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Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Russia's Milquetoast "Opposition" Collapses

The Moscow Times reports:

One is talking about a change in leadership. The other is talking about changing its logo.

But after a disastrous performance in the State Duma elections and facing millions of dollars of debt, the liberal parties Yabloko and Union of Right Forces agree on one thing: Something has to change.

Yabloko announced Friday that it would not support its veteran leader, Grigory Yavlinsky, to run for president in the election in March but would instead back Vladimir Bukovsky, a Soviet-era dissident who has been living in London for years. In a further sign of a revolt taking shape in the Yabloko ranks, at least one senior member is calling for Yavlinsky to cede or share power in the party, which Yavlinsky has led since he co-founded it in 1995.

The Union of Right Forces, or SPS, is to hold a congress Monday at the Hotel Izmailovo in eastern Moscow to nominate co-founder Boris Nemtsov as its candidate for the March 2 election and conduct a postmortem on its disappointing performance in the Duma elections. One senior member has proposed a rebranding of the party.

Yabloko captured just 1.59 percent of the vote in the recent Duma elections, while SPS garnered just 0.96 percent. United Russia, whose ticket was led by President Vladimir Putin, won 64.3 percent of the vote.

But even before the Duma elections, figures from the Central Elections Commission for the past 14 years make for disturbing reading for liberal-leaning voters. At least 20 percent of the electorate voted for liberal parties in 1993, not including independents, many of whom also pushed a liberal agenda. Two years later, that figure dropped to around 15 percent, where it hovered through 1999 until 2003, when official results showed 10 percent voted for liberal parties. It was in the 2003 elections that Yabloko and SPS dropped out of the Duma for good, failing to reach the 5 percent threshold, which has since been bumped up to 7 percent. The two parties failed to garner 3 percent between them on Dec. 2.

Party officials insist that the last two Duma elections were riddled with fraud and that their results were in fact much higher. But sociologists and political analysts say voters willing to support liberal parties are increasingly scarce. A core of 10 percent to 12 percent of the electorate is believed to still back liberal values. Nonetheless, Yabloko, SPS, the libertarian Civil Force and the Democratic Party -- which promotes joining the European Union -- altogether garnered less than 4 percent of the Duma vote. Around half of the 12 percent of liberal voters are "liberal economists," said Leonty Byzov, head of the analytical section of state polling agency VTsIOM. "They want free entrepreneurship and unhindered international investment opportunities, which they realize they can get with United Russia without risking the political turmoil that an outside force coming into power would bring," Byzov said. The other 6 percent are liberal democrats, he said. "They are politically motivated and are interested in things like freedom of speech, clean elections and an independent judiciary, and so on," Byzov said. While liberal economists voted for Kremlin-friendly parties, liberal democrats were disillusioned with Yabloko and SPS or simply boycotted the vote, Byzov said.

SPS and Yabloko desperately need new faces to appeal to liberal voters, said Lev Gudkov, head of the independent Levada Center, which conducts nationwide political and social polls. "Liberal voters are fed up of the leaders of these parties," Gudkov said. SPS and Yabloko's current woes are "a lot more serious than a bad day at the polling stations," he said. "These parties have lost the ability to communicate with the electorate," he said. "It's not that they don't have appropriate manifestos to offer their voters. The real problem is that they cannot communicate those programs in a way that captivates the public. Their praise for Putin's course comes too often, while their criticism is too dull and abstract."

The popularity of liberal values has declined largely because of the relative economic stability the country has recently experienced, said Byzov, of VTsIOM, which conducts state-ordered opinion polls. Before the August 1998 default, the liberal electorate was around 30 percent and included an emerging middle class willing to participate in confrontational politics, including protesting the war in Chechnya, Byzov said. "Back then, the middle class was revolutionary-minded. Now it is more a complacent middle class. That's why the middle class is not ready to go to the barricades with Nemtsov," Byzov said, referring to last month's Dissenters' Marches in Moscow and St. Petersburg.

SPS had long been viewed as pro-Putin because of its tacit support of Kremlin policies, but all of that changed ahead of the Duma elections. In a sharp reversal, SPS joined opposition coalition The Other Russia for the Dissenters' Marches. A senior SPS source told The Moscow Times last month that the party began directly criticizing Putin for the first time in the fall after learning that the Kremlin would break a promise to deliver seats in the next Duma. Both SPS and Yabloko are also facing potentially crippling debt because of their failure to get 3 percent required in the Duma election to qualify for free television airtime during the campaign. Both parties will now have to repay at least 200 million rubles ($8.1 million) to the government. SPS, with links to big business, is in a better position to absorb the costs. A party spokeswoman declined to reveal its annual budget. But senior Yabloko member Alexei Melnikov said the debt was almost five times greater than the party's annual budget of 45 million rubles ($1.8 million). "It's too much," Melnikov said.

The existential crisis is forcing the parties' hand. Maxim Reznik, head of Yabloko's St. Petersburg branch, said Yavlinsky must either be replaced or joined at the top by a co-leader. "The first thing to remember is that this is the Yabloko party, not the Yavlinsky party," said Reznik, who has proposed a St. Petersburg member, Mikhail Amosov, for the post. Ilya Yashin, the head of Yabloko's youth movement, has said he would be willing to head Yabloko if there were no other suitable candidate. Meanwhile, Yabloko deputy head Sergei Mitrokhin said Friday that the party would boycott the presidential election if Bukovsky's candidacy was not registered by the Central Elections Commission. Speaking on Ekho Moskvy radio, he said, however, that Yabloko would back Bukovsky "out of moral considerations" if his candidacy is registered. Bukovsky has said he does not expect to be allowed to run. It appears that the much-discussed unification of Yabloko and SPS will remain a pipe dream for now. "Unification on the basis of Yabloko is no unification at all," Nemtsov said, dismissing the prospect of joining up with the party as "complete nonsense." A senior SPS official, Valentin Bakunin, last week proposed changing the party symbol to a bull -- in reference to a bull market, associated with investor confidence. The logo would be meant as a direct answer to United Russia's bear symbol -- a bear market signifying pessimistic investors, Nezavisimaya Gazeta reported.

But SPS campaign chief Anton Bakov said there could be more substantive changes in the works. The party's participation in the Dissenters' Marches represented the first in a two-stage transformation of the party. The second, he said, would come after the presidential election. "The nature of the changes in the leadership of the party, which will be very significant, will become clear after the presidential election," he said.

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