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RFE/RL Russian Political Weekly, Volume 3, Number 11, March 13, 2003


By David White

With parliamentary elections a matter of months away, it can have come as no great surprise to followers of Russian party politics when, at the end of January, moves toward closer cooperation between Yabloko and the Union of Rightist Forces (SPS) came to an end. Just as in 1995, when acting Prime Minister Yegor Gaidar's ailing Russia's Democratic Choice unsuccessfully sought a coalition with Grigorii Yavlinskii's Yabloko faction, and in 1999, when an unofficial nonaggression pact between Yabloko and the newly formed SPS bloc failed to prevent an outbreak of hostilities between the parties' leaders, Russia's liberals appear to have shown their singular inability to come together in any meaningful sense.

Although the two parties agreed last July to coordinate the nomination of candidates in single-mandate districts, renewed conflict broke out in November when the Yabloko Duma faction refused to support an SPS initiative to form a parliamentary commission to investigate the 23-26 October Moscow-theater hostage crisis (see "RFE/RL Russian Political Weekly," 6 November 2002). SPS's chagrin might have been partly fuelled by President Vladimir Putin's effusive gratitude to Yavlinskii for his part in negotiations with the hostage takers and Yavlinskii's equally public snubbing of the SPS leadership for its role in the crisis.

It was in this context of cool interparty relations that SPS leader Boris Nemtsov requested a meeting with the Yabloko leadership to be held on 29 January to discuss electoral cooperation. Days before the meeting, however, Nemtsov's proposals for an SPS-Yabloko alliance were leaked to the media. Nemtsov proposed that the parties should contest the December State Duma elections together with a unified party list. Nemtsov himself was to head the list, with Yavlinskii second, and SPS's Irina Khakamada third. In return, Yavlinskii would be the sole liberal-reformist presidential candidate in 2004. Reports further suggested that Nemtsov had agreed that Unified Energy Systems head Anatolii Chubais -- the Yabloko leader's bete noire -- would take no part in the campaign, although the SPS leader later refuted this claim. In any event, the offer of such a sacrifice might have proved insufficient, since Yabloko had already publicly stated that the party could not work with SPS as long as Chubais, Gaidar, and presidential envoy to the Volga Federal District Sergei Kirienko remained within SPS's ranks.

In an open letter to Nemtsov and Khakamada, Yavlinskii and Yabloko Vice Chairman Sergei Ivanenko rejected Nemtsov's proposals outright and declined to attend the meeting. However, they did express a desire to reach agreement on "mutual politically correct behavior" during the Duma and presidential campaigns and reiterated Yabloko's commitment to the coordination of single-mandate candidates. Yavlinskii and Ivanenko pointedly noted that SPS had yet to sign up to the creation of the Yabloko-inspired New Democratic Coalition and its 20 Principles Charter platform. The charter was presented in January by Yabloko's Sergei Mitrokhin to the All-Russia Democratic Assembly, a loose coalition of democratic parties and social movements that has been very much Yabloko's own project since its inception in 2001. The attack in the charter on "those who supported the war in Chechnya, conducted crime-inspiring privatization, created state-owned financial pyramids, and conducted self-interested defaults" -- thinly-veiled attacks on Chubais, Gaidar, and Kirienko -- might explain SPS's reluctance to sign up.

Following Yabloko's rejection of Nemtsov's plan, SPS representatives have been in a somber mood, suggesting that this was the final effort to bring the two parties together and hinting that even cooperation in the single-mandate districts is no longer a foregone conclusion. In contrast, Ivanenko has downplayed the significance of recent events, stating in an Ekho Moskvy interview that an alliance with SPS was never on the agenda and that, by appealing to their different social bases, both parties are capable of passing the 5 percent threshold in December.

Historically, SPS has always been more supportive of a closer union, playing down the differences between the parties and suggesting that throughout Yavlinskii's career, his personality and ambitions have prevented him from forging closer alliances. Yabloko, meanwhile, has consistently argued that the ideological divisions between its brand of social liberalism and the more classic, economic liberalism of SPS (and of Gaidar's parties before it) have prevented a merger. In this sense, the latest events can be seen as another skirmish in a long history of disagreements and mutual suspicion between these two strands of Russian liberalism. However, Nemtsov's proposals hardly came at the most opportune time, as relations between the parties were still delicate after the theater-siege fallout. This raises two important questions: How realistic was Nemtsov's offer, and which party stood to benefit most from an effective electoral merger?

