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Russia: Liberal Parties Paving Road To Unity

A campaign poster in Moscow (epa) Russia's two leading opposition parties -- Yabloko and the Union of Rightist Forces (SPS) -- have announced they are considering unification ahead of national parliamentary elections in 2006. Already, the parties have joined their lists at a regional level and are running a joint list of candidates in the Moscow City Duma elections on 4 December.

Prague, 2 December 2005 (RFE/RL) -- Yabloko and SPS are seeking to join forces and put aside years of mutual distrust that many say have hampered the liberal opposition's ability to challenge Russia's political mainstream.

Yabloko head Grigorii Yavlinskii on 1 December announced long-term unification plans, saying Russia needed a "big and powerful" democratic party.

Simmering Discontent

But many observers have doubts. Disagreements between the two groups have simmered for years.

Tatyana Stanovaya, who heads the analytical department at the Center for Political Technologies, a Moscow-based think tank, says it is too early to speak about a unification of the two forces.

"What we have now is just talking," Stanovaya said. "There is still a lot of time left until the elections to State Duma -- almost two years. There is also a fundamental problem. SPS, under the leadership of [Unified Energy Systems head Anatolii] Chubais, is more inclined to come to terms with the Kremlin. Yabloko seeks to be a real opposition [force.] It is also difficult to guess how they will manage to negotiate in this dimension."

Stanovaya says there are also personal reasons that may hinder any future union --Yavlinskii is expected to seek the leadership of the united party, something SPS is not likely to accept.

A Long History Of Conflict

Yabloko, for its part, objects to the fact that Chubais is the informal leader of SPS. The disagreements have a long history.

Yavlinskii has blasted the "shock-therapy" measures of 1992 and the so-called "criminal privatization" of the mid-1990s -- policies drafted in large measure by Chubais when he served in the administration and government of then President Boris Yeltsin.

Yabloko also opposed Yeltsin's shelling of the parliament in October 1993 and the December 1993 passage of a constitution heavily weighted toward presidential power. But the officials who went on to form SPS in 1999 supported Yeltsin.

Stanovaya says all the politicians remember the burden of the past and are cautious about unification.

"Even Yavlinskii yesterday made a very cautious statement," Stanovaya said. "He said 'we are moving on the road of unification.' He did not say that 'we have finally decided to unite and we have finally settled all our differences.' We've been hearing this 'we are moving' phrase since 2003."

The First Test

Stanovaya says the 4 December elections to the Moscow City Duma will be the first test of the unification plans. With a new law prohibiting party coalitions, Yabloko and SPS clinched a deal under which their candidates will run on the Yabloko ticket, with an SPS member -- current City Duma Deputy Ivan Novitskii -- topping the list.

Stanovaya says recent polls indicate that the road to victory will be difficult.

"Polls indicate that the joint ticket of Yabloko and SPS will not get seats in the Moscow City Duma," Stanovaya said. "It will be a very serous blow to them. It might actually be comparable to the blow they suffered during the parliamentary elections in 2003, [which they lost.]. If these polls are credible, Yabloko and SPS will be left outside the Moscow City Duma. It might indicate that their time is over."

Several polls conducted this week say the joint Yabloko-SPS ticket will get around 7 percent of the vote, less than 10 percent required to win proportional-representation seats in the City Duma.

Who's In The Race?

Nine parties -- the pro-Kremlin Unified Russia, Yabloko, the Communist Party, the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia, the Russian Party of Life, Free Russia, the People's Will, the Greens, and the Party of Social Justice are competing for seats in the Moscow Duma.

The Rodina (Motherland) party is also running, pending a Supreme Court decision, expected on 2 or 3 December, on their appeal of election-commission ruling banning them from the race because of racist campaign advertising.

Twenty of the 35 seats in the city legislature will be distributed among political parties. The remaining 15 go to single-mandate candidates.

Four factions are represented in the current city parliament -- Unified Russia, Rodina, the Party of Life, and SPS.

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