MOSCOW, Feb. 6 -- Moscow was poised last week for a major political event:
a meeting between two of Russia's best-known politicians who embrace
Western-style market democracy. After not speaking to each other for six
months, they were supposed to discuss uniting their political parties in a
bid to widen their slender niche in a parliament dominated by President
Then, less than 24 hours beforehand, Grigory Yavlinsky, leader of the
Yabloko party, called it off. In a dismissive letter to Boris Nemtsov,
leader of the Union of Right Forces, he said he knew the details of
Nemtsov's proposal for a merger, and had rejected it.
It was a typical deadlock between the two political leaders who claim to be
the voice of freedom in a country they call increasingly authoritarian. "I
will explain to you the problem," said Nemtsov in an interview after the
meeting was canceled, waving Yavlinsky's letter in the air. "Ego. That's
The feud is emblematic of the troubles of Russia's liberals as they prepare
for the December parliamentary elections. Although 25 to 30 percent of
Russians questioned in polls say they support the liberal democratic ideals
that the parties espouse, such as free speech, human rights, and a
Western-style system of checks and balances, only about 10 percent say they
support either of the two parties.
Political experts say Yabloko and the Union of Right Forces could each fail
to capture 5 percent of the vote -- the threshold needed to function as a
party in the lower house of parliament, the State Duma. As a result, they
might not offer new slates in the next election. The liberals' dicey
situation reflects political reality under Putin. Although the president
has embraced free markets and integration with the West, critics say civil
liberties have suffered under his rule, especially freedom of the press.
Political experts say the bulk of the public here, disillusioned with the
chaos of the first decade of capitalism, has decided that some democratic
freedoms can be reined in if it means a strong state that creates more
order. That has translated into a virtual monopoly on power for Putin, who
commands an 85 percent approval rating and the loyalty of most of the
"This is the era of stability after the revolution," said Andrei Ryabov, a
political expert at the Carnegie Endowment's Moscow Center, a research
organization. "The opportunities for liberal democratic parties are really
limited. They cannot be as strong as they were in the last decade."
Yabloko and the Union of Right Forces head into the election with just 49
lawmakers in the 450-seat Duma. Another faction of 12 legislators, backed
by the tycoon Boris Berezovsky, often votes with them. Pro-Putin parties
control more than half of the Duma, followed by Communists and Agrarians,
with more than one-fourth of the votes.
The competition between Yabloko and the Union of Right Forces parties
dilutes their influence on the many issues on which they agree, including
human rights, press freedom and an end to the war in Chechnya. Yavlinsky
blames the Union of Right Forces for helping what he calls the criminal
concentration of the nation's wealth in the hands of the business leaders
known as "oligarchs." Both Nemtsov and Anatoly Chubais, co-founder of the
Union of Right Forces, helped steer the transition to capitalism under
Putin's predecessor, Boris Yeltsin.
The two parties have different bases of support. The Union of Right Forces
tends to represent younger, financially successful voters; the typical
Yabloko voter comes from the former Soviet intelligentsia, and many
suffered a decline in income with the advent of capitalism.
Nemtsov says the parties are still much closer to each other than to
Putin's Kremlin, and their failure to merge deprives Russia of a united
democratic opposition as the Kremlin is chipping away at democratic
freedoms. "I am afraid that if we don't organize strong democratic movement
in the country we will eventually move to dictatorship," he said. "People
are ready to do without freedom. Managed democracy is easier."
Yavlinsky, he claimed, is sidling up to the Kremlin instead of uniting with
other liberals. But Yabloko leaders say they are simply adjusting to
"Putin's situation now is such that he holds absolute power," said Sergei
Ivanenko, deputy head of Yabloko. "Even the Communists almost never
criticize Putin personally. So we, of course, have to take this into
consideration and seek ways of interacting with the president."
Yabloko for years played the role of the Kremlin's liberal detractor.
Political analysts say the Kremlin extracted a price for that in the 1999
parliamentary elections, when it organized an active campaign against
Yabloko that helped strip it of 28 of its 45 seats in the Duma.
The Union of Right Forces, on the other hand, declared its support for
Putin in late 1999. While the Kremlin gave Communist Party members some
Duma committee posts that the Union of Right Forces expected as a reward
for their support, Putin picked one of the party's leaders, former prime
minister Sergei Kiriyenko, as a top regional representative.
Putin also allowed Chubais to keep his position as head of Russia's vast
electricity monopoly. Although Nemtsov says Chubais does not contribute a
kopek to the party's bank accounts, political analysts often describe him
as the organization's hidden purse and closet leader.
Now the role of the two liberal parties is somewhat reversed: Yavlinsky is
toning down his criticism of Putin, while Nemtsov is escalating his.
A year ago, Yavlinsky said Russia faced the threat of becoming a
bureaucratic police state. He accused the Kremlin of instituting
censorship, falsifying election results and waging a bloody war in Chechnya
against the people's will.
Now Yavlinsky takes pains to praise Putin's pro-Western foreign policy and
says the president can't be held accountable for the sins of Russia's brand
of capitalism. Yavlinsky's deputy Ivanenko said that Putin's domestic
policy has proven more democratic than Yabloko expected. "There were fears
of a total ban on free speech, of arbitrariness on a mass scale," he said.
"It could have been worse."
Nemtsov says Yavlinsky is seeking the Kremlin's favor so he won't be banned
from the state-controlled broadcast networks or face another
Kremlin-sponsored campaign against his party in the upcoming elections. He
tries to portray his party as independent of the Kremlin, though Chubais is
essentially a Kremlin appointee. Still, at the moment Nemtsov is probably
the president's boldest and most influential liberal critic.
Which is why, Nemtsov claims, he is banned from appearing on at least two
national networks unless his views coincide with the Kremlin's. "Reduction
of taxes? It's okay for me to talk," he said. "But it is forbidden for me
to make any statement on Chechnya, on the situation in the army."
That is not a hopeful sign for his party in the December elections, but
Nemtsov says it will overcome any Kremlin lock on the national networks by
buying media exposure. He says independent-minded businessmen have given it
enough funding to get its message out. "Fortunately, Russia is a market
economy," he said. And even "in a managed democracy . . . money means
YABLOKO and SPS
State Duma Elections 2003