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By Ana Uzelac
Staff Writer

SPS Builds Party at 22-Hour Congress

The Moscow Times, Monday, May 28, 2001. Page 1

The Union of Right Forces transformed itself into a bona fide political party and elected Boris Nemtsov as its leader during a founding congress this weekend that lasted for an extraordinary 22 hours with breaks only for coffee. The party, known as SPS, hopes it now will be able to reverse a decline in its ratings and build up a regional structure strong enough to secure its survival under a planned new law on political parties. The biggest battle at the congress ? which began Saturday at 10 a.m. and broke up Sunday at 8 a.m. ? was over the party charter. In the end, SPS approved a much more liberal charter than the one originally proposed, which had called for strict party discipline.

About 400 people attended the congress, held in an opulent hall in the Russian Academy of Sciences. By 5 a.m., many of the delegates were fast asleep in their cozy chairs and others were starting to complain about the seemingly never-ending procedures. Yegor Gaidar, who conducted most of the session, kept a brave face. "Weak people can't build strong parties," he said. Nemtsov, whose election as party leader did not come until the early hours of Sunday, laid out his program in a speech at a more civilized hour of the day Saturday. He pledged to work on building a wide regional network for the party, which has often been criticized for its elitist, Moscow-centered approach to politics. Now, Nemtsov announced, SPS will "go to the people" and build branches in all of Russia's 89 regions. These ambitions were largely forced upon SPS by the new bill on political parties, which the State Duma passed in a second reading last week.

It obliges parties to open branches in at least 45 regions, with a minimum of 100 members in each of them. It also puts minimum party membership at 10,000. But the political and economic message that SPS plans to bring to "the people" might not find too many supporters in a country where people are accustomed to having a large, if poorly functioning, social security net. Along with pledging to protect Russian democracy and keep the country on the road to a market economy, the political program adopted at the congress supports providing state help to only four categories of people: the old, "endangered" children, invalids and victims of wars and environmental and industrial disasters. "This is the final list," the program says. SPS leaders, especially Gaidar and Anatoly Chubais, are associated with the reforms and privatizations of the early 1990s, which many Russians see as the main source of their low living standards. It was small wonder that the delegates, who refer to themselves as "liberals," reserved their biggest applause not for the congratulatory speech of Grigory Yavlinsky, the chairman of their Duma coalition partner Yabloko, but for the telegram sent by ultra-conservative former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.

Some delegates tried to moderate the party's harsh Thatcherite positions by appealing to their colleagues to keep the millions of impoverished Russians in mind. "We must not forget that there are others, the great masses who have not seen any benefits [from the reforms]," said SPS Duma Deputy Vera Lekareva. But in the euphoria of the congress, only a few voices were raised to warn that support for SPS is flagging and much of the electorate is confused about the party's position on some of the main political issues in the country. SPS gathered nearly 9 percent of the vote in the 1999 parliamentary elections, finishing fourth. By May of this year, the percentage of people who would vote for SPS now had fallen to 4.5 percent, according to the VTsIOM polling agency. The reason for the drop most probably lies in the party's failure to show a clear independent political line, said Yury Levada, the head of VTsIOM. "Their line is unclear when it comes to the attitude toward the president, the war in Chechnya, the takeover of NTV," Levada said in a telephone interview Sunday. Even its own members have reproached SPS for its largely uncritical attitude toward some of President Vladimir Putin's most controversial policies. The congress did little to clear the fog. "A responsible party that has its deputies in parliament should not indulge in opposition rhetoric," an SPS declaration said. "Instead, it should use its intellectual and political resources to influence the government."

During the whole congress, not one word was said about the war in Chechnya and repeated human rights abuses in the region. The NTV takeover was also conveniently forgotten, while Nemtsov pledged SPS would "do everything to protect the freedom of press." Such attitudes, according to Levada, push some SPS voters to Yabloko, which is "accumulating the anti-Putin electorate." Another part of the SPS electorate has gone to Putin. "People think that it's Putin who is conducting reforms, and they don't know what to think of SPS," Levada said. The strongest opposition to the proposed charter came from Democratic Choice of Russia, the largest of the nine parties that formed the original Union of Right Forces coalition. Members called the charter "undemocratic" because it obliged all party members to follow the decisions of the party's executive bodies. They also said it gave unchecked powers to the main executive body, the National Political Council. Two prominent members of Democratic Choice ? Duma deputies and human rights activists Sergei Kovalyov and Sergei Yushenkov ? said they would not join SPS if it adopted such a rigid charter. Yushenkov attended the congress and Kovalyov did not. Two amendments liberalizing the charter were passed only after Democratic Choice threatened to vote down the charter. The result is that SPS members will have the right to ignore party decisions but cannot work actively against them. It was not clear what this means for voting in the Duma. And the Political Council's powers were balanced by giving identical powers to another, larger body ? the Party Council ? which will include SPS regional representatives.

Nemtsov said such a managerial structure would be a "disaster" for someone trying to run a business. "But the party is not a shareholders company and we have to follow different rules," he said. The congress elected five co-chairmen, the same five who have been leading SPS: Nemtsov, Gaidar, Chubais, Sergei Kiriyenko and Irina Khakamada. But three more chairmen are to be chosen in the future.

See the original at:

The Moscow Times, Monday, May. 28, 2001. Page 1

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