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Washington Post, February 7, 2003

Rivalry Fragments Russia's Liberals

By Sharon LaFraniere, Washington Post Foreign Service

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 Vladimir Putin.

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 it. Ego."

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 Russian parliament.

"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 political reality.

"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 something."


See also:


State Duma Elections 2003

Washington Post, February 7, 2003

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