Prague, 30 May 2005 (RFE/RL) -- Until its weekend congress in Moscow, the SPS had been leaderless for more than a year.
The party's top officials had resigned from their posts, taking responsibility for the SPS's electoral debacle in December 2003, when the party failed to make it into parliament.
That was a humiliating blow for some of the best-known names in Russian politics: Anatolii Chubais, Boris Nemtsov, Irina Khakamada, and Yegor Gaidar.
So this weekend's election of 29-year-old Nikita Belykh, deputy governor of Russia's Perm region, to be the new party chairman, signals a long-awaited fresh start for the party.
The SPS is facing a dilemma -- should it support Putin or oppose him? Some experts say that the party has tried to do both.
On the plus side, Belykh is young, well-educated, and untainted by the privatization scandals of the 1990s. He is also not a Muscovite, which could add to his appeal for many voters.
But the SPS faces a major obstacle that seemingly no leadership change can overcome. It is what former Yukos chief Mikhail Khodorkovskii, in his now-famous missive from prison last year, called a "crisis of liberalism in Russia."
On paper, the SPS says it espouses traditional liberal goals and values: personal freedom and responsibility, market economics, freedom of speech, separation of powers, and decentralization.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has largely co-opted the economic part of the liberals' program, while rejecting the political and social components. He has mostly favored market reforms while at the same time leading a drive to re-centralize power and limit the influence of independent media.
That leaves the SPS with a dilemma -- should it support Putin or oppose him? Stephan de Spielegleire, a Russia analyst at the Clingendael Center for Strategic Studies in The Hague, explains that the party has tried to do both.
"In the current situation, where you still have an economic policy of the government that contains a lot of liberal elements, it would be silly for a party like SPS to disavow this entire part of government policy," de Spiegeleire said. "So you can be critical of a lot of the political elements which have been emerging for quite a while now, but still try to support certain aspects of policy that concur with your own views. And like I said, in the economics realm, there are certainly a number of issues that are still very much liberal."
Where the crisis comes in is with SPS's liberal political and social agenda. Because of the upheaval associated with the 1990s, most Russians seem only too happy to see Putin reimpose order and discipline. The liberal ideals of decentralization, individual responsibility, and freedom of the press appear to have been largely discredited.
That means that running in opposition to the Kremlin on these issues would probably not garner many votes, as de Spiegeleire notes.
"The problem of liberalism in Russia is not just a problem of identity or of individuals. It's a very structural problem. It's really a crisis of liberalism -- as Khodorkovskii put it about a year ago -- at a couple of different levels," he said. "It's a crisis at the level of the population -- and we've seen it in the elections of 2003. There really is a backlash of the people against this entire liberal construct. Many young people who were traditionally the backbone of liberalism in Russia are now also increasingly turning to the government parties. So it's almost electoral suicide today to try to position yourself exclusively as an opposition party against that kind of a background."
Leonid Gozman, the new deputy chairman of the party, seems to have gotten the message. He said at the congress on Saturday that he did not want to the SPS to be seen as an opposition party.
But if a de facto opposition party says it is not really in the opposition, does it offer voters any reason to vote for it?
Yabloko, Russia's other main liberal grouping -- which also failed to make it into parliament as a bloc in 2003 -- says no. It has stuck to its liberal principles on social policy and remains estranged from the SPS.
Andrei Ryabov, of the Carnegie Center in Moscow, says as long as these two parties fail to shelve their disagreements, their programs become almost irrelevant, as they have little chance of making it back into the Duma in the next elections in 2007.
"Without a doubt, any kind of coalition that excludes either of those two most influential political players cannot have a chance to strengthen the position of the democratic camp before the next parliamentary elections," said Ryabov.
De Spiegeleire concurs. He notes that changes to the way deputies are elected -- including the elimination of single-mandate constituencies and the raising of the minimum threshold needed for parties to gain Duma representation from 5 to 7 percent -- mean the odds against the SPS are higher than ever.