While the impetus for forming a coalition since the 1999 Duma elections has come from SPS, the sincerity of such proposals is open to question. Likely, the initiatives owe as much to tactical considerations as to strategic ones. Nemtsov has not always seen an alliance as the ultimate goal, referring in SPS's better days to the relationship between Yabloko and SPS as a "Darwinian struggle." Nemtsov's latest overtures to Yavlinskii's party can, therefore, be seen as part of a long-term strategy aimed at portraying SPS as the "reasonable, accommodating" liberals in contrast to the stubborn and uncooperative Yabloko, which Nemtsov seeks to portray as consistently refusing to unite for the greater good of the liberal movement. Nemtsov is fully aware of Yavlinskii's reputation as a politician unprepared to get his hands dirty in the world of "real politics" and is more than happy to trade on this to cast Yabloko in a poor light.

For the SPS leadership, the logic behind an alliance with Yabloko is simple. A combined effort should result in a greater share of Duma seats for both factions. Indeed, Nemtsov and Khakamada have suggested in the past that a unified bloc might garner up to 20 percent of the vote. However, opinion polls suggest a much lower figure of around 9 percent. An alliance would not necessarily be guaranteed the total votes of both individual parties. While loyal party voters might well be able to stomach voting for a loose electoral coalition, a unified bloc might not prove as attractive, and a combined Yabloko-SPS could turn out to be less than the sum of its parts. One Yabloko faction deputy suggested last year that few voters are ready to vote for a united party: "There are those who cannot forgive Gaidar for losing all their savings and cannot forgive the leaders of SPS for their support of the Chechen war. SPS also has voters who will never, ever support Yabloko. For them, we are just miserable liberals. It simply does not follow that we will get a larger combined electorate if we unite. It isn't a case of two plus two making four. In our case, two plus two might equal one."

Nemtsov's proposals must also be seen in the context of consistent poll ratings showing his party trailing Yabloko. Recent polls give Yabloko 6-8 percent, with SPS at around 3-4 percent. The relative standings of the two parties might also help explain the swiftness of Yabloko's rejection of the Nemtsov package. Yabloko has, for some months, been in bullish mood, buoyed not only by its poll ratings but also by the presidential vote of confidence for Yavlinskii following the Moscow theater drama and continuing party-membership growth. Yabloko now claims more than 36,000 members.

In contrast, the SPS leadership might have concluded that unification was the only means of ensuring the faction's continued presence in the Duma after December. Given the current relative strengths of the two parties, SPS stood to benefit most from a closer union. Realistically, there was little in the deal to attract Yabloko. It is too early to say whether Yabloko's rejection of SPS's advances will be damaging to Yavlinskii's party. It was, however, noticeable that Yabloko's Ivanenko, rather than Yavlinskii, handled the media coverage on the matter, possibly in an attempt to refute the perennial accusations that it is the Yabloko leader's lack of ability to cooperate with others that has stood in the way of a union of the parties.

Sincere or otherwise, Nemtsov's proposals indicate a shifting balance between the two parties and are reminiscent of Gaidar's 1995 efforts, which came at a time of declining support for Russia's Democratic Choice, to persuade Yavlinskii of the virtues of a coalition. As then, Yabloko's leadership currently has sufficient confidence that its loyal supporters will vote in large enough numbers to enable the party to overcome the 5 percent threshold on its own. There are, however, nine months until the elections, during which time both parties' leaderships will be paying close attention to their respective ratings. A tryst of sorts between Yabloko and SPS should not, therefore, be ruled out completely.

David White is a doctoral candidate and lecturer in Russian politics at the Centre for Russian & East European Studies at the University of Birmingham, U.K.

See also:


State Duma elections 2003

RFE/RL Russian Political Weekly, Volume 3, Number 11, March 13, 2003

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