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Russia: A Turning Point For Liberal Parties?

By Laura Belin Yabloko leader Grigorii Yavlinskii (file photo) For more than a decade, Russia's leading liberal parties, Yabloko and the Union of Rightist Forces (SPS) have attempted to unite their efforts and gain a larger share of the political pie. Last month, the parties agreed to run a joint list of candidates in the December legislative elections in Moscow, leading analysts to speculate that political forces have finally aligned in a way that could produce a meaningful alliance.

For 10 years now, election season in Moscow has led to finger pointing about who is to blame for divisions among Russian "democrats." Yabloko leader Grigorii Yavlinskii and various prominent figures associated with the SPS and its predecessor, Russia's Democratic Choice, have long shared many values and political goals. Yet contentious issues of the 1990s remained a stumbling block to cooperation. Yabloko opposed President Boris Yeltsin's shelling of the parliament in October 1993 and the passage of a constitution weighted toward presidential power, while leaders who eventually formed the SPS in 1999 supported Yeltsin. Yabloko leaders blasted the "shock-therapy" policies of 1992 and what they called the "criminal privatization" of the mid-1990s, while the architects of those economic policies were among the SPS "founding fathers" and continue to serve on its Political Council.

These differences, along with the deep personal animosity between Yavlinskii and SPS heavyweights such as Unified Energy Systems (EES) head Anatolii Chubais, prompted many political commentators to discount speculation that the SPS and Yabloko would campaign together for the Moscow City Duma elections in December. Why would this set of negotiations prove any more successful than abortive talks between Yavlinskii and SPS leaders before the 1999 and 2003 State Duma elections?

An Unprecedented Deal

Several factors boosted the latest attempt to unite the parties. Neither Yabloko nor the SPS cleared the 5 percent threshold in the 2003 elections to the State Duma, underscoring the weaknesses of both party "brand names." The consolidation of state control over Russian television networks under President Vladimir Putin has left SPS and Yabloko leaders with much less direct access to the public than they enjoyed during the 1990s. In addition, current SPS leader Nikita Belykh, who along with Yavlinskii hashed out the details of the compromise, was not part of the SPS's long history of trading insults with Yabloko leaders.

Special circumstances in Moscow also underscored the need for the parties to work together. Campaigning independently, neither Yabloko nor the SPS looked certain to clear the newly established 10 percent threshold for winning any of the 20 seats in the Moscow city legislature that will be allocated according to proportional representation. Adding to the sense of urgency, the Yabloko faction in the Moscow City Duma disintegrated this summer, with two of its three members quitting to join the pro-Kremlin Unified Russia party. Their departure not only harmed Yabloko's prestige but also deprived the party of well-known candidates who are proven winners in Moscow elections.
Yavlinskii told journalists on 28 September that the alliance formed for the Moscow election could lead to an "influential political force" that could receive 30 to 40 percent of the vote in 2007.

An extraordinary SPS party congress on 24 September approved a deal to campaign for the Moscow legislature on a party list to be called Yabloko-United Democrats. Chubais and former SPS co-leader Boris Nemtsov, who has criticized Yavlinskii's party in the past, spoke out at the congress in favor of running jointly with Yabloko for the Moscow Duma. Amid last-minute negotiations between Belykh and Yavlinskii, delegates to a Yabloko Moscow-branch conference on 25 September also voted to pursue the alliance. The joint party list will comprise 28 candidates: 20 from Yabloko, six from the SPS, one from the Green Party, and one representing the Soldiers' Mothers' Committee. The alliance will field candidates in 10 of Moscow's 15 single-mandate districts, three from the SPS and seven from Yabloko. The two parties will contribute equally to financing the Moscow City Duma campaign, according to "Rossiisakaya gazeta" on 29 September.

Not The First Time

Yabloko and the SPS have cooperated in regional legislative elections before. In fact, the SPS party list for the upcoming elections to the Ivanovo Oblast legislature includes members of Yabloko and other parties, RFE/RL's Moscow bureau reported on 26 September. Yabloko and the SPS and have even coordinated nominees for some single-mandate districts in the State Duma. But the high profile of the Moscow Duma elections made this deal unlike the others.

Belykh and Yavlinskii confirmed at a joint press conference on 28 September that some members of both parties strongly opposed an election pact. At the SPS party congress on 24 September, "founding father" and former acting Prime Minister Yegor Gaidar argued that running candidates under the Yabloko banner was a mistake. Some regional delegates, including the leaders of SPS branches in Arkhangelsk and Novgorod oblasts, likewise spoke out against the deal, and State Duma Deputy Anton Bakov went so far as to declare 24 September a black day in the history of the SPS, RFE/RL's Moscow bureau reported on 26 September.

