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.
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