In a recent book he opined, "Russia shouldn't be loved, Russia should be respected."

When the Council of Europe suggested forming an international tribunal to judge human rights violations in Chechnya, Rogozin suggested Russia leave the organization. He also maintains that Russia should renew its influence across the former Soviet empire, and speaks with anger about the "humiliation" being suffered by millions of ethnic Russians living in the CIS. During a recent tiff with Kyiv over the disputed island of Tuzla, Rogozin said Moscow deserved to reclaim the territory for itself.

It is a stance that has drawn concern that Motherland may be intent upon restoring a nationalistic bent in Russian politics. Independent Duma Deputy Vladimir Ryzhkov says that while Rogozin and Glazev are not Nazi-style national socialists, their rhetoric can nonetheless do damage to Russia's political scene.

"I wouldn't call them pro-fascists -- that word is too strong and we should keep it for others. There are far more radical forces in our country, like skinheads and so on. The danger lies in the fact that [the Duma] elections took place in a totally different context, where once again hopes have been raised that parts of Ukraine, or parts of Georgia, could be annexed. This is a dangerous context. And it is this context that Motherland won," Ryzhkov said.

Indeed, some of the other deputies on Motherland's party list may not make for good company. Motherland's third leader, Sergei Baburin, is a self-described "patriot" whose xenophobic political stance has isolated him from the political mainstream.

Some observers note that together with Vladimir Zhirinovskii's Liberal Democratic Party (LDPR), Motherland's win means nationalists will hold a total of 77 Duma seats -- a fact that will necessarily affect parliamentary procedure. The "Vremya novostei" Russian daily notes that liberals in the presidential administration will have to fight hard to resist Kremlin advocates of a strong state and "national-patriots" in the Duma.

But Vladimir Pribylovskii, the head of the Panorama think tank, says concerns may not be justified. He says Motherland is a docile Kremlin creation that has already served its function by splintering the protest vote. Further, he says, the scare over the party's nationalistic bent may itself be an artificial creation meant to send voters streaming back toward the relative security of a more moderate Kremlin.

"It's just a way of explaining once more why Chubais will call for people to vote for Putin in 2004 and 2008. Before, we had this dangerous Zhirinovskii character, so we had to vote for Yeltsin. Then we had dangerous Communists, so we had to vote for Yeltsin. Now we have the dangerous fascists Glazev and Rogozin, so we'll always have to vote for Putin." Pribylovskii said.

Experts claim this political scare tactic goes back to the 1980s, when the KGB allegedly used the threat of a rise in popularity of the overtly racist group Pamyat to frighten restive democrats into obedience.

But independent Duma Deputy Ryzhkov says that the sentiments that swept Motherland into power have true support among ordinary Russians. He says Putin will have no choice but to prepare for a fight against Motherland's more radical impulses.

"Compared to [Motherland], Putin will sometimes appear weak, because his policies will be more balanced, more moderate. So the danger is that Motherland can be a kind of trigger to escalate Russian politics. So Putin has two primary problems. He absolutely must support the liberals, because if on one side you have Rogozin, and on the other side you have the liberals with no support, that is very dangerous. And [Putin] will have to fight back these imperial moods, this wave of xenophobia that is, in part, justifiably associated with Motherland," Ryzhkov said.