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Washington Post, November 14, 2003

Russia's Democrats Face Prospect of Irrelevance
Ahead of Elections, Two Small Parties Sink and Squabble

By Susan B. Glasser
Washington Post Foreign Service

MOSCOW, Nov. 13 -- The reformist Yabloko party's major financier is in jail and his money has stopped coming just weeks before Russia's parliamentary elections. The party's public relations agency was raided by prosecutors who carted off computers containing party campaign plans and haven't given them back.

But Yabloko faces a much more serious problem: widespread voter disillusionment with the democracy movement it once led. Heading into the Dec. 7 elections, the party is hovering at around 5 percent in the polls, as is the Union of Right Forces, the only other party to endorse a market-oriented democratic agenda. If they fall below that threshold, they will not be officially represented in the next term of the lower house of parliament.

That outcome would, in effect, spell the democrats' extinction as a meaningful force in Russian politics, according to analysts. Parliament would be left dominated by a pro-government party whose only campaign pledge is to stick close to President Vladimir Putin and a Communist Party consumed by nostalgia for the Soviet Union.

"The next big setback, without a doubt, will be if [the Union of Right Forces] and Yabloko fail to make it into the parliament. In fact, it's the only drama of this election," said Michael McFaul, a Stanford University professor who has written extensively on Russian elections. "Internally, they're scared to death in both parties."

Sergei Ivanenko, who is running Yabloko's campaign, acknowledged deep concern. "The situation in the country," he said, "is not favorable for liberal democratic parties."

Theirs is a crisis that mirrors the broader problems of democracy under Putin, who has closed or taken over the country's independent television networks, recentralized power in Moscow and given increasing authority to KGB veterans like himself. Yabloko's leader, Grigory Yavlinsky, calls the Putin system "capitalism with a Stalinist face," but fewer and fewer Russians are listening to Yavlinsky.

Instead of uniting at a time when they each say Russian democracy is under greater threat than it has been since the Soviet Union collapsed 12 years ago, the two parties are rivals, and Yabloko once again this week refused to team up. "The entire democratic part of the society demands that we stop fighting," said Irina Khakamada, one of the leaders of the Union of Right Forces. "The time is now to put out the fire and not to say who is bad and who is good."

Their collective fall from influence is in part the story of the broader failure of democratic institutions, including genuine political parties, to take hold in post-Soviet Russia. Twenty-three parties will compete in next month's elections, but only the Communists are considered by experts to be an authentic national party with a real grass-roots following.

United Russia, the pro-Putin party created by Kremlin strategists four years ago, leads the Communists narrowly in the polls but in many communities has little local presence. Its leaders refuse to debate the other parties, offer no platform other than support for the president and, being in "the party of power," urge voters to cast ballots for them on the assumption that their victory is inevitable.

A significant portion of United Russia's votes, pollsters say, will come from would-be democrats who have soured on the two democratic parties, having tired of their feuding or simply grown skeptical of their ability to push through needed reforms. Independent pollster Boris Dubin has called such voters "disappointed liberals."

But the decline of the democrats is also a measure of Russians' disillusionment with the capitalist experiments of the last decade with which the two parties are identified.

At most, according to many pollsters and academic experts, one-third of the country shares the vision of a liberal democracy advanced by Yabloko and the Union of Right Forces. The majority rejects it, preferring a more authoritarian government, like the one Putin is shaping.

"These two parties can be compared to the left-center and right-center parties that have emerged in Central Europe," said Alexei Makarkin, an analyst at the Center for Political Technologies, a research organization. "But those parties together constitute 70 to 80 percent of the electorate, and altogether here they have only 10 to 12 percent total. This shows how low democratic support is. All these conversations about uniting are a result of their weakness."

It wasn't always that way. A decade ago, Yavlinsky founded Yabloko as a vehicle meant to place the young economist in the presidency, with backing from the coalition of former dissidents, liberal intellectuals and other activists who had helped spur the Soviet collapse.

In recent years, Yabloko has shrunk, while its rival Union of Right Forces (known by its Russian initials SPS) now claims more members and more regional party organizations. SPS is running 228 candidates on its party list for the parliamentary elections, compared to 141 for Yabloko.

In the last parliamentary elections four years ago, Yabloko squeaked in over the 5 percent threshold with 5.93 percent of the vote, while SPS, drawing from a younger base more interested in market freedoms than political ones, got 8.6 percent.

Both parties, according to political analysts, command most of their support in the cosmopolitan cities of Moscow and St. Petersburg and are hardly visible in the Russian hinterlands. And both have struggled throughout the Putin era, at times flirting with the president and praising his policies, at times warning darkly that he is a dictator-in-waiting.

The pre-election arrest of Mikhail Khodorkovsky, Russia's richest man and Yabloko's major financier, has only accelerated the crisis for the party. Yabloko in the last year has received at least 50 percent of its funding from Khodorkovsky, according to Ivanenko, the party campaign chief -- and closer to 100 percent, according to rival politicians. The money stopped as soon as the oil tycoon was arrested Oct. 25.

The raid on Yabloko's main public relations firm two days earlier was also tied to the Khodorkovsky case and damaged the party's campaign by removing numerous documents and records, including campaign plans and workers' addresses. "We have a big problem because they didn't want to give us back the material," Yavlinsky complained.

In a country where so-called oligarchs such as Khodorkovsky remain deeply unpopular as symbols of the unfair distribution of wealth that followed the Soviet collapse, Yabloko's identification with the imprisoned tycoon has further cemented the public impression that democrats support only a wealthy few in Russia.

"In recent weeks, since the arrest of Khodorkovsky, the situation has turned from a chronic one into an acute one," said Ivanenko. In outspokenly backing Khodorkovsky, he admitted, the party was once again embracing "an unpopular position."

Ironically, Khodorkovsky's arrest may also give Yabloko one last chance to make it into the next parliament. Perceiving a renewed threat from the authorities, the party's supporters, according to analysts and pollsters, could be roused from apathy to come to the polls.

Although the Russian public as a whole backed Khodorkovsky's arrest, with one poll showing just 14 percent against it, the pro-democracy electorate had exactly the opposite reaction. "They feel anxious, and in these conditions, their mobilization is more probable," said pollster Alexander Oslon, whose Public Opinion Fund conducted the survey.

But even faced with potential extinction, the two democratic parties have spent much of their time in recriminations over why they can't unite. Anatoly Chubais, an SPS leader and controversial overseer of the 1990s privatizations that made men like Khodorkovsky rich, publicly proposed a deal last week, saying it was time for him and Yavlinsky to get over the "stumbling block" of their personal feud in order to head off "a return to dictatorship."

"Nothing but cynicism and hypocrisy," replied Sergei Mitrokhin, a Yavlinsky deputy. Mitrokhin accused Chubais of financing a campaign of anti-Yabloko dirty tricks, such as sponsoring a "Yabloko without Yavlinsky" movement and putting up posters accusing Yabloko of teaming up with the Communists.

Yabloko's rivals are just as heated. Tatyana Tolstaya, a well-known writer and SPS supporter, said in a televised debate, for example, that if Yavlinsky failed to unite the two parties, he would become "the destroyer of Russian democracy."


See also:

State Duma elections 2003


Washington Post, November 14, 2003

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