On the day of the Yabloko Moscow branch conference, delegates grumbled about the SPS violating prior conditions for negotiations and the decision to place SPS member and Moscow Duma Deputy Ivan Novitskii at the top of the joint list. Speaking to "Kommersant-Daily" on 26 September, State Duma Deputy Galina Khovanskaya, a Yabloko member who previously served in the Moscow City Duma, expressed surprise that Novitskii had not joined Unified Russia, given his pattern of siding with the authorities in Moscow legislative votes. SPS Moscow Duma Deputy Dmitrii Kataev would have been a more popular choice among Yabloko members.

Short-Term Pragmatism?

Forming the party list required compromises from both sides. In exchange for campaigning under the Yabloko banner, SPS leaders initially insisted on two of the top three spots on the party list. When they agreed to receive only the top position, they demanded that spot for party leader Belykh. Yabloko leaders were willing to let an SPS member lead the list, but insisted that it be someone from the Moscow legislature. Yabloko member and Moscow Duma Deputy Yevgenii Bunimovich became the No. 2 candidate, and the parties agreed to leave the third slot at the top of the list blank.

The choice of who to head the joint list appears to have been designed to placate a third political force as well: Moscow Mayor Yurii Luzhkov. According to Moscow elections expert Dmitrii Bodovskii of the Institute of Social Systems, Novitskii and Bunimovich are "relatively loyal to the Moscow authorities," compared to Kataev or Yabloko Moscow-branch leader Sergei Mitrokhin, "Kommersant-Daily" reported on 26 September. Bodovskii suggested that Moscow authorities might have worked harder to undermine the alliance if more confrontational politicians from both parties had been chosen to head the party list.

Similarly, RFE/RL's Moscow bureau on 26 September cited an unnamed source in the SPS as saying that Yabloko leaders had promised Luzhkov that the top spots on the party list would not go to charismatic figures. That reportedly influenced the choice of Bunimovich for the No. 2 position, as opposed to Mitrkokhin or Yabloko deputy leader Sergei Ivanenko.

Both Yavlinskii and Belykh indirectly lent support to this speculation at their joint press conference on 28 September. They emphasized that their main opponent in the Moscow Duma race would be Unified Russia, not Luzhkov, "Kommersant-Daily" reported on 29 September. Although Luzhkov is heading the Unified Russia party list for the Moscow legislative elections, Belykh and Yavlinskii had no harsh words for the mayor.

Keeping Luzhkov out of the line of fire accomplishes two goals. First, it may deter the mayor from bringing the full brunt of "administrative measures" to bear against the Yabloko candidates during the campaign. Second, it removes a bone of contention between the SPS, which has long criticized Luzhkov, and Yabloko, whose leaders have for the most part supported Luzhkov's policies, particularly concerning social benefits.

Will leaders of Russia's two largest "democratic" parties continue to choose pragmatism over their acrimonious history after Moscow voters leave the polling stations on 4 December? Some political analysts are skeptical. Andrei Makarkin, deputy general director of the Center for Political Technologies, attributes the recent alliance solely to the 10 percent threshold in Moscow, "Vremya novostei" reported on 28 September. Makarkin argued that a lower threshold of 7 percent, as will exist for the 2007 State Duma elections, could fuel unrealistic expectations in both parties that they do not need to work together. Valerii Khomyakov, chairman of the National Strategy Council, welcomed the alliance, but predicted that the looming presidential election of 2008 would sink efforts to unite the parties for the 2007 parliamentary elections, "Vremya novostei" reported.

This scenario appears more likely if the combined Yabloko list fails to clear, or barely surpasses, the 10 percent hurdle in Moscow. In the 2003 State Duma elections, Yabloko and the SPS received a combined 17 percent of the vote in Moscow. But some party strategists have argued for years that an alliance would alienate core supporters of both parties rather than attracting broad support among the "democratic" electorate.

