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The Moscow Times, December 15, 2003

Liberals Face Tough Trade-Off in Duma

By Caroline McGregor and Oksana Yablokova

The seven deputies from the Union of Right Forces and Yabloko know they have to fight for influence in a State Duma where they are massively outnumbered. In deciding which alliances are in their interest, they face a tough trade-off between pragmatism and principles.

Should they negotiate with United Russia to form a deputies' group with some of its more liberally minded members for the sake of getting a few seats on committees, even if United Russia would dominate the group, which requires a minimum of 35 deputies to form?

Or would it be better to stand on moral high-ground and refuse to be co-opted into a coalition where the Kremlin, ultimately, can call the shots, even if it means being sidelined from all debates?

It's a fine line to walk, since the parties have been accused of erring too far in both directions. The failure of the Union of Right Forces, or SPS, to win party-list seats has been widely blamed on its eagerness to cooperate with the Kremlin, which blurred the distinction between it and United Russia. Yabloko's leader Grigory Yavlinsky has been criticized for being long on lofty talk and short on policy action.

Galina Khovanskaya, a Yabloko deputy who won a seat from a Moscow district, for one, says a coalition is necessary: "On your own, it's almost impossible to get anything done."

Khovanskaya had not anticipated life as a lone warrior, without party backing from SPS and Yabloko, which together had 48 seats in the last Duma. "Believe me, I'm not happy about my victory," she said.

One option is to join forces with 10-year Duma veteran Vladimir Ryzhkov, who was re-elected as an independent from the Altai region. Ryzhkov said last week that he has started to form a liberal group in the new Duma, which will convene for the first time on Dec. 26.

"We are trying to unite liberal like-minded [deputies] into this group," Ryzhkov said Thursday in an interview with Interfax. He proposed calling the group the Union of Democratic Forces, or SDS.

Ryzhkov, who has been named as a possible liberal nominee to run against President Vladimir Putin in presidential elections in March, denied that he has been in talks with the Kremlin over padding his group's ranks with United Russia deputies, but he did not rule out such consultations in the future.

Counterbalancing the nationalistic Rodina bloc and Vladimir Zhirinovsky's Liberal Democrats, he said, was more important than preserving distance from United Russia centrists. "We are convinced it is necessary to do our best to make sure that the nationalists have serious opponents in the Duma."

The four Yabloko deputies elected, including Khovanskaya, and SPS's three are the logical core of that group.

From Yabloko, three deputies were re-elected: Mikhail Yemelyanov, from Rostov; St. Petersburg lawyer Sergei Popov and Mikhail Zadornov, a former finance minister. Khovanskaya, previously a Moscow City Duma deputy, is the only freshman.

The freshman SPS deputy is Arsen Fadzayev, an Olympic champion wrestler who won a seat from North Ossetia. Pavel Krasheninnikov, a former justice minister, was chairman of the legislative committee in the last Duma. Alexei Likhachyov worked with SPS leader Boris Nemtsov in the early 1990s when Nemtsov was governor of Nizhny Novgorod, and he served on the Duma's economic policy and entrepreneurship committee.

Krasheninnikov said last week he had few reservations about collaborating with United Russia. "In the elected Duma, United Russia seems to be the most liberal faction of all," he said.

In addition to United Russia, the only parties to pass the 5 percent threshold to win a share of the 225 Duma seats allocated on the basis of the party-list vote are the Communist Party, the Liberal Democratic Party and Rodina. The other 225 seats are chosen in single-mandate races.

Krasheninnikov noted that deputies' groups in past Dumas, like Russia's Regions and the People's Deputy group, were also eclectic conglomerations of people with diverse views. The ultimate objective, he said, was to get "the status of a group, and a representative on the Duma's Council and committees."

Once in the Duma, parties become known as factions -- in Russian, fraktsii -- and alliances among 35 or more deputies are known as deputies' groups. Under parliamentary regulations, each deputies' group gets a vote on equal footing with factions on the Duma Council, which sets the agenda.

Ryzhkov said that Viktor Pokhmelkin, a co-leader of the now defunct Liberal Russia party who ran this time from New Course-Automotive Russia, was likely to join his coalition, as was Nikolai Gonchar, an independent deputy who is an ally of Moscow Mayor Yury Luzhkov.

Gonchar is an exception. Observers predict that most of the Duma's 60 or so independents will align themselves with United Russia, to sign on with the winning team.

Even if Ryzhkov can cobble together as many as 15 liberals from outside United Russia, this suggests that in order to reach the deputies' group threshold, he would have no choice but to strike a deal with Putin's party.

The downside of that, said Alexei Makarkin at the Center for Political Technologies, is that Putin, then, will have "the controlling stake."

If United Russia loans deputies to the Ryzhkov group, it won't be unprecedented. In the past, the Communist Party loaned deputies to bolster the Agro-Industrial group, which, in return, backed its initiatives.

There has been speculation in the last week that United Russia may choose to break itself into a number of smaller, more manageable subgroups. One of these could be a liberal group entirely of its own members, a rival to Ryzhkov's.

Igor Klyamkin, at the Liberal Mission Foundation, said this would amount to "imitation liberalism," because politically, their slavish subordination to Putin is not liberal at all.

Makarkin said that with the media's help, the Kremlin could give its liberal group a leader, and over four years, the group could take over the political space once occupied by SPS and Yabloko, forcing those parties further off the stage.

And there is another centrist initiative that may help to undermine the real liberals' position.

A party called New Right Forces declared its existence on Dec. 8, the day after the elections dealt the liberals a stunning blow. Party leader Alexei Chadayev described himself as a disillusioned SPS voter who wanted to build a "pro-Western party of power."

Yabloko and SPS promptly dismissed it as a Kremlin project aimed at deepening the schism between the two.

"It's some kind of circus," SPS member Leonid Gozman scoffed. "No one's ever heard of them and they don't represent anyone."

Forced to fight for the right to speak for a fragmented and demoralized electorate, the liberals' best hope to reinvent themselves is to unite behind a single presidential candidate, Klyamkin said, adding that the person should not come from either the SPS or Yabloko leadership, because their failure in the Dec. 7 vote is still too fresh. "They must pick someone neutral, a consolidating figure," he said.

Antagonism and divisions between the two also run too deep, although SPS leader Irina Khakamada and Yabloko's Sergei Mitrokhin indicated on Ekho Moskvy radio Saturday that they were willing to put past differences aside and unite behind one candidate.

"We think that the current leaders of SPS have all been discredited by the defeat and are responsible for all the mistakes," Khakamada said, "so a new person needs to be put forward."

Mitrokhin said Yavlinsky would agree not to run if a consensus were reached to back someone else.

Neither party leader offered any candidates' names, but Klyamkin did not hesitate. "Today I see only one possibility: Vladimir Alexandrovich Ryzhkov."


See also:

the original at

State Duma elections 2003

Presidential elections 2004

The Moscow Times, December 15, 2003

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