Many expected that Moscow's hostage crisis last month would shake up politics in Russia. But few could have predicted that President Vladimir Putin would come out lavishing praise on a former political adversary, Yabloko party leader Grigorii Yavlinskii, who helped negotiate with the hostage takers. The Yabloko chief had long been a major thorn in the Kremlin's side. Now, however, he appears to have joined its ranks as an informal adviser.
Moscow, 25 November 2002 (RFE/RL) -- If one prominent Russian politician could be counted on to speak his mind when it came to President Vladimir Putin, it was Grigorii Yavlinskii.
As fellow lawmakers scrambled to praise the president before and after his election to office in 2000, the liberal head of the social democratic Yabloko party criticized among other things Putin's crackdown on the free press and the war in Chechnya.
Yavlinskii faulted Putin for undermining parliament as an independent institution and making the government members of a "staff" that enabled him to "do whatever he wants."
The Yabloko leader claimed to have been blacklisted by the Kremlin in response, with orders given to the country's top television channels not to allow him any airtime.
That has all changed. Following Moscow's hostage crisis last month, Putin himself appeared on all three top channels together with Yavlinskii, praising the Duma deputy for his attempts to negotiate with Chechen rebels.
The president criticized other negotiators, notably from Yabloko's liberal rival, the Union of Rightist Forces, or SPS.
Meanwhile, Yavlinskii has indicated that he speaks regularly with Putin, and leading media outlets claim the Yabloko leader is now essentially an adviser to the president. "Yezhenedelnyi zhurnal" recently wrote that Yavlinskii has "found a new influential ally, President Putin."
Yavlinskii did not reply to RFE/RL's requests for an interview. But Yabloko Deputy Chairman Sergei Mitrokhin said that a "series of events" occurred that moved relations between the two men in a "more positive direction." He denied that Yavlinskii has become a bona fide informal adviser. "Yavlinskii is a political figure, a politician, whose opinions interest the president, and to whom the president listens," Mitrokhin said.
There is much to suggest the Yabloko leader has broken with his past record of often blaming Putin for Russia's ills.
Yavlinskii has praised the president's ostensibly pro-Western foreign policy since 11 September 2001. But on a Sunday-night political talk show -- TVS's "Bez protokola" on 17 November -- Yavlinskii displayed a new twist, indicating that the president himself is not to blame the country's internal ills. "The policies that the president carried out with the United States, which were beneficial not only for Russia, were the product of his own state work, while at the same time around him, including in the government, there existed a deaf opposition," Yavlinskii said.
Yavlinskii also, uncharacteristically, failed to criticize the president in a recent scathing article on Russia's corrupt economy that appeared in "Moskovskie novosti."
Mitrokhin backs the line that Putin is doing his best for Russia, saying that he is "bound hand and foot by oligarchic structures," to which he is a "prisoner."
That Russia's leader is not to blame for the country's ills is by no means a new idea. The concept of a "good tsar" -- a benevolent leader whose intentions are thwarted by scheming officials -- has existed for centuries as part of the country's political culture.
But precisely what internal change does Yabloko's new line reflect, and does it mean that the party has gained leverage in policy-making decisions?
Vladimir Pribylovskii, president of the Panorama political research group, says "no." He said Yavlinskii's recent actions only indicate he is lining up behind Putin with countless others.
Pribylovskii said Yavlinskii's support for the president surpasses that of the pro-free-market SPS, which wholly backed Putin and his policies in the first year of his presidency but has recently moved toward greater outward criticism.
Pribylovskii said Yavlinskii is motivated by pragmatism. "Yabloko wants to make it into the next Duma [in elections next year]. It's afraid 1 percent [of the vote] will be taken away by means of 'administrative manipulation' and it will be left outside the electoral field. Now it's serving the president on the question of [a Duma vote against] referenda [in electoral years] and so on," Pribylovskii said.
In Duma elections in 1999, Yabloko squeaked by the 5 percent minimum with 5.9 percent of the vote. SPS landed 8.5 percent.
SPS chief Boris Nemtsov has issued a number of calls to put forward a single candidate for presidential elections in 2004. Yavlinskii has steadfastly turned them down.
Yurii Korgunyuk, director of Moscow's Indem think tank, said Yavlinskii and the party's leadership fear losing political prominence inside a new party. Korgunyuk said Yavlinskii is driven by massive ambition and jealousies toward SPS's leaders. Most of them are former so-called young reformers who helped author the post-Soviet economic transformation under former President Boris Yeltsin.
Duma Deputy and SPS ideologue Boris Nadezhdin told RFE/RL that Yavlinskii, a perennial presidential candidate, recently gave up his dreams of winning the presidency and changed his approach in the interests of landing a large ministerial portfolio, perhaps as prime minister. "His personal trajectory changed, and it became directly tied to possibilities of a career based on appointments to important state posts. That's where his friendship with the president comes from," Nadezhdin said.
Landing an important post rests in no small part on Yabloko's ratings, Nadezhdin said. Those ratings, in turn, depend on the president, who wields great control over the press and the popularity media exposure can bring.
Nadezhdin said Putin's interests, meanwhile, lie in keeping down the liberal opposition. SPS's ratings began to grow in October, he said, and the president's friendship with the Yabloko leader followed shortly.
Indem's Korgunyuk agrees. He said the Kremlin is actively seeking to foment rivalry between Yabloko and SPS. "The thing is that while the conflict between Yabloko and SPS continues, they will essentially be unable to provide an alternative to [the pro-Kremlin] Unified Russia," Korgunyuk said.
Duma Deputy Sergei Yushenkov is co-leader of the Liberal Russia party, which he helped form when he left SPS last year. He also questions Yabloko's oppositionist credentials, not on the basis of Yavlinskii's recent actions but on Yabloko's Duma voting record.
Yushenkov said Yabloko has cast ballots for "undemocratic measures" strengthening the role of the state in various spheres of public life.
But Yushenkov reserves most of his criticism of Yabloko for the party's practice of regularly voting for the Kremlin's draft of the federal budget. "Each person can say about himself whatever he wants, but there are words and there are actions. If you announce your opposition, but nonetheless support the government's budget, then what kind of opposition are you? After all, it is precisely the budget that contains in concentrated form the policies carried out by the current regime," Yushenkov said.
Last week, Yabloko voted for raising the barrier of votes parties need to land to qualify for Duma seats from 5 percent to 7 percent, a level that would have disqualified the party from parliament in 1999.