Political analyst Dmitrii Oreshkin, head of the Merkator group, has argued that Putin's presidency has broadened "the field of common interests" between the SPS and Yabloko, "Nezavisimaya gazeta" reported on 29 September. "Five years ago, when we were a more democratic country, their differences were more significant," Oreshkin said. But speaking to on 24 September, Oreshkin said the alliance will only pay off if Moscow voters react primarily to shrinking freedom in the Putin era. If they are mostly motivated by disputes of the 1990s, relating to economic policy and Yeltsin's exercise of presidential power, then the joint Yabloko list may receive only 5 to 8 percent of the vote in the Moscow Duma race.

A Step Toward Lasting Union?

At their joint press conference on 28 September, both Yavlinskii and Belykh downplayed speculation that the agreement foreshadows a permanent union of the parties. Yavlinskii said repeatedly that the parties retain their own programs, and Belykh said the agreement to cooperate in Moscow is "simply the beginning of a long road," "Rossiiskaya gazeta" reported on 29 September. But some signs suggest that today's tactical alliance may lead to a lasting strategic union.

Consensus is growing within in the SPS over the need to define itself as an "opposition" party. The party tried to capitalize on then-Prime Minister Putin's popularity during the December 1999 campaign for the State Duma, producing a television advertisement that implied Putin's support for the SPS economic platform. During the 2000 presidential campaign, SPS member and Samara Oblast Governor Konstantin Titov ran against Putin, and some party leaders expressed concern over Putin's political tendencies, but the party declined to endorse Titov.

Since becoming president, Putin has encouraged the reluctance of SPS leaders to oppose him. For example, he has allowed Chubais, one of the SPS "founding fathers," to remain chief executive of EES, and he appointed another "founding father," former Prime Minister Sergei Kirienko, as his envoy to the Volga Federal District (a post Kirienko has held for five years). Putin's government includes others who in the 1990s worked closely with today's senior members of the SPS, including Finance Minister Aleksei Kudrin.

Consequently, the SPS has long clung to what some party members called a "constructive opposition stance," criticizing Putin over authoritarian tendencies toward the media and the abolition of gubernatorial elections, while praising other policies. But Belykh did not split hairs when he assailed the Putin administration during his remarks to the SPS congress on 24 September. Ivan Starikov, secretary of the SPS Political Council, depicted Putin's Russia as an authoritarian regime in an editorial published by "Nezavisimaya gazeta" on 27 September. Starikov wrote of the need to "discard illusions," namely the hope that Putin will eventually implement more policies favored by the SPS.

Yabloko has consistently criticized Putin's policies from the beginning of his presidency. Before the 2003 State Duma campaign, some SPS leaders derided Yavlinskii's "opposition for opposition's sake." Now that both parties appear to be implacably opposed to Putin, it may be easier for leaders to devise a joint platform, based on support for civil liberties, a transparent Tax Code that does not punish entrepreneurs, a professional army, and an independent judiciary.

On the Yabloko side, there is new commitment at the top to working with other political parties. "Kommersant-Daily" noted on 29 September that six months ago, efforts by Yabloko deputy leader Ivanenko and SPS Secretary Boris Nadezhdin to bring the parties together fell apart when Yavlinskii and Chubais became involved in the negotiations. Yavlinskii had long maintained that his opposition stance would pay electoral dividends, despite Yabloko's showing in the 1999 parliamentary elections (far below his goal) and the failure to win 5 percent in the 2003 parliamentary elections. Perhaps Moscow's new Election Code and the desertion of two party members in the Moscow Duma gave Yavlinskii the sense of urgency needed to seal the deal with Belykh.

But Will People Vote For Them?

Writing in "Nezavisimaya gazeta," SPS Secretary Starikov confidently predicted that a new united democratic party will be formed by 2007, which could attract 25 to 30 percent of the vote in the State Duma elections. Yavlinskii told journalists on 28 September that the alliance formed for the Moscow election could lead to an "influential political force" that could receive 30 to 40 percent of the vote in 2007. Even if the Yabloko-United Democrats alliance posts a strong showing in Moscow on 4 December, it is not clear how such a party would be formed or who would lead it. Independent Duma Deputy Vladimir Ryzhkov wants to unite Russian "democrats" under the banner of the Republican Party. Irina Khakamada has ambitions for her movement, Our Choice. Chess champion Garri Kasparov continues to travel the country on behalf of Committee-2008.

While barriers to uniting the "democrats" on a national level remain, the possibility now seems less remote than at any time during the last decade.

See also:

"Can The Right Come Together?"

"The Yabloko Campaign On Television"

"The SPS's Television Ads: A Case Of Poor Image Construction"

"With Friends Like These"

"Leaders Tangle On Issue Of 'Liberal Empire'"

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