The split last week of the Union of Rightist Forces (SPS) and the resignation of its leader, Nikita Belykh, came as no surprise. The collapse of the liberal wing of Russian politics since the mid-1990s has been truly staggering, and the latest developments merely signal the completion of that long-running drama.
What is surprising, however, is the intense attention the Kremlin has focused on undermining the SPS, which, after all, polled less than 1 percent of the vote in the December 2007 Duma elections. During that campaign, it should be recalled, the Kremlin pulled out all the stops in harassing and discrediting the party, an effort entirely out of proportion with its dismal chances at the polls.
On September 26, Belykh announced that he was standing down as party leader after it became clear that many within the party's leadership were in favor of a merger with the Civic Force and the Democratic Party of Russia. Both of those organizations were heavily aided by the Kremlin as part of its strategy to drain away the last dregs of SPS support during the 2007 campaign.
Democratic Party leader Andrei Bogdanov was then put forward as the "democratic" candidate for president against Dmitry Medvedev this spring. His nonexistent political organization was somehow able to gather the 2 million signatures needed to place his name on the ballot, despite only being able to garner 90,000 votes in the legislative elections a few weeks earlier. By contrast, former Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov, a nationally known figure with genuine political resources, struggled to submit signatures gathered under constant harassment only to see his submissions invalidated by the Central Election Commission.
Belykh has said he will take a couple weeks off and then proceed to work on a genuine alliance of democratic forces, including Kasyanov, Republican Party leader Vladimir Ryzhkov, and United Civic Front leader Garry Kasparov. Belykh and other opposition-minded SPS members will join with the Petersburg branch of Yabloko (headed by Maksim Reznik), former Deputy Prime Minister (and former SPS leader) Boris Nemtsov, and former Deputy Energy Minister Vladimir Milov at a December 13 national congress of democratic oppositionists.Disloyal Opposition
The Kremlin's stepped-up efforts to accelerate the demise of SPS and create a controlled pseudo-democratic opposition are part of its overall effort to finalize its control over the domestic political scene in Russia. However, its special concentration on this marginal party may stem from two considerations, one historical and one practical.
Historically, the SPS is of particular interest because it was formed in 1999, the very year that Vladimir Putin came on to the political scene. It was an alliance of some of the country's most charismatic and influential liberal politicians, including Nemtsov, Irina Khakamada, Sergei Kiriyenko, and Anatoly Chubais. It also had the backing of some of the country's richest entrepreneurs. From the beginning, the party hoped to be a sort of loyal opposition, influencing policy by virtue of its intellectual capital, but willing to take a back seat and even to compromise on issues that parties like Yabloko considered matters of principle. The SPS wanted to be an independent player, but it wanted to be a player.
As Putin consolidated his power, he co-opted as many SPS members as he could, including Kiriyenko, Chubais, and Aleksei Kudrin. He also adopted key planks from the party's rightist economic platform, including especially the much-lauded tax reforms implemented in the early part of his presidency under Prime Minister Kasyanov.
The SPS's insistence on political autonomy led it to adopt some positions that clearly rubbed Putin the wrong way. It's generally pro-Western orientation grew increasingly out of step with the Kremlin's strident nationalism. The SPS's -- and especially Nemtsov's -- support for Ukraine's Viktor Yushchenko during that country's Orange Revolution was undoubtedly seen as a particular stab in the back at a moment that was something of a nadir for Putin internationally.
In general, the SPS has not been on the Kremlin's side in most issues relating to the former Soviet republics. It has also been critical of the Kremlin's policies in the North Caucasus and has advocated military reform and the abolition of conscription. The SPS also opposed a controversial 2004 reform to monetize in-kind social benefits. Opposition to that reform brought thousands of people into the streets calling for Putin's resignation, something of a nadir for Putin domestically.
More recently, the SPS challenged the results of the 2007 Duma elections in a case that went all the way through the Russian court system and is now being considered by the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg (Kasyanov has also filed a case there challenging the Kremlin's refusal to register his political party). That case strikes at the very legitimacy of the Putin system, threatening to tear away the facade of democratic process in a very visible international forum. Undoubtedly, the Kremlin's now-successful effort to split the SPS is partly motivated by a desire to undermine the Strasbourg case. If the court rules against the Kremlin, the impact will be attenuated if leading members of the plaintiff-party have switched sides and are now endorsing Russia's managed democracy.No Threat Too Small
The Kremlin's plotting to break up the SPS may also have been accelerated by the current economic crisis, which presents a real challenge to the Putin system. The Kremlin is aware that its public support is thin and tenuous. Moreover, there are indications that support in business circles (not counting the pro-Kremlin oligarchs and siloviki at the commanding heights of the economy) is even more tenuous.
Although there is no venue for speaking out, many in the business community are sick of the corruption of the Putin system and the favoritism shown to "loyal" businesspeople. When businessman Oleg Shvartsman revealed the extent of the Kremlin's nonmarket business activities, which he called a "velvet reprivatization," business leader Oleg Kiselyov was quoted as saying the revelations were "unpleasant, loathsome, disgusting," and added, "but it is true and I can't help but be glad that someone is speaking about this publicly."
Speaking to RFE/RL's Russian Service in August, Dmitry Travin, deputy editor of the business weekly "Delo," also noted the lack of support for the Kremlin in business circles. "Business's support for the government is a very strange thing," Travin said. "After the case of [former Yukos owner Mikhail] Khodorkovsky, everyone became obedient. They are constantly swearing their loyalty to the authorities. But when you start speaking to people privately, it is hard to find anyone who doesn't hate this regime and the position in which it has placed Russian business. I don't think anything is going to change in this regard. If the regime is weakened, business will be the first segment of society to stick a knife in its back. But until the regime is weakened politically, business has to play by the rules of the game that were laid down in October 2003 during the Khodorkovsky case."
The current economic crisis, then -- which has seen stock and commodities prices dropping steadily since the spring -- while inflation is running above government projections, could be a further stimulus for driving the stake through the beleaguered SPS. "Russia may be standing on the threshold of a period of reduced public confidence in the authorities," former Deputy Energy Minister Milov wrote in "Yezhdnevny zhurnal" this week, "which will increase the demand for alternative political forces. In this situation, it was very important for the Kremlin to forestall undesirable scenarios in the development of the last uncontrolled democratic party. For example, if a critical mass of well-known opposition-democratic politicians had joined the SPS, this would have enabled the party to renew itself -- to clearly lay out its opposition political platform and attract financial resources...."
If Russia does enter a prolonged period of economic difficulty, then all political forces who refuse to be diverted by the Kremlin's jingoistic nationalism will have to be completely marginalized.