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Russian Liberal Parties Stumble In Effort to Create an Alliance

Wall Street Journal,


November 21, 2000

MOSCOW -- Fearful of the growing power and KGB-bred instincts of Vladimir Putin, Russia's two main westward-looking parties in June trumpeted their plans for an alliance, declaring a united front as the only way to combat a slide away from economic reform and Western-style democracy.

Five months on, they are still squabbling over how to unite. Grigory Yavlinsky, head of the liberal Yabloko party, says he is still "very worried by Putinism" but rules out any merger with his natural ideological allies in the Union of Right Forces, or SPS.

"That will never happen," says Mr. Yavlinsky. "We have differences in economic policy, we have differences in politics, we have differences in


The failure of Russia's liberals to unite, a perennial feature of Russian politics, has been a windfall for President Putin, who has deftly divided both the left and right to rule pretty much as he pleases. State-run television, for instance, clobbered Russia's main centrist party, Fatherland-All Russia, in parliamentary elections last year, and replaced it with a Kremlin clone, named Unity, whose main policy is obeisance to the

Kremlin. Mr. Putin has meanwhile tamed the Communists by giving them some choice seats in parliament and gained the support of some liberals by allowing them to direct economic policy.

Two officials with close ties to the liberal party SPS -- Alexei Kudrin and German Gref -- have been allowed to dictate the Kremlin's economic agenda since spring. Anatoly Chubais, a leader of SPS, has been touted by Mr. Putin's inner circle as a close economic adviser to the president. "They have been given the keys to run the economy," said Alan Rousso, head of the Carnegie Center in Moscow. "As a consequence they are not as critical of

Putin as they otherwise would be."

The disarray among opposition parties has allowed Mr. Putin to push a raft of long-delayed tax and spending reforms through a compliant legislature this summer. But this progress on a liberal economic agenda, while praised by the West and by lenders like the International Monetary Fund, has come at a cost to Russians with a westward-leaning agenda: Mr. Putin will not tolerate liberals who talk too much about human rights. Debate over important issues such as the Kremlin's attacks on the media and the brutal war in Chechnya has been muted.

The coziness of certain free marketeers with Mr. Putin has made other traditional liberals deeply resentful. Mr. Yavlinsky and his Yabloko party have paid particularly dearly for opposing Mr. Putin. During parliamentary campaigns last autumn, Mr. Yavlinsky saw his ratings plummet when he forcibly opposed the war in Chechnya, and called for negotiations with rebel leaders. One of those attacking him was Mr. Chubais, who endorsed the war and called Mr. Yavlinsky a traitor. The Kremlin, grateful for Mr. Chubais's support, had state-run television give fawning coverage to his SPS party, giving it a big boost in the parliamentary election.

The same channels lampooned Mr. Yavlinsky's Yabloko as the tool of Jews,

foreigners and homosexuals. Mr. Yavlinksy came in a distant third in presidential elections in March. His party nearly dropped out of the State Duma when it barely mustered the 5% vote necessary to qualify as a legislative faction.

Boris Nemtsov, a leader of SPS, concedes that hard feelings remain between Messrs. Yavlinsky and Chubais after the elections. But he thinks both leaders understand their parties have little future working separately. SPS and Yabloko have already begun putting up joint candidates in regional elections for governors' seats. Results have so far been mixed. Next year, he said, he is hoping the parties can come to a "firm and clear agreement to present a single column" into parliamentary elections in 2003, and a single candidate in presidential elections in 2004.

"I think there's a recognition that it's getting more and more difficult for a party, working by itself, can bring its point of view to voters in Russia," he said. "The only way to survive is to strengthen our organization by unifying."

Mr. Yavlinsky is more skeptical and suggests that the Kremlin may help drive a wedge between the parties. The Kremlin has lately been tightening its grip on the two state-run TV stations within Russia, and has been using financial and legal pressure to assert control over the debt-ridden media holding company Media Most, which controls the country's only nationally broadcast independent TV channel, NTV. In coming elections, Mr. Yavlinsky said, the Kremlin will be able to win plenty of allies among liberal ranks by offering them flattering coverage, while bashing others who are less compliant. In the last elections, members of SPS made a "practical decision" to back the Kremlin. "Next time they may do the same thing," he said.

Today, Mr. Yavlinsky said, he mostly approves of Mr. Putin's economic agenda. Earlier this year he was pleased that long-sought reforms like an overhaul of the tax code and a realistic budget passed by parliament with the help of the pro-Kremlin party, Unity.

The problem, Mr. Yavlinsky said, is priorities. "There are certain people who think that economic growth is everything and we can concentrate on that alone," he said. "I am not prepared to sacrifice economic success for freedom. We cannot change that."